Friday, March 23, 2018


A busy movie weekend full of interesting stuff here in the Valley:

November--As far as I'm concerned, American filmgoers don't see nearly enough Baltic supernatural period dramas in breathtaking black and white. Happily, this weekend FilmBar does its part to make up this deficit by bringing us, on the first weekend of spring, November, Rainer Sarnet's strange and splendid Estonian gothic.

Adapted from Andrus Kivirahk's novel Rehepapp ehk November (Old Barney aka November), the movie focuses a community of serfs sometime in the 18th or 19th Century. The atmosphere calls to mind Bergman's medieval nightmares like The Virgin Spring and The Seventh Seal, with hints of Dreyer and maybe of Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba, yet it has a weird intensity and heart all its own.

The central plot strand is a sort of gritty fairy tale: peasant beauty and shape-shifting werewolf Liina (Rea Lest) is in unrequited love with lusty young Hans (Jorgen Liik), who in turn is smitten with the somnambulistic young German baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis) living in the handsome estate nearby. Both Liina and Hans are willing to resort to supernatural means to get what they want.

Around this core storyline, however, November weaves subplots and episodes involving witches, ghosts, a hidden treasure, a romantic, poetic snowman, a manic, gibbering Devil at the crossroads, bread with feces in it, and the Plague personified as a goat, a pig and a blonde beauty. Sarnet presents these folklore motifs in such a matter-of-fact manner that they're startlingly believable--a series of dark yet nonchalant miracles. Pagan and Christian forces mix freely; the peasants regard Jesus as just another powerful deity, secretly spitting out the communion wafers the priest gives them to use as bullets when hunting.

Most astounding are the "kratts," monster farmhands with spindly bodies pieced together from household junk or animal skulls, then endowed with souls bargained for with--or, sometimes, cheated out of--that aforementioned Devil. I couldn't decide whether the kratts in this movie were accomplished by CGI, practical puppetry or some combination of the two, but in any case they're jaw-droppingly convincing, the most thrilling special effect I've seen in a movie in years. If you told me the filmmakers employed real kratts, I'd be inclined to believe it.

The Death of Stalin--As a kvetching Kruschev, Steve Buscemi hilariously leads an ensemble that includes Jeffery Tambor as Malenkov, Michael Palin as Molotov, Simon Russell Beale as Beria and Jason Isaacs as Zhukov, as they frantically jockey for power (and survival) in the aftermath of the title passing. Adapting a French comic book, the Scottish director Armando Ianucci offers us a compressed and cartoonish but essentially defensible version of the history, played in the style of a latter-day American TV sitcom (Ianucci is the creator of Veep).

The result is both brilliantly and sometimes disturbingly entertaining. It's also a troubling dramatization of how often sweeping historical shifts are directed not by the clash of lofty ideologies but by opportunism and petty grudges.

By the way, the Russian Ministry of Culture has banned the film, according to The Guardian, on the grounds that it's a "planned provocation" and might be a "western plot to destabilize Russia by causing rifts in society." Riotous as The Death of Stalin is, it doesn't contain a single joke quite as funny as that.

Flower--Erica (Zooey Deutch) is a subrban-L.A. 17-year-old who tempts older men with oral sex so that her friends can get video for purposes of extortion. She's trying to raise money, you see, to bail her dad out of jail. Nice to see a movie about a teenager with some initiative.

When the troubled son (Joey Morgan) of the dorky boyfriend (Tim Hiedecker) of Erica's Mom (Kathryn Hahn) moves into the house, Erica forms an odd but touching bond with him. The two, along with Erica's previous cronies, enter into a plot against a creepy schoolteacher (Adam Scott), and the film, with its bright teen-comedy repartee, takes an increasingly noir turn, as if Gun Crazy had been rewritten by Diablo Cody (the script is by Alex McAulay, Matt Spicer and director Max Winkler).

I couldn't decide, and I still can't, if Flower is a work of transgressive feminism or of adolescent male wishful thinking and sentimentality. I also can't decide if it's morally valid or reprehensible. In either case, however, it's perfectly executed, and Zooey Deutch's Erica is a star-making performance.

Itzhak--Alison Chernick's portrait of the Israeli-American violin great Itzhak Perlman is a pleasure to watch, because the title character seems so happy. He's an intelligent, funny, thoughtful guy, yet his happiness seems uncomplicated and unembarrassed. He's a riveting artist, but this doesn't stop him from being the quintessential cheerful, gabby, affluent Manhattan mensch, watching the Mets and eating Chinese food.

Like Pamela Tom's 2015 Tyrus (about the painter and Disney animation artist Tyrus Wong), this is a theatrical version of an American Masters documentary. As filmmaking it's straightforward, but the subject is so extraordinary, both musically and personally, as to make it a must-see. In archive footage and photos, we see Perlman on The Ed Sullivan Show in the '50s, and performing and socializing with everybody from Zubin Mehta and Pavarotti and Yo-Yo Ma to Sinatra and Johnny Carson. We see him comparing childhood polio stories with Alan Alda. We see him meeting Netanyahu in Jerusalem, and rehearsing with Billy Joel. We get to know his adoring wife Toby, his kids, and his dogs.

