Friday, July 31, 2015


Opening today at Harkins Shea:

A Lego BrickumentaryBeyond question, this documentary makes a convincing case that Legos, the little interlocking plastic bricks and the infinite variety of playsets they’ve inspired, are among the most culturally influential toys in the world. But as far as I can recall, I never had Legos as a kid. I can’t even remember ever playing with them at another kid’s house.

So, as with last year’s The Lego Movie, I didn’t have the same direct emotional, nostalgic connection to the subject matter as many people of the last few generations. I watched this Brickumentary as an outsider.

Even from outside, however, it’s an interesting story. Narrated by a Lego “minifig” voiced by Jason Bateman, the movie sketches the history of the line, which originated in Denmark in the late ‘40s—the corporate headquarters is still in Billund—then goes on to wander the world, showing the various subcultures and sub-subcultures that have sprung up around “BrickCons”: The AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego), KFOLs (Kid Fans), and their terminology, like BURP (Big Ugly Rock Piece). My favorite bit of this slang was a “1x5,” here explained as a hot chick; as much a rarity at Lego gatherings as a brick of those dimensions.

We’re also shown the uses to which the bricks have been put in science, art, architecture, filmmaking and therapy. And we get interviews with celebrity AFOLs like Ed Sheeran, Trey Parker and Dwight Howard.

Slickly directed by Kief Davidson and Daniel Junge, A Lego Brickumentary is watchable and pleasant, driven along by colorful Lego animations and a fine, sprightly score by John Jennings Boyd. Parts of it are intriguing, parts are funny, here and there—as when we see an autistic kid’s enthusiasm for Lego—it’s even a little bit touching.

Overall, though, the film has a somehow impersonal feel, almost like a string of human-interest stories from a TV newscast, edited together. Lego is not, perhaps, a trivial subject, but this movie feels like the corporate official story, and as a result, I regret to say, all in all it’s just another brick in the wall.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


The documentary A Lego Brickumentary opens here in the Valley tomorrow, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s acknowledge the Lego Swamp Creature…

This trident-wielding fellow is part of Lego’s Monster Fighters series, introduced in 2012. His set includes a gritty-looking swamp rat, an airboat and a hip swamp hangout...

Monday, July 27, 2015


Three years ago, in a father’s-day column about great screen dads, I wrote this about the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird:

The signature role of Gregory Peck’s career was Atticus Finch, the small-town lawyer and single father who parented by example, eschewing violence while displaying quiet courage, and keeping vigil over those he cared about. Many people probably got their prototype for the ideal father from Robert Mulligan’s 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel.

I’m one of them. The sound of Peck’s voice, or of Kim Stanley’s narration, or of Elmer Bernstein’s delicate musical score, brings tears to my eyes with Pavlovian ease. So, for that matter, can Lee’s exquisite prose, right off the page.

 In Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, published to monster sales this month by HarperCollins, Atticus is less admirable. The novel follows his daughter Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, now an adult living in New York, as she returns to her small Alabama hometown for a visit. While she’s there, she learns that Atticus, as well as the local young man who wants to marry her, are both members of the town’s segregationist group, intent on keeping the NAACP and civil rights in general at bay. Atticus is, simply put, a racist, of the imperturbably condescending, paternalistic, evasive sort, as pernicious in its way as the overtly hateful kind. Remembering her father’s defense of a local black man accused, obviously falsely, of rape—the main plot of Mockingbird—she’s horrified, baffled and, very understandably, furious.

The novel was reportedly written in 1957, before Mockingbird, and is regarded as a first draft of the classic, although in my opinion it’s so radically different, both in content and intent, that it constitutes a novel unto itself. Few would suggest that it’s an achievement, either in prose style or in storytelling, on the level of Mockingbird. It’s clumsily structured and digressive—though its digressions are some of its strongest episodes—and its last few chapters are tinny debates in the manner of a Golden Age of Television problem play.

But the fingers-in-the-ears, “la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you” reaction that many critics and commentators have had to the very publication of the book suggests that they are as psychologically invested in an idealized view of Atticus as Scout is. Heartbreakingly, there’s nothing implausible about Watchman’s presentation of the character, nor anything very incompatible with his characterization in Mockingbird.

Even if it’s a lesser work than Mockingbird, it’s still an impressive novel on its own terms. The scene in which Scout must endure a “coffee” with other young women and listen to their prattle is a tour de force—horror and comedy and pathos weaving in and out of each other, and not a word of it that isn’t still relevant today.

I think it’s a good thing that Go Set a Watchman was published. Mockingbird, with its expert blend of lofty legal drama and southern gothic fairy tale, is a work of polished beauty and a vision of social decency toward which to aspire. Go Set a Watchman, roughly sketched but passionate, is a much franker, less romanticized work. It takes on one of the more painfully familiar themes of the last century or so—that of daughters who more or less worship their fathers, struggling to come to terms with the despicable ideologies to which those fathers cling.

