Saturday, February 23, 2019



The Oscars are looming, in case you hadn’t heard. I spent last evening with a last-minute Oscar lightning round screening of Willem Dafoe’s Best Actor-nominated performance as Vincent Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, and in my best Gene Shalit voice I will tell you to go-go-Gogh grab it at a Redbox near you. Dafoe’s work towers over the other four nominees, and even gives Ethan Hawke’s tortured pastor in First Reformed, my choice for male performance of the year, a run for its money. 
But truth be told, I’ve been spending the waning minutes before the Dolby Theater at Hollywood and Highland takes its place as the center of the universe tomorrow night (or tonight, if you’re reading this on Sunday), immersed in decidedly anti-Oscar bait, and if you don’t have any desire to submit yourself to watching Oscars this year you could do much worse than spending time with any or all of these three Oscar-allergic alternatives. Speaking of alternatives, in the last few days my daughters and I have traveled to a parallel universe (where, perhaps, movies like this win awards?) courtesy of Happy Death Day 2U, the inventive and energetic sequel to 2017’s unexpectedly nifty Happy Death Day, both of which rest squarely on the shoulders of the percolating comic talent of their lead, Jessica Rothe, who again navigates the treacherous landscape of an endlessly repeating day which ends, every time, with her own death. The sequel is, as one friend put it, more Real Genius (1985) than real horror, and it doesn’t quite measure up to the delicious blend of existential horror-comedy the first one managed. But fans of the first movie will likely be plenty diverted, as were we, by all the different spins Rothe can put onto waking up in the same place not-dead-after-all again and again and again…
Then we caught up with Overlord (“FROM PRODUCER J.J. ABRAMS!” shout the ads), which parachuted into theaters this past November as if on a stealth mission to make it into multiplexes and then avoid as many paying customers as possible before sneaking out a week later the same way it snuck in and marching straight to the closest streaming provider. The setup couldn’t be more videogame boilerplate: a group of soldiers on a mission to take out a communications tower behind German enemy lines during the last days of World War II find that there’s much more sinister things going on in (and beneath) that tower than just radio transmissions revealing Allied troop positions. And the trailers reinforce the perception of the movie as yet another tired entry in the zombie saturation fest that has been plaguing pop culture since long before The Walking Dead became a phenomenon.
But Overlord’s scope is thankfully far more compact, and as a result more potent, than that of a full-on invasion of suddenly reanimated corpses roaming across the bombed-out French countryside. The movie is absurdly well directed by one Julius Avery and definitely benefits from low expectations and having flown relatively low and successfully under the radar. It’s also anchored by strong performances by Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell as the straight-up private and the cynical corporal leading the charge against they don’t exactly know what—Adepo hails from Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences, and Russell, who you’ve seen in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!, is every inch, every clenched tooth, his father Kurt’s son, complete with genetically inherited magnetism— and young actress Mathilde Ollivier as a girl seasoned by the horrors of war whose fellow villagers are mysteriously disappearing into the German-occupied “church” on the outskirts of town and coming back, if they come back at all, not quite the same as they once were. Even if you can guess where it’s going, and you probably will, Overlord has the power to surprise you with both its over-the-top gore and its restraint. Its sense of being rooted in a tradition of well-made horror handily elevates this picture above and beyond the usual fare aimed at the rowdy hooligans roaming the multiplex on a Saturday night, in relentless search of thrills far cheaper than the ones available here.

