Thursday, November 26, 2015


Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

Monster-of-the-Week: Frankie, fussing for family!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


Opening today:

CreedThe title refers to the son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s opponent-turned-friend in the Rocky films. Our hero, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the posthumously-born and then orphaned product of an extramarital affair by the fighter, rather graciously raised by Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad). Adonis grows up a rich kid, but pursues a boxing career anyway, not using his Dad’s name initially because he wants to make it on his own. Unable to get L.A. trainers to take him seriously, he travels to Philly and talks his dad’s old pal Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), now a widower and restaurateur, into training him. Word of his lineage leaks, and this leads to a heavyweight title bout in Liverpool with a Brit brute (Tony Bellew) desperate for a payday.

This seventh Rocky movie is the one that most reminded me of the original, and that’s probably not by accident. Except for Rocky the first and Rocky V, it’s the only film in the series not directed by Stallone. Creed’s director is the talented Ryan Coogler, of 2013’s intense yet lucid Fruitvale Station. His naturalistic touch is similar to that of John G. Avildsen, who gave such a lived-in, convincing atmosphere to the 1976 Rocky.

Creed needs this edge, because it’s every bit as melodramatic, sloppily sentimental and realistically dubious as any other Rocky movie. And as with the original, knowing this isn’t likely to help you resist. Creed is a hair overlong—it has a plot complication or two more than it needs—but it quickly pulls us into investing in the hero’s fortunes, and Coogler’s handling of the fights is speedy and supple.

Stallone slips easily into his classic old role and is very entertaining. After four decades his line readings have become such a cliché that it's hard not to chuckle at them, but the chuckles are affectionate.

Probably the biggest key to the film’s success, however, is Michael B. Jordan, who also starred in Fruitvale Station. His Adonis is both wary and callow in a way that’s disarming; you can believe that Rocky would take an avuncular interest in him. He’s also given a love interest, a club singer (Tessa Thompson) who lives in the apartment downstairs. This strand felt obligatory at first, but the two play their scenes together with such directness that I came to care far more about their relationship than about the silly fight.

Victor Frankenstein“You know this story,” we’re told. “A crack of lightning. A mad genius. An unholy creation.” This retelling has all of the above, but is, of all things, a buddy picture. The buddies are the mad visionary of the title (James McAvoy) and Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), here not a toadying assistant but a brilliant collaborator, liberated from cruel servitude as a circus clown and self-trained big top physician. The doc even cures his new pal of his spinal curvature.

The two of them get up to all manner of gruesome mischief in 19th-Century England—piecing together a flyblown chimpanzee-creature is barely the start of it—while they are stalked by a pious, obsessed police detective (Andrew Scott). Igor even gets some romance this time, with a beautiful trapeze artist (Jessica Brown Findlay) from his old gig.

It isn’t the first movie to push the “Igor” character to center stage; the idea goes back at least as far as the 2008 animated feature Igor. Nonetheless, this nutty, headlong gothic, directed by Paul McGuigan from a script by Max Landis, is a spin on this story you haven’t seen, throwing staggeringly improbable character development—when we first meet him, Igor doesn’t even have a name and says he’s never known any kindness, yet he can read, has somehow taught himself human anatomy, and draws like Albrecht Durer—together with 21st-Century-style psychobabble and self-esteem boosting, gore, theological conflict and wild melodramatic action. It’s often ridiculous, but I never found it dull, and McGuigan and Landis lace it with enough sly gags to reassure us that we aren’t being asked to take it seriously.

Radcliffe, with his sympathetic everyman quality, is pleasant company as usual. But it’s McAvoy who really puts on a show. Dashing and manic, he has some of the droll ebullience of the young Tim Curry. McAvoy is the true zap to this movie’s neck-bolts.

