Friday, August 18, 2017


Opening in Arizona today:

MenasheYiddish movies used to be a thing; more than a hundred of them were made, mostly in Poland or the U.S., in the decades before the Second World War. After that, they became rarities—this indie drama is thought to be the first American feature made mostly in Yiddish since 1975’s drama Hester Street.

The title character is a Hasidic widower in his thirties who works in a grocery store in Brooklyn. He’s a genuinely loving father to his ten-year-old son Rieven, and doesn’t agree with the requirement that the boy go to live with his uncle and aunt until Menashe remarries, because of the belief that a child must not be raised by a single parent. He’s in no hurry to remarry, but he wants his kid back.

The simple story that ensues provides director and co-writer Joshua Z. Weinstein ample opportunity for a peek into a little-understood world. The movie was shot, not quite surreptitiously but with a very low profile, in the Hasidic enclave in Borough Park, Brooklyn, with a cast of non-actors. While this generates a neo-realist, almost verité atmosphere, Menashe transcends cultural anthropology. It’s a character study, brought to life by a gifted first-time star—Menashe Lustig, on whose life the story was loosely based.

Menashe is described as a schlimazel by his own family members, ungenerously but perhaps not inaccurately—he’s a nice fellow, but he’s chronically late, late with the rent, broke, and so forth. He insists on mild rebellion from his culture—not wearing the full Hasidic regalia on the street, for instance—in ways that nettle his family and do him no favors.

As played by Lustig, however, the character is also quietly, unsentimentally, even a little exasperatingly endearing. Lustig gives us a naturalistic portrait of the man’s humor, his guilt, his anger, his mischievousness. At one point Menashe’s disapproving brother-in-law says he’d like to see him become a mensch, but we in the audience see him this way already.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard—Samuel L. Jackson is the Hitman, Darius Kincaid, who specializes in killing rich, powerful scumbags; Ryan Reynolds is the Bodyguard, Michael Bryce, who escorts such scumbags to safety. Michael is recruited to get Darius, his longtime enemy, safely from prison in Manchester, England to The Hague, so that he can testify at the International Court of Justice against a brutal Belarusian dictator (Gary Oldman, who else?).

Apparently the imprisoned tyrant is pretty well-connected, as massive numbers of mercenaries try to kill Darius enroute. Hitman and Bodyguard bicker jocularly through mayhem, slaughter, even torture. Michael is persnickety, orderly, a planner, while Kincaid flies by the seat of his pants.

There's nothing new here, but strictly on its own terms, this cartoonishly overscaled buddy picture, directed by the Australian Patrick Hughes, is perfectly executed. Well, almost perfectly; it has the genre's annoying sentimental streak. And like most big-budget action flicks of the last few decades, it could be trimmed by at least ten minutes without losing anything it needs, but as it clocks in at just under two hours it doesn't quite wear out its welcome.

Yet despite the skill with which it's made, there is an imbalance to The Hitman's Bodyguard, in the unsavory contrast between the cutesy comedy and the shocking violence. When the dictator kills a man's family while he watches, and then minutes later we're back with Reynolds and Jackson and expected to crack up at their bantering, it's really jarring, and it doesn't feel like a deliberate black-comedy effect. It just feels like an adolescent sensibility, willing to use the sufferings of people under such regimes as a summer blockbuster plot point.

The leads keep us diverted from this ugliness, however. Reynolds has never been a favorite of mine, but he 's a good sport here, embracing the role of a prim foil to Jackson. That great actor has rarely gotten the chance to cut loose to quite the degree he does here. He seems to have a blast, singing fatalistic blues lyrics (there's a pretty good one written by Jackson himself, and reprised under the end credits) and cheerfully guffawing at the twists of fate that fling him about. Darius is out of his cell, so despite the carnage around him and the constant peril, anything else is gravy.

Thursday, August 17, 2017


Next Monday parts of the U.S. will be treated to the spectacle of a total eclipse of the sun. The great state of South Carolina, for its part, is remaining prudently cognizant of the possibility that this astronomical phenomenon could increase the likelihood of encountering a Lizard Man.

Specifically, this refers to...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...our honoree this week, The Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp, SC's scaly 7-foot-tall reptilian variation on Bigfoot, first reported in the 1980s. Here he is, as depicted by Tim Goheen in Columbia, SC's The State newspaper...

In anticipation of the eclipse, the South Carolina Emergency Management Division actually released this map detailing the spots where Lizard Folk have been sighted...

Consider yourself warned.

Monday, August 14, 2017


Last night The Wife and I betook ourselves to the Comerica Theatre in downtown Phoenix to see...

...Steve Martin and Martin Short, along with the bluegrass ensemble The Steep Canyon Rangers and the gifted pianist Jeff Babko. The comedy legends described it as a "See Them Before They're Dead" tour. I had seen Short, more than a decade ago, perform brilliantly with the Phoenix Symphony--he narrated Peter and the Wolf as Ed Grimly, Jiminy Glick, etc--but I had never seen Martin, and I admit I felt bragging rights after seeing him do the "King Tut" dance during the encore.

