Thursday, July 27, 2017


This week...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...the honor goes to a favorite, the title character of Larry Hagman's sole feature directing credit, 1972's Beware! The Blob!

This week something or other reminded me of that film, in which a group of Boy Scouts encounters a shapeless mass of slime.

Dick Van Patten played the scoutmaster.

Friday, July 21, 2017


Opening this weekend:

Dunkirk--In the hair-raising opening scenes of this historical epic from Christopher Nolan, a young English soldier tries to make it to the title town's beach alive, and just barely succeeds. Aside from surviving, all he really wants to do is find a peaceful place to evacuate his bowels. This is the sort of human detail that many war movies leave out, or treat jocularly, but realities like this are the core of Dunkirk.

Well-played by a newcomer named Fionn Whitehead, the character is listed in the credits as "Tommy," but his name hardly matters. He's an everyman--an everykid, really--and the other young soldiers he meets, played by Aneurin Barnard and One Direction's Harry Styles, are similarly generic. Nolan's script, clearly by design, offers no real characterization, presumably on the theory that backstory, in these circumstances, would be grotesquely irrelevant.

Instead, Nolan relies on his actors to fill in the stock figures. Since the cast includes such vets as Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, James D'Arcy and Tom Hardy, it need hardly be said that this proves a sound strategy.

Almost everything Nolan tries here seems to work. The movie focuses on the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of English and French soldiers, surrounded by the German army and threatened from the air by the Luftwaffe, across the Channel to England in late May and early June of 1940. Nolan cuts between three main strands, "The Mole," aka the breakwater where soldiers like Tommy waited days to be picked up by Navy vessels, "The Sea," in which we follow one of the "Little Ships of Dunkirk," the small civilian commercial and private crafts that took to the Channel to rescue the trapped men, and "The Air," in which we follow three RAF pilots in Spitfires trying to down German airplanes before they can bomb or strafe the evacuees.

The dialogue, sparing to begin with, battles the ambient noise, Hans Zimmer's brooding, gut-vibrating score, and (for us Yanks especially) thick accents, to the point that after a while I mostly gave up and just tried to follow what was going on by context. Similarly, because of the differing travel times required for the three modes of Channel crossing, Dunkirk employs another of those intricately non-chronological time-schemes, as in Momento, so that Nolan can use crosscutting to maximum emotional effect. And while emotional it certainly is, I must confess that in the final third of the film I found myself disoriented at times by where we were in this reticular narrative. But that may have just been me.

In any case, it didn't detract from the overall impact of Dunkirk, which at its best has something like the sweep and punch of the great silent war epics (I saw the film on an IMAX screen, by the way, and recommend this format if it's available to you). The performances, the incongruously gentle hues of Hoyte van Hoytema's exquisite cinematography, and the sustained assurance of Nolan's direction all combined to make this sad, terrifying yet ultimately uplifting story one of the more potent movie experiences I've had in a while.

Thursday, July 20, 2017


When you think of the great Georges in American history, obviously you start with George Washington, and move on to George Washington Carver and George S. Patton and George Gershwin, and then maybe George Cukor and George McGovern and George Takei...

But really, for horror movie geeks, the next full stop after The Father of Our Country is George A. Romero.

RIP to Romero, who directed the standard, and still the best, cannibal zombie movie, 1968's Night of the Living Dead, and its sequels starting with Dawn of the Dead, and other fascinating, morally complex horror pictures like The Crazies and Season of the Witch and Martin, and who joined the legions of the dead himself last weekend, too young at 77.

RIP, while we're at it, to the brilliant Martin Landau, departed at 89, whose long, varied career reached its pinnacle with his beautiful, hilarious, moving incarnation of the elderly Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994), for which he won an Oscar. RIP also to the lovable Canadian actor Harvey Atkin, probably best known as the hapless Morty in Meatballs, and as a judge in many episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, passed on at 74.

This week...

Monster-of-the-Week: tribute to Romero, our honoree is Fluffy, the monster in the crate... 1982's Creepshow, Romero's jolly collaboration with Stephen King in evoking the spirit of E.C.-style horror comics. Here's Fluffy as rendered by the late great Berni Wrightson in his comic adaptation of the flick...

Friday, July 14, 2017


Opening this weekend:

War for the Planet of the ApesThe war of the title, between apes and humans, has been going on for a few years as this, the third of the latter-day Apes movies, begins. It’s been long enough that human soldiers write sick jokes like “BEDTIME FOR BONZO” on their helmets, and that slang specific to the war has arisen, like “Donkey” for a turncoat ape who acts as a guide to the humans.

Caesar, still voiced and performed behind “motion capture” by Andy Serkis, is still in charge of the ape stronghold in what used to be Northern California. Initially a wise leader who acts only in defense of his fellow apes, he’s turned bitter and vengeful by a particularly outrageous human attack led by an ape-loathing Colonel (Woody Harrelson). Caesar leads a small band of apes, of diverse species, on a retaliatory mission.

Along the way, their band picks up another ape that talks, and a human that doesn’t. “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), a zoo veteran, assumed that was his name because of how often he heard it. A little orphaned human girl (Amiah Miller) is given a name from a piece of Chevy wreckage: Nova. She’s been made mute by a virus that’s starting to afflict the human population, which the Colonel fears is a sign of a downward evolutionary slide for his species. Eventually, Caesar and his pals end up among the cruel Colonel’s prisoners.