Still in theaters: 

BrooklynThis simple, straightforward account of a young Irish girl’s immigrant experience in the title borough gently grips like the reminiscence of a relative. Based on Colm Toibin’s  novel and directed by John Crowley, it follows Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, who sails from County Wexford in the early ‘50s, through seasickness, homesickness, love with an Italian-American guy, family tragedy and a choice between her old and new worlds. Ronan is luminous and sympathetic, the period detail has an idealized radiance, and the plot, though believable, isn’t predictable. You can take your grandparents to this one—it might be their story.

Thursday, November 19, 2015


With Victor Frankenstein opening next week, 20th Century Fox is offering us the chance to dabble in monster-making, with Franken-Friend, a feature that allows you to: “Combine Your Friends’ Faces With Yours To Create Your Own Unholy Abomination.”

Who could resist that?

Here, for instance, is the sample Franken-Friend, pieced together from Victor Frankenstein stars James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe and Jessica Brown Findlay...


Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree is a Franken-friend of my own creation, pieced together from me, Little Richard and Jack Klugman...

Now that’s scaaaary…

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Playing TUESDAY ONLY, November 17, at No Festival Required:

CrumbsSure, I know, you’re sick of all those Ethiopian post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies. Well, who isn’t? But this particular Ethiopian post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie, from the Spanish writer-director Miguel Llanso, also has Michael Jordan worship, Michael Jackson veneration, a Christmas tree, toy dinosaurs lined up on a railroad track, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle in orbit, a witch, a shrewd antiques dealer and a bowling-ball-return machine as a major plot point.

Interested now?

The diminutive, hunchbacked and remarkably appealing hero Candy (Daniel Tadesse), wanders through the wastes of northern Ethiopia, scrounging the crumbs of our apparently crumbled civilization. He and his beautiful, beloved Birdy (Selam Tesfaye) live in an abandoned bowling alley, idyllically for the most part, though Birdy is haunted by nightmares and visions and Candy sometimes runs afoul of masked bandits, sometimes wearing Nazi insignia, sometimes on horseback.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, this movie also has masked horseback-riding or Nazi-insignia-wearing bandits.

Anyway, when the ball-return machine mysteriously comes back to life one day, Birdy theorizes that it might be a signal from the enormous spaceship in the shape of an upraised human arm that’s been hovering in the distance, apparently dormant, for a long time. So Candy trudges off across the wilderness to see if she might be right, and if it might spell a brighter future for them.

Had I mentioned that there’s an enormous spaceship in the shape of an upraised human arm hovering in the distance? There’s an enormous spaceship in the shape of an upraised human arm hovering in the distance.

What I’m saying is, this one is enchanting: Dreamlike—yet dramatically satisfying in a way that deliberately dreamlike movies often aren’t—elliptical, unnerving, sweet and funny. I advise you not to miss it.

Oh, and one more thing—this movie has Santa Claus in it. He’s a skinny, violent-tempered Santa Claus who insists everybody go through channels when asking for presents, so he may not put you in the Christmas spirit, but he’s Santa Claus nonetheless.

Friday, November 13, 2015


Opening this weekend:

Love the CoopersThe Coopers, and their extremely First-World problems, being:

Dad (John Goodman) wants to leave mom (Diane Keaton) because he’s sick of her putting the concerns of their grown kids ahead of their own relationship. She’s talked him into sticking around for one more picturesque family Christmas in their handsome suburban Pittsburgh home.

Meanwhile, Gramps (Alan Arkin) has bonded with a young diner waitress (Amanda Seyfried) and now she’s planning to move away. Son (Ed Helms) has lost his job, and is hiding it from his family. Daughter (Olivia Wilde), dawdling in the Pittsburgh airport, meets a handsome young solider (Jake Lacy) on his way to deployment and talks him into posing as her boyfriend for the holiday in hopes of avoiding the disappointed, disapproving, worried looks of her parents.

Gee, wouldn’t it be something if two of them actually fell in love?

