Sunday, December 31, 2017


Time once again for that grandly unimportant end of the year tradition: The Top Ten Movies List. Here are the ten movies that, at the moment, seem most deserving of recognition:

10. The Big Sick--Kumail Najiani plays a Pakistani-American stand-up comic and Uber driver in Chicago. His white grad student girlfriend Emily (Zoe Kazan) breaks up with him when she learns that he hasn't told his strictly traditional family about her (they want to arrange a Pakistani bride for him). Then when Emily becomes gravely ill, Kumail bonds with her parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) while she's in a medically-induced coma. Directed with a light but warm touch by Michael Showalter from a script by Nanjiani and his real-life wife Emily Gordon, this gentle, low-key comedy-drama left me feeling much better. (I never got around to running a review of it on the blog, however; I promise I'll be more brief with the rest of my selections.)

9. The DisasterArtist--James Franco gives the performance of his career so far as Tommy Wiseau in this comedy about the making of The Room. This movie seems to work even for people who have never seen Wiseau's bad-movie classic.

8. Colossal--Anne Hathaway gives one of her best performances in Nacho Vigalondo's brilliant expansion of the possibilities of the giant-monster picture.

7. The Lego Batman Movie--It's more coherent than some of the superhero flicks it sends up, and it's certainly far funnier.

6. Loving Vincent--Supposedly the first fully painted animated movie, this exploration of Van Gogh's death is both visually ravishing and also a watchable and touching drama.

5. Trophy--Not everyone will be able to watch this graphic examination of big-game trophy hunting, but it isn't just sensationalism; there's a real effort to get at the psychology (and politics) underlying this horror.

4. Step--It's almost impossible to watch this documentary about the members of the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women and not feel invested in their futures. 

3. The Shape ofWater--Just your basic amphibious-man-meets-girl story from Guillermo del Toro. Get out your hankies.

2. Get Out--Jordan Peele's horror melodrama about race as a hijack-able commodity is dazzlingly imaginative yet traditional.

1. The Lovers--Hardly anyone seemed to pay attention to this ingenious comedy about infidelity folded back onto itself, so I think I'll let it top my list.

On the other hand, here are ten other movies that could have found a place on the list:

I, Tonya
Kong: Skull Island
Wonder Woman
Happy Death Day
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Molly’s Game
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Lady Bird

Here are some more that didn't seem like complete wastes of time:

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Only the Brave, The Trip to Spain, The Post, Darkest HourChurchillThe Greatest ShowmanStar Wars: The Last JediMurder on the Orient Express, LoganThor: Ragnarok, DunkirkWar for the Planet of the ApesThe HeroThe ExceptionAll Eyez on Me, Stronger, It,  FerdinandJeremiah Tower: The Last MagnificentWilson.

And let's not forget the Phoenix Film Critics Society 2017 award winners, notably Best Picture winner The Shape of Water.

A Safe and Happy New Year to all from Less Hat, Moorhead!

Thursday, December 28, 2017


RIP to Heather Menzies, passed on too young at 68. She's most remembered as one of the Von Trapp kids in The Sound of Music, but I tend to remember her, gloriously bespectacled, as the daughter of mad scientist Strother Martin, in 1973's Sssssss...


Monssssssster-of-the-Week: ...our honoree is this guy... whose plight poor Heather is appalled in that film. He's a victim of dad's crazed attempts to turn people into snakes, sold into bondage as a sideshow attraction.

Monday, December 25, 2017


Merry Christmas to everybody!

If you're a bit burned out on all the standard Christmas classics, I may have a new selection for you: This past Friday my film historian pal Richard hosted his annual Christmas party/movie night, and the feature selection was 1950's Trail of Robin Hood...

...a Roy Rogers western in ghastly "Trucolor" from Republic. The story concerns, I kid you not, crooked Christmas tree growers poaching tannenbaums off of Roy's pal Jack Holt's tree farm, because Holt wants to sell the trees cheap to needy families, and his competitors are afraid he'll drive down prices.

A bunch of other cowboy stars, like Rocky Lane, Kermit Maynard, William Farnum, Ray "Crash" Corrigan, Tom Tyler and Rex Allen, among others, show up as themselves to help Roy get Holt's trees to market. Needless to say, Roy is also aided by Trigger, here billed second in the credits as "The Smartest Horse in the Movies," and by his tireless dog Bullet.

