Thursday, April 30, 2015


Avengers: Age of Ultron opens this weekend, so in honor of the Frankenstein-like Ultron…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s acknowledge the Frankenstein Monster as played by Bo Svenson…

…in this Dan Curtis production from 1973, also starring Robert Foxworth and Susan Strasberg. I haven’t seen this “Wide World of Mystery” special since it originally aired, but as I recall it was grim and effective.

Friday, April 24, 2015


Opening here this weekend:

The Water DivinerRussell Crowe’s feature directorial debut begins with the slippery-phrased assertion that it’s inspired by true events. Set a few years after the ANZAC retreat from Gallipoli, it’s an epic melodrama about parental grief and the horrors of battle.

The “true events” which inspired the film, scripted by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, involved an Australian father who appeared at the battlefield looking for the body of his son, lost there. From this poignant little episode Crowe and his writers have spun the character of Joshua Connor, played by Crowe, a farmer with the ability to “divine” water beneath the deserts of rural Australia.

In the vein of The Fighting Sullivans or Saving Private Ryan, all three of Joshua’s sons have disappeared down the ravenous throat of WWI’s Gallipoli Campaign. When his wife succumbs to her grief as well, Joshua posthumously vows to her to travel to Turkey, use his divination ability to find their bodies in the killing fields, and bring them back Down Under.

His quest seems essentially useless—not to mention belated—but sadly understandable, but when he arrives in Turkey the British Army is unsympathetic to him (hostile, really). They initially refuse him admittance to the battlefield, where a sad-eyed Turkish Major, Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) is helping the Brits try to sort out their thousands of unidentified dead.

Hasan is sympathetic to Connor, and the two form a bond. Indeed, in its later acts The Water Diviner becomes almost a buddy picture, as Connor travels with Hasan and his fellow Turkish Nationals into Anatolia, where the latter fight the Greeks and where the former looks for his one still-missing son. The movie also includes a strand in which Connor is befriended by the son (Dylan Georgiades) of the beautiful Turkish war widow Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) who runs the hotel where he’s staying.

Ravishing and poised though Kurylenko is, this love-interest subplot is surprisingly saccharine, and it’s the one part of The Water Diviner that came across forced. About the rest of the film I’m still not sure how I feel. At times it seemed grotesquely heavy-handed, and at others it felt, well, almost primal, with Crowe’s directorial flourishes on war reminiscent of—though not on the same level as—those of silent-era masters like Griffith, Gance and King Vidor.

But this much I'll say: The Water Diviner didn’t bore me, and more than once it brought tears to my eyes. Crowe doesn’t show much gift for subtlety, but he also doesn’t seem in the mood for subtlety. His movie is unapologetically grand, mushy and mystical-minded, and it’s entirely heartfelt in its disgust over the waste and agony of war.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


The other day it fell to me to evict this pleasant little invader from the offices of The Day Gig…

I relocated the trespasser to a junk-cluttered desert area outside where, I hoped, he or she would find ample prey and shelter. The creature, whose skin was a pretty orangey-red that doesn’t come across in the pictures, expressed his or her opinion of my actions by excreting on my hands. The exploit made me feel like I should have my own show on Animal Planet.


Monster-of-the-Week: …in his or her’s honor let’s give this week’s nod to Manda, the titanic snakelike terror from several Japanese monster films, including 1963’s Atragon and my own favorite kaiju free-for-all, 1968’s Destroy All Monsters...

Friday, April 17, 2015


Opening this weekend:

Monkey KingdomMaya, the heroine of this newest animal film from Disneynature, is very much a Disney Princess. Cinderella, to be specific. She’s a “lowborn” in a troop of toque macaques living in the ancient ruins at Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. The “highborn” sisters who get to enjoy the warmer upper branches and the riper fruit are a trio of lividly red-faced hags who freely swat babies not their own and bare their formidable fangs at any would-be social climbers.

In other words, they aren’t kidding with that title. Monkey Democratic Republic this isn’t.

As the narration, spoken by Tina Fey, informs us in the opening minutes, macaque society is an old-school hierarchy with well-defined social roles and very rare opportunities for upward mobility. The story follows Maya as she takes up with Kumar, an attractive but decidedly not-alpha male who is soon driven off by top monkey Raja and his goons, leaving Maya as, alas, a single mother to her shriveled, embryonic-looking, and outrageously cute male infant Kip.

Perils and hardships for the troop follow, one being a rival troop led by “Lex,” a classic Disney villain with a scary, fangy, battle-scarred face. Lex’s gang forces “our” monkeys out of their ruins and into temporary exile in a nearby urban area to raid markets and other human habitations. The troop’s attempt to regain their turf gives Maya and her family a chance at a better social role.

