Tuesday, August 4, 2020

ICE FOLLIES OF 1993

Now streaming:


Red Penguins--Back in 2014 filmmaker Gabe Polsky chronicled the Soviet Union's national hockey team during the Cold War years with the documentary Red Army. Now Polsky is back with this post-Cold-War take on Russian hockey as it abandoned itself to western-style capitalist decadence.

The new film tells how, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, a group of U.S.-based investors led by Pittsburgh Penguins owner Howard Baldwin, and including Mario Lemieux and Michael J. Fox, took a 50% financial interest in the broke, decrepit Soviet National team. They dispatched a young marketing whiz named Steven Warshaw to the team's crumbling Moscow stadium on a mission to, as the saying goes, get asses in the seats. He wasn't above using a wacky penguin mascot, strippers and circus bears to do it.

Polsky's film is brisk and jaunty in tone, but it contains some grim passages showing how rough the transitions between political and economic systems can be. It gradually settles into a contrast between the manic, bouncing-off-the-walls hustler Warshaw and the team's baleful coach, Viktor Tikhonov and GM Valery Gushin, both scary old-school Soviet apparatchiks who resented and mistrusted the vulgar (and effective) antics of this young American showman. Gushin and Warshaw are still around to tell their tales as talking heads (Tikhonov died in 2014). Both seem to have mellowed with age, but traces of the '90s-era craziness remain.

Friday, July 31, 2020

A TOUCHING STORY

On digital and VOD today:


Yes, God, Yes--Teenage Alice stumbles into a dirty online chat one day after school and finds herself on the verge of masturbating; she's interrupted, in what turns into a running gag. Being a good Catholic schoolgirl, she has been taught that the wages of sex outside of marriage--even just with yourself--is eternal torment. She's already guilt-ridden over having replayed the Leo-and-Kate sex scene in Titanic three times.

So she goes on one of those four-day retreats where she gets further lectured and browbeaten and socially pressured, all under the pretext of therapeutic tenderness, and this, along with exposure to a friendly, handsome counselor whose arm hair mesmerizes her, only seems to make her urges stronger. Also, there's a rumor going around that she "tossed the salad" of another boy, and she doesn't know what that means.

This coming-of-age comedy, written and directed by Karen Maine (based on her 2017 short), gets at a theme that isn't discussed often enough: the conflict between the normal sexual impulses of adolescence and the cosmically, existentially terrifying prospect of being damned to hell for all eternity. It seems like one of the more vile forms of abuse practiced by organized religion, and, experience suggests, one of the most hypocritical.

Maine, who co-wrote the story for 2014's Obvious Child, seems very in touch with her anger about this, but she keeps it low-key; her touch is light and funny and observant. Anybody who's ever been on a church retreat, Catholic or not, will immediately recognize the world Maine creates.

And the cast is strong, especially the waiflike Natalia Dyer, an actress unknown to me as I am apparently one of the half-dozen people in the U.S. who still hasn't seen Stranger Things. Dyer is awfully good as Alice, down the rabbit hole of morality and propriety versus hormones and nerve endings. Maine has, perhaps wisely, left the role unwritten; the dialogue isn't glib teen-movie-speak, so it's left to Dyer to get across Alice's awakening through wide-eyed takes.

She's hilarious, but her befuddlement also arouses our sympathy. When Alice finally gets an outside perspective on her predicament, it's like she's found her way out of a cave.

Monday, July 27, 2020

ALL FOR THE BEST

One of the most unimportant casualties of the pandemic, by far, has been my "Four Corners" restaurant column in Phoenix Magazine. But Your Humble Narrator did get to contribute some half-dozen or so items to the magazine's 2020 "Best of the Valley" issue, now on the stands...


See if you can tell which ones I wrote!

Friday, July 24, 2020

CURIE-ING FAVOR

Streaming this weekend:


Radioactive--Debuting in 2002's Die Another Day as a Bond girl, Rosamund Pike has since proven she's more than an English beauty, showing her potent acting chops in 2014's Gone Girl and other roles. But she's probably never had a showcase part quite as juicy as that of Marie Curie, the pioneering, Nobel-winning scientist who discovered radium and polonium and coined the title term.