And speaking of the multiplex, my family and I were snowbound the weekend it opened and couldn't get to a show house, but I'm happy to report that earlier this week my daughter Emma and I got to see The Prodigy with a packed, very appreciative and very attentive audience, and if the sound of screams, tension-release laughter and absolute quiet in all the right spots (no guarantee from a multiplex horror movie audience) is any indicator, then director Nicholas McCarthy's new movie is a well-deserving success. Don't let the release date fool you-- this is not an early 2019 dump of a junk picture the studio is trying to earn back its money on. The Prodigy is a visually sophisticated and eloquent horror thriller whose chill perfectly matches the winter air. It’s a supernatural bad-seed melodrama with roots in lots of other pictures and influences (The Exorcist, The Omen, and directors like Mario Bava among them), but the movie’s ace-in-the-hole is how grounded it is not only in the horror, but also the parental nightmare at the root of the horror. Orange is the New Black’s Taylor Schilling is a young mother who can’t get a handle on the strange development of her young son, who showed incredible intellectual agility from the earliest moments but who now, at age eight (as embodied by Jackson Robert Scott, Pennywise’s first victim in the 2017 version of Stephen King’s It), is exhibiting some rather strange… tendencies. 
To say more would be unfair, because of the three movies I’ve talked about in this post The Prodigy is the one that really delivers. Now, after three features, the film’s director, Nicholas McCarthy, is becoming a master of the slow burn-- he knows the value of using the wide-screen frame to creep up to the terror. McCarthy is a true believer, a director who knows the genre inside-out and takes it seriously, but he doesn’t come across as either an overeager fanboy or a po-faced practitioner of the art of rubbing the audience’s faces in gruesomeness in order to ensure his credibility. (See French extreme horror.) McCarthy’s confidence here is remarkable. He manages to steal a jump-scare bit directly from Bava and spin it brilliantly in such a way that outdoes the maestro and puts the audience on the floor behind their seats. (At least I was.) And The Prodigy delivers one sequence that will surely endure among horror aficionados and, with any luck, mainstream audiences, a masterful buildup to a release that never comes-- Schilling makes her way down a dark staircase and hovers near the entrance to an even darker room, its black entrance opening toward her like the maw of an abyss. Yet the cheap scream that a lesser director would pull out of his hat to cap a setup like this, like a desperate magician's ragged rabbit, never materializes. McCarthy leaves the scream that wants to leap out stuck squarely in your throat, and the residual lingering on that dark room before the cutaway cements a lingering dread that never dissipates for the remainder of the movie. No plot spoilers from me. Just know that The Prodigy will get under your skin. See it in a theater, if you can.
Okay, so back to the Oscars. With precious few hours left, I’ve decided to once again participate in the ritual public humiliation of Oscar predictions. You should be forewarned though: As they used to say on the pinball machines of my youth, these predictions are for your amusement only. In fact, some may get more amusement out of them than others, and that’s okay—I am nothing if not one to be laughed at. So with that as my lead, it’s probably redundant to suggest that the following predictions are probably not your best bet for winning the office Oscar pool—the last time I won it myself, with my awesome powers of precognition, was 15 years ago. And if some of you do choose to use these guesses as a template in the expectation of big cash prizes, let me be the first to say, “I told you so.” Here we go.


In this year of all years, smack in the middle of a “national emergency,” even though it’s not close to being my own pick I won’t be upset to see Cuaron’s movie hold center stage.

Winner: Roma

Should win: BlacKkKlansman

Spoiler: Black Panther


It’s career achievement time.

Winner: Glenn Close, The Wife

Should win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite (sadly, she doesn’t seem to be one any longer)

Spoiler: Lady Gaga, A Star is Born


Bradley Cooper should learn the lesson that if he’s going to win a Best Actor Oscar, he’d be better off to impersonate an actual person, like Dick Cheney, or Freddie Mercury, or Vincent Van Gogh, or even a mook like Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, rather than a fictional guy like Norman Maine (or a real guy like Sam Elliot). Oh, well…

Winner: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody

Should win: Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate

Spoiler: Christian Bale, Vice


This year Oscar will coronate King.

Winner: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk

Should win: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk

Spoiler: Emma Stone, The Favourite


Can Mahershala Ali overcome the prevalent refrain of “he already got his”? Yeah, I think so.

Winner: Mahershala Ali, Green Book

Should win: Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman

Spoiler: Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?


He/she who bets against Mexico in this category is either a Greek or Polish national, or more probably someone who hasn’t been paying attention too closely over the last few months.

Winner: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma

Should win: Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman

Spoiler: Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman


Despite the Writer’s Guild of America win for Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, I think the Oscar race is a close call between Spike Lee et al. and Barry Jenkins. The winner will be the guy “they” really want to give an Oscar to.

Winner: Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott, Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz, BlacKkKlansman

Should win: (I threw a dart and it landed on) Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk

Spoiler: Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk


The sweep will continue unabated here.

Winner: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma

Should win: Paul Schrader, First Reformed

Spoiler: Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara, The Favourite


Adam McKay! Kidding!

Winner: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma

Should win: Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman

Spoiler: Ain’t gonna be no spoiler in this category.


Winner: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse

Should win: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse

Spoiler: Ain’t gonna be no spoiler in this category


Winner: Bao


Winner: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma

Should win: Robbie Ryan, The Favourite, with a shout-out to Bruno Delbonnel (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and Benoit Delhomme (At Eternity’s Gate), who have no business being on the sidelines here.

Spoiler: Lukasz Zal, Cold War


Winner: Ruth Carter, Black Panther

Should win: Ruth Carter, Black Panther

Spoiler: Mary Zophres, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs


Winner: Free Solo

Should win: Of Fathers and Sons

Spoiler: RBG


Winner: Black Sheep


I’m betting on the maverick sensibilities of the Academy membership to—What the hell am I saying?

Winner: Roma

Should win: Shoplifters

Spoiler: Cold War


Winner: Hank Corwin, Vice

Should win: Barry Alexander Brown, BlacKkKlansman

Spoiler: Barry Alexander Brown, BlacKkKlansman


Winner: Marguerite


Winner: Vice

Should win: Vice

Spoiler: Ain’t gonna be no spoiler in this category.


