Friday, October 28, 2016


Opening this weekend:

InfernoA darkly visionary geneticist has developed a virus to wipe out half of the world’s population, thus solving, or at least postponing, the overpopulation crisis. “Symbologist” Robert Langdon scampers around Florence in the company of a pretty young English doctor, trying to find where the bug is stashed. Agents of the World Health Organization and of a super-secret and lethal security firm chase them from landmark to landmark, led by clues encoded in Botticelli’s illustration of Dante’s version of Hell.

This is the third movie directed by Ron Howard and featuring Tom Hanks as Langdon, based on the fourth of Dan Brown’s syntax-challenged Langdon novels. The first film, 2006’s The Da Vinci Code, was on the limp side; the second, 2009’s Angels & Demons, was feverishly entertaining.

Happily, Inferno takes after its immediate predecessor. Screenwriter David Koepp, who wrote the adaptation, brings a bit more bite and wit to the dialogue than Brown is able to muster, and Howard keeps the action flying from one James-Bond-worthy exotic locale to another, pretty close to non-stop. The cast is full of attractive sorts like Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, Ben Foster and, perhaps most memorably, Ana Ularu as a chic and scary motorcycle-borne assassin.

Best of all is Hanks, who as in Angels & Demons spends his footage belting out exposition on the fly, like a tour guide way behind schedule. Giving him temporary amnesia and a bleeding head wound just adds to the fun.

These are silly stories, to be sure, steeped in the thudding, reductive literalism and reticular paranoia of Brown’s response to Renaissance masterpieces. But it’s hard—for me, anyway—to resist a movie hero who’s a pedantic middle-aged know-it-all.

ChristineThe title refers not to Stephen King’s demonic Plymouth Fury, but to Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota, Florida news reporter who made a grim kind of TV history when she shot herself on the air in July of 1974. In her final statement, she said her action was “…in keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts…” The incident has long been thought to be part of Paddy Chayefsky’s inspiration for Network.

If a movie on this subject sounds like a bummer to you, you aren’t wrong. Directed by Antonio Campos from a script by Craig Shilowich, Christine is bitterly sad, often heartbreaking. It’s not a movie I’d be likely to watch again, but I’m glad I saw it once, because it’s also superbly done—measured, rich in convincing period detail, compassionate, free of tawdriness.

The key to its success is the talented, underutilized Rebecca Hall, who makes an award-worthy tour de force of the title role. With her long, stricken face, and speaking in the sort of flat Midwestern honk that Brits love to give Americans, she creates a portrait of a highly intelligent and decent-hearted person excruciatingly shut out from enjoying the common pleasures of life.

It seems almost certain that Chubbuck suffered from chronic mental (and physical) illnesses, along with ongoing romantic and sexual frustration and other personal disappointments. Given the understanding of such afflictions at the time, a happy outcome for her was probably a long shot. But her chosen field was no help, and it’s this that makes Christine trenchant rather than gratuitous.

Are many leisure activities more unsavory than watching local TV news? The sensationalism of the stories, and the deliberately dumbed-down insipidity and editorial timidity with which they’re presented, are queasy enough to watch; the effect of working in that world on a person of serious sensibility who wanted to do worthwhile journalism—and who was still vain and ambitious enough to want success—is awful to contemplate.

Throughout the film we hear the great national stories of the time—the aftermath of Watergate, Ford pardoning Nixon, etc—as a backdrop to Chubbuck’s lurid or fluffy stories at the beginning of the “If it bleeds, it leads” era in local TV coverage. Her struggle to keep her dignity in an undignified industry—ending in utter failure, as she herself became part of the bloody spectacle—makes Christine tragic.

The Pickle RecipeOn a lighter note...

