Thursday, December 31, 2015

MOLD LANG SYNE

Happy New Year’s Eve everybody!

The makers of the upcoming film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, slated to open February 5, have told me I should “HAVE A BLOODY LOVELY NEW YEAR.” I’ll try, and I certainly pass the wish along to you. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s make this week’s honoree any member of the title’s third category, here seen reaching up from below…

A prosperous and joyous 2016 to all!

Friday, December 25, 2015

HEAD GAMES

Merry Christmas! Quickies on several Christmas Day openings: 


ConcussionPeter Landesman directed this straightforward drama starring Will Smith, who plays Dr. Bennet Omalu. This Nigerian pathologist came to the U.S. starry-eyed about the American Dream, and then learned what happens when you get between Americans and football.

While doing autopsies for the Allegheny County Coroner’s office in Pittsburgh, including one for down-and-out Steelers center Mike Webster, Omalu came to the conclusion that it might not be healthy for men to spend their careers bashing their heads into each other—he referred to the results of this as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. The NFL found his theory shocking and controversial.

After a while, it struck me that the film’s somber, brooding tone was less about the horror that befalls CTE victims and their families, and more about American angst over anything that challenges, complicates or interferes with the love of football. The best line, delivered by Albert Brooks, refers to the place the NFL has taken in America: “They own a day of the week,” he says. “The same one The Church used to own.”


CarolThe latest from Todd Haynes is this impeccable adaptation of the 1952 Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt. As in Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett is a rich lady in trouble. Carol is an affluent, elegant New Jersey housewife and mother, in the process of divorcing her husband. She’s out shopping when she meets Therese (Rooney Mara), an aspiring Manhattan photographer, working in a department store. The two are immediately riveted by each other, and as they get acquainted, eventually taking a road trip together, their relationship grows from yearning infatuation to a genuine bond. It need hardly be said that all does not go smoothly for them.

This is sort of a companion piece to Haynes’ Far From Heaven, his lush, Douglas Sirk-ish ‘50s soap opera in which Dennis Quaid struggled against his sexuality as if he’d been diagnosed with low blood sugar or anemia. But because the lead characters in Carol aren’t trying to overcome their identities, it’s probably a more enjoyable movie. It’s also probably better made—the period detail is rich but not fussy, and the acting bristles, both erotically and emotionally.

Blanchett is daringly mannered, both in her look and her delivery—at first she seems lacquered and campy, almost a little gothic. But as the movie progresses her grand style starts to blend perfectly with Mara’s touchingly unaffected, natural directness. Very simply, the two of them seem lucky to have found each other.


Daddy’s HomeWill Farrell is the square, trying-too-hard stepdad, and Mark Wahlberg is the cool absentee Dad with the motorcycle and the treehouse-building skills. They stupidly one-up each other for the love of Linda Cardellini and her rather unlikable kids, and the result is self-consciously “transgressive” slapstick of the kids-in-wheelchairs-getting-knocked-over style in vogue since The Hangover.

It’s fairly terrible, though I suppose it gets a smidge better in the homestretch when Farrell and Wahlberg aren’t competing anymore. My only other comment is: I can no longer see Mark Wahlberg without being reminded of Andy Samberg’s Saturday Night Live impression of him.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

DELIVER US FROM EVE

Merry Christmas Eve!

In honor of the season…

Monster-of-the-Week: …the nod goes to the star of this New Yorker cartoon…

 
The caption reads: “If the Elf on the Shelf doesn’t motivate you to behave, maybe the Krampus in the Korner will.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

THE DEFAULT IN OUR STARS

Opening today:

  
The Big ShortThe prestige Christmas Day releases this year have such feel-good subjects as concussions in the NFL and two women persecuted for a lesbian affair in the ‘50s. Beating these two into the multiplexes today is this jolly romp about the criminal idiocies leading up to the collapse of the housing market in 2008.

But I’m not being facetious. It really is a jolly romp. Director and co-writer Adam McKay, best known for Will Farrell flicks like Anchorman, uses his anything-goes comedy techniques to give this infuriating and depressing material a sort of Brechtian vaudeville energy, and the result is one of the most absorbing and perversely entertaining movies of the year.