Middle-class whining about what a drag it is to spend time with your family at the holidays is theme which the movies have pretty thoroughly explored over the last few decades. Indeed, Keaton has already starred in a similar ensemble comedy-drama, The Family Stone, back in 2005. She’s one of the executive-producers of Love the Coopers, so she must like this sort of thing, or at least like the sort of money it can make.

Directed by Jessie Nelson from a script by Steven Rogers (which went into production under the better title The Most Wonderful Time), Love the Coopers is slickly produced and more watchable than it really deserves to be. Partly this is thanks to a Starbucks-compilation-CD-style soundtrack of genteel holiday numbers, including Sting’s lovely version of “Soul Cake.” Partly it’s because of the underrated winter beauty of Pittsburgh.

But mostly, as you might guess, it’s because of the ability of that cast to engage, even with fairly blah material. Along with the above, by the way, the ensemble includes June Squibb as a dotty old aunt, and Marisa Tomei and Anthony Mackie as, respectively, Keaton’s shoplifting sister and the cop stuck with taking her in. This promises to become the most interesting strand—Mackie gives his role a little tension and sting, and he and Tomei have a nice rapport—but it peters out without a real payoff.

There’s also narration, but both the (unmistakable) voice of the famous speaker and the identity of the narrator seem meant to be a surprise until the end credits.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


Check out my list, on The Robot’s Voice, of Re-Incarnations of Nick Carter (the oft-revived pulp hero, that is, not the Backstreet Boy).

In item seven on the list, the strange 1977 Czech Nick Carter movie Dinner for Adele, the title character is a marvelously animated carnivorous plant. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …in honor both of Nick Carter and of The Seeds, whose documentary The Seeds: Pushin’ Too Hard plays Friday and Saturday at FilmBar Phoenix, let the lovely Adele be our botanical honoree…

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Playing THIS FRIDAY AND SATURDAY ONLY, November 13 and 14, at FilmBar Phoenix:

The Seeds: Pushin’ Too HardYou know the rock bands you see in ‘60s movies and TV shows, performing in low-angle shots, often with trippy solarized special effects? The Seeds was the epitome of that sort of band. Indeed, at least a couple of times—in Richard Rush’s 1968 Psych-Out, and on an episode of the sitcom The Mothers-in-Law, they were that band.

The scene from The Mothers-in-Law figures prominently in The Seeds: Pushin’ Too Hard, a loving but not fawning documentary chronicling of the swift rise and swifter collapse of this classic American garage/psychedelic/blues ensemble. Formed in L.A. in 1965, the lads were regional favorites in California but had some national success with the title song, as well as “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine,” “Mr. Farmer” and a few other cuts. The original gang had broken up by 1968, but in their brief time they were able to lay claim to originating the idea of, and possibly even the phrase, “Flower Power.”

Directed by Neil Norman (son of GNP Crescendo founder Gene Norman), the documentary is old-school in style, using little in the way of the cutesy graphics currently in vogue in pop documentaries. We just get some narration, by Pamela Des Barres, plenty of old footage of the band, and warm, funny, slightly bemused interviews with surviving Seeds and their families, cronies and admirers. Unsurprisingly, the most amusing talking head out of the latter category is Iggy Pop.

Inevitably, the focus is on Seeds vocalist “Sky Saxon” (aka Richard Marsh, a Mormon kid from Salt Lake City). Combined with the tinny keyboard riffing of Daryl Hooper (very similar to Ray Manzarek’s playing for The Doors), it was Saxon’s haunting voice and his longing, mystical/romantic sexuality that gave The Seeds their evocative sound. Iggy Pop remarks, of Saxon’s voice, “He couldn’t really sing, and neither can anybody else who’s any fuckin’ good.”

After the original Seeds breakup, Saxon took the franchise through several new lineups and reunions, changed his name to “Sunlight,” joined the Source Family religious commune, drifted in and out of touch with this particular plane of reality, was homeless for a time, and had a late renaissance in 2008 collaborating with Smashing Pumpkins before he passed on, at 71, in 2009.

