Friday, May 29, 2015


Opening this weekend:

San AndreasA good disaster movie can be great fun. So, for that matter, can a bad disaster movie. Indeed, the line between a good and a bad disaster movie is tough to define, and depending on your criteria, either adjective can be applied to this California earthquake melodrama. It couldn’t be more preposterous, and it’s fun.

After trashing Hoover Dam as an appetizer, the movie gives us the long-dreaded Big One. The title fault finally splits wide, L.A. buckles like a house of cards, then the crack spreads north toward San Fran. But The Quake hasn’t counted on The Rock: our hero Dwayne Johnson, an L.A.-based rescue-helicopter pilot, heads for the Bay Area with his estranged wife (gorgeous Carla Gugino), because his college-age daughter (Alexandra Daddario) is trapped there.

San Andreas feels like a pure throwback to ‘70s-style mayhem. Starting with Charlton Heston for Johnson, it’s easy to recast every role with a familiar character actor from four decades ago, and even Andrew Lockington’s music sounds like something that John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith might have written back then.

Mostly San Andreas is good for laughs, but it does have a potent demonstration of the power of acting. Paul Giamatti plays a Cal Tech seismologist who looks directly into a TV camera and tells San Franciscans that they must get out right away, and that whiny, strangled, almost apologetic voice of his gives more of a chill than all the apocalyptic special effects the movie has to offer.

The special-effects spectacle isn’t really anything we haven’t seen before, but it’s geographically expansive—we get to see both the Hollywood sign and the Golden Gate Bridge brought low. Thus the movie may have some extra appeal for Tea Partiers and other reflexive Cali-haters.

Oh, and over the end titles we hear a spooky version of “California Dreamin’” performed by Sia. Nice touch.

AlohaIn Cameron Crowe’s peculiar new romantic comedy, Bradley Cooper plays Brian, a defense contractor fallen on hard times after being wounded in Afghanistan. Brian gets a minor, foot-back-in-the-door job in Hawaii, facilitating a diplomatic formality with the indigenous people on behalf of a creepy billionaire (Bill Murray) who’s about to launch a satellite with the collaboration of the U.S. Air Force.

The gig throws Brian back in touch with his old girlfriend Tracey (Rachel McAdams), now married to a taciturn pilot (John Krasinski) and raising two kids with him at Hickam Field, but unable to conceal her love for her old flame. It also introduces him to Captain Ng (Emma Stone), his exuberantly forward aide during the proceedings. He’s put off by Ng’s overenthusiastic manner at first, but over time…

Well, you can guess. On the one hand, Aloha is a meet-cute romance set against the paradisiacal backdrop of Hawaii; on another it’s a satire about rich guys buying their way into national (and global) political and military power, and about the vaguely guilt-ridden Faustian flunkies like Brian that help them do it.

We don’t seem intended to take this strand, about Murray and his satellite, very seriously, however. At times the movie feels almost like the contemporary equivalent of an early sixties comedy, with Stone in the Doris Day part and Cooper standing in for James Garner. You expect Arthur Godfrey and Paul Lynde to turn up in the supporting cast.

This movie was at a disadvantage with me from the start—Bradley Cooper’s charm continues to elude me, I’m afraid. He’s been undeniably proficient in several films I’ve seen, and on TV interview shows he comes across like a nice guy, but something about his onscreen manner, some unseemly petulance or neediness, makes me reluctant to see movies in which he stars. His work here is professional, but just about every other member of the cast—like Danny McBride, amusing as a put-upon Colonel, or even Alec Baldwin at his most shamelessly hammy as a splenetic General—has so much more presence that Cooper begins to seem like a dead spot at the movie’s center.

I also resisted Aloha for a long time from a desire not to be played by Cameron Crowe. His cute, preciously hip, knowingly indirect dialogue can work my nerves, and for a while it did here, until…

Well, until it didn’t anymore. By the end of Aloha, despite the silly implausibility of its plot, I had succumbed to it, as I almost always do to Crowe’s films. I wanted to be these people—these attractive, flawed yet decent folks with their charming, flirty, oblique-angled way of conversing.  With the exception of the miserable Vanilla Sky, Aloha may be Crowe’s least successful film, but it won me over in the end.

Thursday, May 28, 2015


My pal Stan sent me these appetizing studies of a finger injury he received last week while working with a lopper on the bushes outside his house.


Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s acknowledge the title character from Stephen King’s 1990 short story “The Moving Finger.” Lots of horror writers and filmmakers have written about monstrous hands, but it took King to get it down to a finger.

It was also adapted for television for the series Monsters in 1991; you can watch it here.

Friday, May 22, 2015


Opening this weekend:

PoltergeistOne of the wittier moments in the original 1982 Poltergeist came when the little boy’s clown doll finally came to life and attacked him. What makes the scene brilliant is that, though the poor kid is terrified, he doesn’t really seem surprised.