Much of the evening consisted of the two men trading companionable showbiz aspersions, and in that way it felt somehow reminiscent of what (I imagine) the famous "Rat Pack" shows in Vegas in the '60s must have been like--famous guys creating the sense that they're just clowning around off the cuff, mostly for their own amusement, in front of thousands of paying customers. It should also be noted--Martin wryly notes it during the show--that while the 72-year-old Martin's style has become relaxed and reserved, Short's is as physically abandoned (and daringly off-color) as ever. He's a crazy whirlwind.

As terrific as the top-billed performers were, however, it's possible that the most exciting part of the show was the Martin-less showcase number of the Steep Canyon Rangers, "Auden's Train." Put simply: Those guys can play.

RIP to the superb Joseph Bologna, passed on at 82. Despite starring in '70s fare like Made for Each Other, Cops & Robbers, Chapter Two and The Big Bus, Bologna's finest hour was in a supporting part: the hilariously virile, blustery "King" Kaiser in 1982's My Favorite Year. (He was also pretty good in 1984's underrated Blame it on Rio.) I was lucky enough to see Bologna live before he was dead, back in 2001 at the Orpheum Theatre here in Phoenix, opposite his wife Renee Taylor in a two-person show called If You Ever Leave Me...I'm Going With You!

Here's my pal Barry Graham on why he doesn't want to see Joe Arpaio, recently convicted of contempt, locked up himself. Vindictive and spiteful as I am, I nonetheless agree with Barry's reasoning here. This would not, however, make it any less outrageous if President Ubu Roi exercised his pardon power for the first time on Arpaio, as he suggested he might do today.

Friday, August 11, 2017


Opening this weekend:

The Nut Job 2: Nutty by NatureIt may be that Our Commander in Chief raised the profile of this movie a bit when, with the presidential gravitas we’ve come to expect from him, he reportedly referred to his fired FBI Director as a “nut job.” Not much less than executive action could have kept this sequel to 2014’s animated feature The Nut Job, a particularly drab and unrewarding kidflick, from flying under the radar. 

The original, which was based, in turn, on a much better 2005 cartoon short from Canada called Surly Squirrel, was about squirrels and other fuzzy little creatures from a city park raiding the nut shop across the street in the manner of a noir heist movie. It was promising idea, wrecked by the inclusion of a bunch of obligatory kid-movie elements, like an underdog hero and a love interest, which negated the caper-picture atmosphere.

The sequel finds alpha squirrel Surly (voiced, again, by Will Arnett) and his pals living easy on the hoard in the basement of the now closed and abandoned nut shop. When this lifetime supply is destroyed, the gang is forced to return to the hard but character-building work of foraging in the park, as Surly’s love interest squirrel (Katherine Heigl) had been urging all along. But when a greedy Mayor (Bobby Moynihan) decides to turn the park into a shoddy but profitable amusement park, the creatures band together to mount a resistance. 

I’m not suggesting anyone should rush straight to the multiplexes to see Nut Job 2, but for whatever it may be worth, it’s funnier than the original. It has some visual richness—there are scenes which recall everything from Caddyshack to Bill Peet’s wonderful children’s book Farewell to Shady Glade—and some truly crazy old-school cartoon slapstick.

The most memorable character from the first film, a pug voiced by Maya Rudolph, is back again, this time with a love interest (Bobby Cannavale). But the best new element is Mr. Feng, a feral white mouse voiced by Jackie Chan who leads a crack army of martial-artist mice. Toward the end, this rodent collective commandeers a HAZMAT suit, and brings it to wobbly life, something like the mice masquerading as a ghost that torment Sylvester in the classic 1954 Warner Brothers cartoon Claws for Alarm.

Stuff like this bumps Nut Job 2 up a few notches over its predecessor. If you find yourself at a matinee of it with your kid, you may get a few more chuckles than you expected.

Still in theaters:

Atomic Blonde--There's some enjoyment, certainly, in watching the stunning 41-year-old Charlize Theron beat the snot out of skeevy-looking guys. And you can get your fill of this pleasure from this espionage thriller, set in Berlin in 1989, against the backdrop of The Wall coming down. There are lots of fight scenes, intricately choreographed, superbly shot, and performed with a percussive, grunting-and-groaning violence by Theron and the heavies assaulting her, and these sequences go on for a long, long time. 

They often feel like fights in a stage play, with the actors "selling" their highly telegraphed moves with loud vocalizations. The combatants slow down as the fights progress and they get increasingly tired and injured. They're left bloody and dirty and scarred, and our heroine is forced to take ice baths to revive herself afterwards.

This is not to say, of course, that the action in this film is really much more plausible than that in any Bond or Jackie Chan movie. It's just stylized in a different way, and after a while the brutality of it becomes funny--you wonder what makes these people so doggedly determined to kill each other, what could possibly inspire such loyalty and commitment in the face of such savage punishment. 

But it is fun to watch. Many of the film's brawls and stalkings are ingeniously edited to '80s techno-pop hits, Bowie and Falco and Nena and the like, and as with the '70s stuff in the Guardians of the Galaxy flicks, it's a terrific, nostalgic playlist.

