Thursday, July 31, 2014


With the new movie version of Hercules now in theaters…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s acknowledge a monster from an earlier Hercules movie, this cool dragon from the enjoyable 1958 Italian spectacle starring Steve Reeves…

The beast, which rather resembles a cranky ceratosaurus, is roused from what appears to have been a pretty long slumber beneath the Golden Fleece—he’s covered with leaves which scatter when he gets up—when Jason climbs up to filch it.

You can get a glimpse of him in action here.

Thursday, July 24, 2014


Among my birthday presents this year was a lavishly illustrated tome entitled Aurora Model Kits by Thomas Graham.

It’s an interesting read cover to cover, but of course its principal fascination for me is its chronicle of that company’s many monster and horror kits, including the notorious “Monster Scenes”—models of torture chambers and mad scientist equipment—excoriated by editorial writers of the early ‘70s.

The book got my juices flowing for the happy days when I would ineptly and impatiently ruin these kits myself on a regular basis. I found a reissue kit online of the Monster Scenes snap-together “Giant Insect” (originally released only in Canada) and ordered it...

...thinking that I could share this experience with The Kid. So one slow Sunday not long ago we dug into it, and I quickly remembered how frustrating the hobby of model-building can be when you have poor motor skills and organizational habits.

In the case of the Giant Insect, I broke the poor creature’s transparent wings loose from the plastic frame before checking their letters to see in what order they ought to be attached to the body. I assumed, very wrongly as it turned out, that this made no difference. This added considerable time, and coarse language, to the project. In the end, however...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...we managed to get the big dragonfly-earwig hybrid together.

He’s now standing guard on my dresser. Even assuming he’s actual size, he would still constitute a Giant Insect.

Friday, July 18, 2014


Disney’s Planes: Fire and Rescue is the fourth animated feature, after Cars (2006), Cars 2 (2011) and Planes (2013), to be set in that strange alternate reality in which there seemingly are no people, but the vehicles are sentient and anthropomorphic.

The conceit leads back, presumably, through Knight Rider and The Love Bug and My Mother, The Car through the early Hollywood cartoons with their rampant anthropomorphism to the habit of children—boys especially—to endow their toy cars and trucks and planes with personalities.

This time the hero of Planes, cropduster-turned-racer Dusty (voiced by Dane Cook) learns that he needs a replacement part that’s no longer in production, without which he can no longer safely race. He ends up, like many other planes, finding a second career in wildland firefighting in the forests of northern California. There he gradually earns the respect of his fellow aircraft, a motley band of retardant-carriers and transport planes and helicopters voiced by the likes of Ed Harris, Julie Bowen and Wes Studi. The fearless smokejumpers which they drop into battle against huge forest fires are earth-movers, and the members of ground crew are forklifts.

Despite a respectful tone toward firefighting, a lot of wit goes speeding buy in the rapid-fire dialogue (“She left me for a hybrid. I didn’t hear it coming”) and the aerial action scenes have a sense of soaring grandeur. It’s all likely to make perfect sense to you if you’re under ten, but adults may find themselves wondering about literal matters—like exactly who, for instance, the corn is being grown for, unless perhaps it’s for ethanol subsidies.

Thursday, July 17, 2014


Time to get Monster-of-the-Week started up again, and with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes now in theatres, something ape-ish and sequel-ish seems in order, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …how about the sweet-natured underachieving (if ultimately nobly martyred) title character of 1933’s Son of Kong

This hastily-cranked-out movie isn’t one of the more beloved of classic monster flicks, but I’ve always had a soft spot for it. “Baby Kong” is endearing, and while she’s no Fay Wray, leading lady Helen Mack is cute, too, and she sings a Betty Boop-ish song called “Runaway Blues” that gets agreeably stuck in my head for days every time I see the film.

Friday, July 11, 2014


Opening today at Harkins Shea:

Venus in FurIn case you’re wondering, Roman Polanski’s new film isn’t an adaptation of the 1870 novel by Sasher-Masoch, from whose name we get the term “masochism.” It is, rather, an adaptation, in French, of the 2010 play by the American dramatist David Ives, a two-hander about a playwright and director mounting a stage version of the novel, and his startling encounter with an auditioning actress.

On a stormy evening, Thomas (Mathieu Amalric) has just finished an unsatisfactory round of auditions in a small deserted theatre. He’s getting ready to leave when Vanda (Emmanuelle Siegner) crashes in, acting manic and frazzled and flirty, and talks him into letting her read for the female lead. He’s reluctant at first, but when he finally gives in, after hours of listening to kewpie doll ingĂ©nues in the modern style, Thomas is instantly gripped by Vanda’s mature, controlled intensity and directness. After a while, her understanding of the dominant character, and perhaps of her auditor’s psychology and sexuality, seems to go beyond that simply of a capable actress.

Spoiler alert, and warning to the prurient: There’s no graphic sex in the film, and only a flicker of nudity. But from a classical, old-school masochistic point of view, I guess this Venus in Fur can’t be called a cheat. Seigner, the ill-fated Paris street cupcake in Polanski’s 1988 Frantic (she’s Mrs. P. in real life) ends up in scanties, garters and knee boots, and looks like a million Euros in them. Her funny, sexy performance is sensational too, especially in light of how unpromising she seemed back in ’88. Amalric is likewise excellent as the hapless Thomas.

Whatever one thinks of Polanski personally or morally, there can be no doubt that he’s as skillful as ever. Basically a filmed play, Venus in Fur doesn’t feel stagy, and while it’s certainly talky, it still has a cinematic vibrancy. The script, by Polanski and Ives, isn’t interested in reticence—the theatre in which the audition takes place, for instance, has a standing set for a western play, and lest we miss the phallic symbolism of the cut-out saguaro, Vanda brashly announces it, then walks over and pantomimes humping it.

