Thursday, June 30, 2016


With The BFG, which stands for Big Friendly Giant, opening tomorrow…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s give the nod to the big not-so friendly giant…

…from the 1970 shocker Equinox. Though that movie, an expansion of a 1967 student film by future multi-Oscar-winning special effects master Dennis Muren, is full of spectacular stop motion effects, this big fellow (Jim Duron) was generated through low-tech forced perspective.

By the way, wouldn’t “The FG” be less redundant?

Friday, June 24, 2016


Opening this weekend:

The ShallowsFew would argue that Jaws—which, it was recently pointed out to me, turns 41 this month—is the greatest shark movie ever made. But one could probably go farther—it may be the only really good shark movie ever made. Its official sequels ranged from weak to laughable, none of its many rip-offs were classics, Deep Blue Sea had the one great scene with Samuel L. Jackson but little else to recommend it, and the Sharknado movies were terrible on purpose.

Now comes The Shallows, sort of a feature-length version of the opening scene of Jaws, if the young woman had been able to fight back. Blake Lively plays Nancy, a lapsed American med student who, as a memorial to her late mother, goes surfing at a secluded beach in Mexico (though the film was actually shot in Australia).

She stays in the water a hair too long, and finds herself alone, injured and trapped on a rock, under siege from a particularly persistent great white shark. Her medical skills come into play, gruelingly, in treating her own injuries, but high tide will submerge her rock, so before long she’ll have to try to make it either to shore or to the buoy nearby.

That’s pretty much the movie, and for most of its length it’s pretty gripping. Director Jaume Collet-Serra and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski handle the initial buildup deliciously, and manage some clever gimmicks to create the illusion that the story, with its static basic situation, is moving forward.

Best of all, Blake Lively is up to the task of carrying the picture herself. Lively’s supporting role in Ben Affleck’s The Town demonstrated she could act, but here she’s the whole show. She and Oscar Jaenada, as a local guy who gives her a ride, get a nice rapport going in a brief scene near the beginning, but on the whole the rest of the cast are bit players. Much of Lively’s footage here consists of her screaming in terror or groaning in pain, but this doesn’t become tedious, and she finds ways, through the glimpses of personality she’s permitted to offer, to make a portrait of a likable, admirable, believable young woman emerge.

Structurally, The Shallows is almost identical to 2013’s Gravity: A showcase role of a bereaved woman struggling to survive after a disaster. And it has exactly the same key flaw—after a mostly convincing first two-thirds, it lets itself slide into cornball action melodrama in its homestretch. We’re led to believe that Nancy will find some ingenious way to outsmart her fishy foe, but the final clash is like something out of a Schwarzenegger movie. It’s still reasonably entertaining, but a bit of a letdown after such a strong start.

Even if this weren’t the case, though, The Shallows would still fall far short of Jaws for another reason—the shark doesn’t look real. The shark effects here are well above average for the CGI era, but they still have that unmistakable whiff of insubstantial ghostliness, compared to the hardcore presence of the robot shark in Jaws.

Thus the shark in The Shallows never really becomes a character, but formidable as Lively is, she does get upstaged: An injured seagull, marooned on the same rock, keeps regarding Nancy with an unimpressed scowl and an occasional cranky screech. This very real bird is a fine performer, and his vivid individuality demonstrates the limits of CGI.

Thursday, June 23, 2016


Since it’s June, a bridal theme seems in order, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …how about this Bride of Frankenstein doll, I mean action figure, from ReAction Figures that I found recently on a discount table…

Notice that I had to take her “As Is.” You know, for better or worse.

I also like how she seems—not intentionally, I think—to be wearing a pantsuit. Nontraditional chic.

Friday, June 17, 2016


Opening this weekend:

De PalmaFor all the faults of his movies, even for all the supposed great faults of his character, I’ve always had a soft spot for director Brian De Palma. This isn’t always easy to defend—while the frequent charge that he’s a misogynist can’t, I think, be proven from his movies, the general smarminess and arrested adolescence that many of them give off is hard to deny.

But his filmmaking mastery is even harder to deny. There’s a lot of schlock and silliness on the list of his credits, but there are several enduring classics, too, and I find that scenes from even his worst misfires remain in my memory in a way that plenty of better movies don’t. This is because, of course, he’s a true cinema stylist, lavishing so much craft and obsessive care on even the most absurd or ugly content that it ends up charged with vivid atmosphere.

Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow apparently share this admiration. The documentary they made about him comes across, more than anything, as an act of obsessive fandom. The only talking head is the title character, sitting in front of a gray fireplace. First he talks about his background, a little, and then he talks about his films—every one of them, I think, at least briefly—and the films that influenced him. As he talks, clips and stills are mixed in. That’s pretty much the whole movie.

The austerity of Baumbach and Paltrow’s approach is shrewd, because the material on which they draw is so cinematically rich. The biographical material is fascinating—I certainly didn’t know that De Palma’s father was a famous osteopath, or that the director himself had been a science whiz as a kid—and the straightforward progression through his works gives a bird’s-eye view of his development. The clips offer some intriguing treasures, too, like the unused deus ex machina ending of 1998’s Snake Eyes that’s more interesting than anything that made it into the finished film.

As for his own psychology, the ruefully chuckling De Palma seems candid enough, in a general sort of way. But although he shares some eyebrow-raising autobiographical subtext to Dressed to Kill, overall he seems unwilling to go very deep. Unlike, say, 1994’s Crumb, this movie doesn’t strip its subject naked for us. He’s evasive about his sensibility toward women, for instance, saying only that it “always made sense” to him, in the context of the genre in which he was working. And indeed, adjusting for generational differences in the degree of graphic violence acceptable in a movie, it’s hard to see how Hitchcock, for the most obvious example, is less vulnerable to this charge than De Palma.

In any event, De Palma can lay claim, at least for me, to the highest praise a documentary about a moviemaker can earn. Like last year’s movie version of Hitchcock/Truffaut, it left me with an appetite to re-watch these movies. 

 Finding DoryPixar’s 2003 animated ichthyological smash Finding Nemo is one of the most beloved of all kid movies. But I think I enjoyed this sequel focusing on Dory, the cheery titular blue tang with the unreliable short-term memory who helped in the search for the title fish in the first film, even more.

This time Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, is trying to find her home and parents (Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy), from whom she was separated as a kid, and the worrywart clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his little Nemo are helping her. Once again they have to cross the ocean, this time to a marine center on the California coast. And once again they have to depend on the kindness of strangers, notably an octopus named Hank (Ed O’Neill), as well as a whale shark and a beluga. Dory is also amusingly guided by a voice from above—specifically, the voice of Sigourney Weaver.

The imperturbable, doggedly polite optimism and geniality of DeGeneres is center stage here, and deeply endearing. Her off-the-cuff, throwaway delivery, along with the mild kvetching of Brooks, is central to the movie’s balance. The theme, along with the Pixar/Disney standard of separation from loved ones, is the preciousness and vulnerability of memory, and the light touch of DeGeneres makes this moving, but not exhausting.

To Mesa Arts Center this Sunday, June 19…

 …comes a different iconic American filmmaker of the ‘70s and ‘80s: John Carpenter. The auteur plays a concert of his own music, both from his films and from a couple of recent studio albums. Check out my interview with him, on New Times blogs.

Thursday, June 16, 2016


Finding Dory opens Friday, and in a perhaps unfortunate bit of timing Saturday, June 18 is National Sushi Day. In honor of the latter occasion, Your Humble Narrator devoted the "Four Corners" column in this month's edition of Phoenix Magazine...

…to four Valley sushi joints.

In honor of both occasions…

Monster-of-the-Week: …the nod this week goes to the huge primordial fish…

…that comes up from the depths in 1979’s Up From the Depths. My pal, master thespian James Ward, then a teenager in The Philippines—where the film was actually shot, though it was set in Hawaii—can be glimpsed as a beach extra in this laugh-riot Jaws rip-off.

Monday, June 13, 2016


In anticipation of De Palma, the upcoming documentary about the director by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, Phoenix Film Festival is presenting “De Palma Week,” June 13 through June 16 at Scottsdale 101. Three of De Palma’s major works will be screened, one each night at 7 p.m., followed on the final evening by a screening of the documentary. Admission to the first three evenings is just $5; tickets to the De Palma screening are not available for purchase, but must be won; there will be opportunities to do so at the three earlier screenings:

June 13: CarrieDe Palma’s 1976 version of Steven King’s novel, the first movie adaptation of King’s work, was a smash, and probably started the process of turning King into American horror’s household name. For this sad, scary fairy tale of a picked-on, outcast high school girl (Sissy Spacek) with telekinetic powers who raises hell at her senior prom, De Palma uses his characteristic tricks—spilt screens, slow motion, long sinuous tracking shots—to cast a dreamlike spell. Both Spacek and Piper Laurie as Carrie’s religious fanatic mother got Oscar nominations, and the young John Travolta, Nancy Allen and Amy Irving are also in the cast. The final jolt is a classic; I can remember the screams in the theater (including my own) when I saw it the first time.