Adapted by Jack Thorne from a 2010 graphic novel by Lauren Redniss, and directed by Marjane Satrapi of Persepolis, the movie sketches the Polish-born Marie Sklodowska's life in Paris. We see her marriage to Pierre Curie (the fine, restrained Sam Riley); her discoveries and celebrity in partnership with him; her later bereavements and unhappy affairs; her heroic introduction of X-ray technology into field medicine during WWI; her unwitting ruination of her health from long exposure to her own discoveries.

Interwoven with this are free-floating episodes depicting Hiroshima, the nuclear tests in Nevada, Chernobyl; also early efforts in radiotherapy. In general, the movie's take on Curie's legacy seems ambivalent and rather dark.

But its regard for its heroine is strong and unsentimental. Pike creates a portrait of a wary, unapologetically ambitious woman, and gets across an electric sense of brilliance mixed with a passionate nature. She also has a couple of Oscar-clip-worthy scenes of Curie in extremes so intense and emotionally naked that they're almost hard to watch. She's spectacular.


Zombie for Sale--A young zombie (Jung Ga-ram) wanders into a small South Korean town, and ends up in the custody of the nervy, squabbling family who runs the local tow service. He's fond of munching heads of cabbage, and he's on the cute side, so the young sister (Lee Soo-kyung) takes a shine to him. But when it's discovered that his bite has a rejuvenating effect on old men (initially), the family finds itself in a position to make a fortune.

Also known as The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale...


...this light-on-gore horror satire directed by Lee Min-jae is full of screwy, truly imaginative ideas, and delightfully acted by a terrific ensemble--I especially enjoyed Uhm Ji-won as the forbidding pregnant sister-in-law. It's the hip spin on classic zombie shtick that Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die wanted to be. Probably what makes the film so enjoyable is what makes many of the South Korean films that make it to the states, including The Host and Parasite, so much fun: Their hard-edged, even jaundiced, yet somehow still deeply affectionate view of family.

Friday, July 17, 2020

MOONIESTRUCK

Streaming this weekend...



Blessed ChildThis documentary was directed by its principal subject, Cara Jones, who was born into and grew up within the Unification Church, also known as the “Moonies” after their late leader Sun Myung Moon. Jones is no longer in the flock, but still clearly adores her parents, who remain leading figures in the American church. The film details her efforts to renounce the homophobic and profit-minded sect—her gay younger brother, who worked with her on the film, also left the church—while retaining a loving relationship with her folks.

Her sweet mother suffers terrible guilt about leaving her daughter, as an infant, to be raised by a sort of church nanny while she did mission work, although this woman, who Jones also visits, was kindly. The Princeton-educated Dad's handsome, brahmin-ish-looking face likewise strains with guilt when Jones gently questions him about the church's ideology that condemns his son. It's bitterly sad, but not depressing to watch, because it's clear that love came first in this family. Yet the damage wrought by the church in the lives of these people was very real.

Of course, as one of the talking heads points out, there's nothing in this movie that couldn't be equally true of, and certainly no worse than, a family dynamic in, say, the Catholic Church, or any major organized religion. The peek inside this particular church is intriguing, but the family portrait is what makes Blessed Child affecting.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

FORGIVE US OUR 'SKINS

To the meager extent that I can be called a sports fan at all, I'm a baseball fan, not a football fan. But during the brief period I lived in Washington, D.C., from 1987 to 1992, my girlfriend at the time was a passionate fan of D.C.'s NFL team.


She wasn't alone. Led by head coach Joe Gibbs and QBs like Doug Williams and Mark Rypien, the team was really good during those years. As a result, almost every home game was a sellout, and tickets were extremely hard to come by. There's a good inside-the-Beltway gag in the 1987 Bette Midler-Shelley Long comedy Outrageous Fortune, in which a CIA agent (John Shuck) is trying to persuade a KGB agent (Robert Prosky) to defect, promising him townhouses and all sorts of perks, and the KGB man hesitantly asks "Redsk**s tickets?" The CIA man furrows his brow; that may be too big an ask.

Anyway, as I said, my then-girlfriend Stephanie adored the team, and somehow or another scored two tickets for a home game at RFK in November of 1991. The lads were having a superb season; they finished 14-2 and went on to win Super Bowl XXVI over the Buffalo Bills. Their only home loss? You guessed it, the one game that Stephanie and I ever managed to go to together; a 24-21 defeat to their loathed rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, under head coach Jimmy Johnson and QB Troy Aikman.

I have many vivid memories of that chilly day, including watching a drunken and insufferable Dallas fan a few rows ahead of us get seriously manhandled by D.C. cops--to joyous applause--for taunting his neighbors. I also recall the palpable funk of anger and misery, including Stephanie's, on the Metro ride home. But I also remember, as we entered the stadium, seeing a good-sized band of Native American activists beating drums and chanting in protest of the team's name. I was handed a flyer explaining its offensiveness.

I wish I still had that flyer, to read it a little more attentively than I did at the time. I dismissed it then, thinking the matter trivial; I may have formulated some evasion along the lines of "gee, that community has problems they really should be focusing on ahead of a sports team's name." It wasn't until years later, hearing the matter debated in the media, that it struck me that the issue's triviality or lack thereof really wasn't my call.

Many American sports teams are named after Native Americans; the Cleveland Indians, the Atlanta Braves, the Florida State Seminoles. I'm sure there are Native activists who would like to get rid of all of them, but to point out the obvious, the D.C. football team is a little different even from these--it's an actual racial epithet. It's not different, in any way that I can see, from using the N-word as a team name.

I was reflecting on all this to a friend of mine who told me that she had attended Miami University, aka Miami of Ohio. Their team was also called the Redsk**s in those days, and the on-field performing mascot at games was a kid dressed up in a stereotypical Indian outfit.

According to my friend, at a certain point Miami struck up a relationship with the Miami Tribe in Oklahoma, and sent their mascot performer to the tribe to train to do accurate tribal dances; they also provided scholarships and other programs for tribal youth. Even so, in 1996 they changed the name to the RedHawks, but kept the relationship with the tribe.


In 2014 Dan Snyder, the douche-baggy-sounding owner of the D.C. NFL team, started an "Original Americans Foundation" in answer to criticism over the name. But according to Sports Illustrated that funding has steadily dried up over the years since.

It will be interesting to see if the appropriately-initialed OAF continues at all in the future, as it appears that, almost three decades later, those protesters I saw that day are getting their wish; the D.C. team has announced it will retire the name. At this writing, the new name has not yet been announced.

The question of why slurs toward indigenous people have remained less socially opprobrious than slurs against other races for so much longer is an interesting one. I don't have an answer for it. Indeed, I don't have any great wisdom to impart about the matter at all; I'm just glad that the grotesque name has been retired, and that Snyder's obstinance has finally been worn down. I've heard some commentators wonder if the change will make some fans decide they're done with the organization. To that, I can only say that if so, they don't sound like very loyal fans.

Friday, July 10, 2020

PARALLAX, GO TO IT

Opening today...


Parallax--A beautiful young California painter named Naomi (Naomi Prentice) has suddenly gone near-catatonic. She's haunted by horrifying dreams of drowning, and she's afflicted with amnesia, not quite knowing Lucas (Nelson Ritthaler), the computer programmer fiance with whom she shares a pleasant California house.

Lucas, of course, thinks it's mental illness, but Naomi, and we in the audience, suspect she may be somehow plugged into a different reality. When she paints, she sometimes finds her way into the idyllic beaches or deserts on her canvasses. She meets other people in these painting-worlds, and experiences hints of an alternate version of her life.

This sci-fi drama, written and directed by Michael Bachochin, is a heavy exercise in "things are not as they seem." It has a polished look, but takes a while to get going, and we in the audience may be excused, I think, if we initially find Naomi's blank unresponsiveness as frustrating as Lucas does. Gradually, however, the movie does take hold, generating a quiet, moody sense of the sunlit SoCal sinister.

(Update: I have since been informed that this movie's scheduled release to theaters and drive-ins on July 10 was pulled due to COVID-19 concerns; when/if it is eventually released I'll update again.)