And Polanski can still surprise visually. Late in the film there’s a shot—a close-up of a boot being zipped up—that has the look of a shark’s mouth devouring a leg. It hums with allegorical meaning on multiple and conflicting levels, though I suppose Sasher-Masoch’s fellow Austrian Freud might tell me that sometimes a zipper is just a zipper.

Opening today at Harkins Camelview:

Ivory TowerAccording to this highly persuasive documentary by Andrew Rossi, college is becoming one of the worst buys in America. A sheepskin is insanely overpriced for whatever career benefits it may offer, the institutions are bloated and inefficient, and students, especially in liberal arts, aren’t coming out with much knowledge or ability, assuming they finish at all.

Produced by CNN Films, this movie is another of the ilk of Inequality for All or Electoral Dysfunction—fast-moving, upbeat, graphically lively presentations of infuriating subjects. Along with powerful strands on the Cooper Union student occupation and California State’s experimentation with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), Rossi, of 2011’s Page One: Inside the New York Times, gives us a wide variety of talking heads who certainly seem to know what they’re talking about, but who don’t quite seem to know what to do about these problems.

We’re shown some experiments with non-institutional learning, and they’re interesting, but none of them can claim to carry the currency in prestige that college still does, whether it should or not. The movie suggests, however, that this currency is weakening, and that it probably deserves to. Ivory Tower offers no particular solution to this, which makes it an honorable film, and a depressing one.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


Summertime tends to be sci-fi time at the American movies, and so far this summer is no exception. Opening this week:

Snowpiercer—This one begins with the release of a cooling agent, something like “Ice Nine” in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, to combat global warming. The world immediately freezes and, according to the opening exposition, “all life became extinct.” This would be rather anticlimactic, so the movie contradicts itself at once: A remnant of society remains, riding a futuristic supertrain in a constant, annual loop around the snowbound earth.

The train’s “Tail Section” houses the ragged underclass, kept in check by armed guards and fed on nasty-looking cubes of protein gel. A band of revolutionaries led by Curtis (Chris Evans) and a wizened old sage, Gilliam (John Hurt) makes a charge toward the front of the train, where the first-class passengers live in decadent luxury. Once past the more brutal and unsavory security forces, each car along the way is increasingly swanky and bizarre—the revolutionaries storm aquariums, sushi bars, schoolhouses, beauty salons and discos. Central to the plot are such initially baffling elements as hard-boiled eggs, tape measures and apparently the last two cigarettes in the world.

Based on a French comic book (Le Transperceniege), this is the work of Bong Joon-ho, the brilliant Korean who made The Host. For a while I couldn’t decide if Snowpiercer was the silliest piece of camp in years or the most blisteringly profound allegory for modern society since Hobbes’ Leviathan, but after a while I realized I didn’t have to choose—either way, the movie is never boring.

The cast is superb—it includes Jamie Bell, Ed Harris, Song Kang-ho and Ah-sung Ko (both from The Host), Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill and, best of all, Tilda Swinton, hilarious as a toadying minor official. The design of the train is a series of nutty surprises, and the music, by Marco Beltrami, is stirring. Snowpiercer is savagely violent at times, and has episodes that fall flat, but overall it’s one of the weirdest and most fascinating sci-fi movies to come down the track in a long time.

Earth to Echo—Three preteen friends are about to be separated by the eminent domain destruction of their Nevada subdivision. They decide to have one more big adventure together, so they ride their bikes out to the middle of the desert, tracking a digital signal, and there find a cute little cybernetic alien, apparently marooned. They dub him Echo and quickly figure out how to communicate with him. Soon, joined by a pretty girl they like, they’re helping Echo gather parts to repair himself and return to his spaceship.

The movie is a collection of motifs from ‘80s kids’ fantasy/adventure movies—most obviously E.T., both in its storyline and in certain visual nods, like the creepy, amorphous mob of human researchers chasing the boys, flashlights in hand. But there are also hints of The Goonies, Explorers, maybe even Stand By Me, and Echo looks a bit like Bubo the clockwork owl in the original Clash of the Titans. This gives the film a pleasing throwback quality, and the young leads create a likable sense of loyalty to each other.

Still in theatres:

Transformers: Age of Extinction—Because the Transformers toys came along after my own childhood, I don’t have the sentimental attachment to them that boys who were kids in the ‘80s do. And the first two big-budget Transformers blockbusters starred Shia LeBeouf, whose appeal, I’m afraid, was lost on me. So those films left me cold.

But this new sequel features robotic dinosaurs, and I’ve always been partial to dinosaurs. And instead of LeBeouf in the male lead, it features Mark Wahlberg, who I also like (though not as much as I like dinosaurs). So I was prepared to like this movie.

Well, it has some splendid otherworldy spectacle. The director, Michael Bay, doesn’t seem to have an ounce of restraint in his personality, but he is able to stage scenes in which robotic giants amble nonchalantly through settings of burnished Americana, as if Isaac Asimov’s imagination had somehow invaded the vision of Norman Rockwell, and this stuff is executed seamlessly by the special effects team.

All that said, this move is dumb, and so outrageously overlong that it feels, somehow, like an act of aggression. It’s nearly three hours long. It’s almost an hour longer than Citizen Kane. It’s more than an hour longer than Casablanca. And you don’t even get to see the robot dinosaurs until near the end. If you really want to see it, wait for the DVD.