Friday, July 29, 2016


Opening this week:

NerveEmma Roberts is Vee, a straight-laced Staten Island high schooler who becomes a “Player” in the illicit online game of the title. Play involves taking, and video-recording, outrageous, often extremely dangerous dares, in return for money and views by “Watchers.” Vee thinks she'll take one dare as a lark and to prove to her friends (and to herself) that she's not so square. But then she meets Ian (Dave Franco), a motorcycle-riding Player, and the ante, both in money and peril, keeps getting upped, and before long she's riding through Manhattan on the back of his bike while he's blindfolded, or crossing a ladder extended between two buildings.

Early on, we're invited to share Vee's fun and exhilaration at her first few relatively harmless dares. As the story progresses, it grows more sinister and suspenseful. At least until its rather improbably epic finale, Nerve, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman from a script by Jessica Sharzer (based on Jeanne Ryan's novel) is well-paced and engagingly acted—it has the potential to be a minor teen-flick classic.

But there's a worrying side to this. While they usually aren't on this scale, idiotic dares among teenagers are a very real thing. I hope that the target audience here doesn't ignore its cautionary side in favor of the glamorized risky behavior. The idea of attempting to act out this movie in real life could get on any parent's last...well, you know.

Life, AnimatedThe life in question in this documentary is that of Owen Suskind, the younger son of Wall Street Journal writer Ron Suskind. Owen stopped speaking when he was three years old, was diagnosed with autism, and seemed only to be pacified by watching Disney animated films. Gradually his family realized that his movie watching wasn't mindless self-stimulation; he used the characters and conflicts to make sense of his own life, and this enabled him to re-engage with the world.

Directed by Roger Ross Williams from Ron Suskind's like-titled book, the movie is initially heartbreaking, then thrilling. We soon see that what Owen does is only a slightly more extreme version of what many of us do with, say, Shakespeare, or Marvel Comics, or Star Trek—use them as an allegorical shorthand for our own life challenges.

Owen has a fine screen presence, with hints of an ironic sensibility, as in his offhand use of effusive adjectives. But he also has a straightforward lucidity, especially in the face of sadness, that's highly admirable. And he has the soul of a storyteller himself—his own hero narrative, about a boy protecting the Disney sidekicks from a mind-clouding villain called Fuzzbutch, is stirringly rendered in this movie by the French animation company Mac Guff.

Owen's adoring parents and older brother also make a deeply touching impression. And a word should be said for Ron Suskind's performing skills—when he recounts imitating Iago, the nasty little parrot from Aladdin, as the first time he used a Disney character to connect with his son, he does a pretty respectable Gilbert Gottfried.

Phantom BoyWhile we're on the subject of French animation: This French-Belgian co-production by Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli (the guys who made 2010's A Cat in Paris), is a gem. Set in New York, it follows title character Leo, a gravely ill boy who has learned to leave his own body and zip around the Manhattan skyline.

In this manner Leo helps a hospital-bound young police detective and a Lois Lane-ish reporter outfox The Face, a super-villain so called because his mug resembles a Picasso portrait (he's voiced here by Vincent D'Onofrio; the voice cast of the English version also includes Fred Armisen and Jared Padalecki). The movie's best comedy arises from The Face's attempts at high villainous flourishes, undermined by his doltish henchmen and his hapless dog Rufus.

The story elements have the familiar flavor of old-school cartoons and European kids' adventure books or comics, but they're wittily recombined here—Tintin meets Casper—and the two-dimensional drawing of the characters, with their simplified, dot-and-dash facial features, is effective. Better still is the rain-on-the-sidewalk atmosphere of the settings. There's a light touch to this movie, an un-fussy feel that it's not oppressively overproduced. It's refreshing.

Thursday, July 28, 2016


RIP to a couple of big names in the macabre: William “Chilly Billy” Cardille, passed on at 87, and Jack Davis, passed on at 91.

Chilly Billy was the revered host of Chiller Theatre on Pittsburgh’s WIIC/WPXI, and played the reporter in the final minutes of the original Night of the Living Dead.