Theron plays Lorraine, sent by MI6 to investigate the murder of a British spy just as the East German government is unraveling, and to recover the McGuffin he was chasing, some sort of list that could restart the Cold War. This allows Theron to be spectacularly showcased, both in terms of her physical abandon and her nicotine and Stoli-charged ‘80s glamour. But there’s nothing especially distinctive about Lorraine as a character, and while I didn’t particularly notice any deficiencies in her British accent, the person with whom I saw the film did. 

The star, the fights and the music have to hold us through a story that's both complicated and somehow uninvolving. Lorraine's bosses tell her to trust no one, including Their Man in Berlin (James McAvoy). Other shady sorts include Sofia Boutella as a neophyte French operative, John Goodman as a CIA man, Til Schweiger as a contact in a watch shop, Eddie Marsan as the Soviet asset they're trying to smuggle into West Berlin, and Toby Jones and James Faulkner as the British Intelligence honchos.

That cast is a game and capable bunch, clearly, but the script, adapted from a graphic novel, doesn't release their full potential. And the director, stunt unit specialist David Leitch, doesn't find a way to unwind the plot twists coherently. The movie feels overlong to no notable benefit; stretches of it are entertaining, but it's ultimately unsatisfying.

Thursday, August 10, 2017


If you haven't been getting enough Vitamin MVM in your diet these days, there's a pretty big dose of Your Humble Narrator available online right now: My feature on the New Times blog about the remarkable Amanda Lipitz documentary STEP...

...opening this weekend in the Valley, and my short interview on Phoenix Magazine's "Desert Digest" blog with area food blogger Joanie Simon about her upcoming appearance on the Food Network show with the alliterative but troubling title Guy's Grocery Games.

RIP to the great Glen Campbell, passed on at 81. The Wife and I were lucky enough to see him perform a few songs some years ago at the Orpheum Theatre, as part of Alice Cooper's "Christmas Pudding" show. But I also vividly remember how ubiquitous he was in his heyday in the early '70s, when his beautiful, subtle, dramatic voice seemed to issue nonstop from every radio and TV, all day long.

With The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature opening tomorrow...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week let's give the nod to the Brobdingnagian squirrel...

...that briefly menaces our hero and heroine in 1960's The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, one of the more mundane monsters ever stop-motion animated by Ray Harryhausen.

Thursday, August 3, 2017


Happy August everybody! The great Alice Cooper adorns the cover of...

...the August edition of Phoenix Magazine, on the stands now, but can he truly be the star of the issue when it also features my "Four Corners" column on Mediterranean restaurants around the Valley? It's also the 2017 "Best of the Valley" issue, and a bunch of these opinionated picks were penned by Your Humble Narrator as well (as in previous years, no prizes for guessing which).

A couple of RIPs: To voice acting giant June Foray, passed on two months shy of her hundredth birthday. She was the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Natasha, Granny and Witch Hazel and Cindy Lou Who, among countless others. Any one of these would gain her admittance to the pantheon.

RIP also to Sam Shepard, passed on too young at 73. I saw his play The Unseen Hand performed outside in Ohio in 1984; one of my great theatrical experiences as an audience member. His work was so charged with beautiful language and hard but not ungenerous truths about America that it didn't matter when it was uneven or jaggedly constructed. He was a wonderful movie actor, too; I love him as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff,  and he didn't get enough credit for his commanding turn as the Ghost in Michael Almereyda' modern-dress Hamlet (2000).

In Shepard's honor...

Monster-of-the-Week:  ...this week let's acknowledge the Bog Beast from his play Back Bog Beast Bait, first staged at the American Place Theatre in 1971. Here's the Beast, as depicted in a poster for a later regional production...

...but perhaps we'd do better to let Shepard's stage directions paint his picture: "He is just as Maria described him. Two heads like a pig, he snorts and spits, lights come from his eyes. His skin is covered with slimy green moss." Alas, he's as hapless as any Shepard character: when the other characters prove "oblivious of the beast's presence" he "...crosses downstage center and faces the audience. The action happens around him. Somehow the beast seems helpless and alone in the situation. He exits."

Thursday, July 27, 2017


This week...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...the honor goes to a favorite, the title character of Larry Hagman's sole feature directing credit, 1972's Beware! The Blob!

This week something or other reminded me of that film, in which a group of Boy Scouts encounters a shapeless mass of slime.

Dick Van Patten played the scoutmaster.

Friday, July 21, 2017


Opening this weekend:

Dunkirk--In the hair-raising opening scenes of this historical epic from Christopher Nolan, a young English soldier tries to make it to the title town's beach alive, and just barely succeeds. Aside from surviving, all he really wants to do is find a peaceful place to evacuate his bowels. This is the sort of human detail that many war movies leave out, or treat jocularly, but realities like this are the core of Dunkirk.

