Friday, October 30, 2015


Halloween reading: Check out my list, on The Robot’s Voice, of the top horror and sci-fi roles of the great Michael Gough.

For the current generation Gough is probably best known as Alfred the Butler in the Batman movies of the ‘90s, but I’ve long thought that he deserves to be ranked up there with Lugosi, Karloff, Lee, Cushing and so forth as one of the all-time horror greats—he may have been the most unmitigated, purely evil S.O.B. of the lot.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


Remember Wooly Willy?

Maybe you got him for Christmas sometime back in the ‘60s or ‘70s, like I did. First introduced in 1955, Willy was just a smiling clown-nosed bald guy who looked like he should be hanging out in some tough seaport dive bar. Iron filings were sealed under his plastic cover, and he came with a little magnetic wand so that you could, theoretically—if you were a more adroit kid than I, that is—direct the filings around to decorate his mug with all sorts of impressive facial hair, hats, etc. 

My problem was always disengaging. I could corral the filings on to Willy’s chin in a passable approximation of a goatee, sort of, but as soon as I tried to draw the wand away from the plastic, the filings would chase it, leaving poor Willy looking like somebody had thrown the contents of a flower pot in his face.

Anyway, I was at a Michaels craft store the other day, and I came across a new series of Halloween-monster variations on Wooly Willy. Seized with nostalgia (plus they were only a buck each) I grabbed up one of each.


Monster-of-the-Week: …our Halloween-week honoree is Willy’s vampiric cousin Thurston Bludd…

A reader recently suggested that, to make up for the short hiatus that Monster-of-the-Week took in September, I should pile up a few extra monsters at the end of October. So, here you go: may I present zombie Eaton Brains...

...cheery skull I. Sockets...

...and mummy Ben Toomd...

I’m not much better at styling them than I was forty-odd years ago, but I like their punning names. Although, come to think of it, wouldn't "Ben N. Toomd" have been better?

Anyway, a Happy Halloween to everybody!

Monday, October 26, 2015


Check out my list, on The Robot’s Voice (formerly Topless Robot), of 10 of the greatest movie “monsters” in the Scooby-Doo tradition.

Be forewarned, though: Spoilers galore!

Friday, October 23, 2015


Opening this weekend:

The Last Witch HunterKaulder (Vin Diesel) a centuries-old warrior with miraculous regenerative powers, is the title character, enforcer of the uneasy secret truce between witches and humans. His liaison, a priest (Michael Caine) is placed under a death-like curse by witches seeking to revive their long-dormant Queen. With Caine’s priestly protégé (Elijah Wood) and a sympathetic young witch-woman (Rose Leslie) at his side, Kaulder stalks New York trying to prevent this, and to bring the old padre back to life.

I’m a sucker for this sort of nonsense, plus I’ve always liked Vin Diesel, so if this was going to work for anybody, I’d probably be a good bet. But this movie tried my patience. Despite—or maybe because of—the impressive wall-to-wall special effects, the movie generates little suspense or sense of awe. The actors, while too veteran not to be proficient, can’t find a way to make us invest in the characters.

The whole affair is reminiscent—too reminiscent—of earlier movies like Highlander and Blade. But with NYC as the backdrop to a story of the return of an ancient evil goddess, The Last Witch Hunter really came across to me like a less compelling version of Ghostbusters—it’s Ghostbusters without Bill Murray or the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. That’s not to say it’s without comedy, but most of its comedy is unintentional.

Jem and the HologramsThis one is based on a syndicated Hasbro/Marvel TV cartoon from the mid-‘80s. As far as I can remember, I never heard of it before I started hearing about this movie. In the cartoon, the heroine, Jerrica, was a rock star behind a holographic persona projected from her earrings. In this live-action adaptation, Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples) just hides behind a pink wig and shades to front a glam-pop quartet rounded out by her sister (Stefanie Scott) and two foster sisters (Aurora Perrineau and Hayley Kiyoko). The girls live with their kindly Aunt (Molly Ringwald), and the band’s mascot is a cute little bleepy-bloopy robot, Synergy, a legacy from Jerrica's late inventor father. The villainess is a record exec (Juliette Lewis) who is trying to separate Jem from her sisters.

