Summer’s last camp: reviewing “Queen of Outer Space”


In the service of my craft, I watched this campy movie three times: once before writing the review, once while I was writing it, and then a third time to catch the commentary by Laurie Mitchell (she played the Queen of Outer Space, and also starred in “Attack of the Puppet People”) and some movie historian. This 1958 sci-fi cult flick stars Zsa Zsa Gabor, with a ton of slightly less attractive women populating scenes around her. The movie was based on a story by Ben Hecht, who wrote a lot of Hollywood screenplays (most of which were of a more serious nature).


The opening scene introduces three crew-cut astronauts and the bumbling Professor Conrad (Paul Birch). Captain Hamilton (Eric Fleming) is the male lead; lusty navigator Lieutenant Larry and an annoying, whinier lieutenant round out the crew. The year is 1983, and the astronauts’ mission is to ferry the professor to space station A. Apparently something funky is going on up there. Edward Bernds directed Queen of Outer Space, and the commentary tells me he was a workaholic, filming a fifth of the movie in one day.


On the rocket ship, the professor is about to light a cigarette until the captain reminds him he can’t smoke in a spaceship—liquid oxygen and all. There’s the first of many necking scenes: a nameless blonde moans “Larry!” as he smashes his face into hers on the landing pad. The crew loads the professor into an actual crib, strapped in with two seat belts, then tie themselves into leather reclining chairs, cranking levers until their recliners are fully horizontal. A few turns of various knobs at mission control and kaboom! stock footage of liftoff. Back on the ground, the despondent blonde is nearly knocked over by the blast, then jumps up and blows desperate kisses at the sky.


The astronauts’ outfits are futuristic unisuits with extra gray fabric in the rear and fat red buttons sewn into the shoulders. They fly near space station A, and a very painful special effect happens: a screaming beam of destruction races past, then blows up the poor model space station. Realizing they may be in trouble, the crew makes futile adjustments to the ship in an attempt to escape; the force of the impact knocks it off course, causing the men to make pained smushy faces. They grip the arms of their barca loungers and tense their neck flab for all they’re worth—except for the professor, who falls asleep in his crib. Everyone passes out, and the ship crash-lands on the planet Venus; the landing is extremely low budget, someone just tossed a model rocket ship into a pile of white confetti. The footage of the rocket madly racing towards the planet was taken from an earlier Allied Studios movie-directed by Ed Burns-World Without End (thanks, commentary reel).

The astromen come to and furiously push more knobs, but have no radio service back to mission control—they’re abandoned in a field of confetti. The men decamp onto a strange back lot that is Venus with their toy pistols and yoga mat bedrolls. It takes the four men just a few lines of distracted dialogue to get captured by the ruthless women of Venus, who wear low cut mini dresses with gold lamé belts, clear plastic heels and grumpy faces. These are the sour manhaters (“I hate them! I hate them!” a brunette wails, just to drive it home), waving their ray guys menacingly. The men are taken to the royal court or something; the evil queen of outer space enters, wearing a shiny mask and a headpiece that could be made from pipe cleaners. The queen and her ladies in waiting all wear masks, which make them look like sparkly Easter eggs cooking under stiff coiffures. One of the ladies in waiting was apparently Miss Yugoslavia in an early Miss World competition (thanks again, commentary)—the director wanted Amazonians on the queen’s guard.


The evil queen of outer space, Illiana, yells at the earth men, then sends them to prison—but she’s definitely into the captain. The next scene introduces Zsa Zsa Gabor, in the role of Talia (I’m going to keep calling her Zsa Zsa, it’s fun to write); as the most beautiful woman in the movie, Zsa Zsa naturally loves men. This is a main theme; the less attractive women are brutish and manlike, and hate men (lesbians? It’s sort of suggested), while the three most beautiful women are gentle and feminine, batting their eyes and parting their lips just so. The Amazonian palace guards move thuggishly and speak in low, staccato grunts: “Go! Man!”


Zsa Zsa is a member of the queen’s court, and her first outfit is a long red evening gown slit to the waist. She delivers a TV tray with ice tea and other refreshments to the captured earthmen, and tells them what’s  going on in her world. A war between Venus and some other planet happened a while ago; Illiana (then a rebel) won this war, freaked out, imprisoned all Venus’ men, and crowned herself queen. Zsa Zsa wants to get laid, so she’ll help the men escape (also, she wants to be queen of outer space). In this whole boring backstory scene, the focus is on Zsa Zsa Gabor’s leg jutting out of her long red gown—it’s actually the center of the shot. This low-grade technique is brought back throughout the movie; any time a scene is weighted down with “scientific” information or banal dialogue, the camera pans over a woman’s legs, breasts, or lips (but never ass; in the 50s, dresses were usually unflattering from behind). Fun fact: Zsa Zsa Gabor is Paris Hilton’s great-great aunt; Conrad Hilton was the sixth of her eight husbands.

Next follows a painful scene between Queen Illiana and the captain; she calls him to her chamber and they flounder around on a bed, with her football shaped mask in the way. He calls her out on “denying man’s love,” then rips off her mask; underneath, she is hideously deformed from radiation burns—men, men did this to her! So her plan to destroy the earth via giant ray gun is nothing more than a scorned woman’s vengeance. The “atomic radiation” burns appear to be blobs of finger paint applied directly to the actress’ face (but no, the commentary says it’s actually a molded mask, with many layers of paint).

By exposing the queen’s hideous face, the captain has botched his chance to overpower her with his secret weapon, male magnetism. He’s dragged back to the pink-walled prison cell, to rejoin his depressed comrades. Every interior castle scene has a pastel theme: the walls are pink or mauve, the space dolls’ gowns are periwinkle and champagne, and glittery coat hanger sculptures hang from the ceiling.

One of Zsa Zsa’s pro-men rebel girls busts the guys out of jail and brings them to her laboratory (a place for plastic plants, Bunsen burners, and pink triangles), where Zsa Zsa declares her intention to escape from the palace with the men, and help them destroy the Queen’s “beta-disintegrating ray gun,” before she blows up the earth with it. “I don’t vant to leev in a vorld vithout men,” coos Zsa Zsa.

Next is a goofy chase scene, with all the queen’s guards running awkwardly in gold high heels to frantic xylophone music; outside the palace, the men and rebel space girls hide behind bushes, and more barfy ’50s flirtation ensues. By this point, each astronaut is paired with a girl; only the poor professor is alone. It’s worth noting that blondes were clearly held in highest esteem by this director (or, possibly, by 1950s beauty standards); all the evil or stupid women are brunettes. Except for the queen of outer space, who is, appropriately, a blonde (but the script called for a black-haired evil queen; they went with blonde Laurie Mitchell because the queen’s hair had to match Zsa Zsa’s in a plot point).

The dialogue, naturally, is littered with 1950s A-bombs. Talking about the evil women’s ray gun, Lieutenant Larry says, “And even if they invented it, how could they aim it? You know how women drivers are.” A little later: “26 million miles from earth and the little dolls are just the same.” And, my favorite line in the whole cheddarfest: “What are we supposed to do, just sit here and wait for the space dolls with the ray guns to come back and zap us?!”


Back to the plot line (I do recommend seeing this movie, it’s entertaining and like an hour and a quarter long). The escapees shake the palace guard (Zsa Zsa’s team is also wearing heels, so it’s a fair match) and take shelter in a very well lit cave. A giant rubber spider attacks Lieutenant Larry; it’s just like the rubber spiders in the toy aisle at the grocery store, only six feet long. Queen of Outer Space was the second of three roles for this particular fake spider (where is it now? Enjoying its retirement?). Larry’s comrades shoot the spider with a ray gun, then everyone immediately starts making out, apparently they’re all turned on by smoking insect flesh.