Well-played by a newcomer named Fionn Whitehead, the character is listed in the credits as "Tommy," but his name hardly matters. He's an everyman--an everykid, really--and the other young soldiers he meets, played by Aneurin Barnard and One Direction's Harry Styles, are similarly generic. Nolan's script, clearly by design, offers no real characterization, presumably on the theory that backstory, in these circumstances, would be grotesquely irrelevant.

Instead, Nolan relies on his actors to fill in the stock figures. Since the cast includes such vets as Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, James D'Arcy and Tom Hardy, it need hardly be said that this proves a sound strategy.

Almost everything Nolan tries here seems to work. The movie focuses on the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of English and French soldiers, surrounded by the German army and threatened from the air by the Luftwaffe, across the Channel to England in late May and early June of 1940. Nolan cuts between three main strands, "The Mole," aka the breakwater where soldiers like Tommy waited days to be picked up by Navy vessels, "The Sea," in which we follow one of the "Little Ships of Dunkirk," the small civilian commercial and private crafts that took to the Channel to rescue the trapped men, and "The Air," in which we follow three RAF pilots in Spitfires trying to down German airplanes before they can bomb or strafe the evacuees.

The dialogue, sparing to begin with, battles the ambient noise, Hans Zimmer's brooding, gut-vibrating score, and (for us Yanks especially) thick accents, to the point that after a while I mostly gave up and just tried to follow what was going on by context. Similarly, because of the differing travel times required for the three modes of Channel crossing, Dunkirk employs another of those intricately non-chronological time-schemes, as in Momento, so that Nolan can use crosscutting to maximum emotional effect. And while emotional it certainly is, I must confess that in the final third of the film I found myself disoriented at times by where we were in this reticular narrative. But that may have just been me.

In any case, it didn't detract from the overall impact of Dunkirk, which at its best has something like the sweep and punch of the great silent war epics (I saw the film on an IMAX screen, by the way, and recommend this format if it's available to you). The performances, the incongruously gentle hues of Hoyte van Hoytema's exquisite cinematography, and the sustained assurance of Nolan's direction all combined to make this sad, terrifying yet ultimately uplifting story one of the more potent movie experiences I've had in a while.

Thursday, July 20, 2017


When you think of the great Georges in American history, obviously you start with George Washington, and move on to George Washington Carver and George S. Patton and George Gershwin, and then maybe George Cukor and George McGovern and George Takei...

But really, for horror movie geeks, the next full stop after The Father of Our Country is George A. Romero.

RIP to Romero, who directed the standard, and still the best, cannibal zombie movie, 1968's Night of the Living Dead, and its sequels starting with Dawn of the Dead, and other fascinating, morally complex horror pictures like The Crazies and Season of the Witch and Martin, and who joined the legions of the dead himself last weekend, too young at 77.

RIP, while we're at it, to the brilliant Martin Landau, departed at 89, whose long, varied career reached its pinnacle with his beautiful, hilarious, moving incarnation of the elderly Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994), for which he won an Oscar. RIP also to the lovable Canadian actor Harvey Atkin, probably best known as the hapless Morty in Meatballs, and as a judge in many episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, passed on at 74.

This week...

Monster-of-the-Week: tribute to Romero, our honoree is Fluffy, the monster in the crate... 1982's Creepshow, Romero's jolly collaboration with Stephen King in evoking the spirit of E.C.-style horror comics. Here's Fluffy as rendered by the late great Berni Wrightson in his comic adaptation of the flick...

Friday, July 14, 2017


Opening this weekend:

War for the Planet of the ApesThe war of the title, between apes and humans, has been going on for a few years as this, the third of the latter-day Apes movies, begins. It’s been long enough that human soldiers write sick jokes like “BEDTIME FOR BONZO” on their helmets, and that slang specific to the war has arisen, like “Donkey” for a turncoat ape who acts as a guide to the humans.

Caesar, still voiced and performed behind “motion capture” by Andy Serkis, is still in charge of the ape stronghold in what used to be Northern California. Initially a wise leader who acts only in defense of his fellow apes, he’s turned bitter and vengeful by a particularly outrageous human attack led by an ape-loathing Colonel (Woody Harrelson). Caesar leads a small band of apes, of diverse species, on a retaliatory mission.

Along the way, their band picks up another ape that talks, and a human that doesn’t. “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn), a zoo veteran, assumed that was his name because of how often he heard it. A little orphaned human girl (Amiah Miller) is given a name from a piece of Chevy wreckage: Nova. She’s been made mute by a virus that’s starting to afflict the human population, which the Colonel fears is a sign of a downward evolutionary slide for his species. Eventually, Caesar and his pals end up among the cruel Colonel’s prisoners.

I appreciated the nervy, barely-subtextual topical political anger under the material—the Colonel actually forces the enslaved apes to build a wall. There are religious overtones, too; Caesar seems overtly identified with Moses here. Harrelson has a gleeful good time playing the spiteful maniac Colonel, and once again Serkis gives a grave, scowling performance right through the CGI effects. Their big confrontation is the film’s dramatic high point.