June 14: ScarfaceOne of the signature American movies of the ‘80s, De Palma’s 1983 gangster saga reset the 1932 classic in Miami, and gave Al Pacino, hamming vigorously, the second most famous role of his career, that of Tony Montana, the Cuban refugee turned killer turned cocaine kingpin. As with so much of De Palma’s work, the film is loaded with bloody violence and carnage, presented in elegant, finely-constructed sequences. The pace bogs down some in the second half—until the wild shootout finale, that is, from which derives Pacino’s now-familiar catchphrase, as he’s about to let loose at his enemies with a comically enormous automatic weapon: “Say hello to my leetle friend!”

The June 15 offering was a “Viewer’s Choice,” between Dressed to Kill and Carlito’s Way. The online voting is completed, and though I like 1993’s Carlito’s Way, another gangster melodrama with Al Pacino, I’m glad the choice is: 

Dressed to KillDe Palma’s 1980 homage to Hitchcock, this gruesome psychological thriller with Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson and Nancy Allen seems, in some ways, like the quintessential expression of De Palma’s twisted psyche, for better and worse. The sensibility of the movie, which De Palma also scripted, has aged poorly—both the horrifying brutality of the central murder sequence and the implications of the story’s twist ending are unsavory. But as an exercise in technique, it packs at least as much of a punch as it ever did.

Finally, on June 16, the series will conclude with the special screening of Baumbach and Paltrow’s documentary De Palma, which gives the man in question a chance to explain himself.

Go to for details.

Thursday, June 9, 2016


In one of his smack-talk riffs in the lead-up to his 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle…”

…the great Muhammad Ali famously dubbed his opponent George Foreman “The Mummy,” for his immobility, and prophesied (accurately) that he, Ali, would be “The Mummy’s Curse” that night (you can hear it about three minutes into this David Frost interview).

So, in Ali’s honor (and Foreman’s, for that matter)…

Monster-of-the-Week: …the nod goes to the Mummy Kharis, aka Lon Chaney, Jr., in 1944’s The Mummy’s Curse

That’s what made Ali The Champ, I guess. Unlike him, the Mummy always scared the crap out of me...

Monday, June 6, 2016


OK, now it’s my turn to tell my version of the story about that time I met Muhammad Ali:

This was at a soup kitchen in South Phoenix somewhere, I don’t remember when exactly, but it would have been in the late ‘90s or very early 2000s, when I was at New Times. It was late on a Friday afternoon, and I think it was around the holidays, as Ali was there to put in some volunteer work and promote the place.

He showed up right on time, got out of the limo, hobbled over to the surprisingly few media people who had shown up, smiled, shook our hands, and mock-punched at a few of us, including me. Then we followed him into the kitchen, where he was adorned in an apron and toque, and started serving diners.

Lots of people have better stories about Ali than this fleeting encounter, especially here  in the Valley where he became such a public part of the community (some years later I glanced up while walking across a parking lot and saw the words “HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHAMP” sky-written over Paradise Valley). And my take-away from it isn’t anything special, either: Simply that the man had charisma. Even limited by his illness—he didn’t speak at that event, at least not while I was within earshot of him—he had a riveting presence.

Inconsequential as this meeting was to anyone else, however, it meant something to me, because even though I’ve never been a boxing fan, I had been a fan of Ali since childhood. I vividly remember the early ‘70s, when Ali’s bouts with Joe Frazier were talked about constantly, and the boys I went to school with in mostly white and heavily racist rural Pennsylvania, undoubtedly following what their dads told them, rooted for Frazier, because Ali was seen as uppity. I always preferred Ali, however, because he was funny. I was terribly disappointed when he lost the “Fight of the Century” in ’71, and my classmates crowed triumphantly.

