Friday, February 27, 2015


A few days ago, when I first heard that Leonard Nimoy had gone to the hospital with heart trouble, I was wearing his face on my t-shirt. The shirt, bright red with Nimoy as a jowlier, heavier-featured late-vintage Mr. Spock—he always reminds me of Jackie Mason in that picture—holding up his split-fingered Vulcan salute next to the inevitable well-wish “LIVE LONG AND PROSPER,” was a gift from The Wife and The Kid. There are days when I suppose I might be a little embarrassed to admit that, at the age of fifty-two, I still sometimes wear Star Trek t-shirts.

This is not one of those days.

I’ve been a Star Trek fan for the vast majority of my life. I can dimly remember the show’s original run, but it was a few years later, when it ran in syndication in the very early ‘70s, that it became one of the fanatical enthusiasms of my childhood. And it appears that the original Star Trek is something I’m not likely to ever outgrow. I still watch it, still notice new aspects of the episodes—often new absurdities and illogicalities—and take comfort and refreshment from it. I recognize the validity of every criticism that could be leveled against Gene Roddenberry’s silly space opera—the cultural chauvinism, the jocularity, the often preposterous science, the inconsistent social values—and I say there’s something about the show, some core of decency and good-will and gallantry, that transcends all of it and makes it mythic.

Spock was one of the main reasons for this. Nimoy, who passed on today at 83, had a fairly rich career as an actor before Spock, and very rich career as an actor and a director after Spock. But it is, of course, as Spock that he’ll be most remembered—a supposedly emotionless native of the planet Vulcan, though plagued by emotional flare-ups from his maternal human half, cool, curious, expansively knowledgeable, quietly ironic. Spock was my childhood role model, and though I have never succeeded in emulating him—I’m far closer, alas, to the irascible and sentimental Dr. McCoy—I’m still extremely grateful for the influence.

We were, of course, always meant to see that Spock’s lack of emotion was a pose—that he was more compassionate, and in his way possibly even more passionate, than any of the other characters. His cerebral rationality, sometimes mistaken for callousness, was really in service of a bottomless, if sometimes bemused, sympathy for the wound-up humans around him.

When I say that Star Trek in general and Spock in particular were major and lifelong influences on me, I mean it without condescension—my gratitude is serious. But one of the reasons that Spock was able to influence so many people of my generation is that Nimoy wasn’t that serious. Like many members of that cast, he was a little sheepish about his identification with the character, to the point that he titled his first memoir I Am Not Spock. He later made enough peace with the role—finally getting some serious financial reward for it probably helped—that the sequel was titled I Am Spock.

All of those actors were essential to the show’s unique alchemy, but the original Star Trek would have been an especially dreary affair without Nimoy’s droll sensibility. I was watching Star Trek just last weekend, before I heard about Nimoy’s illness, and had been thinking how truly good he was, how much wry deadpan comedy he was able to bring to the show (“Sir, there is a multi-legged creature crawling on your shoulder.”).

The actor’s slyness fed into the character’s—I remember hearing Nimoy, in various interviews, explain that he came up with Spock’s handy nerve pinch so that he could avoid the strenuous fight scenes that William Shatner so often had to engage in, and how Spock had borrowed the Vulcan hand gesture from rabbis at the Orthodox services of his Boston youth. In short, like many hero figures, he—and Kirk and McCoy and the rest, each in their own way—made heroism look like fun. Spock’s upraised eyebrow may ultimately prove as iconic as Groucho’s brow-wiggle.

I had hoped to meet or see all the members of the original Star Trek cast before they headed off to the Undiscovered Country, and so far I haven’t done too badly—I saw Shatner in a play in Ohio in the ‘70s, and in the decades that followed I interviewed DeForest Kelley and Walter Koenig and Grace Lee Whitney, and got an autograph from James Doohan. I haven’t yet caught up with George Takei and Nichelle Nichols, and now Nimoy (along with Majel Barrett) has slipped away from me. No doubt Mr. Spock would tell me that it’s highly illogical to feel sad about this, but I do. No matter though—Nimoy lived long, and prospered, and will live on in many of our memories.

