Thursday, October 30, 2014


We’ve been doing Draculas for the last few weeks so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s wrap up this most monsterish month with one of the all-time greats, probably the first supernatural monster of the sound era, the great Be1a Lugosi in the title role of the 1931 Universal version of Dracula.

Happy and Safe Halloween everybody!

Friday, October 24, 2014


Opening today at AMC Arizona Center:

Stonehearst AsylumIn this period melodrama, an ambitious young fellow (Jim Sturgess) arrives at the spooky, fog-shrouded title institution, late in 1899, asking to learn the ropes of the new field of psychology. The headshrinker in charge (Ben Kingsley) seems a decent, civilized sort, but soon the new guy realizes that this haven for wealthy crazies harbors a shocking secret.

It won’t be that much of a secret to those who have read Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” on which this absorbing, slyly old-school Gothic is based. But the twists are unraveled skillfully by director Brad Anderson and screenwriter Joe Gangemi, and the cast is hard to beat: Along with Kingsley, there’s Kate Beckinsale and Brendan Gleeson and David Thewlis—scary as the asylum’s enforcer—and even the great Michael Caine.

Stonehearst Asylum hits the tropes of the madhouse scare picture, but the subtlety of the script and of these actors brings this conventional material some troubling moral ambiguity and shifts in sympathy. It’s a small gem—a horror movie with heart.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


If the Halloween choices at the multiplexes this year don’t quite cut it for you, have no fear. Or rather, be very afraid—on October 25 at 7:30 p.m., Tempe Center for the Arts is offering one of the all-time great monsters of the movies: “Count Orlok,” the first, albeit unauthorized, screen representation of Count Dracula, in F. W. Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu.

The movie’s subtitle—A Symphony of Horror—has particular significance at the Tempe Center’s showing. The film will be accompanied by live music—Brahams, Dvorak, Wagner—performed by the Arizona Pro Arte Ensemble, under the baton of conductor Timothy Verville.

I’ve seen several of these live music/silent movie performances over the years, among them Eisenstein’s Potemkin, Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula (an early talkie, but made without a musical score). If you’ve never had this experience, I highly recommend it; both the cinematic and the musical sides are enriched. Details here.

And if you’ve never seen Nosferatu, you really need to put that on your movie bucket list as well. This is the rare silent film that still genuinely has the power to spook, or to spook me, at least. The rat-faced, dome-headed, baleful-eyed figure of the vampire Count, played by the unforgettable Max Schreck, is unnerving, more than 80 years after the film was made. I can honestly say that I’ve gotten creeped out, stumbling to the bathroom at three in the morning, imagining that I’d see this bald-pated goblin-Count standing there at the end of the hallway glaring at me.

But since Schreck’s original Count Orlok has already been a Monster-of-the-Week…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s acknowledge one of the many homages paid to him, in E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire, an uneven but wryly funny horror picture about the making of Nosferatu which suggested that Schreck (an excellent Willem Dafoe) really was a vampire…

Friday, October 17, 2014


Opening today:

The Book of LifeProduced by the great Guillermo del Toro and directed and co-written by Jorge Gutierrez, this computer-animated feature is a tapestry of motifs from Mexican folklore, both pre- and post-Colombian, especially that culture’s version of Halloween, the defiantly festive Day of the Dead. It starts out in a town in the center of Mexico—which is identified at the beginning of the movie as the “Center of the Universe”—and involves a love triangle.

Said triangle’s points are the spirited, big-hearted town beauty, Maria (voiced as an adult by Zoe Saldana) and two local boys, Joaquin (Channing Tatum), a military hero whose fearlessness secretly stems from the talisman of invulnerability he wears, and Manolo (Diego Luna), who descends from a long line of matadors. Manolo has the chops for that profession except that he can’t bring himself to kill a bull.