Lots of people are also far better equipped than I am to discuss Ali as athlete, activist and man. But in ensuing decades, during which he became one of the most widely admired people in the world—one of the few people toward whom the Irony Generation seemed willing to show some reverence—I have also wondered at times if it’s Ali we have to thank for the culture of “trash-talk” and braggadocio that in recent years has largely replaced modesty and civility as the ideal in sportsmanship, and now other spheres, notably the political.

Ali’s boastful riffs are in the ancient Plautine tradition of the Miles Gloriosus, the Braggart Warrior, but Ali took this persona to a different level—he gave it validity and beauty. He sometimes took his act too far, by his own admission (he apologized publicly, albeit years later, for some of his taunts at Frazier, for instance) but his routines, delivered in that mellow yet subtly provoking voice, were always witty, playful and—most important—undergirded by a palpable love of humankind. If contemporary athletes, celebrities and political figures imagine that their blustering self-aggrandizement and mindless insulting of rivals are somehow Ali-esque, they’re very much mistaken.

RIP Champ.

Friday, June 3, 2016


Opening this weekend: 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the ShadowsThe title characters, four talking adolescent turtles oddly named after Old Masters of the Italian Renaissance, were parented, and mentored in martial arts, by a talking mutant rat. They live in the sewers of New York, and secretly defend the city from freaky wrongdoers, abetted only by fetching TV reporter April O’Neil and a few other allies.

This sounds crazy, but if you can look past the fact that the characters are turtles (and a rat), is it really any crazier, in terms of plausibility, than the X-Men or the Justice League? In any case, the quartet has been popular, in everything from comics to cartoons to live shows to movies, for about thirty years now, and in 2014 the movie series was “rebooted,” enjoyably enough.

In this sequel, directed by Dave Green, the villainous Shredder (Brian Tee), captured at the end of the previous movie, gets sprung from an armored vehicle by his motorcycle-borne minions. He’s then recruited by a repulsive alien warlord for a plot to, what else, take over the world.

The bad guys get a hold of some purplish gunk that transforms two of Shredder’s henchmen into monstrous rhino and warthog mutants, respectively. This same gunk also has the potential to turn the Turtles human, which might allow them to come out of the shadows and be accepted by the people of the Big Apple. Disagreement over whether this is a good idea sows dissension among the quartet.

In the midst of all the ensuing chases and fights, such pros as Laura Linney, as a police honcho, and Tyler Perry, as a nerdy scientist on Shredder’s team, struggle to hold their own against the CGI characters, and mostly succeed. Megan Fox is back as April, this time provided with Stephen Amell as love interest Casey Jones. Will Arnett is back, too, as April’s wacky sidekick Vern.

The finale involves a big time-space portal opening over Manhattan and the alien’s war machinery pouring out. We’ve seen this shtick at least twice before, in The Avengers and in Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and now it needs a nice long hiatus. But overall I enjoyed this silly summer movie. It couldn’t be less consequential, but it’s speedy, action packed and good natured.

It’s a hair more violent than I would have expected from a movie for kids in this day and age, but then I’m not sure to what extent younger kids really are the target audience here. The franchise began, after all, in the mid-‘80s. Many of the TMNT t-shirts I saw at the screening were worn by thirty- and forty-somethings.

Thursday, June 2, 2016


Well, Alice Through the Looking Glass opened last weekend, and since the Jabberwock has already been an honoree…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s honor the frumious Bandersnatch, another creature mentioned in Lewis Carroll’s classic. John Tenniel didn’t do one of his marvelous illustrations of the Bandersnatch, alas, but here’s how the 2010 film depicted it…

And here’s an example of the creature’s frumious mayhem, described in Lewis Carroll’s later work “The Hunting of the Snark”:

     But while he was seeking with thimbles and care,
          A Bandersnatch swiftly drew nigh
     And grabbed at the Banker, who shrieked in despair,
          For he knew it was useless to fly.
     He offered large discount—he offered a cheque
          (Drawn "to bearer") for seven-pounds-ten:
     But the Bandersnatch merely extended its neck
          And grabbed at the Banker again.
     Without rest or pause—while those frumious jaws
          Went savagely snapping around—
     He skipped and he hopped, and he floundered and flopped,
          Till fainting he fell to the ground.
     The Bandersnatch fled as the others appeared
          Led on by that fear-stricken yell:
     And the Bellman remarked "It is just as I feared!"
          And solemnly tolled on his bell…