It was awesome, and as Richard pointed out, it's a great illustration of how progressive the values championed by old school western programmers often tended to be: Evil businessmen or bankers versus heroes who stuck up for ordinary people.  Roy is even bilingual in this one, singing one verse of a wonderful cowboy swing song in Spanish.

One more Christmas weekend opening:

Molly's Game--Aaron Sorkin of A Few Good Men and The West Wing makes his feature directorial debut with this intriguing drama, which he also scripted in his usual fast-talking manner. It's based on a memoir by Molly Bloom, not the Joyce heroine but the hostess of insanely high-stakes celebrity poker games in L.A. and New York during the first decade of this century.

Her games were legal, until, inevitably, she crossed the line by taking a "rake," and they weren't anymore. She was busted by the feds, but refused to sing for them; against the prospect of years in prison, she clung to her personal and professional discretion.

It's a pretty engrossing story, and Sorkin's dialogue steers it briskly through its twists. The glue that holds the picture together, however, is the lead performance. Ably supported by Idris Elba as her standoffish lawyer and Kevin Costner as her standoffish Dad, Jessica Chastain has the best role so far of her young career, as a complex and flawed but ultimately brave and ethical woman who might have been referred to, in an earlier age of movies, as a "stand-up dame."

Friday, December 22, 2017


Opening this weekend:

DownsizingScientists have figured out how to shrink humans down to five inches tall. The discovery, which has obvious environmental advantages, is promptly commercialized, with people enticed to "downsize" into tiny planned communities where they can now afford a luxurious lifestyle.

Our Midwestern  everyman hero Matt Damon undergoes the irreversible process, regrets it at once, then gradually finds renewed purpose in his new home in New Mexico through his connection with a one-legged Vietnamese cleaning lady (Hong Chau) who was shrunk against her will for her dissident activities back home. He also forms a sort of bond with his neighbor (Christoph Waltz), a grinning Serb hustler who, if he wasn't shady enough already, hangs out with Udo Kier.

This neo-Swiftian satire is perhaps the most ambitious effort yet from the always-interesting Alexander Payne. He takes his time, working out the process and its implications in deadpan detail (although the obvious issues of civil-rights vulnerability for downsized people are not really addressed). This fully-imagined atmosphere extends to the characters. Damon, who wanted to be a doctor, ended up some sort of workplace physical therapist for Omaha Steakhouse–a perfect American intersection of frustrated aspiration, good intentions and barely-conscious consumption.

Downsizing is full of brilliant touches like that. But I'm not sure it amounts to much more than the sum of those brilliant touches, and of some fine performances, especially by Damon, Hong Chau and the ever-freaky Waltz.

The movie dawdles a bit, and Payne can't quite seem to bring it the emotional payoff he's trying for. Even so, this one of the more fascinating and substantial movies I've seen all year. I'll confess, however, that I'm too much of a philistine, and was too much a fan of Dr. Cyclops and Attack of the Puppet People and The Incredible Shrinking Man not to hope that a tarantula or a Gila monster might invade Damon's subdivision and liven things up.

The Greatest ShowmanUnderstatement is strained by referring to this musical as “loosely based” on the life of P.T. Barnum. But then, Barnum wasn’t big on understatement, and it’s likely that nobody would appreciate this portrait of the founder of American pop culture more than Barnum himself.

Hugh Jackman plays the celebrated mid-19th century purveyor of anomalies, human and otherwise, genuine and “humbug,” the promoter of the first American tour of “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind, and the eventual co-founder of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus (and thus, as someone pointed out to me recently, of about a century and a half of unnecessary animal suffering). He’s characterized here not as an exploiter both of disadvantaged people and of unseemly public curiosity, but as a raffish yet open-hearted champion of misfits.

This may not be entirely unfair. Barnum was, for instance, a fairly ardent abolitionist, and a (carefully self-promoting) philanthropist, a capable and progressive mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and an early benefactor of Tufts University. His highly entertaining 1869 memoir Struggles and Triumphs (which the filmmakers could have ransacked for far more colorful episodes than they have), for all its self-congratulation expertly passed off as modesty, nonetheless suggests a decent, well-meaning fellow.

Still, you have to check your sense of period context at the door to accept this movie’s vision of Barnum, or of his time. Screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon try to give texture by showing him fold to social pressure here and there, but still, under his influence in this movie, even interracial romance can flourish—between Barnum’s junior partner Zac Efron and lovely aerialist Zendaya—and the human oddities find an empowering community under his roof and stand up to the bigots.

