Friday, October 20, 2017


Opening this week:

Only the BraveWildland firefighting is regarded, on the whole, as more strenuous and demanding than structure firefighting, and usually more dangerous. But it isn’t more cinematic. A structure firefighter with a hose gets to enact one of the iconic cinematic dynamics—shooting at an enemy. But the methods of wildland firefighters, while no less agonistic, are subtler—digging in the dirt, cutting trees and brush with chainsaws, and sometimes, counterintuitively for us laypeople, actually setting fires.

This is what we get in the firefighting sequences of Only the Brave, the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the wildland crew connected to the Prescott, Arizona fire department. Nineteen of these young men—all but one member of the active crew—died in the Yarnell Hill Fire in June of 2013, in the worst loss of firefighters since 9/11, and the worst  loss of wildland firefighters since the ‘30s.

There’s terrifying spectacle, certainly, in a wildfire, but the response to it is guys hiking, digging, sawing. So the meat of the film is less this drudgery than the lives of hotshots, and especially that of Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller), who was assigned as a lookout that day and thus became the Ishmael of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. McDonough had a history of substance abuse and petty crime until he became a hotshot, and was mentored by Granite Mountain Superintendant Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin).

Despite the hopeful outcome of McDonough’s story, there’s no good way to present this material that isn’t horrifying and heartbreaking, and director Joseph Kosinski doesn’t try. There’s a sense of restraint and dignity to his work, and that of the actors. The flavor for much of the movie’s length is that of a John Ford/Howard Hawks/Raoul Walsh male bonding drama, and there’s action and humor and touching sentiment and inspirational uplift, but a somber tinge hangs over it, at least for viewers who know where the story’s heading.

This is reflected in Brolin’s performance. The movie’s Marsh has a look in his eyes that suggests a foreknowledge of disaster, and a sad acceptance of it. It’s an old-school star turn in the Henry Fonda vein, one of Brolin’s best. He even gets a Sam Shepherd-ish Oscar-clip monologue about the flaming bear that haunts his dreams. But Teller also does strong work in the “tenderfoot” role of McDonough, Taylor Kitsch throws a charge into his scenes as hotshot Christopher Alan MacKenzie, and Jeff Bridges, as wildland chief Duane Steinbrink, has a great moment, a small groan of grief that’s like a gut punch.

I had the opportunity to talk with Kosinksi and Brolin before the film’s opening, and they both stressed how they spent a lot of time in Prescott with the families and friends of the hotshots, and became close to them, in order to achieve authenticity. But this may have led the filmmakers, in understandable deference to the feelings of the survivors, to omit or soften errors or interpersonal conflicts within the crew that may had a bearing on the disaster. The climactic scenes, though inevitably powerful, also leave it unclear as to what led to the decisions that placed the crew in the path of the fire.

Partly, no doubt, this is because it remains unclear even from reports of the official investigations. But in terms of the movie’s narrative, it’s just confusing, and it’s about all that keeps this well-crafted, well-acted movie from feeling like a triumph.

You can check out my interviews with Brolin and Kosinski, by the way, on the New Times blog.

On a lighter note...

Killing GuntherSaturday Night Live alumnus Taran Killam wrote, directed and stars in this broad, zany comedy about murder. Killam plays Blake, a high-end assassin leading a plot to kill a legendary veteran hitman known as Gunther (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Blake's team includes a bomber (Bobby Moynihan), a sniper (Hannah Simone), an insufferable tech whiz (Paul Brittain), a poisoner (Aaron Yoo) and other wacky specialists. The central absurd gag is that Blake has hired a film crew to chronicle the mission, so that as with The Office and Modern Family, this movie can employ faux-documentary devices, including straight-to-the-camera monologues.

It's possible that Killing Gunther simply suffers from unfortunate timing; its bloody shootings and mayhem didn't seem as funny to me right now as they might have at another time. That said, just about any six or seven minute stretch of this movie would make a servicebly amusing SNL sketch, and is good for a few chuckles. The cast is a strong, but Schwarzenegger, who doesn't show up until quite late in the proceedings, probably shows more gleeful comic energy than anyone.

Killam's principal comedic mechanism here is deflation. Again and again, someone will be on the verge of a dramatic flourish, and they'll be interrupted, or forget what they were going to say, and the mood will be broken. It's as if the anger under the gags is at life's failure to be like the movies

One more note: In case you haven't had your fill of me, you can check out my very short article, on The PHiX, about Arizona Opera's production of Hercules vs. Vampires this weekend.

Thursday, October 19, 2017


This weekend Arizona Opera presents Hercules vs. Vampires...

...Patrick Morganelli's musical setting of Mario Bava's goofy but visually lush 1961 sword-and-sandal fantasy Ercole al Centro della Terra (known in English as Hercules in the Haunted World). So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week's honoree is Procrustes, here depicted as an ambulatory rock...