Apparently the cartoon was a big deal to some girls back in its time, but it’s hard to imagine this slack, scattered movie having the same meaning for girls today. The young actresses are sweet, and the director, John M. Chu, shows some ingenuity is staging the numbers. A couple of the songs are quite catchy of their kind. But there aren’t enough of them. Bafflingly, this movie forgoes music in favor of more meandering complications to the silly plot, interminable narration and meaningless feel-good bromides about believing in yourself and following your dreams.

The movie also intercuts many of the big scenes with homemade online video clips—musicians performing, or Jem fans expressing their love. It’s an interesting idea, and while it doesn’t really work—it doesn’t add drive or momentum to the scenes—it should be said that the people in these videos are, on the whole, more interesting than the slick, artificial movie to which we keep going back. Jem’s characters aren’t much more substantial than holograms, and there’s something irksome about the free ride the movie takes on the real human beings in those videos.

Thursday, October 22, 2015


With Halloween a week out, a classic monster seems in order, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod this week to the 1931 Universal Pictures Dracula...but not, this time, the Dracula of the immortal Bela Lugosi, but rather that of Carlos Villarias…

 …who played the Count in the Spanish-language version of the flick shot on the same sets during the same dates as the Lugosi/Tod Browning version, but on the night shift. While Villarias can’t claim quite the grandeur of Lugosi (who he resembled, so that long shots of Lugosi could economically be used in both versions), he’s still very good, as is the film overall, directed by George Melford.

If you've never seen it, I recommend you get out to the TCM-sponsored double feature of both versions playing at 2 and 7 p.m. October 25 at various multiplexes around the country, including several screens here in the Valley and in Tucson. Details here.

The neck that the Villarias Drac understandably wishes to bite belongs, by the way, to the luscious Lupita Tovar, still alive at well over a hundred, and the grandmother of the screenwriting/directing brothers Chris and Paul Weitz.

Friday, October 16, 2015


Opening this weekend:

Bridge of SpiesThis Cold War drama opens with one of those mesmerizing sequences that the mature Steven Spielberg does so effortlessly, as Soviet spy “Rudolf Abel” (Mark Rylance) is stalked by the Feds through the streets and subways of Brooklyn. After Abel, a British-born Russian who seems to have squeezed his espionage work in around his passion for painting, is captured in 1957, his defense is turned over to a staid Brooklyn insurance lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) who had worked on the prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials.

From there on, Bridge of Spies, scripted by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen, becomes a reflection on the meaning of patriotic duty. Donovan regards it as a point of national pride to provide Abel with a genuine best defense, while everyone from the judge (Dakin Matthews) to his wife (Amy Ryan) to the CIA creep shadowing him (Scott Shepherd) regards his role as a formality in a kangaroo court, and roll their eyes with disgust at his idealism. The public is even less sympathetic, glowering at him over their newspapers on the subway.

But a few years later, when U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Sowell) is shot down and captured by the Soviets, Donovan’s spirited advocacy in keeping his client out of the electric chair seems prescient. He’s asked by Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie) to travel to Berlin, where the wall is just then going up, to unofficially negotiate the swap of Abel for Powers at Glienicke Bridge between Berlin and Potsdam in February of 1962.

Hanks is terrific in the sort of Capra-esque hero part for which he’s the modern go-to American star—Spencer Tracy or James Stewart or Henry Fonda would have excelled in it too. But Hanks makes it his own, giving Donovan a certain wry perplexity at how those around him don’t seem to get it; don’t grasp that excluding foreigners or alleged enemies from full due process and civil protection is a betrayal of American values. These issues never seem to go away, alas—Donovan’s frustration will be familiar to anyone who ever felt like their head was going to explode in arguments over, say, waterboarding or Abu Ghraib.

Reliably fine as Hanks and several other members of the veteran cast are, the best performance in Bridge of Spies is by Rylance, as the mysterious, ethnically pied, imperturbable Rudolf Abel. Initially dismayed at his assignment, Donovan is almost immediately disarmed by his client’s dignity, resolve and ironic humor, while Abel seems moved by Donovan’s honor and good faith. Rylance and Hanks get all of this across without heavy-handed telegraphing; in each of their scenes together the two men are closer and closer friends.