 He also hosted a kid show, Tip-Top Merry-Go-Round, on WICU in my beloved hometown of Erie, PA.

Davis, of course, was the legendary EC Comics and MAD Magazine artist who drew, among many, many other credits… 

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree, the magnificent “Giant Life Size Frankenstein Pin-Up” (OVER 6 FEET TALL!), available in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland for a mere two bucks…

I checked eBay; he sells for a lot more now…

Friday, July 22, 2016


Opening this weekend:

Star Trek: BeyondThis movie felt sort of like Star Trek, and sort of like Star Trek is about as much, I suspect, as I’m ever likely to get from this “rebooted” series. But like the first and second entries—maybe more so—it’s entirely entertaining on its own terms, a lively, action-packed space opera of no particular depth but with a warm, rousing, all-for-one-and-one-for-all spirit.

While on a rescue mission, the Enterprise is invaded by the minions of a scary ogre called Krall (Idris Elba). The ship is torn apart and the crew members are captured or marooned in small groups on a nearby planet. Gradually they regroup and their diverse skills come into play in overcoming their enemies. So do Public Enemy and Beastie Boys.

Chris Pine continues to make a respectable, somehow irked Kirk, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban share a droll interplay as Spock and McCoy, Zoe Saldana brings her usual touch of melancholy to Uhura, John Cho is a stalwart Sulu, and the late Anton Yelchin gives touchingly guileless line readings as Chekhov.

Luckiest here, maybe (and perhaps not surprisingly, since he co-scripted) is Simon Pegg as Scotty. The engineer falls in with a seriously elegant alien warrior, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who provides the gang with their means of escape. She could make an excellent addition to the standard cast of characters.

Absolutely Fabulous: The MovieIf memory serves, I’ve never seen even one episode of Absolutely Fabulous (or AbFab) the beloved, oft-revived 1992 BBC comedy by Jennifer Saunders, though I was aware of its popularity in the UK and its devoted cult in the States. So I suppose that seeing this movie version was, for me, something like seeing Return to Mayberry (1986) for a person who’d never seen an episode of The Andy Griffith Show.

That is, I can’t say if this film comes close to capturing the flavor of the series, if the characters come across like they’re supposed to, if the timing feels right. And no doubt there are gags and references that were lost on me, because of my unfamiliarity both with the show and with the London fashion/showbiz milieu in which it’s set.

But, for whatever it may worth, I can tell you that on its own terms, I found AbFab: The Movie an inconsequential but perfectly pleasant way to squander an hour and a half, and that it made me chuckle out loud several times. Like the show, it follows the adventures of selfish, cadging, drug-and-booze addled PR agent Edina Monsoon (Saunders) and her party girl pal Patsy (Joanna Lumley), trying to cope with a lack of clients, money and career options, as well as the horrified awareness that they’re aging.

The plot involves Edina learning that Kate Moss (well played by Kate Moss; the film teems with celebrities playing themselves) is looking for new PR representation. In an overeager attempt to get her attention at a party, she seemingly causes the supermodel’s death, and instantly becomes a hunted national pariah.

Somehow she and Patsy end up in the south of France, and Patsy ends up in drag as a man, trying to obtain an inheritance for the two of them to live on. Edina’s daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha), granddaughter Lola (Ideyarna Donaldson-Holness) and bizarre assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks), among many other characters from the old show, get caught up in the antics as well.

Saunders, who also wrote the script, carries the picture energetically. But she’s ably supported by Lumley, who was my favorite person in the film—always on hand to provide an unexpected growl or snarl when the situation seems to require it. She’s particularly poised and commanding as a man; she could teach the current crop of male movie leads a thing or two, and she earns the twist on Some Like it Hot with which the picture ends.

Ice Age: Collision CourseThe saber-toothed squirrel Scrat, engaged as always in trying to secure his beloved, elusive acorn, stumbles into a flying saucer frozen in the ice and launches it into space. He quickly, and hilariously, becomes the cause of such astronomical phenomena as the red spot on Jupiter, Saturn’s rings and the asteroid belt. All this is before the opening title.

