Friday, January 30, 2015


Opening in the Valley this weekend:

Black SeaSubmarine pictures almost always work, even the bad ones. There’s something inherently dramatic about that setting, with its inescapable allegorical resonances about the utter hostility of the environment outside the fragile cosmic and social bubbles in which humans live, and the terrible interdependence required for survival even within those bubbles. Corny dialogue and laborious dramatics usually can’t defeat that atmosphere.

When a submarine movie has strong actors and dialogue, so much the better. Happily that’s the case with Black Sea, directed by Kevin Macdonald from a script by Dennis Kelly.

The star is Jude Law, spitting an indignant Scottish accent. He’s Robinson, a sub captain who’s been laid off, with a pathetic severance, from the salvage company to which he’s given his post-Navy career. He gets financing to take a rust-bucket ex-Soviet sub to the bottom of the title body of water, in search of one of the traditional adventure-movie McGuffins: Nazi gold! There’s a sunken U-boat down there, see, containing a fortune in bullion extorted from Stalin just before the war heated up.

Robinson’s crew is, again traditionally for the genre, “ragtag”—a scruffy assortment of Brits and Russians, along with one American, a repellent corporate rep (Scoot McNairy). Weary after years of risking his life to make rich people richer, Robinson is determined that each member of his crew will get an equal share, as all are equally risking their lives. The American creep warns him that this naïve egalitarianism will cause trouble, and alas he’s not wrong. Treasure of Sierra Madre-style greed, suspicion and resentment soon arises, and spirals into violence.

Black Sea is like some freaky hybrid of Clive Cussler and Noam Chomsky, and its overt, rather fatalistic economic didacticism is often in danger of tipping over into heavy-handedness. But it doesn’t, quite. Many episodes—transferring the treasure across the ocean floor from the wreck to Robinson’s sub, for instance, or trying to steer through a narrow canyon—are tense, nerve-jangling showpieces, and the cast is an appealing rabble of grizzled seadogs that keep the drama personal and vivid.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


The adventure drama Black Sea, set on a submarine, opens tomorrow, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s do one of the monsters that threatened that roomiest and least claustrophobic of submarines, the Seaview, during the run of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: Charles Aidman as a scientist who becomes a snarling werewolf!

In the course of the 1966 episode, Aidman scratches Richard Basehart, who then has to be put on wolf-watch. The makeup has a pretty cool, I Was a Teenage Werewolf look.

Monday, January 26, 2015


Eventful weekend: Friday evening The Wife, The Kid and I saw Frankie Valli perform at the Celebrity Theatre.

Sort of worrisome to be at a pop concert in which the conversation in the line for the men's room leans heavily on prostate size and catheters. Still, it was a great show. Valli kicked off with the theme from Grease and went on to perform almost all of his standards, as well as some songs with which he's not usually associated; he did an excellent "Spanish Harlem," for instance. He was backed up by four talented young guys in early-vintage Four Seasons drag, and a first-rate band.

Possibly my favorite part of the evening: as we were filing out, a lady in, I'd guess, her early sixties told us that she had bought the 45 of "Rag Doll" for her sister as a birthday present with her baby-sitting money (35 cents per hour, she said), so she and her sisters were tearing up together while Valli did that number. As to the man himself, it's jarringly strange to hear that same angelic doo wop falsetto from back in the '60s, or something pretty close to it, coming out of that little 80-year-old guy. Strange and cool.

Then Saturday morning The Kid, who's working on a report on mambas for school, got to visit some of these magnificent creatures at the by-appointment-only Phoenix Herpetological Society, where Nate the Serpent Curator gave her fascinating mamba information, and she got these terrific pics of them:

While Nate was talking to her I noticed the handsome Ethiopian cobra in a lower cage stretching his mouth wide open. I asked him if this was a sign of aggression.

"No, that's just a yawn," said Nate. "He's getting ready to make my day interesting; I'm cleaning his cage today."