Based, like 2011’s excellent Moneyball, on a nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, the film follows several traders and investors who predicted, or were made to believe, that the market, balanced on atrociously unstable subprime mortgage bonds, would collapse starting in 2007. Because of the received wisdom that the housing market was unshakable, these guys were seen as crackpots when they began to “short” (bet against) the housing market with “Credit Default Swaps” in the mid-2000s. When the market did indeed melt down in 2007-2008, they looked like geniuses. Jackals too, perhaps—and the movie doesn’t try to deny it—but genius jackals.

Said geniuses (some of them are dramatized under their own names, others under pseudonyms) include Christian Bale as a socially awkward California doctor turned hedge fund manager who horrified his own investors by pouring millions into swaps, and Finn Whitrock and John Magaro as two small-potatoes hedge fund guys who got into swaps with the help of their disillusioned mentor Brad Pitt (who also executive-produced). Steve Carrell plays an abrasive hedge fund boss, haunted by a personal tragedy, who worked under the aegis of Morgan Stanley with his small team of wound-up, bantering, obscenity-spouting traders (Jeremy Strong, Rafe Spall and Hamish Linklater).

They’re all excellent, but the liveliest of the leads is Ryan Gosling as the swaggering Deutsche Bank trader who sells Carrell on shorting the market. Gosling’s character frequently looks into the camera and addresses us—several characters do, but this guy most of all—and having the least tortured, most unapologetically mercenary of  The Big Short’s players serve as its spokesman goes a long way to rescuing it from piety.

You’ll notice that in the preceding paragraphs I throw around financial terms like I remotely understand them. I assure you I probably understand them far less than you do, although after seeing this movie—assuming that it’s reasonably accurate—I now understand them far better than I did before. McKay makes the movie a remedial-level course in finance, and he uses gimmicky shtick to keep us interested—he shows us Margot Robbie luxuriating in a bubble bath with a glass of champagne while she explains subprime mortgages to us, and a couple of other celebrities pop up to give us brief tutorials.

The implication of these gags could be seen, in a sense, as an insult to the audience. But it’s an elegant and entertaining insult. And, alas, not an unfair one

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

THE ROBOT SHUTS UP...

…and puts its top back on, alas…


 Your Humble Narrator is displeased to report that the Village Voice nerd-culture website The Robot’s Voice (formerly Topless Robot), to which I was a frequent contributor for the last two and half years, has been closed. I hope its editor, Luke Thompson, finds himself up to new mischief soon.

The Phoenix Film Critics Society, of which I’m a proud founding member, has announced its 2015 Award Winners. I’m especially happy with this year’s Best Picture winner, which had my vote. My own Top Ten list will follow shortly after the New Year.

Here are some reflections on Christmas music that have occurred to me recently:


“Santa Baby” is a really impressive piece of songwriting, with a spectacularly complex, intricate rhyme scheme. Also, did you know it was written by the niece of Jacob Javits? Also, all versions of this song except Eartha Kitt’s should be banned from the airwaves. Madonna’s coy bimbo version withers embarrassingly beside Kitt’s sedate, unhurried vocal, a perfect counterpoint to the infantile acquisitiveness of the lyric.

There have been many delightful versions of the duet “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” But the older I get, the more it starts to sound like a creepy date-rape song, especially in the line “Say, what’s in this drink?"

Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” is rousingly performed, but something has always bugged me about it, and I think it’s this: It’s insulting. She keeps saying she doesn’t want much this Christmas, she isn’t asking for much, and then she says the trifling little insignificant thing she wants is…you. Gee, thanks.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

RANCOR VALUES

With Star Wars VII:The Force Awakens in theaters today, obviously a Star Wars monster is in order, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to the Rancor Monster from 1983’s Return of the Jedi, or rather to the Kenner toy version marketed at the time…


This beast was my favorite thing about that movie—he always looked like my idea of Grendel from Beowulf, plus I love how after Luke Skywalker kills him, his keeper sobs. I remember really wanting this toy and so, being 21 years old, I bought it for one of my nephews, then seven. Handy thing, nephews.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

BEST SPACE SCENARIO

Opening this Thursday:


Star Wars Episode VII: The Force AwakensThe three Star Wars “prequels,” from 1999, 2002 and 2005, all started in the standard manner for the series, with the preface “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” followed by the blasting John Williams fanfare and the title. But then that crawl of yellow text would start, and it was a bunch of gobbledygook about trade alliances and congressional debates that would have seemed dry, complicated and confusing on C-SPAN.