Joey (Jon Dore), a Detroit wedding and bar/bat mitzvah entertainer badly down on his luck, is enlisted by his shady uncle (David Paymer) to filch the fiercely guarded secret recipe for the incomparable pickles made by his Grandma (Lynn Cohen). Joey agrees, goes to work as a lowly "assistant busboy" in Grandma's deli, and gradually bonds with the diverse staff, all the while coming up with wacky schemes to get his hands on the precious recipe.

This comedy, directed by Michael Manasseri from a script by Sheldon Cohn and Gary Wolfson, bogs down in overcomplication and heavy-handed sentiment at times, especially toward the end. But the performances are strong, and there's a pleasant energy to the affair, driven along by rousing klezmer on the soundtrack. Dore is agreeable in the lead, and it's great to see the veteran Cohen, remembered from Sex in the City and as a judge on many episodes of Law and Order, get a juicy showcase role all to herself as the loving but cantankerous Grandma.

You might want to have some good kosher dills ready in the fridge for when you get home from this one.

Thursday, October 27, 2016


Happy Halloween next Monday everybody! Random, the son of some friends of mine…

Monster-of-the-Week: …drew this truly kickass Halloweeny cat with wings and a chimerical snaky tail…

He/she/it is this week’s honoree.

Monday, October 24, 2016


One week to Halloween, my favorite holiday!

Barry Graham was kind enough to include my zombie novel The Night Before Christmas of the Living Dead on his list of “creepy reads for Halloween.” It’s available on Amazon Kindle or in a dead-tree edition with kick-ass cover art by my pal Vince Larue…

This isn’t a quid pro quo: When I started reading Graham’s classic Of Darkness and Light... Friday evening about twenty years ago, it kept me awake and creeped out farther into the wee hours of Saturday than I intended.

Friday, October 21, 2016


Opening this weekend:

Jack Reacher: Never Go BackBefore the credits, the corrupt sheriff narrows his eyes at the title character, who’s just gotten the better of him, and growls “Who the hell are you?” Reacher glares right back and says “The guy you didn’t count on.”

Oh, snap.

As far as I can tell, none of this is intended as a parody, but intentional or not, this second movie featuring Tom Cruise as the itinerant ex-military badass from Lee Child’s popular novels is one of the year’s funnier comedies. Partly it’s because of zinger lines like that, and partly it’s because of the utter earnestness with which Cruise delivers them. He’s had a lot of success playing these sorts of imperturbably confident special-ops men of action, but I can’t take him seriously in such roles for a second. He’s like a seven-year-old doing one of Liam Neeson’s scary hushed threats in the mirror.

After flicking away the rotten sheriff and his goons, Reacher shows up in D.C. hoping to take an attractive Army Major (Cobie Smulders) he’s met over the phone out to dinner. Instead, he finds she’s being framed for espionage by crooked defense contractors who plan to kill her. It’s always something. He also learns that he may have a daughter (Danika Yarosh) that he didn’t know about.

Fights and chases and shootouts and squabbling ensue. The director is the always-capable Edward Zwick, working from a script credited to Richard Wenk, Marshall Herskovitz and Zwick, so even when the dialogue is risibly clichéd and humorless, which is almost every line, the movie remains diverting.

Until it isn’t any more, that is. In the homestretch, set in New Orleans at Halloween—they’d never think of setting it at Mardi Gras; that would be corny—the long stalk through the crowd of masked revelers between Reacher and his friends and the heavies grows rather tedious. The movie is a competent piece of Hollywood craft, but there’s not a scene in it that we haven’t seen already, too many times.

Miss HokusaiThis anime feature is about O-Ei, daughter of Katsushika Hokusai, the 19th-Century Japanese artist best known—in the West, at least—for The Great Wave. O-Ei was a superb artist in her own right, supposedly rated by her father as his superior in some respects, but she spent her life in his shadow, as his assistant.

I know the material sounds like a depressing drag, but don't skip this one. Directed by Keiichi Hara from a manga by Hanako Sugiura, it's a quietly poignant, sometimes funny, often delightful character study set against an exquisite evocation of Edo (Tokyo) in the early 1800s. It's one of the best movies I've seen this year.

