Friday, November 25, 2016

IN GOOD TASTE

In case the leftovers don’t hold up all weekend long, you can check out some dining options in the November issue of Phoenix Magazine




…among them my review of the outstanding Mambo’s Dominican Kitchen in Chandler (page 144, or here) and my “Four Corners” column (page 145, or here) on top-notch sandwich shops. Yum!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

BIG BIRD

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

In observance of the holiday…

Monster-of-the-Week: …our honoree is this Brobdingnagian turkey…


…that towered over Kurt Kasznar, Deanna Lund and the gang in “The Golden Cage,” a 1968 episode of Land of the Giants. Of all the sci-fi stories made for television about attempts to catch giant turkeys, this is arguably one of the better ones in color.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

UNDERCOVER CLAUS

Opening today:


Bad Santa 2Back in 2003, I was in the midst of what I regarded as a particularly un-merry holiday season. I saw Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa, and laughed so hard that I thought I might need medical attention. It wasn’t an especially well-made movie, but its childish upending of clich├ęd holiday wholesomeness essentially saved Christmas for me that year.

Billy Bob Thornton returns in this 13-years-belated sequel, again as Willie, a drunken, depressive, fetishistic safecracker who uses a Santa costume as his front. Here he’s pressed into service by his diminutive former accomplice Marcus (Tony Cox), donning the costume again to rob a fraudulent charity in Chicago. The mastermind—if that’s the word—behind the plot is Willie’s loathed mother Sunny (Kathy Bates).

Few would suggest that this episodic, clumsily-structured caper farce is crackerjack moviemaking. It relies on a ridiculously easy comedic strategy—set up saccharine Christmas imagery and music and blow raspberries at it.

So sure, Bad Santa 2 isn’t a great movie. But Billy Bob Thornton is a great movie star. I don’t just mean he’s a great actor, though he is; he also has the authoritative presence of a true star. Watching him here isn’t just watching a drawly guy spout vile obscenity and epithets—amusing enough for a while, but only for a while—it’s also getting a taste of the vast, defeated bleakness of outlook from which this invective arises.

His characterization carries a whisper of the tragic to it, and indeed this might take over and spoil the fun if it weren’t for Willie’s strange magnetism, sexual and otherwise. In the first movie he was irresistible to Lauren Graham; here his romantic—if that’s the word—interest is Christina Hendricks. So how sorry for him can we feel?

Besides, like the original, Bad Santa 2 is every bit as sentimental as any Christmas movie. We’re meant to see that the true source of Willie’s misery is that, at bottom, he’s a thoroughly decent-hearted fellow.

The journeyman director, Mark Waters, moves things along with reasonable efficiency. Bates is formidable as ever as Sunny. Cox, Octavia Spencer and Brett Kelly—as the oddball Thurman Merman—are amusing in reprised roles from the original. But Thornton is the real show. If, for whatever reason, you aren’t feeling as festive this year as tradition demands, Bad Santa 2 might help you vent some of your negativity. Just don’t take the kiddies.

Friday, November 18, 2016

MOVEABLE BEASTS

Opening today:




Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find ThemJ. K. Rowling’s 2001 book, proceeds from which benefitted Comic Relief, wasn’t a novel or even a short story. It was part of the Harry Potter universe, a supposed textbook at Hogwart’s, credited to a certain Newt Scamander, on the histories and habits of creatures of myth and folklore.

In her first produced screenplay, Rowling has a spun a tale inspired by this work. In the 1920s, Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York with a suitcase full of fanciful creatures—magically clown-car full of them; some of them, like the rhino-esque Erumpent, are gargantuan. Others, like the stick-insect-like Bowtruckle, are tiny. Others, like the Demiguise, are invisible. Others, like the endearing hedgehog-like Niffler, are compulsively acquisitive where small shiny objects are concerned.

And so on. It isn’t long, of course, before a number of these creatures have escaped the suitcase, and Scamander is faced with rounding them up. But of course, this being Rowling, that’s not all there is to the story. That’s not even half of the story.

The beasts, as it turns out, oddly aren’t the stars of Fantastic Beasts. The movie twists itself into a dauntingly complex, obsessively imagined saga involving the magical authorities of the U.S., including a sort of magicians’ FBI led by the scowling Graves (Colin Farrell). There’s Tina (Kate Waterston), an outcast magical investigator who first arrests, then allies herself with Scamander. There’s an anti-witchcraft sect led by a puritan (Samantha Morton) and staffed by her spooky foster kids. And there’s the object of Scamander’s visit to the Big Apple, a mysterious, destructive being called an “Obscurial.”

