Friday, March 27, 2015


It’s a busy movie weekend here in the Valley; here are quick takes on a few of the openings:

It FollowsA young college student (Maika Monroe) has sex with the guy she’s been dating, only to find out that he’s placed a curse on her. She’s now being followed, albeit at a walking pace, by a malevolent entity, invisible to those around her but visible to her in various hideous guises. She can pass on the curse if she, in turn, sleeps with somebody else, but if the being kills that unfortunate person, it starts following her again.

This simple, initially low-tech conceit gives quite a charge to this indie shocker, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell and set in the gloomy, economically blasted neighborhoods of Detroit. It’s got that cautionary terror of sex in which so many horror tales are rooted, and the inexorability of the zombie and mummy movies, but with a set of arbitrary rules, a la “Casting the Runes” or “The Bottle-Imp,” that make dream-logic sense. Most of the acting isn’t far above the high-school-play level, but the kids are attractive and likable, so they have a poignant guilelessness.

For about an hour, It Follows is truly, nerve-janglingly scary. But then there’s no third act. I thought I could sense Mitchell struggling to figure out how to end it satisfyingly—it’s as if the being he’s created is so implacable that even he can’t escape it, and he doesn’t, to his credit I suppose, want to resort to the corniness of consulting some Van Helsing-type authority. So the story stumbles one way and another in its last third, throws in some unnecessary and (I thought) ill-advised special effects, and ends vaguely.

But I feel ungrateful for these gripes, because it’s been a long time since a new horror movie honestly chilled me, without mindless cruelty and ugliness. To be legitimately harrowing for an hour is no small accomplishment, and it may be enough to call It Follows a 21st-Century horror classic.

A Girl Like HerAnother low-budget indie shot in Detroit, this one is also a cautionary melodrama. The threat, this time, is not sex but rather bullying—the movie was previously titled The Bullying Chronicles.

The story is told via video footage, some of it supposedly shot by a documentary filmmaker (played the actual writer-director, Amy S. Weber), some surreptitiously shot by Jessica (Lexi Ainsworth), a teenage girl who attempts suicide and ends up in a coma. When we see Jessica’s footage, we see the reason for the suicide attempt—horrific, criminal bullying by her popular classmate and former friend Avery (Hunter King).

Weber makes us despise Avery for her vile abuse of Jessica. But she really wants us to see the psychology of Avery’s nastiness, especially in the not-much-subtler bullying she receives at home from her passive-aggressive mother. The acting, especially by King, is top-notch, though I don’t know if it’s enough to make us pity Avery more than we hate her.

Still, while I’ve long suspected the “anti-bullying” campaigns of recent decades were well-intentioned but quixotically naïve, I think it’s possible that A Girl Like Her could have some of the efficacy of old-school anti-drunk-driving movies. It might just scare a mean girl or two out of her meanness.

Merchants of DoubtThis is another of those lefty documentaries which present, in a slick, amusing, graphically engaging manner, an infuriating indictment. The director, Robert Kenner, takes on the general theme of the deliberate sowing of doubt in the media by corporate powers against well-founded science that they regard as bad for business. While the stooges and shills that do the sowing are sometimes sincere ideologues, the corporate honchos paying them more often are not—they frequently know perfectly well that the science is right, and simply don’t care.

The tobacco industry is the obvious model for this, and Kenner parallels the history of their manifestly fraudulent—but long effective—campaign to deny the harmful effects of smoking, and even to make smoking a civil-rights issue, with the current monkeyshines of the climate-change-denier lobby. The trouble, as usual, is the preaching-to-the-choir objection—anyone who would go see this film, based on a book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, probably won’t need to be convinced by it. When this plays on TV, however, it might change some hearts and minds.

But there was a moment near the end of this film that, though not ill-intended, hit a very sour note with me, and I can’t refrain from mentioning it. Author Oreskes, in a talking head interview, is pointing out that the disasters caused by climate change will cost human lives, and that this is her motivation for activism, not “polar bears, or people in Bangladesh.”

I doubt that the shocking implications in this remark—assuming I even heard it right—reflect Oreskes’ conscious feelings about the value of all humanity, including people in Bangladesh; I suspect it was just an unfortunate choice of words. But it occurred to me that if I wanted to distract from the point of what she was saying, I could whip up a lot of outrage over it. I could probably be a pretty competent merchant of doubt myself.