The expository crawl for the new entry, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, starts with the line…

Well, wait a minute. As we were leaving the press screening, the PR folks asked us for our reactions. One of the ushers, headed in to clean the theater, was holding his hands over his ears as he passed us, terrified that he’d overhear some “spoiler.” So if you’re of this guy’s mindset, maybe you’d better stop reading until after you’ve seen the flick. I’ll do my best not give away any specific plot points, but perhaps you’d rather go in completely uncontaminated.

OK, now: The opening crawl for The Force Awakens begins with the line “Luke Skywalker has disappeared.” It goes on to explain that Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) has dispatched “her most daring pilot” to track down a clue to her brother’s whereabouts.

Now we’re talking. Much like in the original 1977 Star Wars, a hero has disappeared, and the good guys have to find him. It’s the sort of simple, fairy-tale set-up that’s implied by that “Once upon a time” opening line.

And it’s this approach that makes The Force Awakens so much more fun than the “prequel trilogy.” In those films, there would be shootouts and spaceship dogfights and light saber duels, but it was hard to know what was at stake at any given point—at times I almost wasn’t sure who I was supposed to root for. The spectacle was great, but the storytelling was muddled. It certainly didn’t seem like the feeling a Star Wars movie should give you.

With The Force Awakens, however, director J. J. Abrams, working from a script he co-wrote with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, gets about as close, probably, as it’s possible to get to bringing us the feeling that the originals gave us back in the ‘70s and ‘80s—that sense of a new mythology, and a set of shiny new toys. The cinematography and set designs and props have a subtly retro look—one robot has a head that looks a lot like an old-school drive-in movie speaker—that links them convincingly to the original trilogy’s universe.

The actors have a retro look, too. The story, set decades after the end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi during a period in which the Empire is trying to re-assert itself as the “First Order,” allows for the presence of original cast members like Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and, buried under Wookie fur not noticeably gone gray, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca.

But even the youngsters in the cast, like Daisy Ridley as a scavenger girl on a desert planet, John Boyega as a stormtrooper gone rogue with conscience, or Oscar Isaac as the aforementioned most daring pilot, seem to echo the gee-whiz young characters of the early films. There’s even a spherical, chirping-and-whistling robot, and a villain with a rumbling voice behind a dark helmet and mask.

All of the actors are proficient, but the standout—a little surprisingly, considering his supposed great indifference to these films—is Ford, who brings lightness and warmth to the middle-aged Han Solo that I don’t think he had back in the ‘70s. When he and Fisher’s Leia exchange their crooked, ruefully nostalgic smiles, it’s very charming.

There are innovative new characters, like a tiny, wizened, thousand-year-old barkeep (wonderfully performed, behind motion capture, by Lupita Nyong’o) who looks like a talking kumquat with coke-bottle glasses, but even she serves as a somewhat Obi-Wan-like mentor presence for Scavenger Girl. There are new creatures, too—a hornbill-like bird pecking at a helmet, an enormous boar-like beast at a water trough, tentacled horrors running amok on a cargo ship. But they, too, recall the barely-glimpsed fauna in the early movies.

This applies to the whole of Force Awakens. It starts on a desert planet, follows the search for a cute robot entrusted with vital information, involves mentors and pupils and family connections and a super-weapon and Jedi mind tricks and cringing underlings bringing bad news to scary bad guys and crosscutting between space battles and personal confrontations. It’s almost less a sequel than a series of variations on the original trilogy’s themes. That’s the shrewd and sensible method that Abrams, Kasdan and Arndt have used: Everything’s new, but everything’s old as well.