I appreciated the nervy, barely-subtextual topical political anger under the material—the Colonel actually forces the enslaved apes to build a wall. There are religious overtones, too; Caesar seems overtly identified with Moses here. Harrelson has a gleeful good time playing the spiteful maniac Colonel, and once again Serkis gives a grave, scowling performance right through the CGI effects. Their big confrontation is the film’s dramatic high point.

This turbulent, overcast movie seemed stronger to me than 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but not as witty and exciting as 2011’s initial “reboot,” Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Both of the two sequels are pretty somber affairs; they aren’t without some humor, but neither had the same sense of nasty, subversive fun at seeing humankind humbled by our downtrodden simian cousins as Rise—or, indeed, as the 1968 original.

The apes, Caesar included, are really downtrodden here. They suffer mightily in the single-minded Colonel’s brutal captivity, and between this and the movie’s wintry atmosphere and its austere moral scheme—everything gets worse for everybody when Caesar becomes vengeful—it gets a bit grim and wearying. Ultimately, after some POW-escape thriller suspense, the apes do make a stand, and it brings this mature, reflective trilogy to a satisfying, well-earned climax, but it doesn’t give us this payoff easily. War is hell, you might say.

Thursday, July 13, 2017


With War for the Planet of the Apes opening this weekend...

Monster-of-the-Week: ape-oriented honoree seems in order, so how about...

...this version of King Kong, superbly realized by masterly stop-motion animator David Allen for a 1972 Volkswagen commercial.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


This Sunday afternoon No Festival Required shows Pamela Tom's fascinating documentary Tyrus... 1 p.m. at the Third Street Theater. Check out my review on The PHiX.

Friday, July 7, 2017


Opening this weekend:

Spider-Man: Homecoming--The latest Marvel feature depicts the "Web-Head" still in high school in Queens. Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) has taken part in one quick adventure with The Avengers, which we saw in last year's Captain America: Civil Wars, and now has an "internship" with Stark Industries.

Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) clearly sees that Peter is a good kid with superhero potential, but also that he's impetuous, impulsive, reckless, in short, a teenager. He hasn't yet internalized the lesson that with great power comes...well, you know.

So Stark gives Peter a high-tech, interactive Spidey suit to replace the homemade costume he's been wearing, but encourages him to remain a "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man" for the time being, rather than a full-fledged Avenger. Peter makes a pest of himself to Stark and his employees, but he also stumbles across a genuinely world-threatening criminal enterprise right in his own back yard, involving the sale of alien technology. Plus, there's the matter of his schoolwork, and the Academic Decathlon team, and the girl he has a crush on.

What ensues is a lively, fast-moving hybrid of superhero action saga and teenage angst comedy. The two tones don't always gel perfectly, but this slight unevenness only adds to the film's loose, free-swinging feel. After several years of curmudgeonly grumbling about turgid, apocalyptic, buildings-crumbling-to-rubble superhero flicks, I'm glad to admit that I've wholeheartedly enjoyed the last three big releases in that line: Dr. Strange, DC's Wonder Woman, and this one.

Director Jon Watts, working from a script by a gaggle including Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, serves up some memorable grand-scale set-pieces, among them one at the Washington Monument and one on the Staten Island Ferry, that feel epic without losing a sense of playful, colorful wit. And the cast is good company.

Holland hits the right note as Peter, callow and heartfelt but light-footed. Downey has played a beleaguered, glamorous father figure already, opposite Anton Yelchin in  2007's Charlie Bartlett; he did it beautifully then, and he does it beautifully here. Zendaya only gets a little to do as Peter's socially conscious classmate, but she's set up nicely for future films. And Marisa Tomei is charmingly showcased as Aunt May, re-conceived as a sexy young "cool" Aunt.

But the real reason that even somebody who wasn't particularly a fan of this sort of thing might consider Spider-Man: Homecoming is Michael Keaton. Returning to comic book movies 28 years after Batman, he brings real bite and originality to the role of Adrian Toomes aka The Vulture, a startlingly no-nonsense, blue-collar mastermind who seems almost sheepish about the trappings of supervilliany. 

Keaton plays the role quietly, with no zany, over-the-top antics, but with a clear-eyed intelligence and directness that makes his menace unusually authoritative. When he levels a threat, he isn't gloating or grandstanding; he honestly wants Spider-Man to back off, but you never doubt that it's a final warning. He makes pragmatism and sanity scary.

Thursday, July 6, 2017


Opening this weekend is Spider-Man: Homecoming, featuring Michael Keaton as one of the great Spider-Man adversaries, The Vulture. So...

Monster-of-the-Week: seems appropriate to honor the title character of the 1967 British horror pic The Vulture... which Broderick Crawford and others run afoul of a giant vulture-monster. The menace from this bad-movie classic has been Monster-of-the-Week previously, but this time I found this rather awesome, somehow troubling video in which Crawford's big encounter with the V. is repeated over and over...

Tuesday, July 4, 2017


A safe and happy Independence Day to all!

Today also qualifies as a Taco Tuesday, so...

...check out the July issue of Phoenix Magazine for my "Four Corners" column on Valley taco joints. It's on the stands now, or you can read it here.

I really enjoyed chowing my way through this one.