If you can tune yourself into this rosy view, it's very possible to enjoy the film. Jackman is a seamlessly proficient song-and-dance man here. The tunes, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of La La Land, could be a bit more varied, but director Michael Gracey and choreographer Ashley Wallen, both young Australians, bring ingenuity and verve to the staging, as in an imaginative duet between Jackman and Efron involving shot glasses.

Michelle Williams doesn't have to do much more than look serenely beautiful as Mrs. B, but the two Barnum daughters seem, creepily, not to age; when Barnum returns from a trip and says "You got so big" to one of them he seems to be trying to convince himself. Rebecca Ferguson has a regal presence as Jenny Lind, but the real standout in the cast is Broadway vet Keala Settle as Lettie Lutz the Bearded Lady, who lets it rip vocally in the movie's one really rousing and memorable song, "This Is Us," a proud anthem to letting your freak flag fly.

I, TonyaBased on "irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly," this docudrama retells the 1994 scandal from the world of big-time figure skating. In case you're lucky enough to have forgotten: The U.S. champ Harding's moronic main squeeze Gillooly and some even more imbecilic associates conspired to wack the skating champ's biggest American rival, Nancy Kerrigan, in the leg to ensure Harding victory at the Lillehammer Olympics. It didn't work out.

Harding may or may not have known, or known much, about the plot (she eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge to avoid jail time), but in any case her career was destroyed. The movie efficiently places this squalid, embarrassing story in the context of Harding's abusive white-trash background with her crazed, furious mother LaVona Golden, played by Allison Janney with her usual crisp acerbity. It also gets at some of the class-based ugliness in the skating world. Through it all, that opening disclaimer conveniently excuses the filmmakers from having to pass judgment on the characters.

Directed by Craig Gillespie from a script by Steven Rogers, it's a watchable, well-acted picture overall, but it contains a classic performance. Margot Robbie somehow makes Tonya Harding both a comic and a tragic figure, all the while never milking the audience for pity. Her face in the mirror in the film’s wordless emotional climax is devastating—it reminded me, no kidding, of Falconetti’s facial close-ups in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc.

Pitch Perfect 3The Barden Bellas, now out of college and down on their luck, reunite for a USO tour, and have wacky adventures across southern Europe. They’re competing with other acts on the tour, including an all-women rock band called “Evermoist,” to land a spot opening for DJ Khaled (who amusingly plays himself), and of course there’s some undemanding romance and even a bit of facetious action-movie peril.

This is the broadest, silliest and easily the weakest of the three flicks about the a cappella ensemble. But it’s nonetheless pleasant to sit through its brief running time. The young actresses, led by Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson, are still adorable and funny, and there’s some enjoyable music, although the film could have done with an extra number or two at the expense of some dumb slapstick.

The first Pitch Perfect was charming, and has proven surprisingly re-watchable in TV reruns. The sequels are increasingly laborious, but they both retained enough of the original’s merits to be fun. Judging from PP3, I don’t think this is further sustainable—it’s time to sing a fond aca-adieu to the series.

Thursday, December 21, 2017


Merry Christmas next Monday everyone!

The Wife...

Monster-of-the-Week: photographic evidence of this Yeti... our local Target. The seasonal spirit is upon him; squeeze his paw and he sings a gruff but heartfelt rendition of "Winter Wonderland."

Friday, December 15, 2017


Opening this week:

Star Wars: The Last Jedi--After a lively space battle at the opening to get us warmed up, the latest from the franchise picks up right where The Force Awakens left off. Scavenger-turned-warrior Rey (Daisy Ridley) has caught up with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), now a recluse on a windswept island on some distant planet. She's been sent by his sister Leia (Carrie Fisher) to fetch him back into the struggle between The Resistance and the brutal "First Order."

While she pleads with Luke to get back in the game, Rey is also in psychic touch with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Leia and Han Solo's wayward son who is still in the service of the dreadful First Order overlord Snoke (Andy Serkis). Elsewhere in that galaxy far, far away, the last ragged remnant of the Resistance is trying to elude the First Order's ships, with the help of a desperate plan by former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), his new friend Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), hotheaded space ace Poe (Oscar Isaac) and others. This involves a detour to a Monte-Carlo-like casino planet, and then sneaking aboard the First Order's warship, none of which goes smoothly.

As with The Force Awakens, much of the pleasure in The Last Jedi comes from the attractively non-generic actors, saddled with cringe-inducing dialogue but at least allowed some welcome freedom to be funny at times. Through the character of the commoner heroine Rey, the story also takes a mild stab at acknowledging the dynastic bias that has been such a persistent part of the Star Wars series, and the attitudes on class that it would seem to imply. These movies are more fixated on the inherent importance of bloodlines than a documentary on the Royal Family, and the treatment of the revelations about Rey's lineage would have seemed quaint in the '30s.

But much amusement also comes, as with all Star Wars movies, from the marginal verisimilitude--such casually observed fauna as the elephant-seal/dinosaur-like creatures which provide Luke with sustenance, and the toad-like maintenance workers that keep up his domicile. The obligatory adorable creatures this time, by the way, are the porgs, beakless, wide-eyed seabirds with nesting-doll-shaped bodies.

I liked all of this, and I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Jedi. But as so often with big blockbuster movies it seemed too long to me. Since this is such a perennial cranky complaint from me, I was relieved to hear others saying the same as I left the screening. It isn't just a question of a tired backside; director Rian Johnson, to whom the script is solely credited, puts together one of those big climatic finales typical of the series, crosscutting between several strands of action and building to a noble act of self-sacrifice, and turns out it's not the end at all. There's another whole act still to go, and another big climactic confrontation. And a very good confrontation it is, but by then we've had our emotional release. And also, our backsides are tired.

Despite the Gotterdammerung title, The Last Jedi is not slated to be the last of this Star Wars trilogy. It was, alas, the final film of Carrie Fisher, who has an imperturbably majestic mien here, and whose absence will be sorely felt in the series.

Even so, the best thing about the movie is Hamill. As Luke in the original films, he was sweet and likable but callow to the point of insubstantial; it was like Richie Cunningham at the center of a space opera. In The Last Jedi, with his scraggly hair and graying beard, his raspy voice and haunted, haggard eyes, he has a bearing that can fairly be called Shakespearean.

Ferdinand--Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios are bravely opening this animated feature for kids the same weekend as The Last Jedi. Maybe the theory is that they'll get the spillover audiences if the Star Wars flick sells out.

In any case, it's a sweet film. It's an adaptation of Munro Leaf's 1936 children's book, with superb illustrations by Robert Lawson, about the gentle-souled bull in Spain who doesn't want to fight, he just wants to sit under his favorite cork tree and smell the flowers. Leaf and Lawson's tiny, beautiful classic (sometimes condemned for its hero's nonviolent nature) was already turned into a very faithful, Oscar-winning 8-minute cartoon short by Disney, Ferdinand the Bull, in 1938.

Turning it into a feature is another matter, of course. The story had to be embellished, and to some extent vulgarized. It's spun out into an escape thriller, as Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena) and his "calming goat" Lupe (Kate McKinnon) try to help the other bulls crash out of their corral, having figured out what will happen to them wether they win or lose in the ring.

It took me a while to warm up to this over-plotting, but happily the movie is willing to go silly. About the time that Ferdinand and his pals were engaging in a dance-off with the uppity German horses in the next stable over, I started to crack up. Said bulls are voiced, by the way, by the likes of Anthony Anderson, Bobby Cannavale, David Tennant and, of all people, Peyton Manning.

By the end, Ferdinand had won me over with its generous heart. Which, I must confess, did not stop me from having a hamburger the following day.

Thursday, December 14, 2017


A couple of months ago Your Humble Narrator had the honor to be almost the whole audience for a performance by the brilliant Loudon Wainwright III. My account of this odd experience is in this week's Phoenix New Times, along with some thoughts on Wainwright's memoir Liner Notes...

The Phoenix Film Critics Society, of which I am a proud founding member, released its 2017 award nominations this week. As always, some of the choices represent my nominations and some do not, but there are lots of movies worth seeing on the list.

One of my choices which is well represented is The Shape of Water, which leads the field with nominations for Best Picture and in 13 other categories. So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week let's officially acknowledge the Amphibious Man from that movie, as depicted in this lovely poster art...

Friday, December 8, 2017


Also opening here in the Valley this weekend:

The Shape of WaterSally Hawkins stars in this romantic fantasy from the great Guillermo del Toro. She plays Elisa, a mute foundling orphan with scars on her neck who lives in an apartment over a movie theater in Baltimore in the early ‘60s. She gratifies herself in the bathtub as part of her daily ablutions, then brings food to her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a lonely gay commercial illustrator, before leaving for her janitorial job in the bowels of a sinister research facility.

It’s at her job that she finds love, in the form of an elegantly segmented and finned Gill-man (Doug Jones). The “Amphibious Man” as the movie designates him, originated in a river in South America, where the natives worshipped him as a god.

He was captured by Strickland (Michael Shannon), a repressed, fanatical government agent who refers to him as “the asset” and wants to vivisect him for whatever Cold War advantages his body might yield. Elisa, Giles, her coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and a shady but sympathetic scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) work to liberate the Amphibious Man, and along the way Elisa discovers her sexual passion for him.

Del Toro claims that as a child, he wanted to see the Creature of the Black Lagoon get the girl. This movie is the result, and it fulfilled that wish for me, too—I can also remember feeling a pang for the Creature’s romantic optimism. So I’m not the fellow to resist The Shape of Water. Like Peter Jackson’s King Kong, it turns a story of unrequited love into a story of requited love.

But if it doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, if it all sounds terribly self-consciously whimsical and twee and self-delighted, then I can only tell you that, with as much objectivity as I can muster, it doesn’t come off that way at all to me. Del Toro earns his poetic passages by linking them with robust, gutsy storytelling. If it weren’t for some gore and sexual frankness, it might have made a great children’s movie.

It’s not a subtle film, admittedly; del Toro pushes his motifs, like the color green or the hydrophilic ubiquity of water, very hard. And the characterizations, especially that of Shannon’s furious reactionary g-man, are similarly broad-stroke. But the performances make them real people, and the story takes hold, as a romantic-erotic daydream merged with a period thriller merged with, in the most literal sense, a fish-out-of-water comedy.

Fair warning, though: This movie includes the fairly gruesome death of an animal. In the context of the story it makes perfect sense, and it helps to counteract the movie’s potential sentimentality, but for animal lovers sensitive to such things, this won’t matter at all.


Opening here in the Valley this weekend:

The Disaster ArtistIf you’ve never seen The Room, you probably should. An attempt at a sort of Strindberg-ish tragic love triangle, the 2003 drama, written and directed by and starring Tommy Wiseau, has come to be celebrated as one of the most memorably bad movies of all time, and not without reason, and there’s a level at which it must be seen to be understood.

I would say that it’s especially important if you plan to see The Disaster Artist, James Franco’s new film about the conception and making of The Room. But I’m not sure that’s the case—the friend with whom I saw The Disaster Artist enjoyed it immensely without having seen The Room.

The jaw-dropping dreadfulness of The Room derives not from ineptitude or economic deprivation (it was professionally produced, with a budget in the millions) but from Wiseau’s seeming lack of understanding of the basics of how human beings normally behave and converse. It was like he fell to earth from another planet where the people have Eastern European accents but no other customs in common with earthlings. My favorite line in the film (it’s not referenced in The Disaster Artist) comes when Wiseau, as the hero, compliments his girlfriend on the surprise party she’s thrown him: “You invited all my friends! Good thinking!”

According to Greg Sestero, the model and aspiring actor who co-starred in The Room, and from whose like-titled memoir The Disaster Artist was adapted, Wiseau was a mysterious figure. His clothing and hairstyle suggested an Anne Rice vampire, and despite his accent and Tarzan-like syntax he claimed he was from New Orleans, and was opaque about everything else from his age to his apparently bottomless wealth. His work in the San Francisco acting class where he and Sestero met was tortured and incoherent, but also uninhibited in a way that Sestoro couldn’t help but admire.

The script, by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, traces Sestero’s strange but mutually supportive friendship with Wiseau which, along with professional frustration, gave rise to The Room. James Franco directs, with skill and comic clarity, but more importantly—way more importantly—he plays Wiseau. Man, does he play Wiseau. He plays the crap out of him.

Going in, I thought the movie might be at a disadvantage with me. First of all, while I was amazed, fascinated and convulsed by The Room when I saw it, I’ve never felt any strong inclination to see it again. It didn’t become the bad-movie favorite for me that it did for many others (The Disaster Artist opens with talking heads of some famous fans). I laughed hard at it, it’s almost impossible not to, but I didn’t feel altogether good about my laughter. Beneath Wiseau’s incompetence you can sense real pain, and also a streak of misogyny, that can make the movie a little poignant, and a little unsavory.