On the way to the screening, I saw, no kidding, an electric traffic sign on a Phoenix highway that read “AGGRESSIVE DRIVING IS THE PATH TO THE DARK SIDE.” For better or for worse, that’s how ingrained in mainstream culture this once-nerdy mythos has become. Oddly, the movie uses a variation on this metaphysic: The previous Star Wars films were heavily concerned with the allure of the Dark Side, but this film is about the seductions of the Light, the risks and perils of giving in to one’s better impulses. This, I think, it’s what gives the movie its vitality. It might be called A Franchise Awakens.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Friday, December 11, 2015

WHALE TALE, HOLY GRAIL, HITCHCOCK HAIL

Opening this weekend:


In the Heart of the SeaIn 1820, the Nantucket whaler Essex was attacked by a sperm whale in the Pacific, thousands of miles west of South America. It sank, and the crew went through hell and resorted to extreme measures to stay alive. Ron Howard has tried to turn Nathaniel Philbrick’s acclaimed 2000 account of this awful trip, one of the inspirations for Moby-Dick, into a psychologically and spiritually fraught adventure in its own right.

As usual with Howard, it’s a well-made movie with many rousing scenes. The whale effects are mostly very good and convincing, and the actors do solid, respectable work. But the movie doesn’t come off, overall.

Chris Hemsworth plays Chase, the first mate, at Melvillian odds with the haughty novice Captain, Pollard (Benjamin Walker, nicely restrained in a thankless role). The product of a venerable whaling family, Pollard resents the effortless seamanship of Chase, the son of a “landsman.”

This conflict becomes moot when a huge, patchy-white sperm whale decides to go Zidane on the hull of the Essex. I must confess that I enjoyed the leviathan’s vengeance more than anything else in ITHOTS. I felt good for the beast, much the way one might feel good for Charles Bronson in a Death Wish movie.

I found it hard to sympathize with whalers, not because they weren’t courageous and skillful but because I brought a 21st-Century sense of their enterprise as an environmental atrocity into the movie with me. I realize that this response is pious hindsight, and that our age doesn’t have any real right to feel superior about how we light our cities, that indeed in the grand scheme of things it’s probably a far greater blight on the planet than hunting a few sea mammals to the brink of extinction. It may come down to Orwell’s observation in “Shooting an Elephant”: “Somehow it always seems worse to kill a large animal.”

But whatever the reason, it interfered with my enjoyment of ITHOTS. I think Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt anticipated it too. They’ve toned down the horror wrought by the Essex crew, omitting, for instance, their ecologically disastrous visit to the Galapagos, and giving Chase’s final encounter with the whale an ambiguity that falls flat as drama. Melville turned this story into an astonishing, exasperating myth, an allegory that transcends and almost reproaches the very idea of allegory. But ITHOTS is just one more story about The One That Got Away.

Opening this weekend at Harkins Valley Art in Tempe:


Don VerdeanSam Rockwell plays the title character, an evangelical archaeologist who claims to have unearthed such relics as the shears used to cut Samson’s hair. Bankrolled by a preacher (Danny McBride) anxious over his dwindling flock, Don travels to Israel in search of the skull of Goliath. Under pressure from his patron, and abetted by his unscrupulous local digger Boaz (Jermaine Clement), Don, who sincerely wants to save souls, gradually succumbs to the temptation to fake this discovery. Of course, things only get wackier and worse from there, as Don and Boaz eventually agree to provide a buyer with the “Holy Grail of Biblical artifacts,” which is, of course, the Holy Grail.

This is the latest from Jared Hess of Napoleon Dynamite, again from a script co-written with his wife Jerusha. As with their other post-Napoleon films, Nacho Libre and Gentlemen Broncos, it’s seriously uneven. The Hess touch, so to speak, is all about awkward pauses and fitful, off-kilter bursts of slapstick action, and when it works it’s punishingly funny, and when it doesn’t, it just hangs there on the screen, not working.

The acting is terrific, however. McBride and Will Forte ham it up a bit more than they have to as the rival preachers, but Clement takes the opportunity, as he did in Gentlemen Broncos, to deploy another shamelessly silly accent. Amy Ryan gives us so much subtext as Don’s adoring assistant that she’s almost too touching for the farcical tone.