Directed by David Yates, who helmed four of the Harry Potter flicks, the movie is an elaborate and impeccable piece of big-studio craft. James Newton Howard’s music evokes an atmosphere of whimsy taken seriously, and the production design and special effects are impressively rich, despite the usual hint of CGI chilliness. As with the Harry Potter movies, I sometimes got a little lost in the plot, but I was consistently entertained.

Despite the handsomeness of the production, and despite Rowling’s infectious storytelling glee, it’s mostly to the credit of the actors that Fantastic Beasts cast its spell even on a muggle like me. Redmayne and Waterston are a delightfully sheepish hero and heroine. The soft-spoken Farrell, stalking around with his eyes on the ground in front of him, makes an intense yet elegantly assured heavy—despite his excellent American accent, he reminded me of James Mason in his darker mode.

But it’s Dan Fogler who really connects with the audience, as Jacob Kowalski, a “no-maj” (American slang for a muggle) baker who gets caught up in the adventure. The central function of Fogler’s character is to be our surrogate—to be astonished, and get things explained to him. But Fogler’s capacity for wonder makes him heroic, and when he’s stunned with love at first sight by Tina’s gorgeous sister Queenie (the singer Alison Sudol), she’s stunned right back. The two of them steal the movie, and that constitutes pretty grand larceny.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

FIVE ON THE FLOOR

With the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opening this weekend...

Monster-of-the-Week: …our honoree is a Quintaped…


…a hostile five-legged people eater, seen here as depicted in J.K. Rowling’s original book.

Monday, November 14, 2016

A CLEAR & DANGEROUS PRESENT

Your Humble Narrator was taking a lunchtime hike in Papago Park when I came across this in the trail…


Seemed ominous. I didn’t open it.

Friday, November 11, 2016

EAGLES AND MONSTERS AND GIRLS, OH MY!


Opening in the Valley this weekend:


The Eagle HuntressThough it’s full of engaging people using their real names, it’s a stretch to call this feature from director Otto Bell a documentary. Sure, it has a bit of National Geographic-style narration, spoken by Daisy Ridley, but it’s full of scenes that have clearly been staged, and the narrative may have been shaped dramatically in the macro sense, too. It’s more in the tradition of movies like Flaherty’s Nanook of the North or Merian Cooper’s Chang and Grass—cultural documentary techniques in the service of epic-romantic storytelling.

The setting is northwestern Mongolia, among the ethnic Kazakhs that live on the steppes. The heroine is Aisholpan, a teenage girl who takes up the culture’s ancient practice of hunting with eagles. In jolting, visually magnificent sequences, we see her capture a young raptor from its nest, train it, compete with it in a regional festival, and eventually go hunting with the bird for real.

She does all this with the enthusiastic help of her adoring father, but we’re also shown talking heads of some sour guys—one of them reminded me of Bill Murray—who don’t like the idea of a girl encroaching into a traditionally male activity. It’s hard to know to what extent the old-boy opposition to Aisholpan may have been exaggerated for dramatic purposes—the guys at the festival don’t seem all that upset by her—but it is effective.

In any case, it would be difficult not to delight in and admire the pink-cheeked, smiling Aisholpan, with her guileless confidence. If you, or maybe a daughter or niece or kid sister, could use a story of a woman breaking into a man’s field these days, this might be a movie to consider. But be forewarned, there are scenes of an eagle attacking a fox. The footage is electrifying, but for younger kids, or anyone sensitive to animal suffering, it may be tough to watch. 



The MonsterSingle mom Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is driving her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) down a disused stretch of road through a forest. They have an accident, and while they’re waiting for help, writer-director Bryan Bertino builds the tension and dread in excruciating increments. Very gradually, the two become aware they’re under siege in their car from the title character, an unexplained fangy abomination.
                                  
Gruesome and pretty grueling horrors ensue in this focused, fairy tale-like shocker. But they’re interspersed with flashbacks to Lizzy’s home life with the alcoholic, screwed-up Kathy that are so appalling (and convincing) that the gory monster stuff seems almost like a nice break by comparison.

Kazan (Elia’s granddaughter) and Ballentine are both impressive. Ballentine, who’s in her mid-teens, manages to suggest, without pushing it, that her awful environment has left her with a touch of arrested infantilism, so when she struggles to be brave in the face of irrational menace it’s particularly moving.

A note about that menace—he/she/it is played, blessedly, by a guy in a suit (Canadian stuntman Chris Webb), not by a sterile CGI ghost. It helps that it’s quite a good suit, and that Bertino deftly keeps it in the shadows most of the time. But even if it was a corny, fake-looking suit, I think the solidity, the presence, of the monster would give this creature feature a punch we rarely get to see anymore.
 
RIP to the great Leonard Cohen.

Is “Hallelujah” maybe the most beautiful song lyric of the 20th Century in English?