Though emotionally distant, old Hokusai isn't a bad sort as depicted here. He isn't particularly oppressive toward O-Ei, who has inherited his brusque, slightly intimidating manner. The other men in her life, cronies or patrons of her father, are likewise drunken or neurotic but not unlikable, and she's able to handle them, though she's thrown by the young artist who likes her. O-Ei seems relatively liberated in social terms; to the extent that she's hemmed in, it's by her own psychology. How accurate this is historically I couldn't say, but dramatically it's refreshing and believable.

Though the period atmosphere is intensely vivid, the movie has a fanciful side as well, showing us the effect that Hokusai and O-Ei's artistry had, both on their own their own imaginations and those of their viewers. Demons and dragons and astral projections spring matter-of-factly into their real world, suggesting that art can haunt as much as it can bless. This movie does both.

Thursday, October 20, 2016


RIP to Ted V. Mikels, the low-budget mogul behind The Astro-Zombies, The Corpse Grinders, The Worm Eaters, Blood Orgy of the She-Devils, Doll Squad etc. etc., passed on at 87

I interviewed Ted for New Times when he was in the Valley in 2007, presenting a bunch of his films at Chandler Cinema when it was under the auspices of the Midnight Movie Mamacita. I still have autographed DVDs of several of his movies on my shelf. He was an extremely charming guy, and my pal Dewey and I laughed our asses off at The Corpse Grinders, the cheeky Mikels opus of a cat-food company which resorts to using human flesh in its cans (the felines that partake develop an unfortunate partiality to people meat). I remember Ted claiming, proudly, that the film had out-grossed Tora! Tora! Tora! in Honolulu, on the main drag, on its opening weekend. Anyway, in Ted’s honor…

Monster-of-the-Week: …here’s an Astro-Zombie, held at bay by Tura Satana...

Saturday, October 15, 2016


Since the startling announcement that Bob Dylan was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, there have been a few dissenting arguments, like this one and this one.

As far as I can tell the case against a Nobel for Dylan is twofold—on the one hand, that there are writers who’ve been laboring in obscurity, sometimes in developing countries, that could use the exposure and the money more, and on the other hand that he’s not a writer, he’s a lyricist, and the power of his writing is inseparable from its musical context.

I can sort of see the former argument, I suppose. But I’m still glad that Dylan won, because I’m thinking of all the scoffing and eye-rolling I received in my twenties when I gushed about him as one of the great 20th-Century American poets. For me, it’s not an acknowledged elder statesman of American pop culture being gratuitously honored, it’s the goofy, wise-assed, frizzy-haired kid with the braying-goat voice from half a century ago being vindicated, along with everybody who could hear something dazzling and beautiful in his haywire words and cadences.

As to the second argument, though—lyricists aren’t writers? Really? W.S. Gilbert wasn’t a writer? George M. Cohan wasn’t a writer? Irving Berlin and Cole Porter? Woody Guthrie? Frank Loesser? Sheldon Harnick? Tom Lehrer? Johnny Cash? Jacques Brel? Smokey Robinson? Leonard Cohen? Neil Diamond? Carole King? Merle Haggard? Bill Withers? Judy Collins? Stephen Sondheim? Bob Gaudio? Frank Zappa? Billy Joel? Lyle Lovett? Ice-T?

If Dylan, or anyone else on that list, or any of three hundred others that could be named, don't qualify as writers, than I guess I’d rather not be a writer. I’d rather be whatever it is that they are.

Friday, October 14, 2016


Opening this weekend:

The AccountantThere’s a degree of wit in naming an action thriller The Accountant. Even before the classic Monty Python sketches featuring Arthur Putey, accountants have traditionally been seen as comic dullards and drudges.