Secondly, I’ve never been able to work up much enthusiasm for James Franco. He’s been in a number of good movies and I found him effective in some of them, often when his character wasn’t particularly likable to begin with. But he takes the role of Wiseau to a different level, or perhaps it takes him to a different level. It’s one of those cases of a character seeming to take over and possess an actor.

It’s a superb impersonation, but it goes beyond that—Franco’s Wiseau is mesmerizing and scary and hilarious and sad and maddening and lovable in a way that the real Wiseau, onscreen in The Room, is not. Of course, much of the comedy in The Disaster Artist derives from other people’s baffled reaction to Wiseau’s antics, and chief among these reactors is Dave Franco (brother of James), who’s excellent as Sestero, with his perplexed yet touchingly protective manner toward Wiseau. The cast also includes such notables as Zac Efron, Megan Mullally, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, Jacki Weaver and Seth Rogen, mostly in smaller turns.

On the whole, The Disaster Artist is a triumph, small and improbable but definite. Like Tim Burton’s 1994 Ed Wood, it’s the story an artist of passion and vision but no talent, told by artists with passion and vision and plenty of talent.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


Guillermo del Toro's latest, The Shape of Water, which opens here this weekend, features an amphibious humanoid creature. So, since the Creature of the Black Lagoon has already been a Monster-of-the-Week so many times...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week's honoree is a Gill-Man...

...from Jacques Tourneur's 1965 War-Gods of the Deep...

He looks like he could be a cousin of del Toro's Gill-Man...

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


Harkins Theatres screens Love, Actually tonight as a "Tuesday Night Classic" at 7 p.m. at several different multiplexes throughout the Valley. The chain did this before back in 2014; here's what I posted about it then:

This week’s edition of Tuesday Night Classics at Harkins Theatres is Love, Actually, the 2003 multi-strand holiday comedy-drama by Richard Curtis. As with many of the Tuesday Night selections, it might be slightly premature to call it a classic, but it’s a strong, rich movie, and it wouldn’t be a bad way to get the holidays rolling, actually.

Actually. What a great word. Nobody says “actually” like the English of the posher classes. For them, perhaps, it’s a way of admitting that most of what they say is understated pleasantry, while at the same time asserting that the particular remark to which they’re attaching the modifier is heartfelt, even though they aren’t about to drop the reserved, self-deprecating manner. Coupled with the word “love,” it’s a fairly hot-blooded English avowal of passion, actually.

Even among the English, no one says the word “actually” quite like Hugh Grant. He used it more than once in his halting, foot-shuffling performance in Four Weddings and a Funeral back in 1994, scripted by Curtis, and he used it again in Love, Actually.

Grant plays the young Prime Minister of England, who arrives for his first day at Ten Downing Street only to find himself instantly afflicted with infatuation for a smiling, zaftig office assistant (Martine McCutcheon) who bears, though it’s never stated, some resemblance to our Ms. Lewinsky. This is one of several plot strands which Curtis loosely interweaves. The theme, it need hardly be said, is love: Romantic, marital, erotic, cross-cultural, adulterous, parental, filial, puppy, requited, unrequited, from afar, even patriotic—all of these variations are treated by the enormous cast.

Indeed, the case could probably be made that Curtis, also making his directorial debut, got a bit overambitious here, that there are too many plotlines, that some of them inevitably get short shrift. But I enjoyed the company of all of these people, and even when the movie gets a bit corny and carried away, as in a chase through Heathrow at the end, I found myself indulging it as one would indulge someone going on and on about a new love.

Standouts among the cast include Bill Nighy, hilarious as a down-on-his-luck rock star hoping for a Christmas hit, Kris Marshall as a dorky Brit convinced (not unreasonably) that his accent would make him a hit with American girls, Lucia Montez as the Portuguese housekeeper for whom Colin Firth falls across the language barrier, and Emma Thompson as the wife of the straying Alan Rickman—she suffers courageously in the grand Greer Garson tradition.

Most impressive of all, maybe, is the prodigal young Thomas Sangster—more recently seen in The Maze Runner—as Liam Neeson’s stepson who’s smitten with a girl at school. This kid’s grave, sober line readings dare you to patronize the significance of his feelings.