Do any children actually enjoy clowns? Did they ever? The poster for this Poltergeist remake features another awful clown with a look of indolent evil on his face. At what toy store was this nightmare purchased, and by who, with the idea that it would delight a little kid?

The clown face on the poster is a key to why this new Poltergeist doesn’t work. Like this image, the movie pushes too hard. I like the original film, but have never thought it was all that scary. Its chief appeal, aside from the legs of Jobeth Williams, was its idyllic vision of suburban life, the charm of which was only strengthened by the interruption by malevolent supernatural forces.

The family in the new film, directed by Gil Kenan, has downsized into the haunted house after Dad (Sam Rockwell) has been laid off. The structure is more or less the same as that of the original—indeed, it’s probably a tighter, more coherent piece of storytelling. But despite a few halfhearted attempts at humor, the subtext this time is all anger, disappointment, economic impotence and sexual frustration. Mom (Rosemarie DeWitt) walks on eggshells around Dad’s wounded breadwinner’s pride, and Rockwell gives off such seething fury, especially toward the beginning, that he seems like a greater danger to his family than the ghosts.

Into this already queasy atmosphere Kenan introduces the scare scenes whole-hog, way too early after a perfunctory build-up. I’m pretty easy to scare, and I found most of them routine.

As for the rest of the cast, all three of the kids are excellent, and Jared Harris isn’t bad as a daring celebrity ghostbuster, but the standout among the adults is Jane Adams as a frazzled paranormal researcher. She doesn’t get enough to do, however.

Oh yeah, it’s being released in 3-D. There’s one decent effect, involving a drill bit. Otherwise, as usual, it’s superfluous.

Thursday, May 21, 2015


Your Humble Narrator has never been much of a computer game guy. But back in the ‘80s, when I did spend some time dropping quarters into an arcade game, it was usually Pac-Man. Something about clearing the maze appealed to my OCD tendencies, and the focus on quickly and methodically eating the yellow dots gratified my oral fixation.


I’m told that Pac-Man turns 35 years old tomorrow—incredible—so…

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let’s give the nod to Blinky, the leader of the quartet of voracious “ghosts” who stalk the gobbling yellow hero.

It was always fun to eat the flashing dot and watch Blinky and cronies briefly turn blue and grimace as they became vulnerable to attack. 

By the way, there’s a cool treat place on McClintock in Tempe called Joe’s Italian Ice. It’s not quite as good as Rita’s, in my opinion, but it’s still pretty good, and they have—or did, anyway, on my most recent visit a few weeks ago—a Ms. Pac-Man machine there that you can play for free!

Friday, May 15, 2015


Opening today:

Pitch Perfect 2The 2012 comedy to which this is the sequel was set in the world of collegiate competitive a cappella groups. It had adorable young actresses, beautiful singing, and catty wit offset by a bit of heart, so on the whole, it was a fun couple of hours. It also had—and was, for me, marred by—some self-conscious, heavy-handed gross-out gags.

Pitch Perfect 2’s excuse for a plot has our heroines the Barden Bellas accidentally disgracing themselves at a Kennedy Center performance in front of the President. They’re pariahs in the a cappella community, but aim to redeem themselves at an international competition in Copenhagen. As they prepare for this, all sorts of wacky stuff happens, along with a bit of undemanding romance.

At the center of the ensemble, once again, is the charmingly commonsensical Anne Kendrick as Beca, supported by Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee and the rest of the gang from part one, along with additions Hailee Steinfeld and Chrissie Fit. Reprising their roles from part one are John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks as two cheerfully inappropriate play-by-play commentators.

Banks also took over directing duties this time, replacing the original’s Jason Moore, and I think the results are looser, sillier and funnier. Banks sustains the comic energy through some nutty extended sequences, like a competition between four vocal groups, and the big numbers have some spectacle and punch. The script, again by Kay Cannon, is dense with quizzical, non-sequitur verbal jokes that play surprisingly well, and when Kendrick and her pals sing a wistful version of her improbable hit “Cup Song” around the campfire, it manages even to be a little touching.

About the music: A friend of mine expressed doubt that the songs here were truly a cappella—it sounded to him like bass and percussion enhancement had been added. He could be right, and if he is I suppose I would find that a disappointing cheat. But even so, it sounds good.

Mad Max: Fury Road1982’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is, I believe, arguably the best action movie ever made, at least of the chase variety. It would probably be somewhere in my top twenty or thirty favorite movies. So this follow up had a lot to live up to.