More broadly, it’s about the agony of loving your family and your community of origin while knowing the ugliness that’s part of its core. This, by extension, makes Watchman a book for all of us who love America.

Friday, July 24, 2015


Opening this weekend:

Paper TownsOrlando high school senior Quentin has been in love with his across-the-street neighbor Margo since they were little. One night Margo slips in through Quentin’s bedroom window and presses him into service on a spree of vengeful pranks against a cheating boyfriend and others she feels have betrayed her. We’re meant to see her acts, which include vandalism and sneaking into people’s homes, as whimsical and adorable, but they’re the sort of thing that could easily take an ugly turn and end up a Dateline NBC true crime documentary.

After this wild night, Margo runs away from home, but she leaves Quinten a string of implausible-to-follow clues—highlighted passages in Walt Whitman and the like—as to her whereabouts. Eventually he and his friends mount a road trip to locate her, joined, to their amazement, by a couple of girls.

Margo seems intended in the tradition of Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, Barbara Striesand in What’s Up, Doc? or, in a slightly darker vein, Melanie Griffith in Something Wild—the screwball heroine who pulls a stick-in-the-mud hero into wacky adventures. But Cara Delevingne, who plays her, isn’t Hepburn, or Stanwyck, or Striesand. She isn’t even Melanie Griffith.

She’s a vaguely sullen, unenergetic girl, and Quentin’s fascination with her is the least interesting and convincing strand of this adaptation of the 2008 novel by John The Fault in Our Stars Green. Near the end there’s a belated attempt to put some adult perspective on this adolescent conceit, but it’s still the hinge on which the movie has turned, and grownups in the audience are likely to feel that if it was our kid, we’d want to cuff him upside the head.

Fortunately, Nat Wolff, who plays Quentin, hits just the right balance between callow openheartedness and reflexive A-student anxiety. His scenes with Austin Abrams and Justice Smith as his pals Ben and Radar are truly funny, with their gentle, almost delicate ribbing of each other, and the unembarrassed affection it denotes. And since this ensemble work makes up the lion’s share of Paper Towns, the film is a good deal more digestible than it has the right to be.

The title, by the way, refers to a fascinating cartographer’s technique of which I had never heard—a fictitious location included on a map as a defense against unauthorized copying. The phrase is given a deeper resonance here through a speech by Margo which is essentially a rephrasing of the Malvina Reynolds song “Little Boxes.” Margo, of course, has the excuse of being a teenager, but that doesn’t make the judgment any less presumptuous.

Thursday, July 23, 2015


With Jurassic World still in theaters…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week the nod goes to this genetically-engineered velociraptor which adorns my current can of Barbasol:

This is a clever bit of product tie-in; you’ll remember it was a fake Barbasol can in which Wayne Knight tried to smuggle out the dinosaur embryos in the original film.

RIP to a couple of greats: My Mom’s favorite actor Theodore Bikel, passed on at 91, and Alex Rocco, passed on at 79. Of Rocco’s many fine turns, I especially loved him as the sheriff in The Stunt Man; it’s excellent (and rather accurate) when, near the end, Peter O’Toole off-handedly greets him with “Hello, sexy.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Check out my list, on Topless Robot, of Clint Howard coolness.

No further inducement than the name “Clint Howard” should be necessary.

Friday, July 17, 2015


Opening this weekend:

Ant-ManWith the Marvel movies of the past few years, maybe the more obscure the source comics—obscure to me, at least—the more interesting the film. Guardians of the Galaxy turned out to be one of the more amusing big-budget flicks from last year, and this summer’s Ant-Man is possibly even a bit more fun.

Ant-Man, whose major superpower is the ability to shrink himself to ant size, originated in 1962 as the star of a recurring feature in Marvel’s Tales to Astonish and later, as an original member of The Avengers. Initially the alter-ego of the haunted genius Hank Pym—and paired with the Wasp, his similarly diminutive lady love and fellow Avenger—the micro-superhero has gone through several changes of secret identity over the decades, but obviously never attained the mythic stature of Spider-Man or The Hulk or Iron Man.

The film takes up the story with the aging Pym (Michael Douglas) turning over the Ant-Man suit and mantle to high-tech burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), in hopes that Scott will help him foil the schemes of Pym’s mad protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Cross has a suit of his own that turns him into the super-villian Yellowjacket, who can also, as Steve Martin would say, get small. Pym’s enlistment of Scott is over the objections of his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who would prefer to be the agent against Yellowjacket.