Sunday, December 3, 2017


Happy December everybody!

As in years past, The Wife and I spent part of the month's first weekend having fun at the Tempe Festival of the Arts. Giant Frida Kahlo was strolling there too...

Always good to see her.

The December issue of Phoenix Magazine, now on the stands...

...includes my meat-lover's "Four Corners" column.

Thursday, November 30, 2017


RIP to Jim Nabors, passed on at 87.

He's most remembered, rightly, as the guileless, sweet-souled Gomer Pyle from The Andy Griffith Show and its spinoff Gomer Pyle, USMC. But how many people remember him from the short-lived and fairly painful 1975 Sid & Marty Kroft series The Lost Saucer, in which he and Ruth Buzzi played wacky androids?

Well, in his honor...

Monster-of-the-Week:'s The Dorse...

...a half-dog, half-horse from that show.

Monday, November 27, 2017


Playing Tuesday night:

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the WorldThe “Rumble” in the title refers to the classic, greatly influential instrumental single of 1958 by Link Wray. Iggy Pop claims to have decided to pursue music in earnest after Wray’s thundering power chord air, as did Pete Townsend and other rock giants.

But this documentary by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana, which screens Tuesday night at Third Street Theater in Phoenix as part of the “No Festival Required” film series, isn’t just about the influence of Native Americans on rock. It’s also about their influence on jazz, blues, roots, folk and heavy metal. There are episodes on Charlie Patton, Jimi Hendrix, Pete La Farge, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jesse Ed Davis, Mildred Bailey, Howlin’ Wolf, Robbie Robertson and Randy Castillo, among others. The talking heads include Robertson, Iggy Pop, John Trudell, Steven Van Zandt, Taj Mahal and Martin Scorsese, among many others.

This smoothly made, graphically engaging movie makes a really convincing case, not only that many individual artists of Native American ancestry made a profound impact on popular music, but also that their contribution was itself heavily influenced by indigenous musical traditions, often in combination with African-American traditions. We see footage from Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or ensemble singing from Native communities in the southeast, that startlingly demonstrate the connection between these styles and pop forms. We even see Redbone on The Midnight Special back in the ‘70s, staging native dances before striking up “Come and Get Your Love.”

But while the case feels persuasive, Rumble isn’t a dry piece of ethnography. It’s a lively collection of show-business stories, some funny, some heartbreaking, all of them memorable. Music and cultural history buffs are strongly advised not to miss this one.

Thursday, November 23, 2017


Hope everybody is having a joyous, yummy Thanksgiving! In honor of the day...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...the nod goes to the murderous, foul-mouthed turkey from ThanksKilling the Musical...

...the stage version of the notorious low-budget 2009 horror indie. It's had productions in Seattle, New York, Atlanta, Columbus and Orlando, and a cast recording is available on Amazon, too, with cuts like "Gobble, Gobble, Motherf***er" and "The Jock and the Hick and the Nerd and the Slut (and Me)." The perfect stocking stuffer!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017


Opening today:

Roman J. Israel, Esq.--The title character is an L.A.-based civil rights attorney who makes a bad first impression. With thick glasses and a sad, moppy Afro, dressed in an ill-fitting old suit and clip-on tie, making unfiltered (if usually justified) insulting remarks, barking loud derisive laughter, Roman is a brilliant lawyer but a socially awkward misfit without family or close friends.

When his beloved, legendary partner dies, Roman lands at a hotshot criminal defense firm run by the slick Colin Farrell. Farrell's exasperated by his new associate, but too aware of his gifts, and maybe too conscience-haunted about his own lost idealism, to get rid of him. When one of Roman's cases goes tragically wrong, he yields at long last to the temptations of cynicism, and winds up in real trouble.

Writer-director Dan Gilroy is trying for a gripping legal drama in the vein of The Verdict. But while the story has its interesting aspects, it's too loosely structured and rambling to keep us on the edge of our seats, and Roman's plight in the movie's final quarter is unconvincingly dramatized.

While the film falls short as a thriller, however, it succeeds as a character study. Washington taps the prickly side of his own persona to create this maddening and lovable nerd-warhorse, who decides, disastrously, to try wealth and luxury on for size. If the plot were as vividly rendered as the title character and his moral lapse, Roman J. Israel, Esq. would be a classic. As it is, it's an interesting misfire.