He also sets a meteor on a collision course with earth, and the series regulars—Manny the mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano), his wife Ellie (Queen Latifah), Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo), Diego the saber-toothed tiger (Denis Leary), eye-patched weasel Buck (Simon Pegg, competing with himself this weekend in Star Trek: Beyond), etc—must band together to find some way to avert this apocalypse. In short, this fifth feature installment of the animated series, set earlier in the Quaternary Period, is the most fanciful yet.

That’s not all bad. With his anguished wails against his existential plight, Scrat is a great cartoon character in the Wile E. Coyote tradition, and his episodes here are so speedy and inventive that at times I found myself wishing they were the whole movie. But they aren’t, and the dysfunction-in-the-mammoth-family drama is a drag on the picture.

There is, however, an episode in which Simon Pegg’s Buck gets to sing his own version of Rossini’s “Largo al factotum” while rescuing an egg that’s rather good. One of Buck’s enemies refers to him at one point, by the way, as a “one-eyed weasel,” a phrase that had a non-literal and R-rated meaning when I was in high school. Was this deliberate, I wonder, or sheer chance?

Thursday, July 21, 2016


With Ice Age: Collision Course opening this weekend, I went to the movie’s page and was able to push one of my dogs, Lily…

…back down the evolutionary scale and turn her into…

Monster-of-the-Week: …a primordial version of herself, and this week’s honoree...

You can do the same for your pet!

Friday, July 15, 2016


Opening this weekend:

GhostbustersKristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones assume the title roles in this “reboot” of the 1984 slapstick-supernatural fave. Anticipation of the film has ranged from enthusiasm to hysterical outrage. Maybe because I liked but didn’t revere the original—full of favorites of mine, but not representing the greatest work of any of them—I went in with neither attitude, and was pleasantly surprised.

I’ve heard it theorized that the sexist fury over the distaff casting may have been exaggerated and harnessed to help market the film. That’s possible, I suppose—and admirable, if so—but I doubt that it was whole-cloth fabricated. About a decade and a half ago, I worked as a publicist for a comedy club, and I can attest that the wearying belief that “women aren’t funny,” at least not to the same degree as men, is genuinely held within the comedy world (Christopher Hitchens also notoriously forwarded the opinion).

This sensibility—comedy as a kind of machismo—may be shifting, however. With the possible exceptions of Kevin Hart and Seth Rogen, I can’t think of any male American comedy stars that are currently as reliably bankable in the movies as McCarthy and Wiig, and none that are more so. Somebody thinks these women are funny.

All of this, however, is of more sociological than cinematic interest. The new Ghostbusters, directed by Paul Feig, is no more a masterpiece than the old one, but it’s an engaging variation, hitting most of its iconic aspects—the New York setting, the hearse, Slimer, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man and many cameos—while allowing the stars their own characterizations. Wiig is prim, McCarthy is brash, Jones is openhearted.

The wild card is the certifiable McKinnon, with her avid sidelong glances and her through-the-teeth tone of sly, conspiratorial intimacy. Also amusing is Chris Hemsworth as their brainless secretary; this male lead seems happy in the role of ditzy eye candy.

EqualsThis sci-fi romance is set in a distant future in which everyone wears summery white and maintains a blandly polite, emotionless manner. It could be called Planet of the Cater-Waiters. Coworkers Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart realize they're suffering from a dreaded condition called SOS—“Switched-On Syndrome"; possibly the movie’s wittiest gag—when they fall in love, and have to hide it. Eventually they find an underground of fellow “hiders,” that is, secretly emotional people.

Directed by Drake Doremus from a script by Nathan Parker, this cross between Romeo and Juliet and Brave New World seems slightly campy at first—a hushed, austere version of '70s dystopias like THX 1138 or ZPG or Zardoz or Rollerball or Logan's Run. But it gradually finds its own voice, gathers emotional force toward the end, and proves an ingenious gem.