In outline, it’s standard superhero stuff, but the film was made, thankfully, by a bunch of goofballs. The director is Peyton Reed, who made the terrific 2000 cheerleader comedy Bring It On, the script was by Joe Cornish of the terrific Attack the Block and Edgar Wright of the terrific Shaun of the Dead, with star Rudd and Adam McKay also contributing to the writing. The dialogue keeps mischievously deflating the corny tropes of the genre, and Reed maintains a light-footed pace and serves up one imaginative gag after another, deftly shifting from Ant-Man’s epic perspective on his surroundings to a normal-sized perception of their dinkiness and back, to often hilarious effect, like a screwball, primary colored, Saturday morning cartoon version of The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Ant-Man also has the power to command actual ants of various species—winged carpenter ants he can ride, bullet ants to attack his enemies and the like. After a childhood spent repeatedly watching Them! I’ve always been a little phobic about ants, but Ant-Man succeeds in making them endearing (Parents and sensitive viewers should be warned [spoilers!]: one of Ant-Man’s loyal ant pals pays the ultimate price, and also that an adorable lamb gets disintegrated in the course of the story).

These sweet ants gave the movie a sour postscript for me—as I left the screening, I called home to ask my wife if she needed anything, and she told me, I’m not kidding, to stop at the supermarket and pick up some ant traps; our kitchen had been invaded. I did it, but I didn’t like doing it.

Lila & EveLila (Viola Davis) is a single mom in Atlanta who has lost her elder son Stephon to a stray bullet in a drive-by. The police have no leads, and aren’t looking very hard for any. At a support group for grieving mothers Lila strikes up a conversation with Eve (Jennifer Lopez), who agrees to be her sponsor. But Eve’s sponsorship is a little different—she and Lila go on a killing spree, targeting the drug dealers responsible for Stephon’s death.

The result is a thriller that sweeps us past its more implausible aspects with its swift pace and the nice, unforced rapport of the two leads. It has a central plot twist that may not come as much of a surprise to audiences—I figured it out about forty-five minutes in, and I’m pretty slow with that sort of thing. It also has, at its core, a beautiful, wrenching performance, which cracks the movie’s conventional dramatics.

Not many actresses now in American film can do grief like Viola Davis. With zero showy histrionics, she gets across Lila’s soul-shattered agony, horrifyingly faced with the dull requirement to keep slogging on through life. The glimpses we get of her immediate reaction to the tragedy are so raw that they’re difficult to watch, but later, Lila even shows flickers of humor and pleasure, which seem, in the context of her loss, heroic.

It’s magnificent acting, and it throws Lila & Eve off balance—Davis gives us too much complexity in Lila, too much fatalistic awareness of the futility of her revenge, for us to fully enjoy the movie as a lurid melodrama in the Death Wish vein. Yet Davis is also, by a large margin, the best thing about Lila & Eve, and its only real claim on our emotions. Her performance wrecks the movie, and makes it worth seeing.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


With Ant-Man opening tomorrow…

Monster-of-the-Week: …an ant monster seems apropos, and the obvious choice is the masterly 1954 classic Them! 

But since this favorite has already been featured as a MOTW, let us give the nod to…

 …the giant alpha ant in charge of the Florida sugar mill staffed with mind-controlled human slave labor, in Bert I. Gordon’s 1977 laugh-riot Empire of the Ants, starring poor Joan Collins at a low point of her career, but at the height of her ‘70s-era beauty…

Just wait until the mill workers unionize!

Friday, July 10, 2015


Lots of weird science opening this weekend:

Self/lessBen Kingsley plays Damian, an ultra-rich New Yorker dying of cancer. A shady scientist (Matthew Goode) tells Damian that he can transfer his consciousness into a healthy young body grown in a lab. Damian agrees to this, and finds himself residing in the strapping frame of Ryan Reynolds. Relocated to New Orleans, he starts partying, but inexplicable recurring visions make him suspect that there are things the scientist hasn’t told him.

The ideas here are very familiar in sci-fi; in movies they go back at least as far as the 1936 Boris Karloff thriller The Man Who Changed His Mind, and there are also strong echoes of John Frankenheimer’s 1966 Seconds. But Self/less, directed by Tarsem Singh from a script by David and Alex Pastor, is a reasonably unpredictable and tightly-paced variation on it.

The opening quarter or so of the film is particularly strong, not only for the moral questions it raises but also for the fantasy fulfillment it offers, especially to aging audience members. Wouldn’t it be fun, the movie asks us, to suddenly find yourself several decades younger, healthy, rich, without attachments and looking like Ryan Reynolds?

After this promising set-up, the way the movie plays out is a bit disappointingly routine. Like a lot of popular sci-fi, it raises intriguing questions, then gives us car crashes and gunfights. But within the conventional format to which it aspires, Self/less isn’t merit/less.

MinionsThis animated feature is an origin story for the little goobers who debuted in 2010's Despicable Me. Bright-yellow, bib-clad, goggled (sometimes two-eyed and sometimes cyclopean) and shaped like Tic Tacs, they were first seen as the aides to Gru, the super-villain from that excellent film, and as they giggled and chattered at each other in what sounded like some sort of sped-up Esperanto, they pretty much ran off with the movie.