HomeOn a lighter note, this animated kidflick, based on the Adam Rex book The Real Meaning of Smekday, is sweet and pretty funny. Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory gives voice to Oh, one of the Boov, aliens who, fleeing a scary-looking race called the Gorg, have invaded the earth and relocated the humans to reservations. Rihanna gives voice to “Tip” (her real first name is Gratuity), a human girl who gets separated from her mother. When Oh gets in trouble with his own unashamedly craven race for accidentally tipping off the Gorg to the Boov’s whereabouts, he, Tip and Tip’s cat become fugitives together.

Steve Martin and Jennifer Lopez are also in the cast, as the dumbbell leader of the Boov and as Tip’s mother, respectively, and there are some pleasant songs on the soundtrack. Home is nothing to write…well, you know, home about, but the bonding between the two main characters has charm, and the movie has a generosity of heart that made me like it.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


RIP to square-jawed Hollywood leading man type Gregory Walcott, passed on at 87. Despite appearances in movies like Mister RobertsThe Sugarland Express, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Eiger Sanction, Midway and Norma Rae, Walcott will likely be most remembered as Jeff Trent, the two-fisted leading man of Edward D. Wood’s famed magnum opus Plan Nine From Outer Space.


Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s acknowledge one of his costars, the cadaverously svelte Vampira (aka Maila Nurmi), memorable in the role of “Vampire Girl”:

Friday, March 20, 2015


Opening this week:

InsurgentThis sequel to 2014’s Divergent continues the saga of heroine Tris Prior. She’s at odds with a bleak—and, to maudlin teenage sensibilities, brilliantly appealing—post-apocalyptic society, in which people are pigeonholed in carefully constructed social identities according to personality type. Those with special abilities, known as “Divergent,” are hunted down by the authorities.

Shailene Woodley, wide-eyed and sad-faced, plays Tris, who is put through one of the nastier movie martyrdoms since Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. She’s gruesomely hooked up to cables and tortuously required to complete five virtual simulations.

If Tris succeeds in passing all of these trials—each of which correspond to the strengths of one of the social factions—some sort of magic box will open and the tyrannical leadership will obtain vast power, or so they think. Meanwhile her hunky boyfriend Four (Theo James) marshals rebel forces, including those of his mother (Naomi Watts), against the cruel regime led by Jeanine (Kate Winslet).

Anyway, that’s the best I can do to summarize Insurgent, adapted, like Divergent, from a Veronica Roth novel (it’s referred to as The Divergent Series: Insurgent on the posters; a third novel, Allegiant, remains). There are a number of exciting action scenes, and some cool surreal flourishes in the simulation sequences. But my favorite element of the movie was Kate Winslet as the gorgeously lacquered, oddly sexy blue-clad villainess Jeanine, with her flat, heartless Midwestern voice. I was thoroughly ready to see Tris get revenge on her.

Thursday, March 19, 2015


Anybody else remember…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree, Gork, The Monster Who Everything?

Back in 1973, one of my awesome nieces sent me this beautiful poster, created by veteran childrens’ book illustrator Dominic Catalano and sold by the Scholastic Book Service. It hung on my wall for years. Never the monster freak that I was/am, she nonetheless told me that because of this poster the word “Gork” enjoyed a brief vogue at her school as a mild aspersion, as in “The guys in my class are a bunch of gorks."

Anyway, my poster was lost in the shuffle somewhere over the decades, so I was delighted to find the slightly worse-for-the-wear specimen above on eBay recently, for just a buck!

Friday, March 13, 2015


This week’s openings suggest that it’s Bloody Revenge Weekend:

Run All NightOne of the few pretty funny lines that Neil Patrick Harris had in this year’s Oscar show was his introduction of Liam Neeson, to the effect of: “Here’s a man with a particular set of skills—he will find you, and he will kill you.”

This new melodrama is the latest of Liam Neeson’s murmuring threat movies, the ones where he earnestly warns some gangster or kidnapper, usually over the phone, that they’re in big trouble if they don’t lay off some innocent victim. The bad guys never listen, and buckets of blood pour out of people’s heads.

Here Neeson plays Jimmy, a conscience-haunted former hitman in service of Queens crime boss Shawn (Ed Harris). Jimmy’s now a pathetic broke drunk, but when his estranged son Michael (Joel Kinnaman) witnesses Shawn’s cokehead son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) kill some Albanian gangsters, Jimmy kills Danny in Michael’s defense. Though he loves Jimmy, Shawn feels he has no choice but to have Michael killed in recompense, and Jimmy of course is determined to defend his son.

Bullets fly, and innumerable henchman fall. There are some gothic twists, including one of those unstoppable juggernaut hitmen that turn up in movies like this, creepily played by rapper Lonnie “Common” Lynn, called in by Shawn to wipe out father and son (not in that order).