Thursday, July 14, 2016


Your Humble Narrator has never been much of a toy car guy. Certainly I owned a few toy cars as a kid, but they were mostly fodder; their usual role was to be stomped or otherwise menaced by rampant dinosaurs or space monsters. Cars racing, or crashing in demolition derbies, held little appeal for me, though I had plenty of friends who regarded this as the highest form of play.

But at a vendor’s event last March I happened upon a fellow selling Hot Wheels, hundreds of them, in a startling variety of fanciful makes and models. I don’t remember having Hot Wheels cars as a kid—to the extent I cared, I was a Matchbox man—but I spotted one among this guy’s wares that I had to own, paid him a buck, and now…

Monster-of-the-Week: …it’s this week’s honoree, the Eevil Weevil…

…a sort of cybernetic car-scorpion. I learn online that the design has been around since 1986, though the current coloration of the creature’s eyes suggest, if Shakespeare’s Iago is to be believed, that its sting is that of jealousy...

Friday, July 8, 2016


Opening this weekend:

The Secret Life of PetsWhen I open the garage door most evenings around six, I can hear the excited yelping and whining start. Then I walk into the house, and my dogs greet me with a joyous exuberance that, quite frankly, my human family rarely seems able to muster.

It’s always one of the best parts of my day, and the moments like it are the best parts of the new animated movie The Secret Life of Pets. The film’s key joke is that its characters—supposedly apartment-bound Manhattan pets—get out and have epic adventures of which their owners never know.

That’s a pretty good joke, and it’s a pretty enjoyable film, but the adventure we see is a bit contrived and over-plotted. It’s really the scenes, near the beginning and end, of loving interaction between pets and owners that carry an unexpected emotional weight—they can fill you with gratitude for being in a position to have nonhuman friends.

Our hero is Max (voiced by Louis CK), a little white-and-brown terrier who shares a walk-up with a young single woman. When she leaves in the morning for what must be a really high-paying job, Max passes the time, through the windows and across the fire escapes, with the neighboring pets, among them a blasé cat (Lake Bell) and a fuzzy white Pomeranian (Jenny Slate) with a crush on him.

One evening Max’s owner comes home with, horror of horrors, a new dog—Duke (Eric Stonestreet), a shaggy, intrusive mutt. They don’t hit it off at first, but when the two of them end up lost in the streets and threatened by Animal Control, they of course have no choice but to bond.

It’s at this point that The Secret Life of Pets gets in a bit over its head, with too many characters and plot points. Max and Duke fall in, for instance, with a band of homeless exotic pets living in the sewers, led by a cute but revolutionary rabble-rousing bunny, voiced by Kevin Hart in his usual tone of hilariously aggrieved indignation. Meanwhile the Pomeranian and Max’s other neighbors mount a rescue mission, eventually enlisting the aid of a falcon (Albert Brooks) and a basset hound (Dana Carvey) with wheels on his back legs.

There are also digressions involving a surreal visit to a sausage factory, and an attempt to find Duke’s previous owner. Most of these strands are strong and funny in themselves, but there are too many of them, and they encrust the movie with complications that require laborious resolution.

Two other complaints: This is the second animated kid movie I’ve seen in the last few weeks—Finding Dory was the other—that included a scene of a van with animals trapped inside it crashing off of a bridge and plunging into the water. Maybe movies aimed at this sort of demographic could consider going a bit easier on the Hal Needham-style car crash action?

And finally, this movie is one of many in the genre that continue the stereotype of the stupid and gleeful animal control officer. I get that the “Evil Dogcatcher” is a venerable archetype, but in reality these people provide an essential public service, and I’d guess that many of them are animal lovers. Also, as unfortunate as an animal in a pound may be, it’s still almost invariably better off than an animal lost in the streets, and the old idea of the happy-go-lucky stray dog or cat is, I think, pernicious—it has helped to perpetuate the idea of abandoning animals as a legitimate option. It’s time to humanely euthanize all of these clichés.