Obviously this isn’t, in the strictest sense, a documentary; as with most nature films the story had to be shaped out of the material the filmmakers were able to obtain. And in some cases—especially, here, in the scenes of the monkeys in human settings—it seems like it must have been, if not staged, at least set up in advance to some degree.

But, as with the two other Disneynature features I’ve seen, 2011’s Chimpanzee and last year’s Bears, no amount of Disney-style jocularity and cutesy narration can detract from the astonishment of Monkey Kingdom’s footage. The directors, Brits Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill, captured not only intimate shots of simian society—including jaw-dropping underwater sequences of the monkeys swimming like champs in order to harvest lily-pad seed pods—but also terrific scenes of sloth bears, hornbills, a mongoose, and scorpions carrying around their hauls of winged termites like shoppers on Black Friday.

Parents of younger kids, as well as the many people of all ages who are themselves particularly sensitive to animal suffering and the harshness of nature, should be advised that [spoiler alert!] Monkey Kingdom includes a short scene of a monkey falling prey to a monitor lizard, and another of a monkey dead after a battle. Neither are animals to which we’ve been previously introduced, and both sequences are handled fairly discreetly, but both are potentially upsetting all the same.

These specifics aside, I have to admit that I found Monkey Kingdom, touching and visually spectacular as it is, rather upsetting in general, by implication. The behavior it depicts carries unmistakable echoes of human society ranging from India’s caste system to Europe’s aristocracies to America’s high school cafeterias, and it calls into troubling and depressing question the long-term durability of the human democratic impulse. Monkey Kingdom seems meant to make us smile at how monkeys are just like people. But what I got from it, I’m afraid, is that people are just like monkeys.

Thursday, April 16, 2015


Legendary voice actor and comedy-advertising pioneer Stan Freberg departed last week at 88. In honor of this inside-the-system iconoclast…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s acknowledge Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent—the original puppet version from Time for Beany, the late ‘40s/early ‘50s TV fave, performed and voiced by Freberg.

Cecil was one of the earlier monsters of my experience; I had a stuffed Cecil when I was very small, although he was based on the later cartoon version, Beany and Cecil. Anyway, here are Cecil and Harry Truman performing “Ragg Mopp."

Saturday, April 11, 2015


For the first time in over a year, the Diamondbacks are over 500 on their season, and that’s courtesy of young Archie Bradley, who made his long-anticipated Major League debut tonight, giving up one hit in six innings, while his Dodger counterpart, the great Clayton Kershaw, got slapped around to the tune of ten hits.

Your Humble Narrator was there to take in the happy 6-0 spectacle—solus, alas, as The Wife stayed home sick and The Kid is staying with friends—gorging myself on all-you-can-eat hotdogs all the while, in the flawless-for-baseball weather (among a crowd, by the way, that was about half attired in Dodger Blue, I’d guess).

Plus, I got my Diamondbacks Hello Kitty bobblehead:

Assorted other stuff:

You can check out my stories in the April issue of Phoenix Magazine, on the avocations of Valley doctors on page 210 (or a preview here), and on the amazing Lance Greathouse, a whimsical Valley wheelchair customizer, on page 98 or here. You can also check out my pal Dewey’s local history story on the Sherri Finkbine case, here.

The other night I was watching a poverty-row thriller from 1940, Phantom of Chinatown, the sixth and last of Monogram’s “Mr. Wong” mystery series, based on the Collier’s magazine tales of Hugh Wiley.

In the earlier films Wong was played by Boris Karloff, but he was unavailable for this last one, so Monogram took the astounding step of having an “Oriental” detective played by an actually Asian actor, Keye Luke. The wonderful, wildly prolific Luke’s career ranged from playing Charlie Chan’s Number One Son and The Green Hornet’s sidekick Kato to the blind Master Po on Kung Fu to Mr. Wing in the Gremlins movies.

Phantom of Chinatown was a rare (maybe sole) starring role for Luke. It’s not a great movie by a long shot, but it’s an enjoyable relic, and there’s a startling moment of snark in the middle that feels almost subversive, directed toward Western cultural imperialism: Wong hears about an American archeological expedition to China, and remarks: They tell me that a Chinese archaeological expedition is digging up the body of George Washington, in exchange.” And then, almost under his breath: “Well, it gives you a rough idea…

Thursday, April 9, 2015


RIP to character actor James Best, passed on at 88.