But as with Jean Reno’s “The Cleaner” in La Femme Nikita, the term “accountant” has an extra meaning here—it’s moral as well as financial books that get balanced. Ben Affleck plays Christian Wolff, one of many aliases of a bean-counter who secretly works for vast criminal enterprises, and gets paid in cash or gold bullion or first issues of Action Comics or Renoir and Pollack originals. Chris is a high-functioning autistic man of remote, robotic affect, given to self-stimulation and other obsessive behaviors in private.

For quite a stretch this thriller, directed by Gavin O’Connor from a script by Bill Dubuque, takes an intriguingly quiet, reserved approach, giving us peeks into the title character’s life and backstory as he studies the seemingly cooked books of a prosthetics manufacturer (John Lithgow) and tentatively bonds with an amiably nerdy fellow accountant (Anna Kendrick). All the while, two Treasury operatives (J. K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson) are zeroing in on him.

Then, about midpoint, The Accountant suddenly spins into a tense and violent actioner, with shootouts and martial arts brawls. It’s quite effective on this level, too; the shift into Jason Bourne-style mayhem seems like an entirely natural turn for the movie to take.

Affleck keeps things admirably low-key as Chris, not letting more than a hint of loneliness or sly drollery slip out from behind the stony façade. All of the acting is strong, with Kendrick particularly endearing as the colleague, tirelessly friendly even as Chris keeps throwing her off-balance with his dogged literalism.

The movie is really quite good of its kind. If it misses greatness of its kind, it’s in the final third, when it takes yet another turn, this time for the windy. The Treasury man abruptly spews a big lump of exposition, and even with illustrative flashbacks it still calls up Simon Oakland’s explanatory lecture at the end of Hitchcock’s Psycho. It’s J. K. Simmons, so (as with Oakland) it’s delivered with enjoyable panache. But it still feels artificial, and O’Connor and Dubuque allow several other characters to launch into similarly wordy and heavy-handed rambles.

But this is less complaint than quibble. Considering the theme, and the impressive intricacy of the plot, it would be ungrateful to criticize O’Connor and Dubuque for making sure, perhaps overzealously, that all of the movie’s details are accounted for.

Max RoseJerry Lewis plays Max, a jazz pianist nearing 90. In the days after the death of Max’s beloved wife (Claire Bloom), he finds a clue—an inscription on her elegant compact—that indicates that she might have cheated on him, half a century earlier. Already devastated by grief, he’s further rattled by this possibility, and finds he can’t let it go.

Although Max’s probing of the past leads, toward the end, to a mildly Gothic confrontation with the author of the inscription, it’s nothing terribly shocking. This strand serves, mainly, to give a hint of mystery and tension to this small-scale drama, written and directed several years ago by Daniel Noah and only now finding its way into a few theaters. The movie’s real function is as a showcase for Lewis. He’s in every scene, almost every shot, often in full-on facial close-up, giving us his take on weary but unsettled old age.

And formidable his chops are. There’s never been any doubt of his talent or of his star power; with Lewis it’s always been a question of how much, at any given time, he was going to tyrannize us with his massive performer’s ego. As Max Rose, there’s no mugging, no pushing, no visible self-indulgence—his lined, drooping face is inscrutable, his speech maddeningly measured. If anything, he’s more restrained than he needs to be, but when he suddenly barks in anger, it’s like a slap.

The small supporting cast is led by Kerry Bishé as Max’s anxious, adoring granddaughter, who clowns for him and tells him silly jokes, and Kevin Pollak as the semi-estranged son to whom he can barely bring himself to speak. Also on hand are such vets as Lee Weaver, Dean Stockwell, Mort Sahl, Rance Howard and Illeana Douglas. But in most of their footage they serve, basically, as human follow spots for Lewis.

He lends a magnificent turn to a movie the point of which is that getting old is tough, and that you may not have known everything about the people closest to you. These revelations won’t exactly blow the minds of most viewers—even those of us who aren’t quite as old as Max yet—but it’s hard to argue with the power of the star’s presence.