This turbulent, overcast movie seemed stronger to me than 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but not as witty and exciting as 2011’s initial “reboot,” Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Both of the two sequels are pretty somber affairs; they aren’t without some humor, but neither had the same sense of nasty, subversive fun at seeing humankind humbled by our downtrodden simian cousins as Rise—or, indeed, as the 1968 original.

The apes, Caesar included, are really downtrodden here. They suffer mightily in the single-minded Colonel’s brutal captivity, and between this and the movie’s wintry atmosphere and its austere moral scheme—everything gets worse for everybody when Caesar becomes vengeful—it gets a bit grim and wearying. Ultimately, after some POW-escape thriller suspense, the apes do make a stand, and it brings this mature, reflective trilogy to a satisfying, well-earned climax, but it doesn’t give us this payoff easily. War is hell, you might say.

Thursday, July 13, 2017


With War for the Planet of the Apes opening this weekend...

Monster-of-the-Week: ape-oriented honoree seems in order, so how about...

...this version of King Kong, superbly realized by masterly stop-motion animator David Allen for a 1972 Volkswagen commercial.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


This Sunday afternoon No Festival Required shows Pamela Tom's fascinating documentary Tyrus... 1 p.m. at the Third Street Theater. Check out my review on The PHiX.

Friday, July 7, 2017


Opening this weekend:

Spider-Man: Homecoming--The latest Marvel feature depicts the "Web-Head" still in high school in Queens. Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) has taken part in one quick adventure with The Avengers, which we saw in last year's Captain America: Civil Wars, and now has an "internship" with Stark Industries.

Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) clearly sees that Peter is a good kid with superhero potential, but also that he's impetuous, impulsive, reckless, in short, a teenager. He hasn't yet internalized the lesson that with great power comes...well, you know.

So Stark gives Peter a high-tech, interactive Spidey suit to replace the homemade costume he's been wearing, but encourages him to remain a "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man" for the time being, rather than a full-fledged Avenger. Peter makes a pest of himself to Stark and his employees, but he also stumbles across a genuinely world-threatening criminal enterprise right in his own back yard, involving the sale of alien technology. Plus, there's the matter of his schoolwork, and the Academic Decathlon team, and the girl he has a crush on.

What ensues is a lively, fast-moving hybrid of superhero action saga and teenage angst comedy. The two tones don't always gel perfectly, but this slight unevenness only adds to the film's loose, free-swinging feel. After several years of curmudgeonly grumbling about turgid, apocalyptic, buildings-crumbling-to-rubble superhero flicks, I'm glad to admit that I've wholeheartedly enjoyed the last three big releases in that line: Dr. Strange, DC's Wonder Woman, and this one.

Director Jon Watts, working from a script by a gaggle including Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, serves up some memorable grand-scale set-pieces, among them one at the Washington Monument and one on the Staten Island Ferry, that feel epic without losing a sense of playful, colorful wit. And the cast is good company.

Holland hits the right note as Peter, callow and heartfelt but light-footed. Downey has played a beleaguered, glamorous father figure already, opposite Anton Yelchin in  2007's Charlie Bartlett; he did it beautifully then, and he does it beautifully here. Zendaya only gets a little to do as Peter's socially conscious classmate, but she's set up nicely for future films. And Marisa Tomei is charmingly showcased as Aunt May, re-conceived as a sexy young "cool" Aunt.

But the real reason that even somebody who wasn't particularly a fan of this sort of thing might consider Spider-Man: Homecoming is Michael Keaton. Returning to comic book movies 28 years after Batman, he brings real bite and originality to the role of Adrian Toomes aka The Vulture, a startlingly no-nonsense, blue-collar mastermind who seems almost sheepish about the trappings of supervilliany. 

Keaton plays the role quietly, with no zany, over-the-top antics, but with a clear-eyed intelligence and directness that makes his menace unusually authoritative. When he levels a threat, he isn't gloating or grandstanding; he honestly wants Spider-Man to back off, but you never doubt that it's a final warning. He makes pragmatism and sanity scary.

Thursday, July 6, 2017


Opening this weekend is Spider-Man: Homecoming, featuring Michael Keaton as one of the great Spider-Man adversaries, The Vulture. So...

Monster-of-the-Week: seems appropriate to honor the title character of the 1967 British horror pic The Vulture... which Broderick Crawford and others run afoul of a giant vulture-monster. The menace from this bad-movie classic has been Monster-of-the-Week previously, but this time I found this rather awesome, somehow troubling video in which Crawford's big encounter with the V. is repeated over and over...

Tuesday, July 4, 2017


A safe and happy Independence Day to all!

Today also qualifies as a Taco Tuesday, so...

...check out the July issue of Phoenix Magazine for my "Four Corners" column on Valley taco joints. It's on the stands now, or you can read it here.

I really enjoyed chowing my way through this one.

Friday, June 30, 2017


Opening wide in the Valley this week:

The HeroLast Friday, in my review of The Exception, I asked if any actor since Paul Newman has aged as well as Christopher Plummer. I meant the question rhetorically, but if somebody had countered it by suggesting Sam Elliot, I would have had to admit that, yeah, even allowing for the fact that he’s more than a decade younger than Plummer, the ol’ cowpoke is aging pretty spectacularly.