Norman’s movie gets at the comic side of all this—there are times when it can’t help but feel like a real-life version of a Christopher Guest flick. But (also as with Guest’s films at their best) it gets at the poignant beauty in this story as well. It’s a quintessential rock n’ roll tale, and a quintessential California tale, well told.

Director Norman will be at the Friday evening show at FilmBar for a Q&A, and I had the opportunity to interview him, along with producer Alec Palao, by email, about their project. Here’s what they had to say [credit, and appreciation: These questions were crafted by my pal Dave Gofstein, a longtime Seeds buff]:

Q: The Seeds were very much part of the LA mid-to-late ‘60s club scene. What was it about that time & place which fostered groups as diverse as The Turtles, The Doors, Love, Buffalo Springfield, The Seeds, The Byrds etc?

A: It was a combination of several different factors, the baby boomer surge, the rejuvenation of the record business sparked by the Beatles and the British Invasion, and the shift of the record industry’s base from the East Coast to the West. Los Angeles was already an entertainment mecca and southern California had a swelling, music-hungry teenaged population to cater to. Many of the new breed of musicians gravitated to Hollywood because that was where you could be seen and get a contract, and the disposition of the West Coast fostered innovation and tolerated eccentricity. A label like GNP Crescendo, with its eclectic catalogue, played right into that by signing the Seeds.

Q: One of the oft-told tales about The Seeds is that “Mr. Farmer” was on its way to being a “Pushin’ Too Hard”-level hit. Then some DJ or other noticed the lyrics and declared it a Pro-Drug Anthem which stopped the momentum. Any truth to this or is it some ancient PR which has become gospel through years of retelling the tale?

A: This is a myth, but not a PR generated one: more likely from the over-active imagination of a fan. Sky actually intended “Mr. Farmer” as an early paean to the back-to-the-land, sustainable health-conscious mindset of the nascent hippie movement, but in the mid-60s many songs were often misinterpreted or given unintended meanings. 

Q: What was the connection that landed The Seeds on The Mothers-in-Law?

A: This came from Nick Grillo, then agent for the Beach Boys, who at one time was actually going to manage the Seeds. Desi Arnaz directed the episode the Seeds appear in and the clip is featured heavily in the movie. 

Q: Did I miss it, or was “Up in Her Room” never referenced in the movie?

A: You hear it in several places on the soundtrack, but the song is never specifically discussed. It was however covered in the original interviews (quoted in the liner notes). Whenever they performed this live doing they got a standing ovation, even from Supremes fans at the Hollywood Bowl!

Friday, November 6, 2015


Opening this weekend:

 The Peanuts MovieCharlie Brown is trying to fly a kite in winter, on the theory that the Kite-Eating Tree will be dormant. The chaos that ensues is interrupted by the arrival of a new kid moving in across the street from his house. This turns out be a Little Red-Haired Girl, and once Our Hero gets a look at her, he’s in love.

The trouble is, we get a look at her too. It’s true that the Little Red-Haired Girl was shown, very ill-advisedly, in a couple of the later Peanuts movie and TV cartoons, but she was kept offstage in the strip, and she should have been here, too. Showing the Little Red-Haired Girl is like showing Maris on Frasier or Howard’s Mom on The Big Bang Theory or Charlie on Charlie’s Angels or Carlton the Doorman on Rhoda.

This feature version of the greatest American comic strip—and one of the great achievements in 20th-Century literature—is very cute. It’s visually inventive from beginning to end. It has good values at its core. And it doesn’t vulgarize its source material, at least not too much—not nearly as much, certainly, as some of the terrible Peanuts TV cartoons that were made while Charles M. Schultz was alive, presumably with his blessing.

But The Peanuts Movie is still more miss than hit, or at least it was for me. It could be that I’m too close to Peanuts—the strip is a big part of why I fell in love with reading, and I still take my volumes down from the shelf frequently. I’ve been reading and rereading the best vintages of Peanuts (roughly the late ‘50s to the mid ’70s) all my life, and this movie, produced by Craig Schultz (son of Charles) from a story of his devising, doesn’t feel like Peanuts to me. It’s almost Peanuts.