So there's something I learned during that visit: Cobras Can Yawn. Hope it wasn't the company.

Friday, January 23, 2015


Opening this week:

CakeJennifer Aniston plays Claire, who lives in both L.A. and hell. She’s scarred from the accident that took her little son’s life and left her horrifically injured. She lives alone, apparently in financial comfort, separated from her husband (Chris Messina) but served by her tirelessly loyal housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza, wonderful in a potentially clichéd, Sancho Panza role).

Claire’s near-constant chronic pain is nothing, of course, compared to her bereavement. She’s retained a sardonic wit, which only serves to keep her distant from her own healing and from those who want to help her. The only help she wants is in securing refills for the bottles of Percocet she has stashed around the house.

The movie, directed by Daniel Barnz from a script by Patrick Tobin, detail’s Claire’s very gradual, very tentative steps toward reconnecting with life. In off-kilter dialogue and quietly abrupt transitions, we’re shown how small encounters—with a teenage runaway, with a possum—prod her back toward reengaging with the world. Eventually she forms a bond with the widower (Sam Worthington) of a young woman who committed suicide, and whose smirky ghost (Anna Kendrick) drops in now and then to taunt her. It’s from this strand that the movie draws its enigmatic title.

Cake has been much discussed lately for the snub its leading lady, who was also its Executive Producer, seems to have received from the Academy. A cynic might point out that it hits many of the points of shameless Oscar-bait for actresses: No glamour makeup, physical disability and disfigurement, booze, pills, numb sex with the pool guy. Aniston doesn’t do full frontal or an accent, but that’s about all that’s left out.

And maybe lust for gold statuary really was the motivation behind Cake. But it’s ridiculous if that perception is really why Aniston was shut out. I’ve always thought she was a very good actress within her range, and this role fits her casual, sensible, unhistrionic style perfectly. A more demonstrative actress could easily have ruined it, but Aniston is touching, entirely convincing, admirable. I don’t know that it’s the best performance of last year by an actress, but I would have put it in the top five that I saw.

The Boy Next DoorSpectacular in—and sometimes out of—a variety of maxi tube dresses, pencil skirts, lingerie and music-video-librarian specs, Jennifer Lopez looks like a million freakin’ bucks in this quickie. I hope she got paid at least that much, because her appearance is the only remotely worthwhile time-killer in the length of this preposterous melodrama directed by Rob Cohen, who has made far more entertaining work.

J-Lo is another Claire, a high school teacher separated from her cheating putz of a husband (John Corbett). Her teenage son is befriended by Noah (Ryan Guzman), the obsequious, six-packed hunk next door, and one weekend when the son’s on a fishing trip with dad she impulsively sleeps with him. She apparently hasn’t committed a felony by doing this—he says he’s nearly twenty, anyway—but even so she almost immediately realizes what a mistake it was. Noah is a twisted stalker, dangerous to her and her loved ones.

For a while The Boy Next Door feels like a Lifetime movie with a bigger star and slightly more graphic sex. But after a while I decided that this was unjust to Lifetime movies. I hadn’t gone in expecting a lost work by Bergman, but I thought it might be hot, kitschy laughs. Alas, once it gets past a few weary double-entendres about Claire’s home-made “cookies” and that sort of thing, the movie is too banal, slow and unpleasant to be much fun even as camp.

Well, OK, I admit that the final life-and-death grapple made me cackle out loud. But that shouldn’t be taken as any kind of recommendation. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a big-studio offering that was quite this embarrassingly inept and lifeless. Lopez is game and committed, in addition to looking sensational, and Ian Nelson has a certain callow charm as her son, but everybody is defeated by the flat direction and Barbara Curry’s implausible, disjointed script.

With dialogue this inane it probably isn’t fair to judge him on the basis of this performance, but Guzman comes across so fawningly that it reflects poorly on our heroine. Cut though this dude is, Claire seems dopey for falling for his sugary come-ons. It’s as if Mrs. Cleaver had slept with Eddie Haskell.