This has the makings of a terrific melodrama, in that it has two great actors in an unresolvable conflict. Neeson and Harris are both as commanding as ever, and when they’re onscreen together they’re better yet—two aging slabs of Irish corned beef who’ve learned first-hand what a vile business murder is, and gaze at each other tenderly, in genuine sorrow over the horror they’re unleashing in each other’s lives.

But the movie, directed by frequent Neeson collaborator Jaume Collet-Serra (he also directed the notorious Orphan) from a script by Brad Ingelsby, ultimately wastes this great advantage. The action is too contrived and overscaled, the escapes too improbably hairbreadth, the music by Junkie XL too blaring. Eventually it gets funny, and then it gets tiresome.

There’s a moment toward the end, when Shawn knows—after one of those murmuring Neeson phone calls—that Jimmy is about to attack his stronghold. He looks at a henchman and tells him to tell everyone to get ready: “Jimmy’s comin’” This could have been a spinetingling melodramatic flourish, but we’ve seen so much ridiculously cartoonish carnage already that it barely registers.

Meanwhile, at the Valley Art:

The SalvationFor sheer ugly brutality, this Western revenge yarn makes Run All Night look like My Little Pony. The hero is Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) a Danish immigrant in the American West whose family is murdered. He quickly kills the men responsible, but in so doing gains the enmity of the twisted gang boss (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who has the craven town under his thumb. Jon and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) are former soldiers, veterans of Denmark’s 1864 Schleswig War, and when they take up arms against the gang, blood spills copiously.

This Danish/British/South African co-production (it was shot in the deserts of the latter country) offers shootings and stabbings, rape and torture, scurvy henchmen and mealy-mouthed officials, most notably Jonathan Pryce as the corrupt mayor/undertaker. It’s like Titus Andronicus on the range, right down to a baleful woman (Eva Green) who’s had her tongue cut out.

This description should be enough to determine whether The Salvation is to your taste—or, indeed, whether you even approve of it—but in any case it’s executed with precision and confidence in a taut hour and a half. Director Kristian Levring works, from a script he co-wrote with Anders Thomas Jensen, more or less in the “Spaghetti western” style, with faux-Morricone strumming away on the soundtrack, and there wasn’t a minute that I was bored, or that I didn’t want to see Jon have his revenge. The comeuppance the bad guys ultimately receive was not painful, humiliating or protracted enough to satisfy my nasty heart, but in movies like this it almost never is.

Thursday, March 12, 2015


OK, one more Star Trek monster (for a while, that is)…

Monster-of-the-Week: …a returning favorite, just because he’s March’s calendar image: the Gorn Captain from the original series episode “Arena.”

I also have this bobblehead on my desk...

…who always provides me, in return for a tap on the head, with plenty of validation.

Friday, March 6, 2015


Opening this week: 

The Second Best Exotic Marigold HotelThis sequel to the easygoing 2012 comedy about aging Brits retiring to a crumbling but comfortable hotel in Jaipur, India doesn’t stretch the material very far. It’s just more of the same, with most of the stars—Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Penelope Wilton and Diana Hardcastle—returning for more mild antics.

Dev Patel is back too, as the overenthusiastic young manager, along with the imposing Lillete Dubey as his stern but attractive mother and Tina Desae as his gorgeous fiancée. Richard Gere also turns up as a mystery man at the hotel, presumably a bone tossed to the American market.

So there are new romances and adventures and intrigues. In perhaps the cleverest of them, ladies' man Pickup comes to suspect that he may have inadvertently taken out a hit on his girlfriend—this strand could actually be a solid basis for a pretty good noir thriller.

But we’re never asked to take it seriously here. Nothing too upsetting happens, and the movie climaxes with a big Bollywood-style dance to that irresistible music.

It’s no big deal, but you read that cast, right? The movie almost can’t be a complete waste with any of them in it, let alone all.

Around midpoint, Dench and Smith exchange a few commonplace lines, with the subtext that both of them know a piece of difficult news that one isn’t discussing. All the mastery that these two have accumulated over their careers is there, in the steely compassion undergirding this short scene. It made Second Best Exotic worth sitting through all by itself

Thursday, March 5, 2015


In memory of Leonard Nimoy…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree is the giant three-headed snake that Mr. Spock, with oddly un-Vulcan-like aggression, zaps with his phaser in the 1972 Aurora model—the very first Star Trek “character” kit. The box art was exceedingly cool...

…but the paint job I gave this kit back in the ‘70s ruined it, as my abject manual skills ruined most of my beloved models back in those days.

The Spock kit has been reissued recently, and my pal Stan kindly sent it to me for Christmas, but I’m afraid to attempt it—I doubt my painting skills have significantly improved since I was 11.