Friday, May 30, 2014


You might forget the somniferous title character of Disney’s 1959 favorite Sleeping Beauty, you might forget her friendly fairy allies, you certainly might forget her crooning Prince. But few people who have seen that film are likely to have forgotten its horned sorceress Maleficent. This imperious, black-clad menace has long been rated among the all-time great screen villains.

Now, in a gesture that will likely cause traditionalists to bemoan the moral relativism of contemporary pop culture, she gets her own movie. Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie in the title role, is both a backstory and a whitewash. It offers a coherent case for the spite which led her to curse the infant Princess Aurora, and it details her exculpatory relations with the adolescent Princess (Elle Fanning).

The script, by Linda Woolverton of Beauty and the Beast, takes most of the story’s actual wrongdoing off of Mallie’s shoulders and places it where it must, of course, ultimately belong—on a man. The trouble all starts because of the rat-fink behavior of Aurora’s dad Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who was Maleficent’s first love when she was a happy young fairy princess, spreading her wings. Circumstances later bring her into contact with Aurora, and lead her to repent her curse, but she finds she’s unable to revoke it. It’s one of the terrors that a fairy tale can dramatize better than almost any other form—that a momentary moral lapse may be impossible to come back from.

From its idyllic early scenes to its final battles, Maleficent has no shortage of Disney-style kitsch, banality and playing-it-safe platitudes. But the movie entertains anyway, and that’s almost entirely to Jolie’s credit. In an era when few screen actors, even talented ones, can lay claim to the title with confidence, she’s a true movie star. But it’s easy to forget that she’s also a real actress. She’s so inhumanly beautiful that it may be hard for her to find roles that fit her—wings and horns seem almost more plausible on her, somehow, than contemporary street clothes—but she was born to play this part, and it allows her to show off her way with a line, and her riveting poise.

There are other capable performances in the film. Copley, the striking fellow from the brilliant District 9, is striking again as the rotting-from-the-inside King, and Fanning’s Princess, who mistakes Maleficent for her Fairy Godmother, is amusing, mostly because her guileless glee is bounced off of Jolie’s dry reactions. If the kindly fairies—Juno Temple, Lesley Manville and the great Imelda Staunton—make less of an impression here, it may be because they get less interaction with the star. Almost certainly the best of Jolie’s foils is Sam Riley as Diaval, her shape-shifting servant and spy, who’s not afraid to give her backchat.

These filmmakers are to be commended for eschewing the standard, absolutist good-or-evil template usual to the Disney movies. It has to be said, though, that by turning Maleficent into a heroine, they’ve left a vacuum where the villainy should be that Copley’s King just doesn’t fill—he’s a despicable character, but not a strong one. The result is that the final clashes, though they carry plenty of high-fantasy spectacle and a lovely plot twist, aren’t deeply exciting.

There’s always been a certain ruthlessness to the way the classic Disney films engaged the base emotions of children—often through the death, or apparent death, of a beloved character, or by working up hatred toward a witch or other (often female) villain. Maleficent, like last year’s smash Frozen, is shaped as a fantasy for postmodern women and girls, and it wants to have it both ways—to enjoy the droll glamour and power of the sinister, but to take any deep evil out of it. The movie is rescued by the performance at its center, but ironically, in this tribute to the ultimate bad girl Jolie is finally forced to play a little too nice.

Friday, May 23, 2014


Monster-of-the-Week will be on hiatus for a while, and bloggage in general is likely to be light in the coming weeks and months, while Your Humble Narrator attempts to make some progress on a couple of pressing projects.

If this leaves you tragically bereft of anything to read, let me suggest Barry Graham’s brief, badass novella One for My Baby, available on Amazon Kindle...

This noir quickie is violent, erotic, and capped, in its jolting climax, with an unexpectedly cheeky dash of black comedy. Set, as so often with Graham, in the bars and crashpads of Phoenix, this gripping tale is about as much fun as $2.99 can buy you these days (a dead-tree edition is also available, for a few bucks more).

Have a great summer everybody!

Friday, May 16, 2014


Opening this weekend…

GodzillaThere’s a fine melodramatic flourish near the beginning of this second American-made movie about the great beast. It involves Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston, and allows them both, but especially Cranston, to let it rip with some old school emoting. It gets the picture off to a promising start.