I’m not historian enough to say to what degree this story has been streamlined and made symmetrical for dramatic purposes. Plenty, I’d guess. Nor can I say how much the movie’s version of Donovan, or any other character, reflects the reality. But as drama, it’s insistently absorbing. The final minutes—Donovan’s return to Brooklyn, just as his family is seeing a TV news report about him—are perhaps a bit too pat and burnished and reverent. It’s the only moment when Spielberg drops his impressive reserve here, and it’s brief. Otherwise, this low-key, sedately-paced movie builds quietly, earning its emotional payoffs with both a verbal and cinematic eloquence.

GoosebumpsJust in time for Halloween comes this comedy fantasy riff on the popular series of young-adult horror novels of the '90s. The work of the insanely prolific R. L. Stine, the formulaic Goosebumps yarns featured young protagonists going up against zombies, ghosts, werewolves, blobs, abominable snowmen, giant insects, murderous garden gnomes and just about every other imaginable horror motif (almost all of them, of course, pillaged from the movies).

Stine is an onscreen character in the film, played by Jack Black as a curmudgeon living in small-town Delaware. It turns out that Stine’s imagination is so potent that his monsters will “literally leap off the page” of the original manuscripts if their locked covers are opened. Our young hero (Dylan Minnette), a new kid in town who is drawn to Stine’s daughter (Odeya Rush), inadvertently liberates all of the Goosebumps monsters. Under the leadership of the evil ventriloquist dummy Slappy, they go on the hunt for their author, who they resent for their imprisonment in the books.

The storyline is silly, to be sure, but the script, by Darren Lemke (from a story concocted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski), is a little wittier than you might expect, and Rob Letterman’s direction is exuberant. Black’s short-fused, fussy, vain, self-dramatizing Stine is a study in broad and happy hamming; he seems to be channeling Gale Gordon.

It's also great to hear the scherzos of Danny Elfman, in his classic style, on the soundtrack. Goosebumps is a trifle, certainly, but it’s a well-crafted, funny and colorful trifle. It would perhaps be a good family option for the season—grown-ups can get a kick out of it, and on any but the littlest viewers, it’s unlikely to raise any serious goosebumps.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


The movie Goosebumps, opening tomorrow, features a giant praying mantis. Since the title character of 1957’s The Deadly Mantis...

 …has already been a Monster-of-the-Week back in 2008, how about this week…

Monster-of-the-Week: …we feature the Colossal Mantis from the AMT Gigantics model series of the ‘70s…

I like how the mantis seems to be holding the headline out so we can see it, like he's proud. I never had the mantis, but I did have the scorpion. Those two and the tarantula have been reissued by AMT/ERTL and are available on amazon; for some reason the giant wasp is not.

Friday, October 9, 2015


Opening this weekend:

PanA friend of mine disapproves of origin stories for iconic characters almost on principal—he thinks it cheapens the symbolic power of such figures to give them too specific a background. So Pan, a prequel to Peter Pan that focuses on his early friendship with the young Hook, is the sort of thing that would seriously get on this guy's nerves. But I enjoyed this cheeky, imaginative spectacle much more than I thought I would. It's certainly a huge improvement over 1991's Hook, probably my least favorite Steven Spielberg movie.

Peter (Levi Miller) is here a foundling at a home for orphans in London run by swinishly corrupt nuns. He's spirited off by an airborne pirate ship during the Blitz—neat trick, since J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan was first produced in 1904—and taken to Neverland, where he is forced to work mining pixie-dust for the despotic Blackbeard the Pirate (Hugh Jackman) along with throngs of other boys of every sort and from every time-period. Peter bonds with a slightly older fellow prisoner, Hook (Garrett Hedlund), and they escape into the forests. Blackbeard, noting Peter's nascent ability to fly, fears he's the fulfillment of a prophecy about the pirate's downfall, and pursues.