The Man Who Invented Christmas--The man in question is Charles Dickens, played by Dan Stevens in this adaptation of Les Standiford's 2008 nonfiction book. Standiford's thesis is that by writing his "Ghost-Story of Christmas" A Christmas Carol in 1843, Dickens helped to bring the holiday, which had fallen somewhat into disuse in Britain, to something of the social importance it now holds, and particularly to its association with charity and liberality.

If this is true, then I think we can forgive him for the long-term downside of this. It's doubtful that Dickens, with his genial vision of helping the needy and partying with family and friends, could have foreseen Black Friday riots and holiday depression.

This is a fascinating story, but while the movie, adapted by Susan Coyne and directed by Bharat Nalluri, is watchable and amusing enough, it seems to me to have been dramatized in the most conventional and heavy-handed way. Like Shakespeare in Love, the film depicts literary inspiration as a direct line from what an author witnesses or overhears on the street to what he promptly runs home and scribbles into his work. But while Shakespeare in Love made a borderline-campy joke of this idea, The Man Who Invented Christmas suggests that it's getting at the Dickens psyche, as the author's imagination conjures up Scrooge, Marley, Fezziwig and other figures, and gets heckled by them.

The film tries to generate suspense over whether Dickens will allow Scrooge his change of heart and spare Tiny Tim at the end of the story, and further tries to link the Scrooginess in the author's own personality to his lifelong conflict with his big-talking, perennially broke father. Both of these ploys feel thin--it's hardly likely that Dickens ever conceived of A Christmas Carol ending with Scrooge unrepentant.

Still, there is plenty of enjoyable acting here. Christopher Plummer, who lent his voice to Herod the Great in last weekend's The Star, is such a natural as Scrooge that it seems odd he's never played the part before. Stevens is exuberant as Dickens, and gets across some of the frustration that anyone who writes for a living feels at interruption. Justin Edwards is likable as the long-suffering Dickens pal John Forster, and it's great to see vets like Miriam Margoyles as a housekeeper and Simon Callow as the illustrator John Leech. The best performance, however, is by Jonathan Pryce as the sweet, cadging fraud John Dickens, genuinely pained by his son's shame over him, but not about to let it stop him from having a good time.

Monday night The Kid and I went to Comerica Theatre for a concert by One Direction alumnus Niall Horan; you can check out my review on Phoenix Magazine online.

Friday, November 17, 2017


Opening this weekend:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 16, 2017


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

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

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

Monday, November 13, 2017


Now in theaters:

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 10, 2017


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

The Kid and I had fun at this one belatedly:

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

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

Thursday, November 9, 2017


My pal Gayle sent me this pic...

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

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

Friday, November 3, 2017



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 2, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 31, 2017


Wednesday evening’s offering from No Festival Required, The 19th Annual Animation Show of Shows, is a startlingly diverse collection of short films. Much like the Rural Route touring show presented by the redoubtable not-a-festival this past August, this Show of Shows features shorts from North America and Europe. Inevitably, some of the selections on the bill, assembled by L.A.-based animation production company Acme Filmworks, are stronger than others. But far more are interesting than not.

Highlights include the graphically beautiful music video, by Quentin Baillieux of France, for the Charles X song Can You Do It, and the British sci-fi domestic comedy The Alan Dimension. From Switzerland comes George Schwitzgebel’s The Battle of San Romano, a riff on Uccello’s vision of the 15th-Century scrap. There’s also The Burden (Min Borda) a deeply bizarre musical from Sweden featuring anthropomorphic fish, telemarketing monkeys, grocery-shopping dogs and dancing custodial hairless rats.

From the U.S. comes Dear Basketball, an ode to hoops created and narrated by Kobe Bryant and directed by Glen Keane (son of Arizona’s Bill Keane, of The Family Circus).

Also from the U.S., and worth the price of admission all by itself, is a revival of The Hangman, a 1964 project from Looney Tunes background artist Paul Julian which stunningly (and chillingly) brings to life the Maurice Ogden poem, here spoken by the late Herschel Bernardi, and as relevant as ever.

In short, this Show of Shows features subjects ranging from the dizzyingly cosmic to the mundane. Then comes the finale, Everything, a strange and lovely visualization of an engaging lecture on consciousness and cosmology by Alan Watts, carrying the lofty suggestion that the cosmic and the mundane are interconnected.