Pretty much the walking definition of the word “lanky,” Elliot has been around since the late ‘60s—his feature debut was a small role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He did studly, lackadaisical leading-man work in stuff like Frogs (1972) and the underrated Lifeguard (1976) and copious TV, including a season on Mission: Impossible. In the ‘80s, he appeared in many TV-movie and mini-series westerns, and the older he’s gotten—and the bushier his mustache has gotten—the more he seems like he was born for that genre.

He plays the title character in this drama. Or rather, he plays the actor who played the title character, in the only movie of his career, he says, that he’s proud of.

Lee Hayden is a has-been, pothead western movie and TV star. His career these days consists mostly of tedious voice-over work, in his beautiful deep rumble, for barbeque sauce commercials. Long divorced, he’s semi-estranged from his ex (Katharine Ross) and daughter (Krysten Ritter), but he has a vaguely father-son relationship with his washed-up-actor pot dealer (Nick Offerman), and while he’s underemployed, bored and not without regrets, his life isn’t unpleasant.

Or, rather, it would be pleasant, if it weren’t for that pesky pancreatic cancer diagnosis.

Directed by Brett Haley from a script he wrote with Marc Basch, The Hero traces how Lee’s condition, which he initially hides from his loved ones—he keeps coming up to the brink of telling them, and then chickening out—haunts his spaghetti-western-style dreams. We’re also shown his romance with the pearlescent Charlotte (Laura Prepon), around half his age, who shows up at the dealer’s house and takes a shine to Lee. She’s his date at a dinner at which he is given a life-achievement award, and from which a video of his drug-fueled acceptance speech “goes viral.” He suddenly, to his great confusion, finds himself back on the pop-culture radar.

Charlotte’s not the sort of woman who turns up every day, and Lee’s life isn’t like most people’s lives. For a while, I couldn’t help but wonder how I was supposed to feel too sorry for a guy who, at 71, gets to live in a lovely beach house, be given life achievement awards and go to bed with Laura Prepon. But of course that’s the point. Age and illness have a way of screwing up people’s lives just about the time they’re starting to learn how to live them properly—to know what’s really important.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the effortless grace of Elliot’s work here on the grounds that he’s “just playing himself.” First of all, he isn’t—Elliot has done plenty of voice-overs, certainly, but he’s never qualified as a has-been. If anything, he’s become more relevant as he’s gotten older. Admittedly, he’s sometimes been used semi-ironically—a slice of ‘70s beefcake that aged unusually well into a sort of hunk emeritus in films like The Big Lebowski and Up in the Air. In his one brief scene in 2015’s Grandma, however, he showed he could go deeper than this, giving a startlingly focused, emotional performance, maybe the best of his career.

Or, rather, maybe the best of his career until The Hero. Haley’s directorial touch is low-key, but the tension between Elliot’s iconic cowboy image and the character’s fear and sadness, his intense desire to live longer, is moving.

Thursday, June 29, 2017


After a run at Harkins Camelview, Brett Haley’s touching drama The Hero, starring Sam Elliot, opens wide on a few more Valley screens this weekend. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …our honoree this week is the man-eating frog featured in the poster art for 1972’s Frogs

…as well as on the cover of Famous Monsters of Filmland #91…

Elliot played the hunky hero, with the very Sam-Elliot-ish name of “Pickett Smith,” in this silly but nonetheless sort of creepy film. It’s about a murder spree by various crawly creatures against a family of rich Florida cretins led by obtuse patriarch Ray Milland. Even though, as in Aristophanes, they’re the title characters, the amphibians in question (most them actually played by burly cane toads) just aren’t very threatening—all they really seem able to do is stare reproachfully at the humans while spiders, snakes, alligators and the like do the actual killing.

I remember feeling disappointed, as a kid, when I realized that the frog from the ad, capable of swallowing a human whole, wasn’t in the film—not, that is, until the very end of the end credits, when he appears in cartoon form:

Friday, June 23, 2017


Opening this week:

The ExceptionHas any actor since Paul Newman aged as well as Christopher Plummer? He seems to get more majestic-looking every year, and he has more wry, mischievous charm now than he did as a young man, by quite a large margin.

Having played the aged, gulled Tolstoy in 2009’s The Last Station, he now plays another washed-up historical figure, Kaiser Wilhelm II, in this roiling yarn, the feature debut of Brit stage director David Leveaux. Based on Alan Judd’s novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss, it’s set near the beginning of WWII in the Netherlands, where Wilhelm has been living in comfortable exile with his wife, the Princess Hermine (Janet McTeer), feeding ducks, chopping wood and brooding over the loss of, you know, WWI and his throne.

The Nazis, who have just invaded the Netherlands, loathe and mistrust the Kaiser, but aren’t quite ready to eliminate a relic for whom the German people retain a fondness. So they send a young SS Captain, Brandt (Jai Courtney), disgraced by an earlier act of conscience, on the dead-end assignment of guarding the old man against the possibility—a long shot, he’s sure—of an assassination attempt.