The misstep with the Little Red-Haired Girl isn’t the only one, alas. There’s too much rich texture—to Lucy’s hair, to Charlie Brown’s shoes, to the countryside over which Snoopy flies in search of the Red Baron. Peanuts was an austere world of lines and dots and stock phrases from which Schultz wrung an astonishing half-century’s worth of variations; this movie tries to fill in the details he let our minds fill in.

More disappointingly, The Peanuts Movie turns Charlie Brown from a mythic figure—a loser who strives mightily against his fate as a loser, and doesn’t overcome it—into a standard kids-movie underdog who triumphs. It’s true that he triumphs for the best of reasons—his selflessness and honesty—but it still robs him of his neurotic complexity and his pained, unrecognized heroism.

“Winning is great,” Schultz once observed, “but it isn’t funny.” The unflinching moral of Peanuts is that some people really are born losers, and that this sucks for them, but it doesn’t mean that their lives are without value. The first Peanuts movie, 1969’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown, ended on this note, but it’s not the sort of thing that the makers of a big-budget contemporary animated movie can embrace.

This, maybe, is why the meandering story lacks tension and emotional weight. When the Charlie Brown of the strip or the earlier TV cartoons said “Rats!” or was told “Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown!” it landed like a blow. The Peanuts Movie isn’t a disgrace, but it pulls its punches. It’s in 3-D, but it has less depth than a line drawing.

SpectreJames Bond, it could be argued, is sort of the anti-Charlie Brown: confident, assured, decisive, in command, and always a winner with the ladies, Red-Haired and otherwise. It’s only since Daniel Craig took over the role that the Bond movies have begun to seriously explore the idea that he’s no less neurotic or unhappy for all that.

This new one takes 007 from Mexico City to Rome to Austria to Tangier and back to London, chasing down a final tip from the late M (Judi Dench) that leads to an old enemy (Christoph Waltz). Meanwhile the new M (Ralph Fiennes) is struggling to keep a bureaucrat from shutting down the Double-0 program and, incidentally, turning the world into one big cyber-surveillance police state. Q (Ben Wishaw) and Moneypenny (charming Naomie Harris) get caught up in the intrigue this time too.

Watching the old Bond pictures, with their excesses and chauvinisms, used to feel like a Paleolithic indulgence—like letting yourself enjoy something that was bad for you, and probably bad for the world. The Bonds featuring Craig, with his wearily amused old-shoe face and his effortless poise, seemed to be trying for more emotional and moral depth.

Until this one, that is. Despite the relevance of the supposed theme to current civil rights concerns, these are old-fashioned Bond antics—preposterously overscaled set-piece action scenes, women succumbing to 007’s charms, urbane courtesies between Bond and his enemies. It’s also way overlong.

Having said that, I mostly enjoyed Spectre anyway. Director Sam Mendes doesn’t ask us to take the proceedings too seriously—though it’s less overtly facetious, it’s not much less cornball than the Roger Moore Bonds—so I just enjoyed it for its old-fashioned movie serial silliness.

Also, Monica Bellucci appears as an assassin’s widow with whom Bond hooks up. It’s a brief role, but a little Monica Bellucci is better than no Monica Bellucci, I always say.

Plus, the title sequence features a really cool octopus.

Thursday, November 5, 2015


With The Peanuts Movie opening this weekend, check out my list, on The Robot's Voice, of Strange and Nerdy Manifestations of Peanuts. One item…

Monster-of-the-Week: …is this week’s honoree: Frankenbeagle!

I found him on sale, post-Halloween, at PetSmart, and so he came home with me, along with Snoopy-as-a-skeleton and Snoopy-as-Dracula…

…one for each of our Chihuahuas. Here’s Sadie, bonding with her new pal...