Wiener-DogThe hapless wanderings of a domestic animal are also the basis for this very different movie, the latest from Todd Solondz.

The title character is a small, thick-bodied dachshund with a stoic face. Via unkind twists of fate and irresponsible human behavior, she falls in with a variety of wretched people. First there’s a disastrous stretch with a disagreeable older dad (Tracey Letts), younger French mom (Julie Delpy) and their sugary-voiced, obtuse, flute-playing, cancer-surviving son (Keaton Nigel Cooke). Then she’s reprieved by a self-esteem-less assistant (Greta Gerwig) from the vet’s office, and goes on a road trip with this doormat and her new sort-of-boyfriend (Kieran Culkin).

This is followed by an intermission “snipe” featuring a “Ghost Riders in the Sky”-style song, “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog,” by Marc Shaiman. This brief passage is the least excruciating part of the film.

It’s not made clear how the Wiener-Dog lands in her next home, that of a sad-sack screenwriting professor (Danny DeVito), nor how she gets from there to the home of an unhappy old woman (Ellen Burstyn) who names her “Cancer.” The Wiener-Dog is the center of some of these strands, while in others she’s little more than a perplexed observer. The only time in the movie that she takes any decisive action, it’s catastrophic.

It’s difficult for me to express how likable I found this dog, and how unlikable I found this movie. I can pretty much promise you that if you’re a mushy-brained, sentimental dog lover, you’ll despise it. I’m a mushy-brained, sentimental dog-lover, and I despised it.

But I think my dislike of Wiener-Dog didn’t derive only from my sappiness where dogs are concerned. It also has to do with the humans that Solondz creates, and the somehow self-conscious, manufactured ugliness and vapidity he imposes on them. Solondz is by no means without skills as a filmmaker—a fine eye and a superb sense of fitful comic timing—and there are grimly funny episodes and images here. But his misanthropy seems forced and unconvincing, like that of a teenager going through a “cynical” phase.

The most jolting moment in Wiener-Dog, for me, came at the end of the credits: “AMERICAN HUMANE ASSOCIATION MONITORED SOME OF THE ANIMAL ACTION. NO ANIMALS WERE HARMED DURING THOSE SCENES.” The implications of this (trademarked!) phrasing are distressing. If any movie could ever be worth harming an animal, this one sure wasn’t it.

Thursday, July 7, 2016


RIP to the ever-perky Noel Neill, passed on at 95

Neill was the first screen Lois Lane, playing the role opposite Kirk Alyn in the movies and George Reeves on TV. Just a few weeks ago I happened to be reading this Giant Lois Lane Annual #2 from 1963…

…and among the wonderfully bizarre (and deeply condescending!) stories, reprints from Superman’s Girl Friend, Lois Lane, was a full-page bio of Neill, noting that, ironically, her original ambition was to be a journalist.

Anyway, in Neill’s honor…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week the nod goes to this off-the-wall creature, probably drawn by DC’s Kurt Schaffenberger, from the set of a sci-fi movie in one of the tales in that comic...

Friday, July 1, 2016


Opening this weekend: 

The BFGThe title stands for “Big Friendly Giant,” and the title character is just that—a pleasant colossus (Mark Rylance) whose job is delivering pleasant dreams. A young English orphan girl, Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) ends up as his houseguest and friend.

“Big” is a relative term, as it turns out. The BFG’s neighbors in giant land are much bigger than he is, and the monstrous, thuggish brutes (led by Jemaine Clement) routinely bully him. They’re also much less friendly, especially to humans—in the grand tradition of giants, they’re eager to eat Englishmen/women (and presumably any other nationality). The BFG won’t do this—he maintains a vegetarian diet mostly consisting of a revolting-looking produce item called a snozzcumber. He’s also fond of a carbonated beverage with downward-traveling bubbles that induce epic intestinal activity.