This doesn’t last, I’m disappointed to say. Though certainly an improvement on the 1998 U.S. version, the new movie plods. Binoche and Cranston are two of the best things it, and one of the movie’s troubles is that there isn’t nearly enough of them onscreen. Nor is there enough of Ken Watanabe, of Sally Hawkins, of David Strathairn, or of Elizabeth Olsen. The focus is on the Navy man hero, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who is passably stalwart but not remotely as interesting as his costars.

More problematic still...there wasn’t enough of the title character here, for my taste. King Kong obviously excepted, no giant movie monster has as distinctive and oddly lovable a personality as Godzilla. The filmmakers give him quite a buildup here before his entrance, and unlike Roland Emmerich’s ‘98 Yankzilla, this one really does feel like an authentic incarnation of beast, with his blunt muzzle, his nettled expression and his squeaky-hinge roar.

The monster scenes are good—directed with an almost maddening sense of deliberation by Gareth Edwards, they have an uneasy ponderousness, a low-angle sense of peril, that many other films in this genre miss. But only at the end do we get a heavy dose of rampaging creature action, and by that time I was worn out by the banality of the plot and the dialogue. This Godzilla has many strong moments, but to assemble a fine cast around an iconic central presence and then not give any of them enough to do? That’s monstrous.

Million Dollar ArmAmerican sports agent J. B. Bernstein hits upon an idea to open India to baseball fandom: a reality TV show in which cricket “bowlers” compete to see who can throw fast enough, and accurately enough, that they might be a prospect as an MLB pitcher. Neither of the first year’s winners turns out to be a bowler; one specializes in the javelin. But both end up in Los Angeles, trying out for the Majors.

At least in its broad outlines, it’s a true story, though this sweet Disney movie doubtless makes it a little taller. Bernstein, played by Jon Hamm, is depicted as a desperate, scheming hustler who starts by exploiting the two homesick boys, both of whom come from poor provincial backgrounds, and gradually finds his soul by becoming a surrogate father to them. He’s also a ladies’ man who likes young models, and the boys see that his scrub-wearing, nurturing neighbor (the charming Lake Bell) is the better choice for him.

It isn’t as corny as it sounds. The screenwriter is Thomas McCarthy of The Station Agent and The Visitor, that master of unlikely ad hoc families, and he wrings most of the potential condescension out of the dialogue. Aided by a driving score by A. R. Rahman, the director, Craig Gillespie, keeps things crisp, as do the actors—Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal as the arms, Pitobash as an aspiring manager, and Bill Paxton as the earnest pitching coach Tom House. There’s also Alan Arkin as a curmudgeonly scout who keeps his eyes closed throughout the tryouts, because he can judge the speed of a pitch by the sound it makes in the catcher’s mitt.

And then there’s Hamm. He shows a scarily flawless surface in his Mad Men role, but as soon as he steps out of that character he becomes strangely disheveled and nerdy. This isn’t always a bad thing—he used this quality to excellent effect, for instance, in his supporting role in Ben Affleck’s The Town. It works for him in Million Dollar Arm, too—he comes across believably as a nice guy trying hard to be a heartless shark, and happily failing.

SkinlessPlaying for one show only, at 11:55 tonight at FilmBar Phoenix, this splatter parody concerns Dr. Peter Peel (Brandon Salkil), a brilliant young oncology researcher working, like many brilliant young oncology researchers, out of his basement. He has a malignancy on his shoulder, so despite countless examples of this proving a poor idea, he skips straight to human trials on a possible skin cancer cure, with himself as the guinea pig. Regret ensues.

Originally known under the (better, if less commercial) title The Ballad of Skinless Pete, this no-budgeter is the work of a young Cleveland-based writer-director named Dustin Wayde Mills. He’s by no means lacking in talent—he writes speakable, lucid dialogue, he obtains serviceable performances from his actors, and he structures the story coherently. It’s outrageously gruesome and deliberately sick, very definitely not for the squeamish, but it’s played with a deadpan wit that keeps it, overall, from seeming mean-spirited.