The outcome of the affair becomes the object of a wager between two gods of the hereafter, and thus The Book of Life turns into a crazy cosmic epic, with characters turned into elegant skeletal versions of themselves as they journey into the underworld. Gutierrez manages the feat of making his story feel plausibly traditional while at the same time making it hinge on modern values like feminism and the abolition of animal cruelty. Also, the movie is full of lovely music, one visual splendor after another, and a really endearing little pig. It’s magnificent.

The Best of MeAmanda, a sassy rich girl in a small Louisiana town in the early ‘90s, falls in love with Dawson, a hunk from the wrong side of the tracks. Dawson is no bad boy, however—even though he was raised by a violently abusive drug-dealing father (and apparently no mother) he’s somehow grown up into a gallant, studious, flawlessly well-behaved paragon.

But these two aren’t just star-crossed, they’re star-double-crossed. Separated by a tragedy as good-looking teenagers, played by Liana Liberato and Luke Bracey, they’re reunited about twenty years later, having grown into dissimilar but even better-looking adults—Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden, to be specific—only to see circumstances building up to a second tragedy.

This adaptation—seemingly rather loose—of a Nicholas Sparks weeper was directed by the always-interesting Michael Hoffman, of such underrated efforts as Soapdish, the 1999 Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Last Station. His work here shows him no less skillful. He modulates the performances and maintains a swift, dry tone that keeps the banal dialogue and contrived plot carpentry from spiraling into pure camp. Whether that’s to the benefit of the movie’s entertainment value is another question, but it’s impressive.

Marsden can sometimes use his great looks to comic effect; he doesn’t quite get to that here, but he’s still good company, and so is Monaghan. Sean Bridges and Gerald McRaney contribute solid work as Dawson’s scumbag father and curmudgeonly surrogate father, respectively. But the general sobriety and professionalism of their work can’t disguise what The Best of Me is—polished hokum. At best.

RIP to the beautiful, soulful, sexy, funny Elizabeth Pena, passed on way too young at 55, “after a brief illness.” She was at her sexiest and funniest in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and at her most lovable in the terrific John Sayles yarn Lone Star, in which she gets to speak the wonderfully commonsensical final line.

TV note: We’re in the thick of October, so TCM is serving more than its average quotient of monster flicks. This Saturday morning, for instance—check the schedule for local airtimes—we get 1967’s Hammer shocker The Mummy’s Shroud

Thursday, October 16, 2014


Continuing our Dracula theme from last week…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to Dracula as a superhero, in this short-lived 1966 title from Dell Comics…

He’s just one selection on my Topless Robot list of the “18 Strangest Versions of Dracula.”

Friday, October 10, 2014


New this week:

Dracula UntoldIt’s hard to believe that there are any versions of the Dracula myth that remain untold. There have been earlier origin stories—the slightly underrated Dracula 2000 offered a particularly audacious and amusing one, for instance. But this may just be the first Dracula movie to suggest that the Count embraced vampirism in a spirit of noble self-sacrifice.

Set in the 1400s, Dracula Untold depicts Vlad Dracula, played by the pleasantly studly Welshman Luke Evans, as a gallant warrior-prince who loves his waiflike wife (Sarah Gadon) and his stouthearted son (Art Parkinson). Sure, he used to be called “Vlad the Impaler” for his treatment of his enemies, but now he just wants to protect his beloved Transylvania from the Ottoman Turks, by whom he was enslaved as a Janissary when he was a boy. He’s a reformed impaler, you see.

When the Turks show up at his castle, in the middle of Easter dinner no less, demanding, along with their usual monetary tribute, a new legion of boy slaves including Vlad’s own son, the Prince takes to a mountain cave where he once had an encounter with an ancient, desiccated vampire (Charles Dance). This old fiend gives him vampiric powers sufficient to bedevil the Turks, and if he can refrain from slaking his thirst for blood for three days, he’ll become human again, no harm no foul.

Everything goes smoothly. Vlad, family and country live happily ever after.