Winner: Terence Blanchard, BlacKkKlansman

Should win: Nicholas Britell, If Beale Street Could Talk

Spoiler: Ludwig Goranson Black Panther


It’s the only win this overhyped machine can’t possibly lose.

Winner: “Shallow,” A Star is Born

Should win: “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Spoiler: Ain’t gonna be no spoiler in this category


Wakanda forever?

Winner: Black Panther

Should win:  Black Panther

Spoiler: Roma


Winner: Bohemian Rhapsody

Should win: A Quiet Place

Spoiler:  A Quiet Place


Winner: Bohemian Rhapsody

Should win: Bohemian Rhapsody

Spoiler: Black Panther


Zzzzzzzzzzz….Whoops! I’m sorry. Carry on.

Winner: Avengers: Infinity War

Should win: Uh…. Avengers: Infinity War

Spoiler: Ready Player One


Enjoy the Oscars. And promise not to read these predictions on Monday and make fun of me.


Saturday, February 02, 2019


A lot of words have already been written this week, and hopefully a lot more will be written in the next few weeks, months and years, about the great and beloved character actor Dick Miller, who passed away Wednesday in Burbank at age 90.  A quick look at his bio page on IMDb will give you the basics about his early life— born in The Bronx, he served in the US Navy and, despite his diminutive stature, even won a prize title as a middleweight boxer. But that’s not why several generations of movie fans know him, love him, or get such a kick out of seeing him pop up, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere, in the over-180 films and TV episodes in which he appeared. 
Miller made his way out to Los Angeles from New York in the mid-50s and thus assured said multiple generations of movie fans of many hours of happiness by getting himself noticed by producer-director Roger Corman, who cast him in his first role, the Indian warrior Tall Tree, in Corman’s low-budget western Apache Woman (1955), starring Lloyd Bridges. Miller soon became one of Corman’s favored actors, appearing in some Corman’s most notable early pictures, including It Conquered the World (1956), Not of This Earth (1957), The Undead (1957) and Sorority Girl (1957). After doing some TV work, it was Corman again who really put Miller on the map and cemented his place in movie history by casting him in the satirical horror comedy A Bucket of Blood (1959) as Walter Paisley, a shiftless busboy who finds acclaim in the art world when his dead cat gets dunked in plaster and is subsequently praised as a significant piece of sculpture. The sudden fame goes to Paisley’s head, bringing out his more sociopathic tendencies, and soon more ex-lifelike sculptures of decidedly more human subjects begin appearing as part of Paisley’s increasingly grotesque portfolio. Comedy and horror ensue.

Walter Paisley turned out to be such a memorable character, and so defined the benignly irascible persona that Miller would perfect over the 50+-year movie and TV career to follow, that even the name would be a hard one to shake, if the good-natured actor ever even had a mind to disregard his legacy in such a way. Director Joe Dante cast Miller in every one of his movies, beginning with Hollywood Boulevard, co-directed by Allan Arkush, in 1976, and in that movie he played an energetic, somewhat shady agent by the name of… Walter Paisley. He was Walter Paisley again for Dante in The Howling (perhaps one of Miller’s most memorable roles, as an occult librarian, also reportedly Miller’s favorite) and in the director’s episode from Twilight Zone—The Movie (1983). He also appeared under that name for other Corman vets, like Arkush (Shake, Rattle and Rock!; 1994) and Jim Wynorski (Chopping Mall; 1986), and as recently as 2015 for writer-director Michael Schlesinger in the Biffle & Shooster short Schmo Boat. The way Walter Paisley followed Dick Miller around from picture to picture, for several different directors over several decades, has to be one of the most unique tributes to any actor in the history of movies.
Corman apparently offered Miller the lead in his follow-up to Bucket of Blood, another horror comedy you may have heard of called The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), but Miller demurred, believing the role of the nebbishy young man who nurtures a bloodthirsty plant by feeding it human meals was too close to that of Paisley. Miller settled instead for his customary supporting role in that picture, and in the doing, as the writer and critic Phillip Dyess-Nugent recently observed, forever denied us the spectacle of seeing the pointy-featured soon-to-be legend squatting on a dentist’s chair, yanking teeth out of the maw of yet another soon-to-be legend, a hysterically, erotically excited pain freak played by Jack Nicholson.
Dante cast Miller in every picture he made, yes, but not always as Walter Paisley, of course—he was Murray Futterman, the apoplectic Kingston Falls citizen haunted by holiday hellions in Gremlins, and then on vacation in New York with Mrs. Futterman in the brilliant hellzapoppin’ sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch. His scene in the first film, when he drunkenly emerges from the bar followed by a concerned Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates, hops in his snowblower and warns about how “they” put gremlins in our cars, our radios, our TVs, may not have the subversive notoriety of Cates’ Santa monologue in that picture, but it’s a quiet, understated, memorable and very funny moment, nonetheless. One can imagine it being used if Miller had ever gotten the Oscar that some of us believe he deserved.
But whether he was Walter or Murray or someone else, Miller was always building on that persona, and in Dante’s terrific, criminally undervalued 1985 picture Explorers, in which the director and screenwriter Eric Luke undercut their own Spielbergian framework more subtly than in the dismantling, crash-bang cacophony of Gremlins, Miller got his chance to deepen that persona and tug a few heartstrings in the process. In Explorers, three young boys (Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix and Jason Presson) begin receiving mysterious encoded messages in their dreams which they soon realize are beings bent by alien beings who are providing them instructions for creating a method of space travel to be used for their very own interstellar close encounter. They finally get airborne, using a rusted Tilt-a-Whirl car as their ship (which floats inside an electromagnetic bubble that enables the actual flying), and buzz the town drive-in movie theater in an evocative, ecstatic and hilarious sequence which introduces Miller as Officer Charlie Drake, who, along with Meshach Taylor, gets on their tail in a sheriff’s department helicopter.