As he glumly enters the Kaiser’s manse, Brandt catches sight of a darkly beautiful housemaid, Mieke (Lily James). She catches sight of him right back, and the two immediately develop one of those unspoken sexual passions that arise so conveniently in tales of this sort. As their intimacy increases and he learns, among other secrets, that Mieke is Jewish, Brandt’s already tenuous loyalty to the Reich is tested.

For stretches The Exception seems like potent moral drama, and for other stretches it seems outrageous, on the borderline of camp, like a sanitized prequel to The Night Porter. Either way, though, it’s a tense thriller. I found myself caring for these people whether their plight was plausible or not.

All of the acting is strong, from the intelligent hunk Courtney to James with her angry erotic avidity to McTeer’s pitiful Princess to Ben Daniels as Wilhelm’s sad, loyal aide to Mark Dexter as a vexed Gestapo man. But the anchor is Plummer, as the handsome, irrelevantly regal old Wilhelm, trying without success to mask his bitterness and guilt behind a rueful, chuckling humor.

Indeed, the only performance quite as vivid as Plummer’s comes from Eddie Marsan in the small role of Himmler, who drops by with a proposal for the Kaiser. The ever-resourceful Marsan’s portrait is deeply repellent and terrifying—a murmuring, milquetoast monster.

Thursday, June 22, 2017


Another sad pop-culture farewell this week: RIP to Stephen Furst, immortal as "Flounder" in Animal House but also remembered for his regular roles on St. Elsewhere and Babylon 5. So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...I had considered here his memorable performance in a key role (the title role, really) in the neglected 1980 horror movie The Unseen...

...but his character, terrifying (and also peculiarly likable) though he is, doesn't really qualify as a "monster," at least not in the sense I use it here. Instead...'s a Zarg, from an episode of Babylon 5.

Friday, June 16, 2017


Opening this week:

47 Meters Down--Sisters Kate (Claire Holt) and Lisa (Mandy Moore) are on vacation in Mexico. Lisa has recently been dumped, and wants to post pictures online that will make her ex jealous, so she lets the more adventurous Kate talk her into diving in a shark cage.

You can guess how this works out. The winch and crane break off from the decrepit-looking old boat, and the cage plunges to the title depth, where it comes to rest on the ocean floor. The scruffy captain (Matthew Modine) tells the sisters by radio to stay put, as swimming to the surface would risk the bends, always assuming they weren't devoured on the way up by the various great white sharks covetously cruising around the cage. Help, he assures them, is on the way.

It need hardly be said that the rescue operation does not go smoothly. Claustrophobic terror, in the manner of 2010's Buried, and grueling survival measures ensue. As with last year's shark siege melodrama The Shallows, an unseemly amount of the movie consists of women keening in panic and pain.

But 47 Meters Down, directed by Johannes Roberts, is better than The Shallows. It doesn't have Blake Lively and her impressive all-but-one-woman-show appeal, and it doesn't have a scene-stealing seagull, but it also isn't marred by a ridiculously corny, over-the-top action picture finale. It feels plausible. Moore and Holt are touching in their sisterly support of each other, and in their guileless delivery of the simple, declarative lines: "I'm so scared!" "The shark almost got me!"

The special effects are preferable, too. The great whites, with their disconsolate, thuggish faces, come across a little more convincingly than Blake Lively's enemy in The Shallows. But only a little more. 47 Meters Down is watchable, even ingenious at times. But in the end, it lands alongside The Shallows in the same large category: Shark Movies That Just Aren't Jaws.

All Eyez on Me--The role of Tupac Shakur in this biopic is played by a newcomer named Demetrius Shipp, Jr. While Shipp's features don't quite have Shakur's weirdly Old-Masters-like beauty, the resemblance is nonetheless striking, and he's a relaxed, natural actor with a likable manner. It's a creditable debut in what could easily have seemed like a no-win role.

He's no Tupac, however. He has none of the rapper's electrically vivid presence and magnetism. But maybe that was asking too much. Under the circumstances, it's an achievement simply that he doesn't disgrace himself, that he maintains the audience's sympathy.

The movie, directed by Benny Boom, is a conventional show-biz chronicle history of the short, prolific career and appallingly violence-filled life of Shakur, who was murdered in Las Vegas in 1996 at the age of 25. We get his unstable childhood among the Black Panthers, his turbulent but intense bond with his mother Alfeni (the terrific Danai Gurira), his scary youth in Baltimore and Oakland, his early success with Digital Underground, his rise as a solo artist and movie star, the rape charge, the prison term, the partnering with Suge Knight and Death Row Records, the feud with Biggie, and so forth.

The movie doesn't quite sanitize Shakur; his amusement at Knight's brutality to others, for instance, is chilling. Still, through it all, he is depicted as, to quote one of his favorite writers, a man more sinned against than sinning. I'm not remotely qualified to say if this is fair or not, I can only say that All Eyez on Me, though possibly a hair overlong, is absorbing and enjoyable on its own terms. And the music on the soundtrack, both of Shakur and others, demonstrates how anemic is most of the stuff that currently passes for hip-hop on the radio.