Just kidding. All manner of melodrama ensues. It’s about as historically convincing as a Ren Faire, but then, unlike life probably was in actual medieval times, Ren Faires can be fun.

So, despite a few missteps, is Dracula Untold. Some of its flourishes are grandly over-the-top—Dracula doesn’t just turn into a bat here, but a whole swarm of bats—and all are unembarrassed. At one point a groveling character says “Yes, Master”; at another a character flings back his head and howls “Nooooo!” These clich├ęs are executed with no apparent irony, and the audience snickers a little. But we keep on watching.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad DayIf you’ve seen Steve Carell’s encounter with the very fake-looking kangaroo in the TV ads, it’s understandable if you’re dreading taking your kids to this movie. Not to worry, Disney’s adaptation of Judith Viorst’s 1972 children’s book favorite is nothing special, but it’s a lot better than its own marketing makes it look.

Alexander, the third of four kids, undergoes various humiliations and social catastrophes on his 12th birthday, and so do his older siblings and parents. Jennifer Garner and Steve Carell are funny as his impatient working Mom and his unemployed, doggedly optimistic Dad. Ed Oxenbould has an everykid naturalness as Alexander, Dylan Minnette is his confident older brother, and Kerris Dorsey, wonderful as Brad Pitt’s daughter in Moneyball, is his theatrical older sister. I liked how they didn’t mindlessly bicker; without pushy sentimentality, the ensemble manages to suggest a loving family.

Plenty of the gags in Alexander don’t work, but plenty do, and director Miguel Arteta sets a relaxed pace and tone that allows the charm of the actors to get across. And the Disney-ish atmosphere isn’t too oppressive—this is, at any rate, the first Disney movie I can recall with an overt penis joke.

The lesson that Alexander arrives at, of course, is that any day among loved ones in which nobody ends up at the morgue or in the hospital or in jail is a wonderful, beautiful, not bad, very good day. You can’t start teaching that soon enough.

Thursday, October 9, 2014


With Dracula Untold opening tomorrow…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s acknowledge another fine Dracula: Jack Palance, who played the Count, quite well, in this 1973 TV-movie version leanly scripted by Richard Matheson and directed by Dan Curtis…

Palance’s high eastern-European cheekbones give him something of a resemblance to the famous portraits of Prince Vlad, aka Vlad the Impaler, aka Vlad Dracula, the vampire prince’s historical namesake…

Friday, October 3, 2014


Gone Girl“I feel like I’m in a Law and Order episode,” says Nick Dunne, as detectives begin to question him about his missing wife Amy, early in David Fincher’s new thriller. We in the audience think so too. In a scene from earlier, happier days in Nick and Amy’s marriage, they give each other the same gift on their anniversary, and Amy says “We’re so cute, I want to punch us in the face.” Here, again, screenwriter Gillian Flynn, adapting her own 2012 novel, seems to be pre-empting the audience.

No need, as it turns out. Nick and Amy’s marriage goes south, both figuratively and literally. They both lose their magazine writing jobs, Nick drags Amy from her beloved New York to Missouri to help care for his dying mother, and their relationship goes from punch-in-the-face cute to deeply dysfunctional.

Then she disappears, amidst signs of a struggle in the house. Nick calls the cops, remains flippantly calm during the search, and, perhaps trying not to behave self-consciously like a panicked husband, comes across for all the world like a guy who murdered his wife. People start to exchange significant glances behind his back. Interrupting this strand from time to time are episodes from Amy’s diary, depicting the crumbling marriage.

These are just the beginning of Gone Girl’s twists. After awhile I stopped thinking that we were in Law and Order territory—the plot may possibly be too gothic and convoluted even for that show.

None of which is to say it’s not entertaining. Flynn’s dialogue has punch, and Fincher crafts the scenes elegantly, at a confident, steady pace. His work is broodingly atmospheric without the dreamlike stylization of Seven.