The professor, who has no one to get to first base with, wanders out of the cave and spots the queen’s guards. He waddles back to the cave and disrupts the make-out session; instead of shooting the guards with their ray guns, Zsa Zsa and the other women march the men back to the palace, to sporty military music. So, they troop back to Queen Illiana’s chamber; the queen appears and all the rebels jump down her throat, explaining why society must contain both genders. She falls on the bed dramatically and retrieves a ray gun from under a pillow; luckily, she’s a woman and can’t aim, so she misses the captain standing four feet away. The men tie the queen up and throw her behind a room screen, while Zsa Zsa dresses in her clothes; this plan also fails and the rebels are recaptured. Further cookiness ensues in the next scene, at the destruct-o machine (which is housed in a room with wall-to-wall carpeting and faux-marble accents).qos4

The big, bad, beta-disintegrating ray is kept inside a tiny house with a propeller on top; this house is guarded by four giant silver dildos. The queen of outer space tries to blow up the earth (her gown here calls to mind Coco Chanel, it’s a belted black dress over gold short pants, with arm bracelets), but her ray gun is defunct; Zsa Zsa’s rebels effed it up. There’s one last “battle of the sexes” (so says the theatrical trailer), where the good, man-loving girls rush the bad, grumpy girls and half-heartedly paw at each other. Here, as everywhere else, the men are powerless; their presence has no effect on the outcome. The beta-disintegration ray explodes with loud pyrotechnics and stage smoke, there’s a shot of the charred remains of the evil queen, and everyone stops fighting and looks confused—that’s the problem with mixing comedy and death by immolation.

The last scene is set in the throne room; Zsa Zsa emerges as the new queen of outer space, in a fourth and final outfit: a strapless gold ball gown with a long, collared cape. There’s no shortage of chiffon, rhinestones, or Dippity-do on planet Venus. Lieutenant Larry shoves his tongue into his space doll one last time, and the men get ready to depart (lonely Professor Conrad hugs himself and shakes his head bitterly), only to learn the ladies have sabotaged their ship and they won’t be going home for at least a year. The second to last shot is the professor finally getting some; eight women smother him in an apparently improv moment—the script never let this poor tubby character actor get any, but the girls mobbed him anyway. Paul Birch’s face gets visibly red as they move in; he disappears under a pile of piled hair. The last shot is, of course, Captain Hamilton sucking Zsa Zsa Gabor’s face off.

There’s no way to rate a movie like this, I’m not going to try (though others have; it’s consistently ranked among the worst sci-fi movies of all time); Queen of Outer Space is entertaining, despite the technical limitations of 1958 and the director’s reliance on leggy women shuffling around in plastic heels. It’s a movie that sits so firmly in the early years of cinema; space travel was not convincing, the décor was clumsy, extras delivered their lines with their backs to the camera. Which doesn’t mean the movie is bad, per say; Queen of Outer Space was more than its production values, it had this compelling combination of schmaltz and science fiction. Kitchen glitter, maybe. That’s it, a four-page breakdown of a cult classic, for the last camp weekend of summer.


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“Man on a Ledge”: a movie that should have jumped



I accidentally ordered this movie from Netflix and paid heavily for my mistake—I meant to order the documentary Man on WireMan on a Ledge came out in 2012, and stars Sam Worthington as, well, a man on a ledge. This is an action movie (in theory), with a plot that made sense about twenty percent of the time. I’ll do my best to break it down, but the story line was so unbelievable I tossed my pen and paper at heaven ten different times, thus my notes are unreliable.

The movie opens with a guy walking through Manhattan, checking into a midtown hotel, going to sleep, waking up, eating a fancy breakfast, and then stepping out on the building’s ledge (his room’s on the 22nd floor). If that sentence was boring to read, just imagine watching it for ten minutes, accompanied by weird synthesizer music. Quick cut to the backstory, via flashback: the man is a disgraced and convicted but innocent cop, Nick Cassidy. He’s let out of jail for a day to attend to his father’s funeral. Standing next to his dad’s coffin, Nick easily takes down two armed guards and makes off in his brother’s SUV. With four other squad cars in hot pursuit (so, ten cops to escort one prisoner to a funeral), Nick drives in front of a train, crashes the SUV, and jumps the train, I guess—his actual escape is made off camera.

Flash-forward to the present, in a sloppy cut: three seconds after Nick steps out on the ledge, a pedestrian on the street starts yelling and waving (“Aah! There’s a man up there!). This initial plot hole sets off a chain reaction of dozens more. No one standing on a New York City street looks up that high. Actual studies have been done; there’s already too much to look at and process at street level, people don’t glance more than twenty or thirty feet over their heads when walking around. And then there’s smart phone oblivion. It’s hard to even see up to the 22nd floor from the street. So, right, hyper-aware pedestrians start shouting, someone calls 911 and the media, and the plot is off and limping.

A grumpy old dispatcher scratching his potbelly barks into his radio, “We got…a man on a ledge,” (I love it when a scriptwriter gently works the title in) and seconds later three or four hundred police officers arrive on the scene, along with fire trucks, paramedics, and a plucky young female detective nursing a hangover. Guess the budget cuts haven’t hit this parallel universe New York yet. Officer Mercer (Elizabeth Banks) is tasked with talking Nick off the ledge while standing her ground among a bunch of departmental swinging dicks. Other cops of importance to the storyline: gum-chewing prick who is “secretly” working for the main bad guy; suit-wearing wiseass who fumbles the ball every time; Nick’s former partner, also corrupt.

I can’t believe I’m going to do this, but since I’ve come this far, I’ll try to explain the rest of the plot, which is about as solid as a Jell-O mold. Before all the current drama in his life, Nick was moonlighting as a security guard for Mr. Englander (Ed Harris, in a role that marks the low point of his career); while escorting Mr. Englander and a giant blood diamond, Nick was knocked out by thugs and framed for the robbery. His former partner and Officer gum-wad set him up; neither of these B actors is able to play both sides credibly—as in most cop movies, they cover a lack of acting ability with a permanent stink eye.

So, um, plot summary…after his escape from Sing Sing, Nick plans his redemption with the help of his brother and supposedly dead dad. Other dark side plots were constructed to support all this backstory, but as crucial details were barked into police walkie-talkies, they only served to make my head ache.

Across the street at evil Mr. Englander’s building, Nick’s brother Joey and Joey’s smoking Latina gf Angie break in and try to find the “stolen” diamond. Nick coaches them through a tiny ear microphone, while chatting up Officer Mercer in a play for time. I would have paid more attention to the man on a ledge and the woman attempting to seduce him inside if they’d been deaf mutes miming out a relationship; their dialogue alternated between “I need you to trust me!”, “Are you going to trust me?!”, and “Dammit, you’ve got to trust me!” Officer Mercer is cocky to the point of unbearable, and also the movie never explains how she woke up from a bender sporting perfect hair and makeup. At some point a news chopper blasts by, ten feet from Nick’s head. Papers fly off desks inside and people cover their ears in pain while Nick and Mercer, now eight feet away from the helicopter, undergo no change in facial expression or hairdo integrity.

All right, dear reader, I’ll cut it short (unlike the movie, which ran on a half an hour too long). Police incompetence facilitates the latter half of the movie; despite 900 cops running around, including 3 SWAT teams, one crooked cop (Officer Gum-chewing Dickhead) manages to take down Joey and Angie (after they recover the diamond and pistol whip Ed Harris a few times), and corner them and Nick up on the roof—at some point, Nick had to flee his ledge (the SWAT team dangled a fishing hook) and scrambled up to the roof.

Meanwhile, the ex-partner locks himself in the ledge-adjacent hotel room; when Mercer and Suit-wearing Wiseass finally realize he’s no bueno and shoot out the lock, the guy hides behind the door. Mercer and Wiseass barge in and take a full minute to stumble around looking perplexed, which enables ex-partner to slip out the door. He races up to the roof and shoots Gum-chewing Dickhead (they had names, I just didn’t bother to write them down; neither did I remember to note the director or screenwriter—but they know who they are, and what they’ve done), who dies masticating the same wad of Juicy Fruit he’s had bunched in his cheek since scene 2.

Nick dives off the roof into a Mr. Bouncy Bounce crash pad to cheers from the huge crowd below—several hundred New Yorkers who don’t have anywhere else to be—and tackles Mr. Englander (I think he took the diamond back on the roof, it was all so crappily executed), then waves it over his head, proving his innocence seconds before New York’s semi-finest would have dragged him away. The tacked on last scene takes place in an Irish bar, where all the cops who were literally gunning for Nick minutes before convene to slap him on the back. Mercer drops her professional guard to flirt shamelessly and drunkenly with the hero, and the movie’s belittlement of women is complete.

Man on a Legde had a few chances to redeem itself; Sam Worthington is not a bad actor, some of the aerial views of NYC are interesting, and Angie has a great rack. But, as with so many other bloated action movies, an implausible script full of cardboard caricatures drags its bleeding carcass on into putrefaction. The end credit music, however—a spazy rock number shouting “What have I done?” over and over—was an inspired choice, as it mirrored my thoughts on sitting through this mess exactly. Star rating: one, for the occasionally cool shots of New York’s skyline. Next time movie, call me and I’ll give you a push.