...but still up to his traditional shtick of stretching people, or chopping them down, in order to get them to fit in bed.

Friday, October 13, 2017


A couple of gems open in the Valley this week:

Loving VincentThe producers stake an unusual claim for this Polish-British animated feature, six years in the making: that it’s the first completely oil-painted movie. Each of its 65,000 frames, we’re told, was meticulously hand-painted by a team of more than 100 artists, working over the previous frame’s image, all in the style of Vincent Van Gogh.

A documentary about the making of this quixotically crazy endeavor would be fascinating. As with Claymation back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, if you let yourself think too long about the labor you’re witnessing, you can start to feel overwhelmed and it can throw you out of the movie.

Happily, the movie itself isn’t just visually breathtaking, it’s also an engrossing little historical drama, well-acted by the Brit voice cast in a naturalistic manner. The story is set in 1891, the year after Van Gogh’s death, and centers on Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the young man in yellow from the famous portrait. Armand’s postmaster father Joseph, another Van Gogh subject, tasks his son with delivering a final letter from the genius to his brother Theo.

Armand travels from Arles to Paris, and then on to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent died. Initially annoyed by the errand, Armand becomes increasingly fascinated as he delves into the mystery of Vincent’s death.

The directors, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, working from a script they wrote with Jacek Dehnel, use Armand’s investigations to paint a portrait (if you’ll excuse the expression) of a truly loving Vincent. He’s beset with terrible emotional sufferings, certainly, but he’s sweet-natured and ecstatic in his visionary raptures.

But the thrill in the picture is seeing those immortal images brought to life. In the opening minutes alone, we get the Café Terrace, the Zouave reclining against the wall, Lieutenant Milliet, and so on, gliding easily into each other in service of the narrative.

I suppose there are cultural purists out there who might find using the works of one of the great figures in European art as, essentially, a storyboard, to be a crass, literal-minded stunt. But I was enchanted by this gloriously low-tech labor of love, both for Van Gogh and for the possibilities of the cinema.

Professsor Marston and the Wonder WomenThere’s something delicious about the knowledge that the furious accusations of mid-century anti-comics crusaders were, in at least one case, quite right. Wonder Woman, who debuted in 1941 in what would become DC Comics, really was rooted in fantasies of bondage, dominance and Sapphic power.

And not just fantasies, either, but realities. As we’re told in this amusing chronicle, the creator of the character, a Harvard-educated psychology professor named William Moulton Marston (writing under the name Charles Moulton), spun the Amazon by blending traits of the two women with whom he lived—his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and Olive Byrne, a student and assistant who became the third member of their marriage.

It’s likely that the writer-director Angela Robinson (Herbie: Fully Loaded) has heated up the story a bit. But there are true elements that trump fiction, the juiciest being that before his comic-writing days, Marston was one of the developers of the systolic blood pressure test that led to the polygraph—in other words, he invented the Lasso of Truth in reality before he gave it to his heroine. As an adolescent in the ‘70s, watching the Lynda Carter TV version of Wonder Woman, I always found the Lasso of Truth shtick distinctly erotic; now I’d guess that Marston did too.

This movie’s historical accuracy is debatable, and some chapters work better than others, but Robinson has, any case, crafted maybe the wittiest and sweetest cinematic menage a trois in recent memory. Those looking for graphic sex will be disappointed—the threesome scenes, which involve a lot of dressing-up in theatrical costumes, are too tame and discreet for a Cinemax soft-core flick from the ‘90s. But something about their good-natured naïveté makes them sexy.

The charm in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women comes in the deadpan delivery of earnest dialogue by glamorous actors like Luke Evans as Marston and waif-like Bella Heathcote as Olive. There are nice supporting turns by Oliver Platt as early comic peddler Max Gaines and Connie Britton in a peculiarly flirtatious turn as early comic critic Josette Frank. We also see JJ Feild as fetish costumer Charles Guyette, here shown decking out Olive in a get-up very similar to Wonder Woman’s.

But the standout is Rebecca Hall as the brittle, unflappable (well, almost unflappable) Elizabeth. Her readings give a sharp edge even to lines that don’t have one built in, yet she somehow infuses them with a palpable undercurrent of love and emotional directness as well. I hate to resort to it, but indulge me: She’s a wonder.

Thursday, October 12, 2017


Just because Comet TV is showing the film Saturday night, as part of a festival of cat-oriented scary flicks...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week's honoree is the coxcombed little troll from the third story in Cat's Eye...

...the 1985 movie anthology of Stephen King tales. It plans to suck the breath out of the young Drew Barrymore, but her valiant cat has other ideas...