Although his long career included three episodes of Twilight Zone, the recurring part of guitarist Jim Lindsey on The Andy Griffith Show, and roles in movies like The Naked and the Dead, Shock Corridor, Sounder, Hooper and Ode to Billy Joe, among many others, he will likely be, er, best remembered as nitwit Sherriff Rosco P. Coltrain on The Dukes of Hazzard.

But here…

Monster-of-the-Week: …we’ll also remember him as the courageous and resourceful hero of the 1959 late-night laugh-riot The Killer Shrews.

 This representative of the title characters is this week’s honoree…

Poor Best must not only contend with the oversized mammals—obviously played by large dogs in shrew drag—but with the panicky treacheries of villain Ken Curtis.

If you’ve never seen this unintentional comedy classic, you can watch it in its entirety here.

RIP also to the great voice actor and satirist Stan Freberg, passed on also at 88.

Watch this space for a Monster-of-the-Week in his honor...

Friday, April 3, 2015


Opening this weekend:

Furious SevenMy mother always hated car chase movies. She used to take me to the live-action Disney comedies of the early ‘70s irritably, under protest, because they routinely ended with a wacky car chase. A few years later, she was appalled when one of my nephews became an avid fan of The Dukes of Hazzard, and insisted on getting in the car through the open window.

Over the years I’ve enjoyed many a movie car chase, but at some deep psychological level I’ve always felt a little guilt over this, knowing that my Mom wouldn’t approve. That feeling was magnified while I watched this seventh entry in the Fast and the Furious series. The accident that killed star Paul Walker in 2013 wasn’t part of the film’s production (nor was Walker driving). But it was speed-related, and it’s hard to overcome the sense that movies like this franchise—the implicit message of which is that it’s impossible to be seriously injured in a car crash—may contribute to mishaps like this.

In a showpiece scene of Furious 7 [spoiler alert!], Vin Diesel and Walker drive a high-performance car out of the upper-floor window of a high-rise building. They sail through the air into the windows of the neighboring high-rise, then across that building and out the far side, through the air again into a third high-rise. When Diesel begins barreling toward the windows, Walker yells “Cars can’t fly! Cars can’t fly!” but there’s no sign that director James Wan agrees. This and other scenes inevitably have a macabre extra resonance.

The story has Diesel’s street racing gang turned government agents stalked by vengeful Brit special forces rogue Jason Statham. Djimon Hounsou is another heavy, Dwayne Johnson is the lead G-man, Michelle Rodriguez is back with her beguiling Snoopy-vulture scowl, and Kurt Russell saunters in for a few entertaining scenes as a shifty covert ops honcho. All of the actors, starting with the always-endearing Diesel, are agreeable, and the dialogue is so self-consciously macho, the action so cartoonishly overscaled that it’s hard to resist the idea that the whole thing is a put-on, and start enjoying the silliness.

But every time a vehicle plummeted off a cliff in the Caucasus only to have its passengers emerge looking better than I do after a good night’s sleep, every time somebody leapt from one vehicle to another with barely a bruise, every time a car jumped from a parking garage and delivered a duffel bag to a helicopter in flight, some party-pooper part of me couldn’t help but think, this sort of vehicular fantasy, seductive even for a non-gearhead like me, isn’t harmless. The mindset it creates may have contributed to the death of one of this movie’s own stars.

Furious 7 is overlong, like many action blockbusters, but I can’t claim that I wasn’t diverted by some of the movie’s preposterous excesses. But it still may qualify as one of the stupider, more irresponsible movies I’ve ever seen, and when it made me smile, I thought I could sense my Mom scowling at me.

Thursday, April 2, 2015


RIP to Isaac Heller, co-founder of Remco Toys, passed on at 88. Like most kids, especially boys, of my generation, I had some history as a Remco customer, but one Remco item I never had, alas, was…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree, Horrible Hamilton...

The most badass of the giant space bugs featured in the Hamilton Invader line of the mid '60s, Hamilton was a mandibled abomination who trundled along the floor in response to a pull-string. The playsets also included, in various combinations, a smaller giant beetle and giant spider, as well as blue soldiers and various armaments and vehicles to do battle with the aliens. These sets are rare and expensive collectors’ items now, but…a friend of mine, one of those insufferable little freaks who actually took good care of his toys, still has his freakin’ Horrible Hamilton set in mint condition, and...his Hamilton’s pull-string still freakin’ works!

Back in the ‘80s, my pal’s Hamilton played the title role in a short movie, written by Your Humble Narrator and produced by the Communications Department of Gannon University, called Grok: Creature From Lake Erie, which was actually shown on the local late-night horror show, then hosted by Sir Robert Ghoulini—one of the high points, I must admit, of my 20s. But alas, as far as I know no video of Grok is extant.