I guess I had vaguely assumed that the Minions were meant to be some cybernetically-engineered creations of Gru's. According to this film, however, they've been around since prehistoric times, and their tendency, we are told by The Narrator (Geoffrey Rush), has always been to serve the most despicable master they can find.

These include, in early sequences, Napoleon Bonaparte, cavemen and a marvelously loutish Tyrannosaurus Rex. The meat of the movie, however, is set in 1968 and has them working for a chic super-villainess called Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock). Their assignment: Steal the crown of Elizabeth II (Jennifer Saunders). In the course of the very silly, almost free-associational storyline, one of the Minions, Bob, gets crowned King of England.

Minions is an enjoyable film full of visual beautiesthe title sequence splendidly evokes William Steigand many hilarious episodes. It isn't the classic that Despicable Me is, to be sure, probably because the Minions are, as the name implies, born supporting players. Endearing though they are, they don't have the richness or complexity to carry a movie, and Scarlett Overkill and the handful of other characters bounced off of them really don't either. The Minions were designed to be scene-stealers, but you can't steal what already belongs to you.

Thursday, July 9, 2015


In the depths of the summer swelter, it might be pleasant to be reminded of cooler climes, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s give the nod to the impressive abominable snowman… this Farmers Insurance commercial who throws a huge snowball into somebody’s car, while J. K. Simmons warns that the policy holder, if they aren’t smart enough to be with Farmers, might not be covered for such a mishap.

The ad led me to wonder: Really? Farmers offers a policy that will cover your car against damages from a giant snowball flung by a furry ice monster? Not bad.

Thursday, July 2, 2015


RIP to Patrick MacNee…

passed on last week at 93.

In his honor…

Monster-of-the-Week: …the award goes to this fellow…

…from Joe Dante’s 1981 The Howling, the wonderful ensemble cast of which was wryly led by MacNee.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


Playing Friday night only at FilmBar Phoenix, for those who might want to kick off their Independence Day weekend with a feast of Canadian ham:

Shatner!!! The Lost YearsFrom 1969, when the original Star Trek series ended, until the late ‘70s, when the first Star Trek feature film hit theatres, William Shatner was extremely…available. Divorced and broke, he lived for a time in a camper and essentially answered the phone not with “hello” but with “I’ll do it.”

To call this period in Shatner’s career “The Lost Years” is, in a sense, a misnomer, since he was rarely more visible—he racked up a staggering number of credits on episodic television, TV movies, low-budget schlock films, game shows, talk shows, commercials, anything. I myself saw him during those years, in a 1973 Kenley Players production of Arsenic and Old Lace in Warren, Ohio, with Sylvia Sidney and Peter Lupus. It was certainly one of the highlights of my eleventh year on earth.

Well, Friday at FilmBar, The Unfathomable Film Freakout presents this compilation of movies, abridged down to their Shatnerian essence. We see him at his tortured best as the lapsed priest facing druidical evil in The Horror at 37,000 Feet, alongside the likes of Chuck Connors, Buddy Ebsen, Paul Winfield, Jane Merrow, France Nuyen, Russell Johnson and Roy Thinnes, among others, besieged by angry arachnids alongside Pamela Tiffin, Woody Strode and my friend (even if he is, now, a conservative member of the Arizona legislature) Jay Lawrence in Kingdom of the Spiders, battling a demonic Ernest Borgnine in The Devil’s Rain, or pursuing David Carradine in an episode of Kung Fu. In the latter his character asserts that, after long travels, he is “Rump-sprung and callused where no man ought to be callused,” which may have described Shatner’s actual feelings about his own life at the time.

This facetiously-edited footage is enjoyable for Shatner fans, although I would like to have seen shorter clips and a wider selection—especially, Shatner clashing with a scary Andy Griffith in the 1974 wheeler Pray for the Wildcats. But the really juicy and nostalgic items are the clips which connect the movie footage, showing Shatner on the talk shows of Dinah Shore or Mike Douglas, turning songs like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” or “How Do You Handle a Woman” or Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” into overwrought spoken-word monologues, or doing commercials for Loblaws supermarkets or Promise Margarine, or competing on Celebrity Bowling with Fran Jeffries, against Hugh O’Brian and Michele Lee, or breaking boards with his fist on Circus of the Stars.

The songs are excruciating. Like, really excruciating. But everything else in Shatner!!! The Lost Years transcends the snark. Eventually, of course, Shatner got in on the joke, and like his countryman Leslie Nielsen, became an improbable comedy star. But it’s exhilarating to watch a sample of the years before that happened—to see the guy gut out a decade’s worth of paychecks, working with other vivid performers of the period, particularly since you know that wealth and Emmys and a Golden Globe are in his future.