I just wish that young horror film makers could find a way to tell a gripping tale without reflexively turning to the trope of the young woman tied up, pleading and whimpering for her life. Skinless escapes contemptibility because, like Cronenberg’s The Fly (to which it pays homage) it has a heart. But I can’t say that I enjoyed the unsavory final act.

Still, Mills could quite conceivably make a classic horror film. Unlike the many modern-era movie horrors that are motivated by hatred of women, Skinless Pete, you see, is motivated by unrequited love—like the Phantom of the Opera, like King Kong, like the Creature of the Black Lagoon. I’m not placing Pete in their league, certainly, but neither am I suggesting that Mills could never create a movie monster that was.

Thursday, May 15, 2014


With the new Yank version of Godzilla opening tomorrow, my mind just naturally turns to the subject of sea monsters. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s honor a vintage movie menace from the deep, the radioactive title character, one of the last stop-motion creations of the great Willis O’Brien of King Kong fame, from the 1959 British shocker Behemoth, the Sea Monster

…or, as the movie was called in its American release, The Giant Behemoth. This was necessary, I guess, to differentiate it from all those small or midsize Behemoths one sees.

Biblical scholars may note that the “Behemoth” referenced in the Book of Job is a land creature—and is specifically classified as a vegetarian. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to call the movie Leviathan, the Sea Monster? Or, for the gratuitous-adjective American market, The Giant Leviathan?

Friday, May 9, 2014


The opening credits of Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return appear on debris flung at us from a twister. The objects on which we see the names are reflective of the person’s contribution—the name of Hugh Dancy, for instance, who provides the voice of “Marshal Mallow,” is emblazoned on a bag of marshmallows.

That’s sort of clever. And there are a couple of amusing passages in this computer-animated musical adventure. Probably the best is the episode set in the Dainty China Country, beyond the “Great Wall of China”—a fortification made up of huge teacups, saucers, etc, protecting a population of animate China figurines and ruled over by the China Princess, voiced by Megan Hilty.

She’s a bit of a diva, but not a bad sort, and Marshal Mallow, a courtly military type, falls for her. His body being made entirely of marshmallows, he’s a good match for such a fragile lady.

The movie also offers a reasonably lively climactic battle, with Dorothy (Lea Michele) and Toto, re-summoned from Kansas, and their allies, against The Jester, the younger brother of the Wicked Witch of the West, who's cursed to wear the coxcomb forever. Martin Short lends this villain his voice, and the rest of the cast is equally impressive: Dan Aykroyd as the Scarecrow, James Belushi as the no-longer-cowardly Lion, Kelsey Grammer as the The Tin Man and Bernadette Peters as Glinda, with Oliver Platt, Brian Blessed and even Patrick Stewart in secondary roles.

Sadly all these great voices are given little to say, or sing, that’s witty or engaging. The aforementioned whimsical ideas notwithstanding, the film, adapted from a book by Roger Stanton Baum (L. Frank’s great-grandson) is mostly a flat, sluggish dud, weighed down with obligatory elements and forgettable songs—some of them co-written by Bryan Adams.

The movie has visual downsides, too. The fantasy characters aren’t bad, but the human characters represent CGI at its most charmless and creepy—the notorious “Uncanny Valley effect” at its worst. Dorothy, Auntie Em, Uncle Henry and their Kansan neighbors come across like CPR training dummies.

Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return is a painful example of the unreliability of the “dream team” approach to moviemaking: of how a well-funded, well-intentioned project stuffed with big name talent can stubbornly refuse to come to life. If it’s the only option to take your kids to at a discount theatre on a really boring afternoon, maybe you might consider it. Maybe. But you may find it has the same effect on you as the poppies outside the Emerald City.