And as usual, Rockwell is a marvel. His Don hides his poker face behind a thick beard, speaking in a firm, sober drawl—he sounds like George W. Bush mixed with Johnny Cash—and authoritatively puts everyone at ease. In their ridiculous way, Rockwell and Hess offer a plausible, even somewhat affectionate portrait of how a decently-intentioned person could allow himself to be corrupted.

Opening this weekend at Harkins Shea:


Hitchcock/TruffautThis documentary is both a film version of and a tribute to the famous 1966 book-length interview of Alfred Hitchcock by the young Francois Truffaut. Familiar to just about every film geek of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the tome is credited with helping to change the perception of Hitchcock as a talented craftsman and entertainer to that of an artist.

Thus the movie, directed by Kent Jones, features talking heads ranging from Wes Anderson to Richard Linklater to Kiyoshi Kurosawa to Martin Scorcese, talking not only about how much they love Hitchcock and Truffaut but also about how much they loved the book. We get clips from the movies, and audio clips of the interviews, and a little narration, by Bob Balaban.

So what’s not to like? Nothing, it’s a fine way to spend 80 minutes. But as with the best documentaries about cinema, it’s an appetizer—it leaves you hungry for whole movies.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

TUNNEL VISION

This Saturday horror host Svengoolie features the enjoyable 1956 adventure The Mole People...


...in which explorers find a lost underground Mesopotamian civilization served by the bug-eyed, bumpy-skinned, burrowing creatures of the title. So… 

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree is any representative of this enslaved class…



If you never seen this Universal effort, it’s worth a look.

Friday, December 4, 2015

THE HUMAN ABSTAIN

Opening this week:


Chi-RaqThe title refers to Chicago, the streets of which are more lethal these days for young black men than Iraq. It also refers to the rapper and gang leader (Nick Cannon) whose girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is at the center of Spike Lee’s modern-dress retelling of Aristophanes, much of it played out in rhyming dialogue. Lysistrata leads the girlfriends of rival gangs on Chicago’s south side in a sex strike until the shooting stops.

The middle-aged women in the neighborhood eventually join in, demanding activism from the miserable middle-aged men. Eventually the strikers seize a National Guard armory, and the forces of the Mayor (D. B. Sweeney) and the Police Commissioner (Harry Lennix) lay siege to them there, planning “Operation Hot and Bothered,” in which the ladies are bombarded, Noriega-style, with romantic slow jams.

Farcical as this strand is, Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott (of C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America) point to the anti-war sex strike started by Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee in 2003 to show that there are real-life precedents for this sort of action. They also make clear that the object of the protest is no joke: The film includes horrifying violence, including the death of a child from a stray bullet.

I had missed Spike Lee’s last few movies, and Chi-Raq reminded me of how funny he can be. While its free-form structure recalls Lee’s early School Daze (1988), what surprised me is how genuinely Greek it is. It’s a fairly insane movie, but all its messy craziness—the broad characterizations, dirty jokes and slapstick thrown up alongside angry, deadly-serious didactic rants and debates, the meandering plot, the digressions—is at least equally true of Aristophanes.

As always with Lee’s films, much of the energy comes from the acting. Standouts here include veterans like Angela Bassett as the wise lady across the street, Wesley Snipes, giggling like Muttley, as the rival gang leader Cyclops, a raspy-voiced John Cusack as an enraged priest and Samuel L. Jackson, unleashing his peerless verbal exuberance on rhymed couplets of choral commentary.

Vivid as these performers are, however, the glue that holds Chi-Raq together—just barely—is the likable and luscious Lysistrata of Teyonah Parris. She and her fellow strikers certainly make setting down the guns seem worthwhile.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

EYE ALONE

Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, which opens tomorrow, features a character, played by Wesley Snipes, called Cyclops.

So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …a Cyclops would seem to be in order, but as we’ve already repeatedly honored the greatest movie Cyclops of all time—Ray Harryhausen’s thuggish stop-motion specimen from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad—this week let’s give the nod to Johann Tischbein’s 1802 version: