Friday, November 17, 2017

MANGER DANGER

Opening this weekend:



The StarThe hero of this animated comedy is a donkey named Bo. Bo and his friend Dave the Dove and a sheep named Ruth and others band together and have wacky adventures in their effort to warn the Virgin Mary, who’s on the road to Bethlehem with Joseph, that the agents of Herod the Great are out to get them.

Funny versions of The Nativity go back in the Western tradition at least as far as The Second Shepherd’s Play in the 1500s. I also remember a surprisingly satirical holiday TV special called The Night the Animals Talked back in the early ‘70s that focused on the creatures around the manger, including Mary and Joseph’s goodhearted donkey.

Even so, you may not always believe what you’re seeing in this Sony Animation release—the standard cute talking animal template, complete with an underdog (underdonkey?) hero who longs to see the wider world, played out against this sort of pious tableau. It’s easy to imagine neither the secular nor the devout being altogether comfortable with it.

This movie’s camp reaches its highest level, perhaps, not with the critters but with its depiction of The Annunciation. The green-eyed, freckled Mary (voiced by Gina Rodriguez, star of TV’s Jane the Virgin), who talks like a Disney Channel heroine, receives word from the Angel that she’s to be the Messiah’s mother with less emotion than a contemporary American teenager might show at the news that she’d won tickets to a Niall Horan concert. “Thank you,” she says mildly, and then, to herself, “Do I say thank you?”

The most peculiar thing about this peculiar movie is that it works, or at least it worked for me. The high-ticket voice actors, led by Stephen Yeun as Bo, Aidy Bryant as Ruth and Keegan-Michael Key as the endearing Dave, create warm characterizations. I’m not kidding when I say high-ticket, by the way: other beasts are voiced by Tyler Perry, Tracy Morgan, Kelly Clarkson, Anthony Anderson, Kris Kristofferson, Ving Rhames, Gabriel Iglesias, Patricia Heaton, Kristin Chenoweth and—gasp!—Oprah herself, as a camel. Even Christopher Plummer lends his sinister purr to old Herod.

The Star is no classic, but this cast makes it vibrant, and the story is about going to trouble for others, putting their needs ahead of your own. It’s a kitschy, sometimes borderline embarrassing movie, and a more genuinely sweet one than I’ve seen in a while.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY MATTER

Just because it's playing this Saturday afternoon on Turner Classic Movies...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week let's honor the title malevolent cerebrum in the 1953 classic Donovan's Brain...


 
...based on Curt Siodmak's novel of the same title, or, as it's known in Portuguese, O Cerebro de Donovan...

Monday, November 13, 2017

THE RAILS OF JUSTICE

Now in theaters:


Murder on the Orient ExpressSidney Lumet’s tautly made 1974 version of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, with Albert Finney as Belgian master detective Hercule Poirot, is a favorite of mine, and I admit I saw no pressing need to remake it. But remade it has been, in a manner sufficiently different from the original that it can be enjoyed on its own terms.

The new version is directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also assumes the role of Poirot. As before, a shady character gets bumped off in a sleeping car of the famed luxury line, which used to run all the way from Istanbul to Paris. The train is derailed by an avalanche somewhere in Croatia, and Poirot, who had been hoping for a quiet holiday, is pressed into service to identify the guilty party from among the shifty types aboard before the trip is back on track.

The cast ranges from Johnny Depp to Judi Dench, Josh Gad to Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe to Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley to Leslie Odom, Jr. to Michelle Pfeiffer, among others, and they let it rip. Offsetting this is Branagh’s impressively reserved, melancholy OCD turn as Poirot.

As director, Branagh works in his characteristically flamboyant style, sweeping from one melodramatic flourish to the next, even adding in some fights and gunplay. This won’t be to the taste of every Christie aficionado, but I enjoyed it. I also enjoyed screenwriter Michael Green’s distaste for the casual racism that Christie, to judge from her books, would have regarded as quite proper.

But the real stars, perhaps, of this Orient Express are, first, Branagh’s mesmerizing mustache, and second, the lushness of the production—cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos, costumes by Alexandra Byrne, music by Patrick Doyle. The movie may leave you in the mood for a leisurely holiday by train. Allowing for the odd murder or avalanche, it looks like a great time.

Friday, November 10, 2017

DAY AFTER DAY

Check out Phoenix Magazine online for my short article about the OCD Film Festival (for "Outstanding Cinematic Delights"), scheduled for this Saturday at Super Saver Cinemas at 27th Avenue & Bell in Phoenix.


The Kid and I had fun at this one belatedly:


Happy Death DayOur unlikable sorority-girl heroine (Jessica Rothe) gets murdered by somebody wearing a hoodie and a smiling one-toothed baby mask. Then she wakes up at the beginning of the same dayher birthdayand it all starts over again. As she gets repeatedly re-murdered, and keeps getting do-overs, she starts unraveling the mystery, and also growing as a person.

If, like me, you missed this brazen application of the Groundhog Day premise to the slasher genre when it opened before Halloween, you might want to catch up with it now. The no-name cast is energetic, Scott Lobdell's script is ingenious, and there's plenty of humor along with the chills.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

STITCH & FAMOUS

My pal Gayle sent me this pic...


...of a display in the San Diego Airport devoted to the worthy subject of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...just because he's in the foreground, let's give the nod to the towering Land of the Rising Sun version of Frankenstein's Monster from 1965's Frankenstein Conquers the World, as memorably depicted by veteran men's-magazine cover artist Vic Prezio in this '66 Famous Monsters cover...


Friday, November 3, 2017

NORSE OF A DIFFERENT COLOR

Opening:


Thor: Ragnarok--Superhero movies have been on a roll lately. For the first decade or so of this century, my reviews of Marvel and DC films have amounted to a lot of grumbling that they were heavy, they were overlong, they were sometimes jocular but lacked true humor, and above all that they were repetitively caught up in a post-9/11 fixation with urban destruction, buildings crumbling to rubble. In short, I didn't find them fun.

And then I did. In the last few years, superhero movies suddenly lightened up. Ant-Man, Dr. Strange, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming and (if you count them) the Guardians of the Galaxy flicks were all fine entertainments, and even the more standard, turgid entries like Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Avengers: Age of Ultron had scenes or performances that zapped some life and looseness into them.

This trend reaches its zenith with the latest Marvel release, Thor: Ragnarok. Those who demand seriousness from their superhero flicks may disapprove, as this movie is played more or less entirely for laughs. But it kept me smiling from beginning to end. It's like an antidote to the preceding Thor flick, 2013's chilly Thor: The Dark World. This movie's world is pretty bright.

Chris Hemsworth returns, and remains agreeable, as the Marvel version of the Norse deity with the hammer only he can sling. "Ragnarok" is the term for the prophesied End Times in the Norse tradition, the day when the giant Surtur will lead an attack on Asgard. This does come into play in the movie, but the principal villains here are Thor's long-dormant sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) the Goddess of Death, and a character called simply Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who presides over gladiatorial games on a chaotic planet.

Blanchett is an elegant Maleficent type, topped with a chic antler headdress and attended by an impressive monster wolf. But it's Goldblum who steals big chunks of the picture, bringing the same halting, diffident delivery to tyrannically ruling a violent world that he does to pitching Apartments.com on TV. He's hilarious.

The director is the witty New Zealander Taika Waititi, working from a script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost. Waititi serves up plenty of other cheeky performances from his large cast. Tom Hiddleston is back as the ever-devious, ever-likable Loki, as is Anthony Hopkins as crusty old man Odin, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange, and Mark Ruffalo as the chagrined Bruce Banner/The Hulk, who has gone soft with cheap celebrity on Goldblum's planet. Tessa Thompson, the love interest in Creed, makes a quite adorable Valkyrie here, Waititi himself is riotous, behind motion capture, as a mild-mannered revolutionary rock monster, and his countryman Karl Urban gets a nice turn as Blanchett's rather sheepish toady.

The talented cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe bathes the movie in cheery colors, and Waititi stages one sly, silly set piece after another. The movie clocks in at over two hours, but just slightly. It's a trifle, but it hit the spot, and with the exception, maybe, of Spider-Man: Homecoming earlier this year, it's the first superhero movie in recent memory that I could imagine wanting to go see again.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

PETYR PRINCIPLE

Happy November to all! Check out the latest issue of Phoenix Magazine, now on the stands, for my "Four Corners" column on Valley "fusion" eateries.

With Thor: Ragnarok, directed by the New Zealander Taika Waititi, opening this weekend...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's give the nod to Petyr (Ben Fransham), the most forbidding of the vampire roomies in What We Do in the Shadows...



...the horror comedy co-written (with Jemaine Clement), directed by and starring Waititi. This broad, silly mock-documentary was recently recommended to me, and made me laugh a lot.

"Vampires don't chat," said screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, explaining why he didn't write any dialogue for Christopher Lee in 1966's Dracula, Prince of Darkness (Lee claimed that the character had dialogue, but it was so bad he refused to speak it). In What We Do in the Shadows, however, we further learn that "Vampires don't do dishes."