Thursday, January 22, 2015


Check out today's list, by various contributors to Topless Robot, of the nerdy amusements to which we're most looking forward in this coming year. Mine is item 11.

Playing here in the Valley is Spare Parts, a high school yarn directed by family film specialist Sean McNamara. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s acknowledge the title character from McNamara’s 1996 film The Legend of Galgameth

…a dinosaur-like beast who becomes pals with a boy-prince in this excrutiating, riotous semi-remake of Shin Sang-Ok’s North Korean kaiju epic Pulgasari (Shin is billed here as “Simon Sheen”). It can be watched in its entirety here:

Friday, January 16, 2015


Opening this weekend:

Spare PartsA down-on-his-luck substitute science teacher at a Phoenix high school reluctantly inherits the job of advising the robotics club. He finds his handful of students to have talent, ingenuity and heart. They are also undocumented, and have various personal challenges. They enter their low-budget, scraped-together robot submersible in an underwater robotics competition for college students at UC Santa Barbara.

George Lopez plays the teacher—actually a conflation of two guys—in this triumph-of-the-underdogs comedy-drama, based on a true story. Carlos PenaVega of Big Time Rush leads the quartet of guys, all charming, who play the team, with the grownups represented by the likes of Marisa Tomei, Esai Morales and Jamie Lee Curtis as the wry, amused principal.

Directed by Sean McNamara from a script by Elissa Matsueda, based on “La Vida Robot,” a 2005 article by Joshua Davis in Wired, Spare Parts is one hundred percent out of the standard Stand and Deliver or Hoosiers inspirational high school drama playbook. As such, it’s perfectly well executed, crisply paced, energetically acted, with obligatory crises and touches of sweet humor and romance.

What makes it different from other films of this sort is that it puts a human face on the plight of undocumented kids in the US, trying to get somewhere in life, and in some cases—like that of Oscar Vasquez, the main kid here—to serve this country, and blocked by the obtuse idiocies of our immigration policy. At the end of Spare Parts, when we’re shown the real-life outcomes of the team’s stories, it’s hard not to be moved by them. As such, this very conventional movie could help to win the hearts and minds of mainstream audiences.

A side note: The film is mostly set in here in west Phoenix, in and around Carl Hayden High School. But it was mostly shot in Albuquerque—probably thanks to the obtuse idiocies of this state’s production-tax-incentive policy—and it looks it. Just as the U.S. hurts itself economically by shutting out kids like these, so Arizona missed out on some of the economic benefits of this uplifting Arizona story.

A Most Violent YearThe setting is New York, and the year referred to is 1981, a record-breaker for violent crime in the Big Apple. Our hero is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), who was set up in business by the gangster father of his wife (Jessica Chastain). Abel runs a fleet of fuel-oil trucks which regularly get hijacked, in broad daylight, by the thugs of his business rivals.

But Abel is determined not to be a crooked businessman. His wife, on the other hand, is perfectly comfortable calling on her family connections, especially after their children are threatened.

Written and directed by J. C. Chandor of the impressive All Is Lost, A Most Violent Year seems intended as a stylistic throwback to the crime dramas from around the period it depicts—something dark and brooding directed by Sidney Lumet or maybe Stuart Rosenberg, with cinematography by Gordon Willis or Andrzej Bartowiak. The star, almost certainly, would have been Al Pacino.

The young Pacino is, at least, who Isaac seems to be channeling with his quiet, intense performance; Chastain is perhaps trying for Faye Dunaway. Albert Brooks shines as their long-suffering, ironically upbeat lawyer, a role that might have been played, in 1981, by, say, Albert Brooks.

Chandor gives the story an authentic feel, nothing too hokey or melodramatic, and his revulsion to violence seems genuine. More importantly, his tacit critique of the way other movies in this genre romanticize violence is well taken. But there was something about Abel’s naïve and slightly sanctimonious protestations of purity that I found comical—in the context of his career choice, it’s like he’s a fisherman determined never to get wet.