Thursday, February 26, 2015


Last week we remembered Louis Jourdan as a top-notch Dracula on the BBC. Let’s give him one more week of acknowledgement… 

Monster-of-the-Week: …this time for the sword-wielding monster into which his character, Dr. Arcane, is transformed…

…at the end of Wes Craven’s 1982 Swamp Thing. I love the moment after his transformation, when he looks around with an air of “OK, I’m a monster, what should I do?” before he starts smashing lab equipment.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


“Dear Lady Gaga, thank you for that wonderful tribute.” These are not words I ever expected to hear Julie Andrews saying.

But they seemed heartfelt, and they were deserved: Lady Gaga’s broadly-played imitation of Andrews, in a Sound of Music medley, was one of the few high points of a generally slow, unappealing Oscar show. Other high points included some good acceptance speeches, especially by Pawel Pawlikowski, the Polish director of Ida, who managed to be funny and even, in an unpretentious way, a bit reflective.

The low point, for me, was Neil Patrick Harris making a joke at the expense of the dress worn by one of the two ladies who had just won a Best Short Subject Documentary Oscar for Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press One. As a friend of mine pointed out, it’s one thing to mock a train wreck worn by some actress who’s a red carpet veteran, quite another to pick on the questionable fashion choice of a “civilian.” Besides, the lady in question had just been talking, seconds before, about losing her son to suicide. Harris may not have been listening, but the effect was ugly in any case.

As for the winners and losers, the big disappointment for me was Michael Keaton not winning. I didn’t much care for Birdman, but I love Keaton’s work, including in that film, so much that I really wanted him to win anyway, as I wonder if he’ll have ever this juicy a lead role again. My wife, by comparison to me the expert Oscar handicapper in our house, was also rooting for Keaton but predicted that Eddie Redmayne would win for The Theory of Everything, as his role as the young Stephen Hawking ticked off too many Oscar-bait boxes: Physical challenge, real-life figure, Brit. One theory floated on some of the talk shows is that Keaton may have been perceived as “just playing himself” in Birdman, as opposed to Redmayne’s transformation.

When people say this about an actor, what they really mean (though they may not know it) is that he or she always or usually plays the same basic character. That’s certainly true of Keaton, but it was also true of Henry Fonda, John Wayne, James Stewart, Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman—it didn’t stop any of them from winning Oscars.

One last note: I was also sorry that the Glen Campbell song “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” from Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me, didn’t win for Best Song—it lost to the admittedly beautiful “Glory” from the ridiculously under-nominated Selma. But at least it was treated to a fine, simple performance on the show by Tim McGraw, and hopefully it will call more attention to this powerful documentary about the Alzheimer’s-afflicted country great. Please don’t skip this movie on the (understandable) fear that it will be a depressing bummer. It’s sad, of course, but also uplifting.

Friday, February 20, 2015


Opening this weekend:

The DUFFBianca, the heroine of the high school comedy The DUFF, is actually the title character. DUFF, you see, is an acronym for Designated Ugly Fat Friend. When Bianca has the term applied to her, she realizes that her best pals Casey and Jessica are two of the school hotties, while she’s a frump with a snarky sense of humor who loves horror movies (where were all the girls like this when I was in high school?). She finds herself wondering if her purpose in the trio is to make Casey and Jessica look even cuter by comparison.

She promptly freaks out, cuts off relations with her friends, and strikes a deal with the swaggering jock next door to help her gain confidence and style. The object of these tutorials is to get a date with her crush, a guitar-strumming pretty-boy to whom she is—literally—unable to say three words.

In other words, in terms of theme and plot, we’re on standard John Hughes teen comedy turf here. Indeed, The DUFF is so self-consciously of the Hughes School that it has a Breakfast Club reference in the first line of the narration, and it goes on to ring its own variations on the obligatory scenes of the genre: the Big Suburban Party, the Big Dance Climax, the Cafeteria Scene in which high school social stereotypes are broken down anthropologically.

The DUFF is more charming than all this makes it sound. The script, by Josh A. Cagan (from Kody Keplinger’s novel), isn’t without some heavy platitudes and some clumsily trendy references to social media, but the best of its dialogue is crudely, bluntly funny, and it has a generous streak—it’s immediately clear to the audience, for instance, that Bianca’s misjudged Casey and Jessica. Ari Sandel’s direction zips along swiftly, and while there are poorly-timed gags that don’t come off, most of them land skillfully.

The true strength of the movie, however, is the acting. As usual in such films, there are some slumming character players as the grown-ups, like Allison Janney as Bianca’s distracted motivational-speaker Mom, Romany Malco as the wound-up Principal and Ken Jeong and Chris Wylde as daffy teachers. Robbie Amell is brashly likable as the Jock Next Door, and Bella Thorne is effective as the mean-girl villainess.

But the film is really a showcase for Mae Whitman as Bianca. Having seen the TV ads for this movie, I’ll admit I walked in with a chip—Whitman, who has the droll adorableness of a slightly less elfin Ellen Page, seemed to conform to the usual convention in a film with an “ugly duckling” heroine. And as with other movies of this sort, the makers of The DUFF didn’t seem to get that preaching to us about how everyone is beautiful in their own way while refusing, for box-office reasons, to cast an actress who really might be seen as unattractive or overweight is an offensive attempt to have it both ways.

But Whitman’s performance broke me down on this preconceived point. A former child actress, she’s a veteran of more than twenty years in show business—among many, many other roles, she’s the current voice of Disney’s Tinkerbell. Yet as Bianca she transcends her own showbiz slickness—for all her sitcom timing, she has an emotional directness to which you can feel the audience respond.
The Last Five YearsJamie is a young writer who sells a novel and hits it big. His girlfriend Cathy is a struggling New York stage actress who doesn’t, or at least hasn’t, yet. They’re played by Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick, respectively, in this movie version of Jason Robert Brown’s musical, which premiered in Chicago in 2001 and Off-Broadway in 2002, and has since been produced all over the world.

In the play, a two-hander, Cathy sings her side of the story backwards from the break-up, while we get Jamie’s side forward, from the happy early days. The two strands pass each other in the middle. This ingenious structure is weakened in the movie, adapted and directed by Richard LaGravenese. Kendrick and Jordan sing to each other, and a few other actors—little more than bit players—are shooed past the camera as well, and I, at least, lost track at times of where we were in the five-year ordeal.

But I didn’t mind that much, because Brown’s songs are pretty and witty, and prettily and wittily sung, in the clarion belter style of contemporary musicals. A good thing the score is so strong, too, because the story, stripped of the sometimes thrilling music, is just the autopsy of a typical neurotic on-again-off-again relationship, perfectly believable but not much less tiresome than listening to some friend recount five years’ worth of marital troubles in bitter detail.

Such troubles are greatly improved by good singing, though. When the movie was over, I found myself thinking that I’d rather buy the soundtrack and listen to it while driving instead of having to watch the resentments and envies and deceptions of these two.

Both of the actors are impressive, but Anna Kendrick’s rise as musical performer, starting with the improbable chart success of her “cup song” from Pitch Perfect through her roles in Into the Woods and this movie, continues to tickle. Her voice has strength alongside a plangent, comically plaintive beauty. Once it looked like Kendrick might go down in movie history as the best friend in the Twilight flicks. But maybe the Twilight flicks will go down in movie history as Kendrick’s apprenticeship before she became a singing star.

Thursday, February 19, 2015


RIP to Louis Jourdan, who embodied Gallic charm—though more than once with a nasty reptilian undercurrent—in films like Letter from an Unknown Woman, Gigi, Can-Can, The Best of Everything, Julie, Octopussy, etc etc. It’s not always remembered that Jourdan, who departed on Valentine’s Day at 93

Monster-of-the-Week: ...was also one of the better screen Draculas, small screen division in this case, playing the title role in Count Dracula

…a rousing (and arousing) BBC production that played in the U.S. on Great Performances back in the ‘70s. This version is unusually faithful to Stoker’s novel, even featuring the scene of Drac climbing the wall like Spiderman…

…and along with Jourdan’s subtle, genuinely creepy underplaying as the Count, it also featured one of the best Van Helsings in Frank Finlay, a very sexy Lucy Westenra in Susan Penhaligon, and a superlative Renfield in Scottish actor Jack Shepherd. The guy who plays Texan Quincey Morris overdoes his accent hilariously, and there are some amusingly old-school special effects—indeed, the whole thing has that glaringly lighted shot-on-video look of ‘70s TV—but even so this version can get to you.

Friday, February 13, 2015


Once again Valentine’s Day is upon us, and again I’m going to take it upon myself to make a few suggestions for romantic video choices. But what is Valentine’s Day if not a day for sentiment? And what’s more sentimental than an anniversary? Here, therefore, are three love stories enjoying landmark anniversaries this year:

30 years old:

Murphy’s RomanceThe word “romance” is right there in the title. James Garner represents the title’s other half, Murphy, a mildly curmudgeonly widower who runs an old-school drug store in small-town Arizona (the film was shot in Florence). He falls in love with a much younger newcomer to the community, a broke single mother named Emma (Sally Field), who’s struggling to start a horse farm outside of town. Murphy buys a horse and takes up riding just to be close to her, but soon finds himself competing for her with her irresponsible ex (Brian Kerwin).

Based on a Max Schott tale and directed by Martin Ritt, the film is relaxed, charming and believable, and the stars have a lovely rapport. Garner was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, but he is said to have received an even higher honor: Field supposedly claimed that his was the best onscreen kiss she ever received.

20 years old:

French Kiss—Meg Ryan, as an American living in Canada, follows her doctor fiancĂ© Timothy Hutton to Paris, where he’s wandered away from their engagement after a sultry young Frenchwoman. Ryan’s bags are stolen, but she gains the alliance of the unkempt, shady Frenchman, played Kevin Kline, who sat next to her on the plane. He promises to help her regain the doctor’s affections.

You can probably guess what happens, but watch the movie anyway. Ryan gave the best performance to date of her movie career in this one—detailed, delicately witty—and Kline gave one his best, too. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan from a carefully-constructed, mature script by Adam Brooks, this may be the most insufficiently celebrated American love story of the last twenty years.

10 years old:

The 40-Year-Old VirginFor several years I’ve been telling a female friend that this film isn’t the crude farce she thinks it is, and that she’d enjoy it, and she’s repeatedly seemed unconvinced. And she’s not altogether wrong, perhaps. The film, decidedly not for the kiddies, is full of raunchy gags and language—indeed, it’s one of the most honest depictions I’ve seen in a mainstream movie of the way men talk about sex.

It’s also got a lovely romance at its core, expertly played by Steve Carrell as the fellow who finds himself in the title state and Catherine Keener as the woman for whom he’s very understandably fallen, and to whom he’s ashamed to disclose his shocking secret. The large supporting cast includes Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd and Romany Malco as the coworkers who give Carrell hilarious, atrocious advice. Along with director Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up, from two years later, this is one of the best popular American comedies so far this century, and for all its off-color gags, it casts a surprisingly romantic spell.

Happy Valentine’s Day everybody!

Thursday, February 12, 2015


Happy Valentine’s Day this Saturday everybody!

In observance of the day…

Monster-of-the-Week: …our choice this week is Holly, the vampiric central character of Blood and Kisses (Vampire Love Book 1) by J.T. Blackfriars. Available on Kindle, this short e-book—it’s Part One of a promised series—was recommended to me by my pal Barry, who has described it as “Perhaps the best vampire tale since ‘Salem’s Lot.”

Perhaps it is. I confess I dragged my feet a little on the recommendation—the vampire chick-lit genre isn’t a great favorite of mine—but when I finally dug into it, I found it a blast. Holly, who lives right here in a convincingly-depicted Phoenix, hides in plain sight, telling anyone who asks that she’s a vampire, and everyone accepts it, assuming that she’s into role playing. She sleeps in a coffin, works at a convenience store and has friends with benefits, the benefits on her end including both sex and blood donation.

Blackfrairs does a wonderful job of playing by the very traditional vampire rules. Holly has to be invited into a home, said invitation can be effectively revoked, she has to avoid sunlight and she can even shape-shift into a bat (though Blackfriars, like other authors and filmmakers, declines to explain what happens to her clothes during these transformations).

What makes it a Valentine’s choice, you ask? Simple—in the course of the story Holly falls in love, and her choice is about as star-crossed as a lover could get…

But I won’t spoil it. Suffice to say that I’m in fan-girl tizzy, on the edge of my seat for the next installment. At $2.99, the book is a real find.

Friday, February 6, 2015


Opening this weekend:

Jupiter AscendingJupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an immigrant from Russia—she was actually born aboard a ship at sea, like Marina in Pericles—now stuck working as a housecleaning drudge in Chicago. Then alien goblins try to kill her, but she’s rescued by a hunky wolf guy (Channing Tatum) who, with the help of an old ally (Sean Bean) spirits her off to space.

There she learns that she’s somehow the heir of a galactic royal family and that, essentially, Earth belongs to her. There’s a creepy, whispering Prince (Eddie Redmayne), however, who wants our planet for nasty commericial purposes and thus wants Jupiter dead. Wild battles and chases ensue, as well as romantic yearning between Jupiter and Wolf Guy.