Set in the Down Under outback, The Road Warrior, a sequel to the 1979 low-budget actioner Mad Max, depicts a not-too-distant future in which the world economy has collapsed in the wake of a global fuel shortage. Society in the desert has returned to tribalism and savagery, and gasoline is the only currency left for the marauding brutes that rocket along the desolate highways in motorcycles and hopped-up cars. A small, fortified colony of reasonably civilized people have developed a refinery, and are trying to move the cache of gas they’ve generated to a safe location near the sea, but they can’t get past the besieging army of the masked, hot-rod-riding warlord Humungus.

To the reluctant rescue comes the title character, the mysterious “road warrior” known as Max, played by Mel Gibson. This soul-wounded loner agrees to drive the armored tanker-truck for the colonists and fend off the onslaught of the freaky gas-pirates. The resulting climactic sequence, full of thrilling and often horrifying stunt work and the sustained kinetic direction of George Miller, is, for my money, the most headlong, jaw-dropping, Wagnerian motor-vehicle chase ever put on film.

The 1985 sequel Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome wasn’t as good, and with the new film clearly employing heavy doses of CGI effects, I had my doubts that Miller could recapture the earlier classic’s remarkable quality. And he doesn’t, quite—The Road Warrior remains without peer. But happily, Mad Max: Fury Road is still a very potent action movie, and the second best of the series.

Miller has lost none of his directorial panache—Fury Road casually offers up everything from two-headed lizards to human dairy farming to combat inside a raging haboob. Along with this grotesque yet epic visual imagination, there’s a certain grandiosity, tinged with irony but still visceral, to Miller’s staging of violent action that is one-of-a-kind. His cutting has the speed and dazzle of modern action masters like, say, Paul Greengrass, but it also has a clarity and precision that give it a Rube Goldberg comic dimension, and a relentless momentum. There’s simply no filmmaker quite like him.

Fury Road benefits from having, like Road Warrior, a relatively straightforward storyline. Max finds himself helping similarly haunted, one-armed driver Charlize Theron transport a handful of the “breeders”—who look like refugees from a Victoria’s Secret ad—of a masked, rumbly-voiced warlord very similar to Humungus, to safety, wherever that might be. The path leads through a seemingly endless supply of bizarre vehicular killers.

As for Tom Hardy, he cuts a serviceably lively figure as Max, but—much as it galls me to admit it—he doesn’t have the electric presence of Mel Gibson. Unlike the somehow sullen Hardy, Gibson’s Max seemed…well, mad. Maybe he wasn’t acting.

Thursday, May 14, 2015


Next Wednesday, May 20th, marks the farewell episode of The Late Show with the great and influential David Letterman. Since Letterman found his greatest big screen distinction as the snide monkey-selling old salt in the Chris Elliot adventure Cabin Boy...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's give the nod this week to Chocki, Cabin Boy's half man-half shark played by Russ Tamblyn...

Enjoy your retirement, Dave...

Friday, May 8, 2015


Opening at Arizona Mills this weekend: 

MaggieAbigail Breslin plays the title role, a Midwest farmer’s daughter who’s been bitten and infected during a cannibal zombie plague. Arnold Schwarzenegger is Wade, the farmer, who has brought her home from the hospital to wait out the four-to-six week period before she undergoes “The Turn” and becomes “necroambular.”

Directed by Henry Hobson from a script by John Scott 3, this is an austere, low-key horror drama that attempts to depict what a zombie apocalypse would really look like. It’s broodingly atmospheric and well-acted. I don’t know if Schwarzenegger is a better actor than he used to be or if age has just given him more weather-beaten gravitas, but either way he’s a strong presence here. His understated star turn is genuinely poignant, and Breslin does fine work as well, as does Joely Richardson as Maggie’s stepmom.

The movie is very well done on its own terms, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. There’s almost no action to speak of, and, because the situation seems pretty hopeless from the start, not much suspense. There’s a scene in which Maggie has a date with a similarly infected boy that’s rather good, and the last five minutes or so are redemptively touching, but other than that, the movie offers Schwarzenegger’s haggard, haunted visage as he helplessly watches his beautiful, fresh-faced daughter turn into a corpse. It wasn’t my idea of fun.

But perhaps Maggie’s lack of fun is a sign of integrity. The zombie genre has burgeoned so much in the last twenty years partly because it’s an economical way to make a horror picture, and partly because it’s proven more resonant than would have been guessed. But it’s also expanded, I think, because of a queasy enthusiasm that some fans show for the anything-goes world it depicts—especially, I fear, an enthusiasm for the opportunity to shoot people in the head with impunity.

Maggie can be seen as a reproach to the idea that a zombie plague would be cool—a reminder that it would be, rather, mostly about people witnessing the loss of their loved ones. What The Road was to the post-apocalyptic sci-fi action movie, Maggie is to the zombie movie.