Fincher also gets excellent, witty work from an excellent cast. The revelation here is Rosamund Pike, always lovely but often stuck in conventionally sweet parts; here she makes the most of the unexpectedly ripe, varied role of Amy. But Tyler Perry, Neil Patrick Harris, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Missi Pyle, Sela Ward and especially Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister also give enjoyable turns.

And then there’s Ben Affleck, handling this Hitchcockian leading man role with aplomb. The story hinges, in part, on Nick’s difficulties with public likability, something that Affleck, for reasons I’ve never entirely grasped, understands all too well. Gone Girl strikingly echoes Affleck’s life in the public eye, when you think about it—from the beginning of his ordeal, Nick’s every move makes him look like a smarmy creep. But the worse he looks, the more cameras get pointed at him.

The Joe ShowAs the title implies, this documentary chronicles the rise and partial slump of Joe Arpaio, and especially his obsessive relationship with the media. The outrages summarized here—there are others—won’t be news to most informed viewers here in Maricopa County, but they can still boil your blood when seen in the aggregate.

What’s really remarkable about the film is the access that director Randy Murray got to Arpaio and his inner circle. Murray’s camera was present over what appears to have been years, including the 2012 election, and Arpaio and his gang eventually came to speak in front of it with startling cynical candor about their calculated showmanship in manipulating the media to their advantage. Simply on the basis of this footage, The Joe Show qualifies as an important document.

It’s also a slickly-made, wittily edited film about a satire-defying Arizona figure. I interviewed Murray for a Phoenix Magazine story last year, and he told me the same thing that my friend Barry Graham told me after he interviewed Arpaio for Harper’s years ago—that he liked Arpaio personally, a lot. The Sheriff’s almost childlike affability comes through in The Joe Show, and this quality sits uncomfortably with the facts the film presents—that he’s responsible for fatal brutality, banana-republic-style intimidation and the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars. Murray’s film also gets across something that’s less widely understood: Not only has Arpaio been abusive, he’s also been shockingly derelict of his legitimate duties.

What Arpaio’s behavior here shows is that, for all his ignorance and incoherence and delusional bluster, he has an instinctive grasp of how to exploit people’s piggy bigotries and appetite for bullying cruelty. Even when his media flack Lisa Allen and other cronies cringe with embarrassment at something he plans to do, like his “Birther investigation,” he knows perfectly well that it will work with the segment of the electorate at whom he’s aiming.

Allen comes across, by the way, far more repulsively than anyone else in the film, Arpaio included, though there’s also pathos to the exaggerated bonhomie of her manner—you can sense her desperation to make her job and her boss and her department seem mischievous and cute, a misunderstood, well-intentioned part of the normal world of decent people. But Murray’s film shows that it’s not. Arpaio was a grandstanding media whore from the start of his tenure, and with Allen as his pimp, he’s gradually grown into a monster.

Thursday, October 2, 2014


Happy October everybody!

This past Christmas I was given a wall calendar, now adorning the wall of my office, called Cinema Noir. Along with posters for The Big Sleep, The Killer That Stalked New York and The Third Man, it bafflingly includes posters from The Birds, Citizen Kane, King Kong and the original Dracula.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s a cool calendar full of cool posters for cool movies, and I’ve been enjoying it all year. But…noir? Citizen Kane? King Kong?

October’s selection is…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this poster, featuring this week’s honoree…

…the Gill-Man, in The Creature Walks Among Us, the neglected third chapter of Universal’s Creature of the Black Lagoon trilogy, in which the Gill-Man is surgically altered and becomes, rather poignantly, more human.

I’ve always had a liking for this odd, melancholy little movie, but even so at first glance its inclusion in a Cinema Noir calendar seemed preposterous. But when I thought about it, it probably can make a better case than some of the others. After all, its main plot is a love triangle, and the Gill-Man witnesses, and is framed for, a murder. He may be a primordial abomination from the muck, but in this movie, he’s just a patsy.