Steven Spielberg directed this adaptation of one of Roald Dahl’s strange tales for children. The script is by the great Melissa Mathison, who passed on last year, and to whom the film is dedicated. Mathison wrote the scripts for such kid-movie classics as The Black Stallion (1979) and E.T.—The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), as well as the underrated 1995 The Indian in the Cupboard. At her best, she was able tap into the subconscious power of such tales. I never thought she got as much credit for, in particular, the success of E.T. as she should have; the best lines in that movie carry an almost Jungian tingle, without the slightest pretension.

Her swansong was another script for Spielberg with, curiously, another initialed title character who befriends a little kid. I wish I could say that the result was another classic, but I think this one falls a little short of their earlier achievement. Visually it has the feel of a throwback, to the sort of fantasy movies made in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

Some of these were by Spielberg himself, in the worst phase of his career—like 1991’s Hook, probably my least favorite Spielberg film—and some of them were by other filmmakers trying to imitate Spielberg and his command of the box office. Like Hook, The BFG is all painterly colors and delicate compositions of the sort that wins Caldecott Medals for book illustrators, and the music, by John Williams of course, has the same soaring, leaping manner that Williams seems able to muster in his sleep.

As for the story, it has the free-wheeling, sometimes slightly sinister absurdity that is the trademark of Dahl’s stories for kids, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The BFG goes in for a degree of kid-pleasing scatology, as well. The Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) samples the BFG’s favorite beverage, for instance, with predictably Chaucerian results.

But somehow the energy just isn’t there with this one. There’s something muted and melancholy to the atmosphere of The BFG that makes it feel heavy and slow and draggy in its first half. Things certainly pick up in the second half, when the more broadly comic stuff kicks in, but even this shift feels vaguely forced—the dream-logic of the goofy narrative doesn’t seem organic.

All that said, there’s a redemptive virtue to The BFG, and that’s Mark Rylance. Endowed via CGI with a long nose and enormous ears below his sloping forehead and swept-back white hair, this great actor, who justly won an Oscar this year for his turn in Bridge of Spies, dries any schmaltz out of the film with his quiet, matter-of-fact line readings. And his young costar Barnhill is impressive, too—she’s a cute kid, but you never see her being cute on purpose. 

The Purge: Election YearWriter-director James DeMonaco’s Purge movies, of which this is the third, are dystopian chillers set in a not-too-distant future America wherein, once a year for twelve hours, law and order is suspended and all crimes are fair game. The supposed premise is that a wild night of unchecked murder and vandalism will exorcise everybody’s demons and society will be more stable the rest of the year.

This loathsome holiday is explicitly reactionary in origin. DeMonaco seems to think that it’s the natural extension of the hardcore Right’s gun fever and evangelical fervor and class and racial animus, if they ever decided to drop the self-righteous posing. I wish, in light of the current primary season, that I was more confident that he’s wrong about this.

But that doesn’t mean that the movie, set in Our Nation’s Capitol, isn’t exultantly stupid and disgusting. It’s also one of the more disingenuous films I’ve ever seen, inviting our contempt at a social outrage of its own invention, while eliciting bloodthirsty whoops of delight every time one of the “Purgers” gets flattened by the good guys.

Said good guys include a Senator (Elizabeth Mitchell, in the specs of a sexy librarian from an ‘80s video) who’s running for President on a vow to abolish the Purge, and her security man (Frank Grillo). These two, stuck on the street after an assassination attempt, are befriended by the owner of a D.C. deli (Mykelti Williamson) and his friends (Joseph Julian Soria and Betty Gabriel) who are trying to defend their store from vengeful Purgers. The whole gang gets swept up into a revolutionary movement against the creepy “New Founding Fathers.”

Ugly and satirically ham-fisted as the movie is, it would be useless for me to deny that I found it a perfectly well-made and exciting Jacobean bloodbath. The dialogue is a little stilted at times, but the actors are easy to sympathize with, the story is tightly constructed, and DeMonaco knows how to use horror shtick—scary masks, cheap shocks—to build an unsavory atmosphere of dread. Election Year—like this election year— may be improbable and revolting, but it isn’t boring.