Hot PursuitSofia Vergara’s shtick works for me; I find her elongated, nasal, whining vowel sounds and her sense of tempestuous grievance sexy and funny. And while Reese Witherspoon has never been a special favorite of mine, her work in Wild and Election and other films shows that she’s a formidable actress.

So it would take a lot for a movie to rob these two of their appeal. Yet this wretched chase comedy manages the impressive feat.

Witherspoon is a high-strung, hyper-by-the-book San Antonio cop, and Vergara is the protected witness against a drug lord she must transport to Dallas to testify. Various goons shoot at them and chase them in cars.

Conventional though this is, there’s nothing very wrong with it as the premise for a buddy comedy. There’s nothing terribly wrong, even, with the way the director, Anne Fletcher, shapes some of the action scenes. But the dialogue is vacuous, and the two leads, perhaps sensing no help from the writing, push their personas to cartoonish extremes.

The resulting antics are excruciatingly unfunny. In fairness, I suppose I should report that the screening audience with whom I saw the film seemed to be having a fairly good time. But I’m very indulgent when it comes to lowbrow comedy, and I’m not sure that Hot Pursuit made me laugh out loud a single time.

The great Jim Gaffigan has a minor role, and even he didn’t make me laugh. When Jim Gaffigan doesn’t make you laugh, it means the movie isn’t working.

Thursday, May 7, 2015


In honor of the DVD release this week of the submarine thriller Black Sea, check out my list, on Topless Robot, of Nerdy Submarine Adventures.

RIP to the lovely Grace Lee Whitney, passed on at 85.

Whitney was in movies like Some Like it Hot and Irma La Douce, but will almost certainly be most remembered as Yeoman Janice Rand in the first few episodes of Star Trek. I had the good luck to interview her on my KTAR radio show back in 1998, and I’m proud to say that she gave me the copy of her autobiography, The Longest Trek—much of it focused on her struggle with alcoholism—now on my bookshelf (the foreward, by the way, is by her friend Leonard Nimoy).

Anyway, in her honor…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to the “M-113 Creature,” a vampire who sucks the salt out of people instead of the blood, and who can shape-shift into other people’s forms… 

…in the first-season episode “The Man Trap” (the first Star Trek episode ever aired). The M-113 Creature, disguised as a previously desalinated crewman, stalks Yeoman Rand as she dawdles along with a tray of food, leering at her salt shaker.

Friday, May 1, 2015


Opening this week:

Avengers: Age of UltronThe big-budget superhero blockbusters of the last decade or so are not, I confess, my favorite genre. I loved Sam Raimi’s first two Spiderman movies and the first two Iron Man flicks as well, and the first Captain America movie, the period piece, had some flavor. But as these and other series have extended and expanded and intermingled with each other, bloat and rote have begun to set in.

Don’t get me wrong; I always find something in all of them to enjoy—there are always exciting scenes and entertaining performances, or, if nothing else, Scarlett Johansson to look at. But for me, there’s a certain hyper-seriousness to the writing of the recent Marvel and DC spectacles, and also a sterile visual atmosphere—a result, I think, of the wall-to-wall CGI—that’s a bit dreary, almost oppressive. Most of them also feel overplotted, and at least a half-hour too long.

So it’s possible that you could find less cranky and whiny commentators than I to hold forth on the matter of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Because, though it gives me no pleasure to take a “you kids get out of my yard” tone, everything I said above applies to this latest Marvel all-star game.

The main hero line-up this time includes Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Bruce Banner aka The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the aforementioned Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Chris Evans as Captain America, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, among others. The plot this time is yet another variation on the Frankenstein theme: Ultron is an android endowed with massive artificial intelligence, recklessly created by Tony Stark to keep the world peaceful and safe.

Regrettably, Ultron decides the most efficient way to accomplish this is to wipe out the human race with the help of his army of killer robots, and Tony and his Avenger pals have their hands full stopping this. Interminable wild chase and fight scenes ensue, many featuring buildings collapsing into graying clouds of rubble—an unsavory, reflexive modern motif that can’t cease to be obligatory in movies like this soon enough to suit me.

But, as usual, Avengers: Age of Ultron has its compensations. For instance, there’s Elizabeth Olsen, soulful as ever, as Scarlet Witch, some sort of freaky Eastern European super-psychic, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as her super-fast twin brother Quicksilver. And, as aforementioned, there’s Scarlett Johansson to look at.

But the most fun that this movie offered me was its title character, voiced, and performed by “motion capture,” by James Spader. I’ve long been a fan of Spader, from his beginnings in the‘80s as a sort of off-the-bench honorary Brat Packer, through to his hilarious courtroom harangues and pervy lewdnesses on Boston Legal. Avengers: Age of Ultron should have devoted far more of its length to verbal sparring between Spader’s ironic purring and Downey’s nervous, nattering insolence—a clash between two of the greatest smart-alecks in contemporary pop culture.