This sci-fi fairy-tale from The Wachowskis pillages freely out of sources ranging from Cinderella to Barbarella to Star Wars, from Flash Gordon to Brazil to The Wizard of Oz to The Graduate. The movie is long, and the exposition is so dense that I was lost at times. But I liked it anyway (so did The Kid, who remarked when it was over “It was too long, but I wouldn’t change anything,” a first-rate piece of paradoxical movie reviewing). I especially liked the look of it, a sort of Victorian whimsicality with spaceships like dragonflies or Alexander Calder mobiles, and haywire paper-pushing bureaucracies in the midst of space-age cities.

Kunis, whose hard-around-the-edges Eastern European beauty is softened by dark peepers big enough to have been painted by Margaret Keane, goes for as much bemused comedy as she can. I liked how she reacts to her new situation as galactic princess with something like irritability, as if she’d been stuck with a volunteer committee chairmanship when she was out of the room.

Seventh SonFor some reason, according to this movie, the seventh son of a seventh son is likely to show special aptitude for fighting monsters and other forces of darkness. Shaggy old Jeff Bridges is Gregory, one such warrior, referred to as a “Spook.” Having lost his apprentice of ten years, he purchases a new one, Tom (Ben Barnes), from the poor kid’s family, and quickly has him tangling with giants, shape-shifting bear-men, sabre-tooth cheetah women and witches who can change into harpy-like dragons with more ease than most women can change for dinner.

The leader of these nuisances is Julianne Moore, with whom old Gregory has a history—he sealed her in a pit for decades. She’s out now, and it’s fair to say she’s pissed.

This fantasy, based on a book by Joseph Delaney and set in a vague fairy-tale past only a little grungier and more convincing than the one in which Into the Woods took place, seems to be trying for the feel of a Harryhausen-style episodic adventure. To the extent that, for me, this is possible without the idiosyncratic charm of stop-motion animation, Seventh Son succeeds, at least intermittently. The story is boilerplate and the dialogue mostly insipid, and the younger actors don’t exactly bristle with sophistication and chemistry, although the ingĂ©nue, the Swedish Alicia Vikander, is quite beautiful.

But the monster scenes are strong, as are the veterans in the cast. Moore is an elegant, flirty menace as the Witch Queen Mother Malkin. Bridges continues to speak in that same pouty-lipped manner that he did in The Giver. Maybe it’s just how he talks now; in any case it makes him sound amusingly petulant.

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of WaterThe stakes are high in this second feature treatment of the adventures of Stephen Hillenburg’s insistently cheery denizen of the deep—it follows 2004’s The Spongebob Squarepants Movie. The top secret recipe for Krabby Patties vanishes, and it’s revealed that these burgers, which the title character spends his days happily flipping, aren’t just the livelihood of his avaricious boss Mr. Krabs, they’re also the glue that holds Spongebob’s hometown of Bikini Bottom together.

As soon as the town becomes aware of the Krabby Patty shortage, mob rule and apocalyptic violence commence almost immediately. To the extent that Bikini Bottom may be seen as an allegorical Anytown, this movie suggests, not for the first time in the cartoon’s history, a certain skepticism about how durable civility is in human affairs.

Spongebob and the diminutive, cyclopean villain Plankton must team up to recover the recipe, which is now in the hands of a manic pirate captain (Antonio Banderas in a live-action strand). Teaming up is tough on Plankton, to whom the concept of cooperation is so alien that he isn’t even sure how to pronounce the word “team.” The ensuing saga involves time travel, space travel, a dolphin with a clipped British accent and many other aspects.

Too many, perhaps. It’s possible that this sort of relentless, undiluted silliness works best for five to eight minutes at a stretch, and doesn’t sustain well at feature length. In any case, Sponge Out of Water comes off as, of all things, overambitious, and it drags a little. The Kid (who may, admittedly, be getting a bit too cool for this sort of thing) thought the film was too long, and that the climatic live action/CGI confrontation between Spongebob and his pals and Captain Banderas should have been arrived at sooner. I thought that it had plenty of laughs, but I’ll grant that shaving eight to ten minutes from the movie’s length wouldn’t do it any harm. The Sponge could stand to get out of the water a little more quickly.

Thursday, February 5, 2015


Opening tomorrow is Seventh Son, featuring many vivid monsters, including…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree, this impolite dragon...

 …breathing in the face of star Jeff Bridges.