Friday, October 6, 2017


Opening this weekend:

Blade Runner 2049As the makers of 2001: A Space Odyssey learned, it can be risky to put a specific year into the title of a futuristic sci-fi movie. Ridley Scott’s 1982 favorite Blade Runner, set less than two years off, in 2019, showed us a Los Angeles in which special cops of the title moniker hunt synthetic humans called “replicants” who have gone rogue. The film’s smoggy, neon-lit vision of the future was scary, but it also had a garish glamour, and accordingly it was done in the style of an old-school film noir—in its original release, it even had hard-boiled narration by Harrison Ford’s title character.

That’s the version I saw back in ’82. I remember enjoying it enormously, but it didn’t become the cultural touchstone for me that it did for so many others. I remembered it less for its plot and more for its details—Joanna Cassidy and the snake, Brion James getting a bullet in the head, William Sanderson’s little guys wandering around the Bradbury Building, Daryl Hannah doing somersaults, Edward James Olmos doing origami. I never saw any of the various director’s cuts and alternative versions that became as complicated as the quarto-versus-folio textual history of a Shakespeare play. I think I may have only seen it the one time, and in any case I hadn’t seen it in decades when I saw this sequel.

This one is set thirty-some years from now, and the glamour is gone. The environment has collapsed, California is a hazy, snowy, defoliated wasteland, and farmers raise grubs for protein. But there are still fugitive replicants, and thus still blade runners. Our title character this time is K (Ryan Gosling)—a spiritual cousin of Kafka’s Josef?—and the twisty, violent mystery he chases unfolds against backgrounds that feel almost like expressionistic stage sets.

That’s about as much of the story as I feel comfortable describing, however. After the screening I attended, a studio rep read us a lengthy list of “requests” from the filmmakers about what we mustn’t reveal, even going so far as to suggest wording to us—they seemed to want to bioengineer replicant movie reviews.

I will say that while the script, by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, shows influences ranging from Soylent Green to Logan’s Run to Cherry 2000 to Children of Men to Her to, just maybe, Kurosawa’s Ikiru, it’s ingenious and intriguing, and that director Denis Villeneuve, abetted by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, gives the film a superb look. Villeneuve also gets strong performances, from Gosling, from Harrison Ford as Deckard, the now-reclusive hero of the first film, from Robin Wright as K’s boss, from Sylvia Hoeks as a relentless corporate operative stalking the same quarry as K, from Jared Leto as her satanic boss, and from the beguiling Ana de Armas as K’s roomie. There are startlingly erotic passages, and terrific touches of verisimilitude, like when Gosling stares in fascination at a dog, presumably a rarity in that world.

On the downside: As he showed in last year’s impressive Arrival, Villeneuve is great at generating a brooding sci-fi atmosphere. He does the same for Blade Runner 2049, but the result, this time, is that the movie is glacially paced. It feels almost an hour longer than it needs to be, and even the action and fight scenes, though often shockingly violent, feel oddly lacking in urgency. And the movie’s environmental bleakness, though marvelously realized on a visual level, also grows a bit oppressive over nearly three hours. I just wish that forecasts like this didn’t seem so plausible these days.

My Little Pony: The MovieNot a whit less bizarre and immersively imagined than the Blade Runner flicks is this new animated feature realization of the Hasbro toy line from the early '80s. It centers on the relentlessly cheery equine inhabitants, mostly distaff, of Equestria, some of whom are winged, some of whom are horned, all of whom are colored like Jelly Bellies.

The story involves an incursion into the city of Ponyville by Tempest (well voiced by Emily Blunt), a sinister magical pony with a jagged stump where her unicorn horn should be. She and her minions are trying to corral four top Pony Princesses in order to steal their magic on behalf of the demonic Storm King (Liev Schreiber), in return for a restored horn.

Tempest imprisons three of the princesses, but the fourth, Princess Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), eludes capture. She and her friends, which include a manically upbeat pony, a fashion-and-design-obsessed pony, a Reba McIntire-ish "cowgirl" pony and a diminutive dragon, set out in search of help, with only the mysterious clue “hippo” to guide them. In the course of their quest they encounter everything from airship-borne pirates (Zoe Saldana among them) to a sly, dandified feline hustler (Taye Diggs).

For followers of the franchise, which I'm told include not just children but many adult fans, this movie may hit it out of the park, but I found it a trifle flat. The plot seems boilerplate, and with the exception of a witty line here and there so does the dialogue. The theme is the value of friendship, which is preferable, at least, to the believe-in-your-dream platitude that's usually shoved at us as the moral of this sort of movie. But the songs in which this ideal is extolled are insipid recitatives without a memorable melody in the bunch.

Well, I take that back. "Rainbow," the song that Sia co-wrote and sings at the finale, is quite pretty.  And the pony character through which she sings it has a mane that hangs down over her face. Nice touch.