Shakur was a furiously angry young man. He was also a smashingly talented, riveting performer, and the evidence of his few film roles suggests that he could have become a great movie actor as well. Because he died young, he's fixed, like James Dean, in tragic radiance. But who knows if he would have kept it?

On the other hand, who cares? Had he survived, he would be pushing 50. Maybe he would have sold out and become happy; he might be on his twelfth season in the cast of Law and Order by now. Or he might have kept his social anger but found a way to channel it productively. Or a little of both. Any of the above would be better than what happened.

Thursday, June 15, 2017


RIP to the wonderful, deadpan Adam West, passed on at the surprising age of 88, older, somehow, than he seemed. I never met him, even though I was, oddly, in the same movie as him: The Best Movie Ever Made, aka Battle for the Planet of Cheese, Chris Lamont and Steve Bencich's soul-stirring epic of 1994. I played some sort of galactic big-shot, and West appeared very briefly as himself, shamelessly plugging his memoir Back to the Batcave.

West was, also, among my first heroes when I was very small, watching Batman in its original run. The character's virtuousness was absurd, but also unmistakably appealing, and I aspired to it; as glamorous as the show's bizarre, obsessive villains were, The Caped Crusader's primly civic-minded gestalt was curiously preferable to them, and the enthusiastic pedantry of West's line readings had a lot to do with this.


Monster-of-the-Week: West's honor, this week the nod goes to...

...the "Neosaurus," a dubious genus of dinosaur that Egghead (Vincent Price) plans to hatch in the Batman episode "How to Hatch a Dinosaur."

If any proof is required of what a trouper West was, in this episode he had to authoritatively utter the line: "You know your Neosauruses well, Robin. Peanut butter sandwiches it is!"

Friday, June 9, 2017


Opening this week:

The MummyAfter the usual Universal logo at the start of this movie, we're shown a second, spooky logo informing us that it's part of the "Dark Universe." This seems to be the studio's attempt to start its own franchise-crossing brand in the style of DC or Marvel, drawing on its peerless stable of iconic monsters.

This is fair enough, considering that, with its multi-monster free-for-alls of the '40s like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and House of Dracula, Universal was overlapping its properties before anyone else. There are fun possibilities in the "Dark Universe" notion, but it's off to an inauspicious start with this first salvo, no less than the fourth film to go by the title The Mummy.

While last week's big opening involved a female superhero, this week's has a female monster, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), a lethal Egyptian princess who made a deal with Set for power, committed a bunch of murders, and got mummified and buried alive, far from Egypt, for her trouble. Centuries later, two fortune hunters (Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson) from the U.S. military and an English archaeologist (Annabelle Wallis) find her tomb in Iraq, and, like any self-respecting cultural imperialists, promptly schlep her sarcophagus to England. The desiccated deadly damsel is of course awakened, and starts causing trouble, with the idea of making Cruise her Set-possesed consort.

This movie, directed by Alex Kurtzman, starts out really badly. Even setting aside how unsavory it feels to try to make raffish buddy-picture heroes out of archaeological profiteers in present-day Iraq, the attempt to create a jocular rapport between Cruise and Johnson falls embarrassingly flat on its own terms. And the attempt to generate a roguish romantic tension between Cruise and Wallis plays no better. Hope and Crosby and Dorothy Lamour these people aren't; they don't even rise to the level of Dick Foran, Wallace Ford and Peggy Moran in The Mummy's Hand, from Universal in 1940.

I make these comparisons, by which Cruise et al suffer, not to be ungenerous but because almost everything in this expensive, elaborately-produced movie feels like a hyped-up, computer-enhanced version of something from a cheaper, less elaborate, better old movie. One minute you're reminded of Valerie Leon in Blood From the Mummy's Tomb, and the next of the crows from the Omen flicks, and then of the zombie shockers, and then of Renfield's rat army in Dracula, and then of Griffin Dunne's chatty putrefying ghost in An American Werewolf in London, and so on. But this effect doesn't make this Mummy a gripping repurposing of these tropes—it makes you want to go home and watch the movies of which it reminds you.

The Mummy gets a little more engaging, at least for a while, when it gets to England and Ahmanet starts reeling around sucking the life-force out of hapless victims, because it's more of a conventional monster picture. But pretty soon she and Cruise are detained in an underground complex run by a mysterious scientist (Russell Crowe), and more gratuitous plot twists are piled on. Presumably this is in service of establishing the "Dark Universe" mythos for future films, but mostly it just dilutes whatever momentum the story was starting to develop.

None of these complaints would amount to much, of course, if The Mummy could lay claim to any true scariness. But there isn't one scene in which I can recall being drawn into any authentic, atmospheric dread—as with Alien: Covenant a few weeks ago, everything's too virtual, to insubstantial, too lacking in tactility.

It should be said, though, that the closest the movie gets to any genuine chills is in the performance of  Sofia Boutella as the lithe, malignant, slyly smiling Ahmanet. Boutella was probably the best thing about last year's Star Trek: Beyond, and she's definitely the best thing about this movie.