The two adults don’t know what to make of this weird ship, which zigs and zags across the gorgeous night sky with no adherence to conventional physics, but they get close enough for Drake to realize, with a mixture of panic and awe, that there’s someone or something inside after glimpsing Phoenix in one of the gas masks the kids are using to provide oxygen during their flight. It’s also an occasion for a great Dick Miller comic moment, the sort he did so well, when, after excitedly explaining to Taylor what he thinks he saw, he stops suddenly, gives a perturbed glance back in the direction of where the Tilt-a-Whirl has just disappeared, and says without looking back at his partner, “I swallowed my gum.”
The encounter sparks Drake to his own investigation of what exactly is going on, and as he inches closer to the truth about what the boys have constructed, and what they intend to do with it, Drake seems at first to emerge as yet another version of the pursuing adult who can’t or shouldn’t be trusted, someone for whom the only reasonable reaction, if you’re covertly building a spaceship in a creek bed out behind your backyard, is quick flight in the other direction. But instead, something has been stirred inside of Drake, and when he confesses to Taylor that he’s lately been dreaming about the ship, he also admits that the dreams remind him of ones he used to have as a kid. In one wonderful scene, Miller takes Drake from potentially unsympathetic cop giving chase to somewhere in the vicinity of Spielberg’s haunted Roy Neary from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, creating the bond of a kindred spirit who would probably like nothing more than to ride along with the kids on whatever adventure they undertake. The subtle shifts in the way Miller plays the moment, with a degree of erosion of the tough exterior he’s probably had to cultivate as an officer of the law, sensitize the viewer in an unexpected way, calling hairs on the back of the neck to attention.


When Drake discovers the hidden Tilt-a-Whirl in the creek bed and deduces what might be going on, he confronts Hawke’s character, Ben, who is understandably freaked out and not even slightly tuned in to the register of panic and desperation beneath Drake’s authoritarian demand for an explanation. Ben runs away, toward his rendezvous with the other two boys, who are at the ship preparing for the ultimate takeoff, but Drake sticks close to him, close enough to be there to see the Tilt-a-Whirl launch from amidst the underbrush and toward… who knows what. Dante completely hands the frame over to Miller here, and as he gazes up to the sky, first with frustration at having missed them, and then with admiration for what they’ve managed to do and wonder at what they’ll see, Drake says to himself, to Ben, “Nice goin’, kid.” It’s a beautiful moment and, watching it this week, knowing that Miller is gone, one for which tears are finally the only and best response. 
Yes, there will be many words written about Dick Miller, and there should be, and most of them will be far more eloquent than mine. (For words and pictures about the great man, you could hardly do any better than Elijah Drenner’s nifty and heartfelt documentary, That Guy Dick Miller, which will, in these days after his death, likely both cheer and sadden those of us who loved his work in equal measure. It’s available right now on Amazon Prime.) I’ve only seen what amounts to a handful of Miller’s appearances in movies—sometimes it feels like he’s been in more movies, numbers wise, than I’ve sat through in my 58 years. Yet it’s impossible to diminish the impact he’s had on me in terms of appreciating the consistent delight he always seemed to supply, stealing scenes left and right in almost every picture he ever appeared in, but also in the way he himself seemed to delight in owning his little corner of character actor posterity. The Bronx native was not a particularly versatile actor, nor was he, beyond Explorers and Bucket of Blood, ever given much of a chance to be. But one of the special pleasures of experiencing a Dick Miller performance is realizing that though he was always good, he didn’t have to be versatile. We loved him anyway, because he was always that guy, Dick Miller.