RIP to Al Feldstein, editor of MAD Magazine in its greatest vintages and thus arguably the architect of a generation of insufferable adolescent smartasses, passed on at 88.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


In anticipation of the computer-animated musical Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, opening tomorrow, let’s…

Monster-of-the-Week: …give the nod to an Ozian monster, namely a specimen of that film’s version of the Winged Monkeys…

Tuesday, May 6, 2014


After more than twenty years in AZ, Your Humble Narrator finally made it to the Grand Canyon (I had seen it once from an airplane to Vegas, but was assured that this wasn’t the same, and indeed it wasn’t). The trip was for a Wrangler News story about the visit of the Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir from Germany, one of the oldest such choirs in Europe (founded 975 A.D.!). Both the view and the music were quite mind-blowing. Here are a couple of pictures of Yours Humbly taken by Wrangler News photographer Billy Hardiman:

In that last one I’m posing with Tempe Sister Cities co-founder Dick Neuheisel, and Hans Shaidinger, the Mayor of Regensburg. The imbecilic look on my face is mostly a product of terror; we were far too close to edge for my taste. Anyway, I can’t say I ever thought that I’d find myself chatting about BMWs with the Mayor of Regensburg, Germany on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Then last week, thanks to a kind gift of passes by a friend, The Wife, The Kid and I got to go see the Chihuly show at Desert Botanical Gardens…

Good show, but my reaction to his work, as before, is that it’s cool but unsettling—his sculptures have a teeming, seething look, like alien invasive species.

Check out this month’s issue of Phoenix Magazine

…for my profile of Tyler Severance, a world yo-yo champion based here in the Valley. It’s on Page 35, or you can preview it here.

Friday, May 2, 2014


Opening today at Tempe’s Valley Art Theatre:


WatermarkThis documentary makes the real world look like science fiction. It’s about the human relationship to water—how our lives revolve around it, often without our awareness, and also what we do to the world in the process of working our will upon and through water.

Directed by Canadian filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Edwad Burtynsky, Watermark begins in the dried, jigsaw-cracked Mexican delta of the Colorado River, its once-branching waters now diverted to the desert farmlands of California’s Imperial Valley. From there, we’re shown dam projects, rice paddies and abalone farms in China, scientists collecting core samples of ice in Greenland, a tannery in Bangladesh vomiting horrifying pollution into the Buriganga River, and the fountains, somehow shockingly decadent in context, at the Bellagio in Vegas.

We’re shown the pristine beauty of the Stikine River in British Columbia, the teeming human spectacle of pilgrims washing away their sins in the Ganges, and the somehow similar sight of competitive surfers at Huntington Beach and sophisticated bathers in geothermal springs in Iceland. There are some interviews, but no narration—mostly we just get long looks at the epic, and epically bizarre, imagery of people’s ingenious, if often crazily reckless, interaction with H2O. The movie is by turns terrifying, beautiful, hypnotic and maddening.

Playing May 2, 3 and 4 only at AMC Arizona Center:

Decoding Annie ParkerSamantha Morton plays the title character, a Canadian woman who believed that the cancer that plagued her, her sister and her mother ran in her family. This may not exactly seem like outlandish conjecture now, but in the ‘70s & ‘80s such a link was unproven, and often dismissed as coincidental by the medical establishment.

The story of Annie’s marriage, family life and friendships is played as an eccentric comedy-drama interrupted here and there by chemotherapy. This is intercut with a parallel strand, set at UC Berkeley, depicting the researches of Mary-Claire King (Helen Hunt), the geneticist who proved Annie right by discovering the BRCA1 gene in 1990.

The film opens with the brief, awkward, touching meeting between Annie and Dr. King, then goes back to the beginning to show how their long sagas eventually converged. The director, Steven Bernstein, working from a script he wrote with Adam Bernstein and Michael Moss, seems determined to banish any trace of the TV-medical-drama pious or maudlin, and he succeeds mostly because of Morton’s comically avid sexuality, which doesn’t shut down even after mastectomy and chemo baldness. Morton is as weirdly magnetic as ever—it’s as if Annie is simply too sexy for cancer to defeat.

Thursday, May 1, 2014


Opening this weekend is The Amazing Spider-Man 2, featuring Jamie Foxx as Electro…

So why not…

Monster-of-the-Week: …give the nod to an earlier electrically-charged menace, Lon Chaney, Jr. as Dynamo Dan, the literally shocking title character of the 1941 Universal shocker Man Made Monster

Dan’s a sideshow artist who gets electrical “treatments” from mad scientist Lionel Atwill. When he gets unjustly sent to the chair, the zap turns him into a shambling zombie with a killer touch. Chaney made this B-flick just before his triumph in The Wolf Man, and like that film it shows him at his hapless-everyman best.