This engrossing, polished movie is, somehow, both a tease and a scold. As well-conditioned audience members, we want to see Abel retaliate violently against the thugs—the movie seems almost to tremble on the verge of gratifying this wish, yet Chandor is telling us that, at bottom, we’re wrong to want this. He’s right, of course, but the moviegoer’s bloodthirsty heart wants what it wants.

PaddingtonBased on the children’s books by Michael Bond, this story of a civilized, courteous, marmalade-loving bear from “Darkest Peru” who winds up in London on the platform at Paddington Station is cute and funny, with first-rate use of CGI, cleverly-directed, Rube-Goldberg-like slapstick, and some good, silly, free-floating gags. Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville are excellent as the heads of the upper-middle-class family that takes him in, and Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi and Julie Walters contribute nice turns as well.

The movie is even a little bit touching. Bond claimed he was inspired by the sight of tagged refugee children in the train stations during WWII, and the theme of hospitality to strangers runs through Paddington too, without heavy-handedness.

The only serious trouble into which the movie runs us the introduction of a villainess, a nutty museum taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) who wants to mount a specimen of Ursa Marmalada. This Cruella de Vil knockoff is gratuitous, and a bit overly grim for the tone of the tale.

Still, this strand allows us the sight of Kidman in a blond China-doll 'do, with really chic bangs, plus a good-natured send-up of the star’s ex. So it isn’t a total loss.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


RIP to Rod Taylor, who starred in The Time Machine and The Birds

…and more recently, in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, played the small role of Winston Churchill…

…and who passed on late last week. Since the Morlocks from The Time Machine already served as a Monster-of-the-Week a while back…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s give the nod to the “Starving Morlock” movers who haunt Sheldon’s dreams in The Big Bang Theory

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


My pal Barry Graham has published a book of essays on and reviews of horror and noir, called When the Light-Bulb is Bare, available from Amazon…

Even if it weren’t dedicated to Your Humble Narrator—which, being Humble, I take as a great honor—it would still be worth reading.

Monday, January 12, 2015


While I’m in list mode, here’s my annual list of books I read (as always, this doesn’t count individual short stories, articles, essays, reviews, comics, blogs, poems and the like):

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Dr. Who and the Giant Robot by Terrance Dicks

Praise of Folly by Erasmus

One For My Baby by Barry Graham

The Betrayers by Donald Hamilton

The Cool Man by W.R. Burnett

The Judas Goat by Robert B. Parker

Switch Bitch by Roald Dahl

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk

The Summer of Katya by Trevanian

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins

The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

After Worlds Collide by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer

Untouched By Human Hands by Robert Sheckley

Night of the Auk by Arch Oboler

Friday, January 9, 2015


Time again for the film critic’s annual self-indulgence—as opposed to all those weekly self-indulgences—the Top Ten List. Admitting that there are still quite a few high-profile flicks I haven’t gotten to yet—The Theory of Everything, Selma, Get On Up, Boyhood, Calvary and Belle, among others—here are ten moves that, as of this writing, I’m willing to admit I really liked and found memorable:

Jodorowsky’s DuneThe mad director narrates us his abortive ‘70s-era film version of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel, to the accompaniment of glorious conceptual art. This documentary is marvelously entertaining, probably more so than the movie Jodorowsky would have made back then.

The Imitation GameFascinating, inspirational, ultimately infuriating account of pioneering British computer scientist Alan Turing’s code-breaking efforts during World War II, and his heartbreaking struggles after the war. Benedict Cumberbatch is moving and maddening as the off-putting genius.

Blue RuinBadly overlooked, this gruesomely violent, highly suspenseful revenge noir, made on a tiny budget by writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, doesn’t put a foot wrong. Macon Blair is startling as the homeless man roused to horrific action against the family he holds responsible for the murders of his parents.