Other familiar characters from the saga, including Princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara), Smee (the excellent Adeel Akhtar) and even Tinkerbell are woven into the story, and the whole thing comes to a head in a battle between Hook's and Blackbeard's ships, excitingly staged by director Joe Wright. Hedlund is no more than serviceable as Hook, but the knockout among the cast is Jackman, in possibly the most febrile performance he's given onscreen. His Blackbeard, who has a disturbing intensity in the way he relates to his young slaves, is repellent yet fascinating and not without pathos.

There are scenes, as when the boys or the pirates sing snatches of songs from different time periods, when Pan has an almost Bollywood feel, and I began to wish it had just taken the leap and been an all-out jukebox musical. It seems safe to say, anyway, that this is the first version of Peter Pan that quotes Nirvana and The Ramones.

He Named Me MalalaThe most moving scenes in this documentary portrait of Malala Yousafzai are those which show her simply being a kid—ragging on her brothers, or mooning over online pictures of cricket stars or Roger Federer. When you consider that Yousafzai, now 18, was writing a blog for the BBC when she was eleven about her life under the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, that she was shot in the head and nearly killed in 2012 by the Taliban for her educational activism on behalf of girls, and that she became the youngest person ever awarded a Nobel Prize in 2014, there’s something heartbreaking, humbling and uplifting about seeing her act like a sweet giggly teenager.

Deftly directed by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth, He Named Me Malala mixes this sort of footage with interviews and elegant animation sequences to tell Malala’s story, and she’s just about irresistibly likable. But as the title implies, the movie is also a portrait of her father, Ziauddin, a schoolmaster. He gave her the name after the heroine of an Afghan folktale, a young woman who rallied the Afghans fighting the Brits and was shot for her trouble. From a certain angle, in light of what happened to his daughter, the title could almost be seen as a reproach.

In interviews Ziauddin is quiet and unassuming, with a noticeable stammer, but when we see footage of his speeches back in Pakistan in favor of a leftist, secular government and a nonviolent Islam, he’s a fiery, passionate, confident orator. What the movie gradually makes clear is how much Malala takes after her father in this way, as opposed to her reserved, homesick mother (the family now lives in England). In one of the animated flashbacks, we learn that Malala’s Mom left school while still a girl, exchanging her schoolbooks for candy.

Malala, by contrast, describes crawling through the halls and classrooms of the school her father ran while still in infancy. “School was my home,” she says bluntly, and what comes across in her is a willingness to defend that home like a patriot.

Opening this weekend at Harkins Shea:

The Final GirlsHere’s an odd gem: a mixture of Friday the 13th with Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. The teenage heroine, Max (Taissa Farmiga), reluctantly agrees to attend a screening of Camp Bloodbath, an ‘80s slasher movie in which her late mother (Malin Akerman) appeared before Max was born. A fire breaks out at the screening, and Max and her friends flee the theater straight through the screen, and straight into the movie.

They find themselves stranded in the summer camp with Camp Bloodbath’s characters, the usual lunkheads and sexpots that make up the body count of such films, including the sweet-faced “quiet girl with the clipboard” played by Max’s Mom. They’re all stalked by the masked, Jason-esque Billy Murphy, the victim of a prank gone bad in the camp’s past. But the 21st-century girls are having none of it—they try to rally the ‘80s characters to fight back against Billy.

This sort of whimsy either works for you or it doesn’t, and The Final Girls, directed Todd Strauss-Schulson from a script by M. A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller, worked for me. The feminist ideas underlying the film, while laudable, aren’t anything all that new; Halloween: H20: Twenty Years Later explored them back in 1998. But The Final Girls shows a lot of wit in the collisions of the characters with movie conventions like flashbacks and titles, and the cast, which also includes Adam DeVine, Alia Shawkat, Nina Dobrev and the always-funny Thomas Middleditch, sell the conceit with spirit and energy.

What really makes the movie work, however, is the touching story of the heroine reconnecting with a phantom version of her mother. Akerman has specialized for a while in playing cuties with more substance and integrity than they initially show. She’s enormously endearing here, and she and Farmiga have a lovely rapport. In the climactic scenes, their bonding somehow turns “Bette Davis Eyes,” on the soundtrack, into an anthem of female empowerment.