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another bomb, reviewed for you



Still life with “Predator 2” and a bag of week-old compost

Last night we watched an action movie from 1990, Predator 2. If I had seen the movie in 1990, when I was 10, it might have scared me; in the year 2016, Predator 2 gave me acute cranial pain, but that was it. A buffet table of mediocre actors appeared in this low budget affair—but the real star was Predator, the main and only bad guy. For the rest of this review, I’ll refer to Predator by the name Lt. Harrigan (Danny Glover) made up for him: “Pussyface”.

This movie takes place in L.A. of the future—1997—though the cars and haircuts are all from the mid-80s. The opening scene is a major shootout on a city street, betwixt L.A. cops and caricatures of Columbian drug lords. One of the first lines in Predator 2 is “You focking bandejos!” followed by grenade launched slo-mo explosions; this movie took stereotyping minorities to new lows.

The police are getting nowhere until the Columbianos run back inside their strong house to snort handfuls of flour and shriek like banshees, providing time for bad cop dialogue and modest recon. Lt. Harrigan arrives on the scene, along with his ragtag team of L.A.’s finest: Officer Danny (Reuben Blades), the token good Latino; and Officer Badass Female—I can’t remember her character’s name, the actress is Maria Conchita Alonso. Eventually they are joined by Rookie Cop With Shoulder Pads (Bill Paxton), and together this crew represents the city’s best hope against Pussyface. By the way, Predator 2 was directed by Stephen Hopkins, who yelled at Reuben Blades so badly on Good Morning America they made him return on a later show to apologize; that tidbit plus this soggy meatloaf of an action movie are all I know about him.

Lt. Harrigan and co. take out the Columbians, and then climb to the roof, wearing confused faces—everyone saw an invisible guy’s dotted outline up there…but where did he go? They walk back downstairs and are confronted by a pile of chopped up bodies and blood splatter from floor to ceiling. It seems most of Predator 2’s prop budget went to cheap mannequins, cardboard guns, and hundreds of gallons of red finger paint.

From here, the “action” shifts to HQ, where an angry mob of extras vies for camera time—every aspiring actor in Los Angeles has just been arrested. Enter Peter Keys, DEA agent (Gary Busey), in the role of oppressive federal agent sticking his nose in Harrigan’s business. Gary Busey is pretty much the worst actor in this movie, though it’s possible he was asked to constantly maintain the same expression, to make Danny Glover look like even more of a spas. Agent Keys has been secretly tracking Pussyface for 15 years; he took the DEA job as a cover, in yet another nonsensical piece of information.

Back to the script—which was possibly conceived by throwing The Creature from the Black Lagoon and a bad episode of Miami Vice into a blender, then handing the resulting mess to the cast two hours before shooting started. Bah, where was I…everyone thinks the gruesome killings striking L.A.’s drug gangs are just turf wars; everyone except Lt. Harrigan, who keeps showing up five minutes late to every crime. His tardiness offers a glimpse of Pussyface, who frolics up on the rooftops, chewing on a plastic leg. Pussyface has infrared vision, to sense the heat of his victims; this poorly executed effect gave me a terrible headache (but it was a break from cranking machine gun fire and lines like: “You’re cutting off my dick and sticking it up my ass!”). There’s another gangland scene, the Jamaicans vs. the Columbians, where twenty or thirty machine guns are emptied out in an apartment; the windows are completely shot out, but the couch in front of them is unscathed. Agent Danny sneaks back in later to look for clues (with a thoroughly misted face), and Pussyface kills him. Lt. Harrigan goes crazy with rage—now, it’s personal.

His first move is to enlist the help of the Jamaican gang, in a scene that manages to be more offensive than the one with Columbians snorting baking soda. The Jamaicans roll up in a zebra-top gold Cadillac, and when they open the car door vast clouds of smoke billow out. A minimum of four fog machines were used in this scene—or possibly all five actors really did smoke their ice-cream cone spliffs. They take Harrigan to another back alley (all the action in this movie takes place in different back alleys, filled with brand new cardboard boxes and the same three cars) to meet King Willie, the voodoo king of Los Angeles. This guy was dressed like a pirate, which told me he wouldn’t make it through the scene. Having known him for all of three minutes, King Willie’s gruesome death at the hands of Pussyface left me feeling low—another branch off a diseased plotline had ended, but how many more remained?

Cut to the subway, where Rookie Cop With Shoulder Pads and Officer Badass Female have their hands full with a bunch of bandana punks. Suddenly, the lights go out and guns blast: Pussyface is on the train! An extra shouted, “I can’t see!” to which I yelled back, “Me either!” Every other scene in Predator 2 is lit by a camping flashlight; possibly this was a cost-saving technique, or maybe the lighting guy was off getting toasted with the Jamaicans. The soundtrack is another example of fiscal prudence—ten, fifteen, twenty minutes went by with no music whatsoever. In the long, drawn-out final showdown between Harrigan and Pussyface, the only sound besides grunts and gunshots is the dainty plucking of violins, reminding me of my fifth grade orchestra concerts.

Oh yes, Rookie Cop With Shoulder Pads heroically stays behind in a doomed subway car to fight Pussyface; his last line, “C’mon motherfucker, let’s dance!” ensures he got a bad rebirth. Thin, trench-coat clad Officer Badass Female is maimed but not killed in the attack; in the ambulance an EMT glances at her once and says, “She’s pregnant.” I’ll assume he has x-ray vision and move on with the plot summary.

There follows a bewildering scene in a secret trailer (Agent Keys’ headquarters), where chunky men with highly gelled hair stomp around in shiny Mylar suits—it was like being in Devo’s trailer, but, alas, no one yelled “Whip it good!” (I believe one of these chunkheads was Alec Baldwin, rounding out the eighties B-roll). Finally, an hour and a half into the movie, Agent Keys explains what the hell Predator is doing on earth: hunting down humans on an interstellar safari. He lures Pussyface into a meat warehouse, but the trap soon goes awry, and ten more extras are sloppily sacrificed. Agent Keys gets chopped in half by Pussyface’s razor sharp Frisbee, so now it’s up to half-cocked Lt. Harrigan to save Los Angeles.

The final fight scene hangs on like a fart in a crowded elevator. Harrigan and Pussyface dangle from a rooftop; the much larger Pussyface claws deeply into Harrigan’s arm, but Harrigan dislodges him and suffers no blood loss at all, much less a fatal bleed-out from his brachial artery. After crashing through one more apartment, they end up in a flashy basement trophy room, where Pussyface keeps his neat-o alien skull collection. With the lethal Frisbee, Lt. Harrigan slices Pussyface in the chest; Pussyface stands three feet above the seated Harrigan, with two free sets of sharp claws next to Harrigan’s head—but after two hours of slaughtering people for a lark, Pussyface decides to just stand there and get killed. The only thing this movie knew how to do was make each stupid character consistent, and it even biffed this at the end. A solemn army of Pussyfaces drops in from elsewhere in the space-time continuum to lug their dead comrade’s body home. Danny Glover staggers out into the sunlight covered in baby powder, delivering his final bad line with resignation—kind of like, “Yes, it was a bad movie.”

The violence in this movie was constant, though unconvincing—it was all so fake, a big pile of ketchup blood and shredded shoulder pads. I felt bad for whoever had to clean the sets. Half-ass production values, a script unworthy of lining a hamster cage, and two hours of bad acting: ½ star and a bill for my ibuprofen, that’s what you get, Predator 2.

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whdLast night I watched White House Down, and a mere 24 hours later the headache it induced is gone. I was led to believe that this would be an action thriller: the DVD cover shot features Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, giant guns, and a flame-engulfed White House. But this is flagrant false advertising: the first 45 minutes were totally action-free, and the remaining hour and a half was one long spas attack.

This 2013 action spoogefest was directed by Roland Emmerich, the same man who blasted my ears off in Independence Day. Here’s the premise of White House Down (the title, I’m sorry to say, is also an actual line—as in, “Aaahhhh! White…House…down!”): a beefy DC cop, John Kale (Channing Tatum), takes his moody 11-year-old daughter Emily on a White House tour for some father-daughter bonding (did you guess he fought in Afghanistan, then returned home and couldn’t fit in, resulting in a divorce and a bad credit score? Correct). But, they pick the exact morning that a group of highly elite and unbelievably stupid terrorists attack, and father and daughter find themselves trapped between smelly hijackers and priceless antiques. [Note to the screenwriters: it’s not a good idea to name the protagonist of your action movie after a vegetable. Every time someone yelled “Kale!” I yelled back: “Eat more!”]

Kale leaves his daughter on a bench outside the Secret Service office (where kids are most welcome, certainly) and heads in for a job interview—the tour was a front to drag her along. Agent Finnerty (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is high up in the Secret Service and conducts the interview; apparently she and Kale had some brief, sexually unfulfilling relationship years before, so he doesn’t get the job. Standing in the background is a wimpier agent, who smirks and guffaws at Kale’s pathetic responses; needless to say, that guy is the first to be gunned down by the hijackers. The top agent of the Secret Service, bodyguard to the President, is Martin Walker (James Wood), and he’s one week away from retirement. At this point, half an hour in, there’s only twenty minutes to go until something interesting happens.

The terrorists infiltrate the White House and Capital with ease; disguised as janitors and maintenance men, they bring duffel bags full of ammo inside, without having to go through any security pat-downs or x-ray machines whatsoever.  Three bad guys manage to take down thirty or forty bumbling White House guards, all of whom obediently stand up from their desks to get shot in the chest.  The President (Jamie Foxx) is shocked to learn his personal bodyguard is behind it all; Walker, the inside man, forces President Stuart down to a basement vault at gunpoint, to begin a nuclear holocaust for reasons known only to him.  Luckily, John (“leafy green”) Kale is able to outrun AK-47 fire, breaking away from the tour and rescuing President Stuart before the vault doors slam shut. Essentially, Kale’s role for the rest of the movie is to protect the President using cartoon physics.

Agent Finnerty, who’s over at the Pentagon for some reason, is able to call the President’s cell phone and direct the pair down into the secret tunnels below the White House. She’s the only adult female character with more than two minutes of screen time, and is routinely shouted down by military brass.  In her first appearance onscreen, her boss, Walker, offers some free advice about improving her looks. But how does this movie really feel about women?

Emily, the moody preteen, left the tour to pee before the first major explosion; she cleverly hides behind a potted plant, videos the terrorists acting cocky, and uploads the file to Youtube. Instantly, news stations broadcast her brave footage, incensing the terrorists to set about tracking her down.  A bad guy finds Emily, puts a gun to her 11-year-old head, and forces her back to the tour group; several guns are put to her head in the next two hours, and she also sees people shot in the face, exploding car crashes, rockets taking down helicopters…and yet, at the end of the movie she skips across the White House lawn, smiling for the TV cameras. PTSD for life? Nah.

If it’s unclear from my review what the terrorists want, please blame the movie, not me—this rather important point was never addressed.  Agent Walker apparently has a brain tumor and a vendetta against the President, who he blames for the death of his marine son, but that’s it—the other twenty guys appear to have no motives for embarking on such a doomed mission.  Except for Bill Gates’ doppleganger, who spends the whole movie hacking into government computers in the basement and listening to Mozart sonatas (yes, he was a child prodigy, got it)—his personal mission is to launch nuclear warheads at Apple headquarters. This guy’s name is “Skip Tyler;” despite that hindrance (or because of it?) he grew up to be an evil genius.  His fate is left totally undetermined—does he escape? Get trapped in the sewer system? Just one of 2 or 300 plot holes.  As for production values: every transition was abrupt and choppy, camera angles crowded faces out of frames, the lighting was poor—whole scenes were actually lit with an iPhone.

A note about the soundtrack: it goes away entirely once Kalishnakovs begin rapid-firing into early American textiles and priceless Ming vases.  90% of this movie’s sounds are gunfire (hence my day-long headache), and the other 10% are bad dialogue (“You just killed the Secretary of Defense!” “Well, uh, he wasn’t doing a very good job”).  And some of the script is outright propaganda: Martin Walker says to the President, “On any given day, the Federal Reserve holds in excess of $400 million in cash.”  (Just in case you hadn’t heard, movie, the Fed’s broke).

Fighting off cold-blooded mercenaries with household objects (toasters, sneakers, etc.), Officer Kale and President Stuart (whom they tie to Obama via a shared love of Abraham Lincoln and Nicorette) make it to the White House garage, where they drive out in a giant black SUV. They’re followed out by two more giant black SUVs driven by the terrorists, and thus begins a rousing game of Mario Kart through the Rose Garden. Kale and the leader of the free world are thrown into the White House pool; they escape by blowing up the Presidential cabana.  Sloppy cut to the next scene: everyone crashing around the greenhouse, needlessly sacrificing exotic flowers; Kale and the worst bad guy (and actor) fight each other with little garden rakes.  The 35–year-old, athletic President Stuart is taken down by his bodyguard, a flabby 65-year-old with terminal cancer.  Not to worry, Kale crashes a spare SUV into the Oval Office and runs over Walker, who strikes a maudlin death pose—one hand thrown over his head, tongue sticking out.

At some point the producers must have run out of money, because the movie ends with a few rooms of the White House still intact.  Some lame-ass side plot about the corrupt, sniveling Speaker of the House is patched on four minutes before the credits in a halfhearted attempt at continuity.  Speaking of continuity, despite fifty or sixty explosions and twenty minutes of sprinklers raining down, all the TVs and computers in every room of the White House are working just fine.

Burning helicopters hang from balconies, smoldering SUVs lie in piles around marble fountains, soldiers’ corpses rot in the sun; cue John Kale and his daughter walking blithely arm-in-arm, ready for a father-daughter picnic.  But wait! In one last bit of sheer impossibility, the President invites them both aboard his helicopter for an impromptu joyride over government center.  As the credits finally rolled I reached for another beer, having earned it.

So what’s my lasting impression of this movie… “Bureaucracy kills?” Perhaps: “Don’t get stuck in a video game.” I rate White House Down one star, and that’s only for the CGI artists and stunt men, who did all the heavy lifting in this rotting corpse of an action movie.  I hereby move to impeach Roland Emmerich from the Screen Director’s Guild…all those in favor?




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“Do we reach, man?” Reviewing “The Way to Eden”

What better way to spend a cold Sunday night in March (that’s still the first of spring) than with the worst original series Star Trek episode of all time? Watching “The Way to Eden” was simultaneously life affirming and completely ridiculous, bordering on shameful. On with the review, which is mostly going to be a deconstruction of the dated outfits and soul depleting musical numbers.

The action opens on the bridge of the Enterprise, which is in hot pursuit of the stolen spaceship Aurora. Rather than surrender, the vessel speeds up to dangerous power draining levels; Kirk beams its passengers aboard just before the tiny model spaceship explodes. Lo and behold, the thieves are a bunch of flower children, who emerge from transport with their hands making little triangles, some future kind of peace sign, I guess. They’re wearing all sorts of fun scraps of clothing left over from other bad costumes—polyester genie pants, half-attached wigs, loincloths, capes with firm creases, fake flowers in their hair. One of the barefoot hippies, Tongo Rad, wears a giant purple clown wig with matching eyebrows, which is visibly falling off his head; apparently he’s the son of some ambassador, so Kirk is forced against his will to treat them all hospitably instead of tossing the no-good hippies in the brig. Oh, all the far-out space hippies have flower tattoos painted on their arms; painted is the wrong word, possibly they were drawn on with sidewalk chalk.

A career character actor, Charles Napier, plays Adam, who’s kind of the mascot of the crew. Their leader is Dr. Sevrin, played by another long-time character actor of the 20th century, Skip Homeier. (Napier also appeared in episodes of “The A-Team” and “Knight Rider”, Homeier started as a child actor). Adam is wearing green velveteen thigh-highs, a polyester cape attached to a skort via brass chain, and a curly sandy blonde wig (also poorly affixed to his head—I could see an air pocket where spirit gum was leaking out). He has an instrument of the future, a piece of lumber with three rubber bands stretched across—this junky crossbow sounds just like a real harp. As soon as Captain Kirk talks with his new passengers, they judge him to be a square; Adam says, “Oh Herbert, you are stiff.” Dr. Sevrin requests Kirk take them all to the mythical planet Eden, Kirk denies the planet exists, and the flower children heckle him out of the transporter room.


Back on the bridge, Kirk asks Spock for some backstory on the hippies, and the real propaganda comes out. Spock replies, “There are many who are uncomfortable with what we have created. It is almost a biological rebellion. A profound revulsion against the planned communities, the programming, the sterilized, artfully balanced atmosphere. They hunger for an Eden, where spring comes.” Kirk guffaws, says, “We all want that…but we don’t steal space cruisers and act like spoiled children!” This episode aired in February of 1969, when the flower power movement was just spreading to middle America. Some critics have compared Dr. Sevrin, the older scientist leading his young disciples to paradise, with Dr. Timothy Leary. Dr. Sevrin fails his medical exam (I think Kirk orders all the hippies to be checked for VD), and Kirk confines him to the brig. Sevrin is wearing a long cape that must have just come out of storage—it’s all creased up—and his giant fake cauliflower ears and shiny bald head make him look like the sea monkey father on the back of old comic books; remember the sea monkey family, waving hello?

While this is going on, there’s a side plot with Chekhov and one of the hippies, Irina, played by Mary Linda Rapelye. Supposedly they had a relationship back at Starfleet Academy (Kirk: “One of them went to Starfleet?” Chekhov: “She…dropped out, sir.”) The relationship is implausible: she’s a total babe (and clearly not Russian, her accent is worse than Natasha’s on Rocky & Bullwinkle), he’s a well-meaning stooge with a bowl haircut—those two would not have hooked up in college. Irina’s outfit is a floral genie affair with exposed belly; this little bit of skin is placed dead center in every boring scene to follow. It seems like they intentionally left the curlers in her hairdo, an impressive stack of rolls decorated with pastel plastic flowers. (Including the hairdo, Irina stands a full four inches taller than Chekhov—camera tricks are employed to even the score).


Now where the hell was I with this “review”? Irina is successfully seducing Chekhov, attempting to get information about the Enterprise from him; another flower girl tries to seduce Sulu—luckily, Kirk steps in and shames his pilot into chastity. After Adam’s physical (about which he scats: “Gonna crack my knuckles and jump for joy, got a clean bill of health from Dr. McCoy!”), he approaches Mr. Spock and asks if they can have “a session.” Spock agrees, Adam says “That’s real now!”, and the next scene is an excruciating love-in. This brick of stinky cheese that called itself a scene was so bad I muted it halfway through, taking copious notes to maintain. Adam croons off-key while strumming his stick and rubber bands, “I’m talkin’ ‘bout you, I’m talkin’ ‘bout me, long time back when the galaxy was new, man knew what he had to do…” and on an on, a tuneless song that the crew of the Enterprise attempts to groove to (one out of three extras bops their head, the others stand around staring into space).

Adam is accompanied by a female hippie (Deborah Downey) who’s dressed like an All-American cheerleader: red, white, and blue little shirt and skirt, side ponytail with a ribbon, shiny blonde hair. An American cheerleader gone bad. For the next song, Spock plays the Vulcan harp while Miss Oklahoma plucks at a bicycle wheel with red, white, and blue spokes. The hippies’ master plan is to get the crew so tuned in that they forget what they’re doing and leave the Enterprise ripe for hostile takeover. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence, but it’s a crucial plot point.


Chekhov and Irina have another patched-together scene, where she gathers more intelligence and he gathers tightness in the pants (Chekhov is searching for Eden, at Spock’s request—he made a deal with Dr. Sevrin, in an earlier bit that was notable only for its two sets of fake ears). Predictably, the scene ends with the two actors smashing their faces together. Kissing on the set of Star Trek seems highly dangerous; in episode after episode, a male officer (usually Kirk) closes his eyes and rams his lips at a being from another world.  I wonder if this blind face fighting ever resulted in a nosebleed.

The session’s good vibes are so powerful that Sevrin’s guard is reduced to snapping his fingers and mooning about with his eyes closed, so the purple clown wig guy is able to free their leader. It’s worth noting that when this episode aired, white America had not learned how to dance yet. Multiply that squareness with boxy Star Fleet uniforms, crew cuts, and poofy up-dos, and you can see why I barely made it through the love-in.

Up on the bridge, a few officers are tapping their feet to the hip tunes, but Kirk and Scottie are not impressed. Scottie, representing the establishment, whines, “I don’t know why a young mind has to be undisciplined! They’re troublemakers!” (A few episodes before this one, Scottie got tanked on bourbon down on an old west planet, then defended his right to be drunk on the job with vigor). The troublemakers manage to take over auxiliary control and fly the Enterprise to Eden.

Over the intercom, Spock reveals to the hippies that their guru is actually insane (and carrying some nasty disease), according to medical records he looked up. But the hippies ignore this warning, even knocking out the crew of the Enterprise with sonic blasts to make their escape. When the sound frequency hits Captain Kirk, he freezes, falls to the floor, and writhes around, legs extended; this reminded me of a fire safety drill we had to do in elementary school:“Stop, Drop, and Roll.”

Kirk, Spock, Chekhov, and Bones beam down to Eden, which has a rather impressive set: real rose bushes, dirt paths, fake trees, and a water feature. Ironically, Eden is completely toxic; devoid of human and animal life, its plants and soil are acidic. When the away team finds the hippies, their bare feet are burned. Adam lies dead and splayed at the foot of a tree, with a bloody poison fruit falling out of his hand. Just to make sure we get it, Spock says, “His name…was Adam.”

The hippie ladies and Tongo Rad (which would be a good name for a pet hamster) agree to return to the Enterprise, but crazy Dr. Sevrin takes off running. He climbs up the same fruit tree, grabs a poison pear and manically takes a bite, then acrobatically falls down dead on a patch of Astroturf.  His death passes without comment, and, as in many Star Trek scripts, to avoid any boring closure on the planet the director cuts back to the Enterprise and rolls the theme music. Kirk dumps the surviving hippies at a nearby starbase, presumably to be picked up by their parents and grounded for a month.

There, I did it, I reviewed the crappiest Star Trek episode of all time. Was “The Way to Eden” inside the bounds of respectable production values? No, it was…pretty far out.

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Two hours of flowing capes and barfy romance: a review of Marvel’s “Thor”


Still life with PBR, orange, and bad movie 

Up here in the hinterlands, far from streaming Internet access, we resort to the neighborly passing around of DVDs to survive the long winter nights. The DVD that came to us last night was Thor, which I can sum up with only three phrases: pretty stars, plodding “tension”, stinky cheese.

At two hours and five minutes, Thor is an hour and ten minutes too long. This Kenneth Branagh affair (he directed and otherwise spooged all over it) stars a former Australian soap opera star in the title role. Chris Hemsworth’s main contribution to the movie is his God-like physique; I tried to like this Thor, I really did, but the old comic book character in my memory easily trumped the living actor.

Thor is one of the earlier Marvel Avengers series movies, and probably the worst in the franchise. The only reason to watch this movie, as with too many comic book movies of late, is the CGI, which is stunning and extremely rich. I suppose if you just scored an eighth and you’re really into Viking helmets, you might also enjoy Thor.

Rather than summarize the plot (which I already did, with just the phrase “stinky cheese”), I’ll point out a few plot holes and some partially decomposed dialogue. A few scenes in, Thor and his buddies from Asgard take the Bifrost (a wormhole bridge in their part of the universe) over to Yodenheim, the ice planet of the frost giants, on a flawed mission of retribution. While the male Vikings are suitably dressed in shiny chainmail, flowing capes, and well-groomed beards (the red-haired dude crimped his), the female Viking is wearing a halter-top and high heels. While I can appreciate the need for a sexy Viking babe in an otherwise boring scene, I shook my head when she broke into a run in stiletto boots, across a sheet of ice. Not even a god can do that.

Down on earth, the action is centered around a small town in New Mexico, on the edge of the desert. Jane (Natalie Portman) is apparently an astrophysicist, supported by a team of one old Scandinavian guy and a slightly chubbier brunette, her student intern or something. All three characters combined are not as smart as one real astrophysicist. Jane’s first line, spoken to Thor after he falls through a wormhole and she smacks him with her car, set the tone for her character: “Do me a favor and don’t be dead.” It sounded even worse the second time around, when the scene was repeated after Thor’s 20-minute long, synthesizer heavy flashback. A relationship is concocted for Jane and Thor, in a process that reminded me of extruding play dough spaghetti. They have all the chemistry of a science fair volcano; watching them emote on each other forced me to reconsider my previously good opinion of Natalie Portman.

Thor was banished from Asgard by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and although Thor was tossed down to earth in his Viking outfit, he wakes up in a T-shirt and jeans. Anthony Hopkins seems resigned to his role in this Gouda fest; despite an eye patch, he sticks to two main facial expressions: kinglike and comatose (for when he enters a coma). Thor’s hammer follows him down to earth, but he has lost the ability to wield it, so it sits chemically bonded to a crater in the desert. A pointless scene of drunken yahoos trying to yank it out with their fists and trucks is fabricated just so Stan Lee can have his mandatory cameo (as a drunken yahoo). It’s like they had to insert a bunch of fatter, stupider characters first, so Stan would look reasonably good by comparison. Oh, and Rene Russo plays Odin’s Viking Queen, which in the actual legend of Valhalla is a very important role—the divine feminine, essentially. In this movie she has three bland lines and five minutes of screen time.

Loki is Thor’s younger, unhunky brother, and something of the royal whipping boy—I forgot the actor’s name, and, hopefully, will soon forget his performance. In Norse mythology, Loki is a trickster, mischievous but neither good nor bad (and definitely not a whipping boy). Here he is the main bad guy, prancing about in a Kelly green cape and a bunny eared helmet. He’s saturnine by nature (he was a born a baby frost giant, King Odin rescued and raised him), and a magician; he can replicate his image, and seemingly travel the space-time continuum at will. Though the screenwriters made an effort to explain some of the film’s “science facts”, they didn’t touch that one.

Loki crowns himself king while Odin is in a self-induced coma, then sends a shiny metal robot knight down to earth to fight Thor and crew in the little New Mexican town. There was heavy product placement in this scene: an Acura raced by, a fat guy drank a Budweiser in front of the Bank of America, and the robot knight blew up a 7-11. Thor, now a mortal without his hammer, is defeated by the robot knight; he collapsed as quiet, reflective music told me how to feel. Jane weeps over her dying hunk of man, maintaining some level of dignity as sunlight blazes off the robot knight’s giant metal ass. At this moment, Thor has fulfilled his destiny; his hammer rises up out of the desert and flies into his waiting meat hook, he is a Marvel superhero once more. An epic battle ensues between Thor 2.0 and the robot knight (whom I instantly rooted for—he didn’t speak once, but was the most interesting character in the whole movie); they exchange A-bomb level energy blasts without breaking a single window or bursting one pipeline. Well done, continuity team.

I apologize for going into low-grade plot summary (but it was a low-grade plot, let’s be honest); there was no way to explain the series of biffs and fumbles that is Thor without it. So what did I actually like about Thor? Its gorgeous CGI: there were deep space star clusters, a golden mead hall in Asgard, and a pastel and chrome mythical city. Especially the star clusters. I wish the whole two hours were just a tour of deep space, actually. Some, not all, of the costumes were cool—where was Thor’s helmet, hmm? That’s a major part of his outfit in the myth and the Marvel comic book, but here his Bondi beach blonde locks were his only protection. The soundtrack could have been replaced by random hold music and I wouldn’t have noticed. I’ll give Thor one and half stars, out of respect for the CGI artists. Kenneth Branagh, should we ever cross paths I will retroactively apply the rules of Elizabethan theater and pelt you with a sack load of rotten cabbages. Boo!

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On Epiphany, we went to the movies and saw



Warning: spoilers ahead!

Last night an old friend took me to see The Danish Girl at a movie theater in Boulder, Colorado, where I’m stopped for a week or so. As we walked across the parking garage with a herd of other people, we passed a large circle of adults standing around passing joints at an even clip, fifteen feet from the theater entrance. I did a double take, and then remembered I was in Boulder, Colorado. (I presume the red-eyed theatergoers were there to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens—all I know is they didn’t see The Danish Girl). We got our tickets and raced in as the opening credits were rolling; from the first shot I saw—a ballerina stretched over her chiffon skirts, looking up at a strained angle—this was a beautiful, heart-tugging piece of work.

The palette of this film is cold—it’s set in Copenhagen in 1926—blues, grays, bone-white, and icy black canals. This bleak background contrasts brilliantly with the stunning transformation of Einar Wegener, the male (and female) protagonist. Based on a true story, the film elegantly follows the first recorded transgender woman through her life as a depressed married man loved by a beautiful woman, into a fragile loose cannon of femininity. Eddie Redmayne plays the title role, in possibly the most demanding, revealing role of his career so far. (I haven’t seen The Theory of Everything). The only other movie I had seen him in was a stinking bomb, Jupiter Ascending, and I had badly misjudged him based on that rotten pumpkin. His performance here is flawless, and requires many subtle changes of language and mannerism—his hands were like their own characters, inventing a feminine vocabulary.

Before I get too far afield, here’s a rundown of the story: Danish artist, Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander), paints her husband, Einar Wegener, as a lady, in a wry joke on the art world. It awakens the feminine in Einar (who is also a painter), and he begins to cross-dress in public, under the name Lili Elbe. The Lili paintings are wildly popular, and the pair travel to Paris where Gerda gains recognition, and Einar turns more fully into Lili. But he must suppress Lili to save his marriage, which he suddenly cannot do anymore. Gerda loves him enough to accept it, and helps Lili emerge—this is a very complicated relationship, and masterfully handled onscreen. While the couple are in France, they find Einar’s childhood friend, Hans Axgil, played by Matthias Shoenaerts, who fleshes out their shared past (secret kisses, the shame of being caught), and offers a masculine counterpoint to Lili and Gerta. Alicia Vikander is outstanding; her character also changes in this story, from a confident artist secure in a joyful marriage, to a possessed painter, slashing the lines of Lili’s body across canvas after canvas. The love of her life is gone, and a strange new person occupies his body. She chooses, and succeeds, to love this other person as a friend.

After a string of sadistic doctors, a few of whom Einar barely escapes (think ominous lobotomy knives, straight jackets, radiation horror shows), they find a German doctor who is willing to try the first male-to-female sex reassignment surgery. The director, Tom Hooper, keeps the pacing steady, with pressure: things are being attempted here that have never been tried before. A man is posing as a woman in public, before and after his total castration—an operation that rarely succeeds. The second surgery is to shape him into a woman, and it’s riskier than the first. It’s never been done before, not in recorded history, and the previous candidate fled hours before the operation—but Lili never hesitates. Surgery in 1926 was dangerous; infections happened all the time, drug dosages were a crapshoot, and doctors operated without scrutiny. Infections take hold of Lili after both surgeries; morphine and Gerda’s care bring her back the first time.

After the first surgery, Lili returns with Gerda to Copenhagen, and takes a job in a department store. She’s the envy of the other girls, her red lipstick radiant against pale, long cheeks. She passes easily, and other women compliment her slim hips (perfect for the twenties ideal of beauty) and graceful walk. Eddie Redmayne, I mean, Einar, changed from male to female so completely that by the end of the film I couldn’t even remember what he looked like as a man. I hope he does win the Oscar.

After the second surgery, Lili wakes and says, “I am wholly myself now.” She asks to be taken outside to the garden, where she dies, Gerda at her side. The last scene lunged right at my heart: Gerda and Hans travel to the fjords of their dead friend’s childhood, passing scenery that has appeared throughout the story in Einar’s paintings. They stand in strong winds at the top of a tall ledge, looking over the sea. Lili’s peach and black silk scarf frees itself from Gerda’s neck and flies up, up and out, folds itself and opens again, is gone.

Please forgive the plot summary; this story is so dense and told so well I had to run through it again. Lili’s diaries were published as a book, “Man into Woman,” in the 1930s, and this book is the first of its kind. Transgender people are gaining some ground with civil rights, but it’s a slow fight. We live in  a dark time for humanity, when the other is pushed away, made hideous. It was not always this way: androgyny was once a sign of the gods, sleeping with both men and women was the right of the tribe’s shamans. The Danish Girl offers more of the human story than ten lesser movies combined. My friend and I left the theater quietly, and that night I dreamt of giant women with unblinking eyes.

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In which 18 two-year-olds meet Santa

This morning we have eighteen children in class, all new to walking. More expressive with their bodies than their voices. All under three feet tall, most much less: Gabby, Vienna, Advay, Kiara, Gino, Luca, Julianna (these three are triplets), Lela and Talia (blonde twins), Gemma, Tusant, Clara, Natalia, Caleb, Madeline, Olivia, Finnegan, and Laughlin—he’s the youngest, and very chubby in baby and other ways. Teresa and I are the teachers, but I’m also an unshowered substitute, barely cleared to work.  We have two volunteers: Angelo and Rosa, the triplets’ parents. Promptly at nine Angelo turns on the radio (we only use the failing boombox’s cd feature, and only for nap time and cleanup) and finds bad Christmas music, frequently and loudly interrupted by commercials; all of this blasts in disharmony with children shrieking and adults yelling to be heard. At 9:15 I turn the radio way down, and bald Angelo (who doesn’t have much of a neck, just many folds) puts on his iPhone’s headphones and starts bopping up and down. Rosa, a mama bear, changes all eighteen diapers by 9:30, though I offered to switch off with her twice. Teresa has a bad sore throat and sets up the party snacks—today is Christmas party day, all over the school—a strange assortment of things donated by parents: limp melons, Oreos, stale goldfish crackers, oranges, cherry tomatoes. Dumped on holiday paper plates, these foods clash together and the little chickies eat them so slowly; one orange slice lasts five minutes. Apple juice spreads quickly over the low tables and floors; the crappy brown school paper towels are useless against it.

At ten we line up to walk down the hall to Santa, as instructed by the school’s director, Peggy, an hour ago. Everyone’s in line, it’s all set, and then another teacher yells down the hall “There’s a holdup, wait fifteen minutes and try again.” We release the kids into the room, where dramas belch out and whining picks up. This is not their routine, not what they’re used to. Olivia is new to school and cries continually, her face is slick with fluids. Kiara takes her boot off once, twice, thirteen times; she’s so pretty, and smiles so much, it’s impossible to be mad at her. We line up again, and again are told to wait, this time until 10:45. Teresa is ten years younger than me but has a daughter (I am the only childless adult in the room, possibly the oldest adult too, at 34) and doesn’t talk much today, her throat is raw. Angelo, who looks a little like the Thing (and sounds like him too) says, “What the hell? It doesn’t take a neural surgeon to know these kids have the least patience—they should see Santa first.” He shakes his head (twice as big as my head) and his wife, sitting with all three of their children in her lap, rolls her eyes. I feel I should add something—these people don’t even know my name, so I say, “In two months of working here, today is by far the most intense.” Fifteen tearful, angry, fierce, naughty minutes later (and that’s just what’s showing on the small, moist faces directly in front of me) we walk down the hall to the front of the school, where Santa is waiting with a plastic bag of presents bought by the children’s teacher (who is out today with her own sick three-year-old). Santa is both gentle and mysterious; I cannot tell how old he actually is. Kind voice, crinkly eyes, gin blossom tamped down with baby powder. The kids, mostly terrified of Santa, sit on a bench ten feet away. They will be called up one at a time to get their gift, a plush pillow made by other children thousands of miles away. Someone gives me a camera and a new job, photographing this event. “Natalia! Merry Christmas, c’mon up here!” calls Santa, but Natalia is scared. She is one of three black kids in the class; Advay is Indian—does he even know who Santa is?; Olivia is Hispanic; the triplets and their parents are second generation Italian, so is Gemma. (In other classes in this school there are other Indian children, Koreans, beautiful combinations of black and white and Latino.) The 18-month-olds, the 20-month-olds, the 2-year-olds lurch up to Santa and take their gifts, or do not—often they are too petrified to move and the presents are deposited in their laps by intermediary adults. I take a photo of every exchange—in two out of eighteen I get the child’s face somewhere near Santa’s. As a photographer I do poorly, and rate myself a B- overall for the morning; I could have been kinder about the radio, could have said something instead of just turning it down. When Angelo and Rosa’s triplets are called, their girl is brash, pushes her brothers aside. Finnegan, a chubby faced blue-eyed curly blonde boy, very Irish, stomps up to Santa, then snatches his toy and turns away in one motion, like a breaching sperm whale.

Santa takes rejection and ingratitude in stride (is he going to the mall after this?) and his jolly laugh is real, despite the painful irony of handing out cheap toys under a big wooden crucifix. (This used to be a Catholic school, now it’s a nonprofit but the nuns still show up once a week and walk around in a haze). Costumed, all of us: most of the teachers, myself included, and Peggy and the secretary, Fran, are wearing red sweaters or blouses and dark pants. We look like a bloated color guard, closing ranks around our tiny royals. Kiara is last up and smiles broadly (she likes adults, a lot) and finally it’s over, our herd shuffles off. Gemma, Olivia, and Advay hang on my jeans and hands as we step slowly back to our room, which used to be the Catholic school’s cafeteria. As soon as we get back, Rosa and Angelo bundle up their crew and rush out, far quieter than their pre-Santa selves. Tanya comes in, dressed as an elf (she went room to room this morning, reading a Christmas book and wearing a pointed hat with fake ears pinned on). She turns off the lights, shuts the blinds, and gets us all to sit down on the rug. “We’ve under lockdown,” she says, looking only at me, then Teresa. “It’s a manhunt,” she mouths, “They’ll tell us when it’s over.” (Later, another teacher tells me a five-year-old’s body was found that afternoon, and cops swept the area, looking for a black pickup truck. Which was made up: the boy’s half-sister murdered him). And so we all sit in confused silence, the kids chewing on their new plush pillows, looking up at us for some idea of what the hell is going on. Kiara has hung on to me pretty much all morning, and now leans against me hard, plays with my prayer beads. I am calm, children look at my face and see no fear—this is not my usual. Fifteen minutes later Peggy (who has continually disrupted our morning) comes in and gives us the all clear. Kiara stands up and lays her head on my chest. Next up: lunch.

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Upping the ante: a critical look at Marvel’s latest offering


On Saturday evening we drove to the strip mall movie theater to see Ant-Man. I asked the stoner kid selling tickets what he thought of the film; after a pause, he replied, “It was surprisingly good. Ant-Man is played by Paul Rudd, who has a quality of douchèyness, which works for the role.” I am in complete agreement with his assessment—Paul Rudd’s douchèbag roots are crucial to Ant-Man—but more on that later.

I hadn’t been to a second-run movie theater in many years, and had forgotten about the threadbare seats, Skittles chemically bonded to the floor, and giant family groups crashing in after the movie starts. But where else can two people see a movie for $5? We smuggled in drinks and chocolate bars, making it an especially cheap date. On with the review.

Ant-Man is yet another Marvel movie executive produced by Stan Lee (et al; I never catch the other guys’ names) and directed by Peyton Reed. It stars Paul Rudd, an actor I knew nothing about except that he’s the poor man’s Ben Affleck. (Brainteaser: who is cooler, Ben Affleck or his various imposters?) Ant-Man’s workaday identity is Scott Lang (same initials as Stan Lee, who has a reasonably sized ego), just released from San Quentin for his Robin Hood type computer crimes against a corrupt bank. Oh, he’s also a master cat burglar and has a young daughter, Cassie, now being raised by his ex-wife and her fiancé, a dim-witted cop who looks not unlike Cromagnon man.

Lang tries to avoid falling back to thievery, but after he’s fired from Baskin Robbins he gives up and joins a ragtag bunch of ex-con kindred spirits. Their first job is to rob a safe in a fancy Victorian house (the movie is loosely set in San Francisco), but all Lang finds in the safe is a slamming retro suit and beakers filled with green Kool-aid. The house belongs to Dr. Hank Pym, a jaded old scientist played by Michael Douglas. Dr. Pym allows his suit to be stolen (he set up the robbery, actually), knowing Lang will try it on and shrink down to half a centimeter tall, and gain some handy super-strength. Which he does, in a scummy clawfoot bathtub. Lang’s buddy turns on the faucet, and tiny Ant-Man is splashed out and through the floorboards, down onto a spinning turntable in a bumping party; he must escape through giant stomping platform shoes and a scary mouse hole. The imagery is very well done; like in many Marvel movies, the CGI ties back visually to Ant-Man’s comic book roots—it’s a series of clean action shots in vivid colors.

Lang tries to unsteal the suit but Dr. Pym’s daughter, Hope, calls the police, and Lang is busted by fifty or sixty cops (standard response for breaking & entering calls, I assume). Hope is played by Evangeline Lilly, one of my favorite actresses lately. Here’s what I like about her: she’s totally badass and has made brilliant career moves. Lilly is Canadian, and started out as a model for phone sex ads (the “call me” girl); then she got hired to play Kate on the TV show Lost, and from there, she jumped to movies. At the very end of Ant-Man, there’s a teaser scene for the sequel; Dr. Pym takes Hope down to his secret lab in the basement and shows her the flying, shrinking supersuit he was making for her mother, The Wasp (who died a hero, in a touching superhero family flashback). Dr. Pym says something like, “I think it’s about time we got you into that suit,” and Hope replies, “It’s about damn time.” From phone sex model to Marvel Superheroine; impressive career arc. Hope’s shiny black bob and pinstripe suit are the classiest costume in the movie, though I did enjoy Michael Douglas in a tweed jacket and John Lennon glasses.

A brief plot synopsis is required here: for decades, Dr. Pym successfully hid the Ant-Man suit from his protégé, Dr. Darren Cross, played by Corey Stoll. Dr. Cross is evil (and, it must be noted, very stupid), and takes over Pym’s company, then makes his own microsuit, the Yellow Jacket, a weapon of war. To stop this weapon from being released into the world, Dr. Pym needs Scott Lang—so he busts him out of jail with his ant army, which he controls via telepathic technology (apologies if this jumps around a bit—it was noisy in the $2 movie theater and my notes are jumbled). The newly formed team of Dr. Pym, Hope, and Ant-Man manage to break into Tony Stark’s warehouse and borrow some fancy gadget—Ant-Man goes a few rounds with the Falcon—and then they’re ready to blow up Cross’s headquarters. The loveable ex-cons from scene two are brought in to round out the team and gawk at Evangeline Lilly’s smokin’ curves. In essence, their plan relies on the unilateral stupidity of the bad guys; it’s a comic book movie, so the plan holds.

I can accept incompetence in security guards, cops, and other miscellaneous cartoons in the protagonist’s way.  (Example: two bumbling undercover cops leave the keys in the ignition when they get out to waylay Dr. Pym, facilitating a crucial joy-ride diversion).  But the main bad guy must be compelling and intelligent; Dr. Cross is neither. He’s the weak link in this movie, with few decent lines and a sum total of three facial expressions. They gave him a Lex Luthor sort of look (I know, I’m mixing DC and Marvel here), and the most clichéd possible pathos: he found a father figure in Dr. Pym, then that father figure let him down. He sees Ant-Man as Pym’s “chosen son,” and longs to squish him. I don’t believe Dr. Cross (as in, double cross) was smart enough to get a degree in nanoscience, let alone steal a company, set up an arms deal, and plot nefarious revenge.

As you’ve probably guessed, Ant-Man manages to take out Dr. Cross, save the world, reunite with his daughter, and play some quick tonsil hockey with Hope, his future partner in the Ant-Man sequel. Stan Lee gets his mandatory cameo (in this case, as a leering bartender), and Dr. Pym miraculously recovers from a bullet wound to the chest.   Michael Douglas was the correct choice for Dr. Pym; he’s the right kind of jaded for the role, and brings valuable street cred to a mostly younger cast. The quality of douchèyness Paul Rudd offers is vital, because Ant-Man is actually a B-list superhero; he knows he’s not on par with the Avengers, his extra mask is cockiness. When an introduction with that A-team is hinted at towards the end, Lang is ecstatic.

I liked Ant-Man, despite its plot holes and lack of a convincing villain. The CGI was artful, especially the insects, which had faces and personalities. Ant-Man rides a flying carpenter ant, whom he names Antony; poor Antony is shot by Dr. Cross in the final chase scene.  A single wing floats gently down to the pavement, reflecting rainbow light; it’s a welcome slow breath in the middle of the loudest action sequence. The last battle between Ant-Man and Yellow Jacket goes down in Cassie’s bedroom, on her train set; the micro-fighters hurl Thomas the train engine at each other (which our audience found gut-bustingly funny, for some reason).  To destroy Yellow Jacket’s suit, Ant-Man must go “subatomic”; he releases his own suit’s molecular constraints and begins to shrink down, down, down. It’s an interesting subatomic trip; he kind of enters a bardo, a place of limbo between lives. And, like a bardo, a familiar voice calls Ant-Man back—here it’s his daughter. The costumes were cool, the soundtrack knew when to back off, and the $2 movie crowd laughed at every joke, no matter how flat. I’ll give Ant-Man three and a half stars, and maybe we’ll hit the second-run movie theater again next week.


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A review of “The Martian,” written by my Martian alter-ego


Instead of my usual review style—witty, insightful, and without drawn-out exposition, naturally—this time I’m going to pose a series of questions. Despite getting my bag searched by the ticket-taker, I successfully smuggled a 22 oz. ginger kombucha beer and two fancy chocolate bars into The Martian, and these substances greatly affected my note-taking abilities. I give you my scribbled questions, and answers.

Q: If the planet Mars were a letter, which letter would it be?

A: The letter O, because of all the pancake craters on the planet’s surface. Also, if The Martian paints an accurate picture of the red planet, looking at its vast, jagged, and shifty surface makes people, like Matt Damon for instance, say, “Ooooh.” Well, to be fair, he never actually said that, but he made that sort of face, and he did say, “I’m the first person to be alone an entire planet.”

Q: Do female astronauts really need to wear eyeliner in space?

A: Probably not, but in the case of the commanding officer of the Mars mission that accidentally left Mark Watney (Matt Damon) behind, the eyeliner outlined the most expressive part of her face inside the bulky space helmet, thus conveying crucial nonverbal information. On a related note, since when did astronauts and mission control officers get so pretty? Sally Ride is one of my heroes, but she’s not what I’d call babe material.

Q: What’s the most absurd soundtrack to force upon a man stranded on Mars, struggling to survive?

A: Disco, and so it works beautifully. Hot Stuff, Turn the Beat Around, and Love Train blast as Watney cruises empty landscapes in his tiny rover, or sweats in the stuffiness of his space suit. Surprisingly, the one David Bowie song to make the cut is not “Life on Mars,” but another whose name I forgot (“star man, floating in the sky…”)—this too works splendidly against the wide screen shots of the space ship turning.

Q: Which hole is scarier: a black hole or a hole in a space helmet?

A: Well, this movie only showed a hole in a space helmet, and it was terrifying. The sound of the oxygen rushing out, the computer voice calmly reciting, “Oxygen level, critical,” and Watney desperately patching the hole with shiny space duct tape, hampered by his giant gloves—all of this was scary. A black hole might be less scary, because it could be a faster experience. Then again, has anyone ever gone over an event horizon and lived to tell the tale?

Q: Did Matt Damon actually lose twenty pounds during the filming of this movie? (His character is slowly starving on dwindling rations, and by the time of his rescue, he’s barely alive).

A: I don’t think so, because there’s never a shot of Damon’s face and this bony new body together. Also, the gaunt, drawn body seems to be a little taller than Damon’s.

Q: How did Jeff Daniels do, as the director of NASA?

A: I love Jeff Daniels; Paper Man is one of my favorite films of the last ten years, followed closely by The Squid and the Whale, another movie he stars in. That said, I was kind of disappointed by him in this role. But then: in a movie where all the empathy (and most of the screen time) is devoted to a handsome astronaut fighting valiantly for survival on a distant planet, how can a pinstriped bureaucrat with lines like, “Congress won’t let us buy so much as a paperclip, let alone a satellite,” expect to stand out? I hope Jeff Daniels was at least paid well.

Q: Last question. What would you rate this movie?

A: I think it’s a solid three and three quarters out of five stars. I liked the beautiful, desolate CGI landscapes, I liked the shiny space ships and the way the actors gracefully swooped around (one woman was like a ballerina, toes tightly pointed and neck arched). The disco soundtrack was glorious (how many movies play a full Donna Summers tune anymore? I was grooving with my ginger kombucha beer).  I can’t give The Martian a full four stars, or anything higher, because the film’s production staff kept insisting (in all the promotional material, not to mention quotes from the original book’s author) that the plot is not so far-fetched, it could really happen. And, while the science may be sound—Watney could actually have grown potatoes in astronaut poop and escaped in a spacepod with a tarp for a roof—one crucial point was neglected: he lived completely alone for over a year and a half, in a brutal climate, with no change to his character or his psyche. That’s hard to believe. He talked into the NASA cameras a lot, and, after a few weeks of isolation he managed to connect with NASA on earth and communicate, somewhat, with other people, but that’s not the same as actual human contact. The people he was space-texting with were four years of travel time away, and for the majority of his time on Mars, his survival was not likely. But, he pulled himself up by his moonbootstraps and kept on keeping on, never once breaking down, even when he accidentally blew up his potato crop. I wish he had; his stone-faced resolution made it hard to see him as a fleshed out character. At the very end of the movie, when he’s back at NASA telling the junior recruits all about his spaceman adventures, there’s a line or two on resilience, not giving up, et cetera—it’s ham-handed and tacked on. They should have ended the movie with him kissing the earth (which he also doesn’t do). See this movie if you like manly sci-fi, ballerina astronauts, and close-ups of Matt Damon’s pores.

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