Delightful as all of this and more is, it's not what makes Itzhak unforgettable. But throughout the movie, we get to hear that sound: Perlman's technically masterful yet raucous, peerlessly soulful renderings of Mendelssohn and Bruch and Bach and Schubert and Wieniawski and Vivaldi and Strauss, and "Allentown" and "We Didn't Start the Fire," and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "The Star-Spangled Banner."

At one point Perlman tells how, just after he and his wife had taken out a loan to buy a house, he learned that his beloved Stradivarius had come up for sale, and his wife told him they'd just have to take out another loan. "We're still paying it!" he exclaims. Money well spent, as far as the rest of us are concerned.

Thursday, March 22, 2018



Monster-of-the-Week: a kratt:

It's a laborer pieced together from odds and ends and junk, then endowed with a soul obtained from the Devil via a bargain (on the level or not) at the crossroads. Apparently kratts figure prominently in Estonian folklore; in any case they figure prominently in Rainer Sarnet's remarkable new film November, from which the still above is taken, and which opens tomorrow at FilmBar.

More about this movie soon.

Friday, March 16, 2018


New in the multiplexes this week:

Love, Simon--The title character is an upper-middle-class suburban kid with a loving, supportive family, adoring friends and a bright future. The angst in this teen-angst comedy-drama comes from Simon's self-described "huge-ass secret": he's gay.

Simon (Nick Robinson) exchanges anonymous blog posts with "Blue," another closeted kid at his school, and gradually falls in love with him, as he tries to figure out which of various "suspects" Blue might be. Meanwhile an obnoxious classmate (Logan Miller) stumbles upon Simon's secret and uses it to blackmail our hero into playing matchmaker with Simon's friend Abby (Alexandra Shipp), even though his pal Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) is also in love with her. Simon capitulates, and wacky but painful complications ensue.

If these plot mechanics sound contrived, that's how they came across to me, as well. Those of us who haven't had to face the prospect of such a disclosure ourselves might naively wonder why a well-adjusted, well-protected, principled kid like Simon is so leery of coming out to his family and friends in this day and age. Even allowing for this country's reactionary social ugliness of the last year or two, it seems like such a revelation isn't remotely the earthshaking crisis it would have been even a decade ago, at least in Simon's class and domestic circumstances.

Indeed, the script, by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker (from a novel by Becky Albertalli), gives Simon some narration addressing his reluctance in amusing terms--his resentment, for instance, that straight kids don't have to come out. But the performance of Nick Robinson makes this gratuitous. Lightly, with no histrionics, Robinson gets across a wary melancholia and tension under the surface of Simon's quiet good nature. He makes us understand what a huge-ass deal it would be to define one's identity in a non-default category, regardless of support system.

Beyond Robinson's excellence, Love, Simon is a fairly typical teen stuff, briskly directed by Greg Berlanti and pleasantly acted by an attractive cast. Jennifer Garner has become quite adept at playing sensible, gently fretful suburban moms, and she's effective again here, while Josh Duhamel is believable as Simon's softie dad. As is so often the case in movies of this sort, the high school staff roles are used as opportunities for goofball character actors, in this case Tony Hale as the anti-cell-phone crusader principal and Natasha Rothwell in a terrific turn as the wound-up director of the school play.

The writing is a bit facile at times, like when Simon assures us that he and his friends do what anybody does, like watching "bad  '90s movies." This seems less a reflection of what kids actually do nowadays than of filmmakers who want to use cultural references from their own youths rather than that of their characters.

But in a sense, the conventional, by-the-numbers aspects of this movie are what make it significant. I'm far from trying to suggest that LGBT people have attained anything resembling full social acceptance, of course. But when I imagine how mainstream American audiences would have reacted thirty, twenty or even ten years ago to a movie that ended with two high-school boys sharing a romantic kiss, as opposed to the routine way it was received by the screening audience with whom I saw this film, it's hard not to feel that a real shift in attitude has occurred. Love, Simon is no big deal, and that's kind of a big deal.

Thursday, March 15, 2018


This week our President suggested that the U.S. military may soon have a new branch: The "Space Force!" Presumably its duties would include protecting us from threats like...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this "Menace from Uranus" depicted...

...on the cover of this 1967 Lost in Space comic from Gold Key. The adventure's title may provide a clue to the source from whence the President pulls his ideas.

Friday, March 9, 2018


Opening this week:

A Wrinkle in Time14-year-old Storm Reid plays heroine Meg Murray in this first big-screen adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's much-loved novel of 1962. She brings the role a sober, guarded manner that is very touching. Meg's father (Chris Pine), a scientist who was working on a method of instantaneous time/space travel called a "tesseract," disappeared a few years earlier, and Meg's thick glasses and mop of curls can't hide her pain and anger at the loss, or her worry about its implications for her family. They can't hide her intelligence, either.