Thursday, October 8, 2015


The Village Voice nerd-culture website formerly known as Topless Robot, to which I’ve been a proud contributor for a couple of years now, has redubbed itself The Robot’s Voice. The site featured my two-part list of the 20 Greatest Pop-Culture Martians (who aren’t Matt Damon) yesterday and today. 

Monster-of-the-Week: Only one possible choice this week. Tomorrow marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Milton the Monster Show on ABC, so the nod goes to the title character…


 …undoubtedly the sweetest-natured and least rancorous of all monsters—he didn’t even have Herman Munster’s tendency to throw tantrums. While his open-topped skull out of which he vented steam may have helped his disposition, Milton’s sweetness really derived from an excess of “Tincture of Tenderness” accidentally added to his essence by mad scientist Professor Weirdo during his creation.

The show also included such supporting acts as Fearless Fly, who would revert to his mild-mannered alter ego Hirem when he removed his glasses—my bespectacled brother used to do an imitation of him that I regarded as pretty sophisticated comedy when I was six—and Flukey Luke, a cowboy in the big city long before McCloud.

Friday, October 2, 2015


Opening this weekend:

The Martian—As in 1964’s excellent Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Ridley Scott’s latest maroons an American astronaut on the Red Planet and lets him figure out how to stay alive. It’s a pretty faithful adaptation of the 2011 novel by Andy Weir, a self-described space nerd who originally self-published the well-researched “hard sci-fi” tale online.

Much of the book consists of first-person narration by our hero, Mark Watney, who has been lost in a sandstorm and thought dead by his fellow astronauts during an evacuation. Watney logs his initially futile-seeming survival efforts—figuring out how to grow potatoes in lifeless Martian soil, how to reestablish communication with NASA, etc.—for posterity, along with copious whistling-in-the-dark wisecracks. When the book is the monologues of the desperate-yet-snarky Watney it’s a terrific read; later, when Weir shifts the scene to the rescue efforts back on Earth, his touch is less assured.

But The Martian is a real achievement, and first-rate movie source material, and Scott makes it convincing and absorbing. Or, rather, he creates the necessary polished setting for his leading man to make it convincing and absorbing. I heard that Matt Damon was playing the title role before I started Weir’s novel, with the result that I heard Damon’s voice in my head the whole time I was reading Watney’s narrative.

But I think I would have heard something very close to his voice anyway. There are other solid performances in the cast, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor as a NASA honcho, but this is potentially the role of Damon’s career, Jason Bourne notwithstanding. I’m not sure any part he’s played has fit his persona like a spacesuit quite like this boyish, decent-hearted yet smart-ass Tom Swift.

For all Weir’s inventiveness and storytelling flair, his book is so practical-minded that it’s a bit lacking in otherwordly wonder. Scott can help here, bringing an eerie, lonely feel to the Martian landscapes without pushing it. On the downside, he can’t resist embellishing the climactic scenes with unnecessary and hokey derring-do. It’s the movie’s only significant misstep (on its own terms), and it’s forgivable. 

The Martian does have an eccentricity, however: The cultural references are persistently retro even for our time, much less for a story set, presumably, decades from now. The mission Commander (Jessica Chastain) is a geek for ‘70s pop, so Mark is stranded with her collection of disco music and Happy Days reruns for entertainment. This leads to some nostalgic numbers for Boomers on the soundtrack, including one, over the end titles, that in context is particularly funny and apt.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


Happy October everybody!

October at last—my favorite month, especially in Arizona; the month of Halloween and the month of gradually falling temperatures.

Also, it’s the month of Phoenix Magazine’s “Best of the Valley” issue:

Once again, a bunch of this year’s picks were written by Your Humble Narrator. No prizes for guessing which ones, but you can check out the issue here, or on newsstands Valley-wide.

Monster-of-the-Week is back, too. This past weekend, we had a “supermoon,” seen here over Bell Road in north Phoenix...

 …and last week we also had the story about a woman in Indiana who jumped out of her car when frightened by a spider, leaving her 9-year-old son to crash into a school bus (no one was seriously hurt). So, between the two stories…

Monster-of-the-Week: …only one choice seems possible: The terrifyingly realistic giant moon-spider that attacks the astronauts in 1953’s Cat-Women of theMoon (aka Rocket to the Moon):