RudderlessAlso overlooked, William H. Macy’s debut feature as a director is a painful and emotionally challenging drama about the power of music. After his son’s tragic death, a stricken father (Billy Crudup) discovers, and starts performing, beautiful songs written by the boy. Crudup does his best movie work since his (very different) performance in Almost Famous.

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be MeJames Keach recorded the final tour of the Alzheimer’s-afflicted country great. It’s a powerful document, and an artful, warm, occasionally funny piece of filmmaking.

SnowpiercerAfter an apocalyptic Earth-wide freeze, a supertrain carries the remnants of humanity in an annual circuit of the planet—lower classes confined to the rear cars; upper class toward the engine. Movies don’t come much more elegantly weird than this…

Frank…unless they’re accounts of a visionary punk musician who walks around all day wearing a huge papier-mache head that makes him look like Davy from Davy and Goliath, and keeps his band in cult-like semi-isolation while he strives for perfection. This bizarre, all-but-impossible-to-explain movie is funny, unsettling and unexpectedly poignant.

Guardians of the GalaxyCritics can feel a little sheepish putting a big-budget smash hit like this on the list, but James Gunn’s sci-fi comedy really gave me a good time. Also, its soundtrack is full of wonderful ‘70s-era pop music. And also, it features a talking raccoon.

The BoxtrollsThis stop-motion fantasty about well-meaning subterranean trolls who wear boxes is pungently grotesque, with a tendency toward the gross-out. But it has a big heart.

The Book of LifeMaybe the most ambitiously-titled movie since The Tree of Life, this animated fantasy spun from Mexican Day of the Dead motifs feels both authentically traditional and vibrantly modern. It’s a visual knockout, and the music is beautiful as well.

And here are ten very-near-misses: the delightful Mike Myers documentary Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, Million Dollar Arm, Noah, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Into the Woods, Wild, The Homesman, Chef, Unbroken and Tim Burton’s fascinating misfire Big Eyes.

While I admit the excellence of its filmmaking and of Michael Keaton’s acting—I hope he wins the Oscar this year—I couldn’t quite bring myself to like Birdman, but other movies I wasn’t sorry I sat through this year included: Gone Girl, Interstellar, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Joe, Big Hero 6, Penguins of Madagascar, Top Five, Elsa and Fred, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Jersey Boys, The Monuments Men, Stonehearst Asylum, The Lego Movie, Obvious Child, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Planes: Fire and Rescue, The Skeleton Twins, The Trip to Italy, For No Good Reason, The Hundred-Foot Journey and The Last Days of Robin Hood, with Kevin Kline, excellent as Errol Flynn on his last legs.

And finally, there’s The Interview, which I heroically attended at Harkins Valley Art instead of watching on pay-per-view, in defense of our American way of life.

Thursday, January 8, 2015


RIP to Donna Douglas, passed on at 82. It’s hard to get my head around the idea that the sweet, gorgeous, guileless, critter-loving Elly May Clampett from perhaps the funniest American TV comedy of all time, The Beverly Hillbillies, is departed. It’s harder, almost, to get my head around the idea that she was 82 years old.

In her honor, this week’s monster is…

Monster-of-the-Week: …Donna Douglas, in probably her second-best-known TV role, in the classic Twilight Zone episode “Eye of the Beholder.” She’s monstrous, in her own eyes, because after reconstructive surgery she emerges from her bandages looking like this…

…but in the strange alternative reality world where she lives, people are supposed to look like this…

Here’s a picture of a doll—sorry, I mean an action figure—of this guy, given to me by a kind friend a few years back...

Thursday, January 1, 2015


Happy New Year everybody!

The first Monster-of-the-Week for the year comes with a “spoiler alert,” I’m afraid. If you’ve never seen 1987’s The Lost Boys (and want to) don’t read on…

Monster-of-the-Week: …RIP to one of the very best character actors in film and television over the last forty years or so, Edward Herrmann, passed on at 71. In his honor, let’s give the nod to Max...

...played by Herrmann, who turns out to be a vampire…

…at the end of the picture.