Young Reid is impressive; unfortunately she's the best thing about the movie. I read and liked the book as a kid, though it wasn't the knockout for me that it was for many readers of my generation. The makers of this version, however, seem to have missed the book's charming originality: It's an epic sci-fi tale told in the prosaic manner of a rural-Connecticut adolescent coming-of-age story, with a strong undercurrent of liberal-ecumenical Christianity (L'Engle was a devout Episcopalian). In its less ambitious way, it prefigures the Harry Potter books, with their inspired blend of high fantasy and school story.

The difference in the approach of director Ava DuVernay and the screenwriters, Jennifer Lee and John Stockwell, shows up nowhere more plainly than in the characterizations of the dotty Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), the quotation-spouting Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and the lofty Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), who take Meg, her prodigal little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and her school friend Calvin (Levi Miller) on an odyssey to distant worlds in search of the missing dad. In the book, the three strange, kindly ladies are venerable old bats.

In the film, they are glitzed-out in costumes and makeup that seem more appropriate to a Mardi Gras parade float, or maybe a Bette Midler back-up singer from the '70s. All three are formidable actresses, of course, and Kaling, in the most enigmatic role, makes good use of her sly, knowing smile. But on the whole, as New Age angels, the trio feels ersatz and unconvincing and simply way too young.

This feel extends to the production as a whole. Backed by a bottomless Disney budget, this Wrinkle in Time turns into a typical blockbuster effect spectacle. There are times when this generates some magic, as when Mrs. Whatsit takes the kids on an aerial tour of a paradisiacal planet. But at least as often, the story gets lost or disjointed in all that CGI, and the pace curdles.

The movie has its vivid moments, particularly in the visit to Camazotz, a world of conformity where the inhabitants are in thrall to IT (here called, for some reason, "The IT."), a sinister alien entity. There's a sunlit spookiness to the scene in which our heroes pass through a cul-de-sac of stucco houses, which looks startlingly like a subdivision in west Phoenix, and see children bouncing identical red balls in unison before their midcentury-magazine-cover moms call them inside to eat. Still, there may be something disingenuous about a movie from this particular voracious conglomerate inveighing against social uniformity. After dinner, I bet all those kids sit down to watch the Disney Channel.

The Leisure SeekerThe title refers to a faded ‘70s-era Winnebago in which an elderly married couple decide to take a last road trip, from Wellesley, Massachusetts to Key West, Florida. John (Donald Sutherland), a retired English professor, has Alzheimer’s, but can still pilot the huge vehicle, and Ella (Helen Mirren), a cheerful southern belle, is determined that that they will at long last make the trip to see the house of John's literary hero Hemingway.

So while their kids (Christian McKay and Janel Maloney) sit home and worry, Ella does her best to navigate both the roads and her husband’s ever-shifting mental state. One minute he's holding forth on literature to a waitress, or remembering a former student with perfect clarity, and seconds later he's monosyllabic and primal, like the half-wit handyman Sutherland played in Die! Die! My Darling! back in 1965. Painful, long-held family secrets leak out, and in the movie's one ripe moment of satire, we see John, a lifelong Democrat, wander off and happily join in cheering at a Trump rally.

Directed by Paolo Virzi from a novel by Michael Zadoorian, The Leisure Seeker shows some signs of having sat on the shelf for a while; for one thing, Dick Gregory, who died in August of last year, has a small but funny role in it. It's a highly uneven movie, with many heavy-handed episodes and some curious loose ends. But the star power of the leads makes it moving, both in the tragedy, and the grim comedy, of dementia, and in the exhilaration of travel.

Thursday, March 8, 2018


With the film version of A Wrinkle in Time opening tomorrow, I'm reminded of IT, the terrifying alien brain that rules Camazotz, the world of conformity, in the beloved 1962 novel by Madeleine L'Engle.


Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's acknowledge the huge extraterrestrial brain in Jack Arnold's 1958 movie The Space Children...

...who also exerted telepathic influence on kids. The title kinder (the unnerving little girl from the beginning of Them! among them), who find the big cerebrum hiding in a seaside cave on the California coast, are the offspring of Cold War rocket scientists, and the brain tries to get them to sabotage their parents' anti-Commie efforts. I've long wondered if this underrated, atmospheric, dreamlike little movie, with its chilly, formal visual elegance, might have been an inspiration for L'Engle's IT.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018


Check out the March issue of Phoenix Magazine, now on the stands...

…for my “Four Corners”column on new and newish Valley joints with four and five star ratings on Yelp.

After last year’s bungling of the Best Picture award, the focus at this year’s Oscar show seemed, understandably, to be on having a disciplined, orderly presentation. And indeed, from a set of metallic crystal that looked like the interior of a giant geode, the 90th annual honors went reasonably smoothly last Sunday.

During a straightforward but funny opening monologue, the host, Jimmy Kimmel, offered an incentive to keep the show tight: A jet ski was offered as a prize, game-show-style—with Helen Mirren impressively handling the Carol Merrill duties—to whoever gave the briefest acceptance speech. It was one of his funnier gags, compounded later when, needing to up the ante on the prize, he also offered a stay at Lake Havasu.

There was also a becoming focus on history. My favorite aspect of this year's production were the clips that preceded each acting award: quick, dazzling montages of previous winners. It had the effect such sequences do when they're well-done; they made me want to shut off the show and watch those movies.