Friday, December 15, 2017

JEDI HARD

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 then...it 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 follow day.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

EXTREMELY LOUDON & INCREDIBLY CLOSE

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

NEWT ATTITUDE

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.

DISASTER RELIEF

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

GILL POWER

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

IT'S BACK, ACTUALLY

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

FRIDA AT LAST

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

GOOD NABORS

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: ...here's The Dorse...



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

Monday, November 27, 2017

IN MY RUMBLE OPINION

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

OFF-BROADWAY TURKEY

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

LAWYERS & MISERS & DREAMBOATS, OH MY!

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

MANGER DANGER

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

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY MATTER

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

THE RAILS OF JUSTICE

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

DAY AFTER DAY

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

STITCH & FAMOUS

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

NORSE OF A DIFFERENT COLOR

Opening:


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 Apartments.com 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

PETYR PRINCIPLE

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

SHORT AND TO THE POINT

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) deeply bizarre musical selection 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.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

BORIS BY BASIL

Halloween is next Tuesday, so...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...it seems like this week's honoree should be one of the all-time classics. So how about...


...Karloff's Frankenstein Monster, in this masterly, iconic rendition from the recently late and much-lamented Famous Monsters of Filmland cover artist Basil Gogos.

Happy (and safe) All Hallows' Eve everybody!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

HERCULEAN LABORS

It was a busy and oddly Italianate weekend for Your Humble Narrator. Luckily, I had the stamina to get through it, as this rare shirtless photo of me demonstrates…


Sunday afternoon my pal Dave and I saw Arizona Opera’s Hercules vs. Vampires, Patrick Morganelli’s operatic setting of the 1961 Mario Bava “peplum” Hercules in the Haunted World, performed live to a screening of the film. It was a great time, from the show itself to the witty pre-show Q&A by Morganelli to the wacky props in the lobby with which we were encouraged to play... 




All of this came on the heels of my adventure up north the previous day.

Despite having lived in Phoenix nearly 26 years, and despite having had its virtues extolled to me multiple times from multiple sources, I had never visited the city of Prescott, an hour and half to the north. Never, that is, until they offered me pizza.

When I was asked to judge the inaugural edition of Prescott Pizza Palooza, a fundraiser for Prescott Meals on Wheels, this was a duty I did not shirk. I mentioned this honor to my pal Richard, one of the town’s extollers, and he kindly offered to drive me up to and drop me off at the event. He did not, however, join me for pizza, as there was a German restaurant nearby at Lynx Lake he wanted to try.

The event, held on a blocked-off street adjacent to Courthouse Square, featured six pizzerias. For fifteen bucks, you got ten tastings—a great deal in any case, and all the more so when you know the money’s going to a good cause. Only two of the pizza-makers there were local—Mama’s Artisan Pizzeria in Prescott Valley and Two Mamas’ Pizza near downtown Prescott. The rest were familiar chains: Papa John’s, Rosati’s, Pizza Hut and…

 
…Little Caesar’s.

There were four categories of competition—traditional, exotic, gluten-free and dessert. Trying to pace myself, over the three hours or so I was there I dutifully sampled at least one slice of everything that was in competition—something like 13 pieces in all—although toward the end I was just taking a bite or two and dumping the rest. I’m capable of serious eating, but I felt pretty woozy by the end, and I belched audibly, twice, while chatting with the lady who planned the event (she just laughed, which made me feel all the more like an uncouth lout).

It wasn’t a blind tasting, but insofar as I can be unbiased, I really think that the best bites I had all day came from the local joints, especially Mama’s Artisan’s luscious ricotta-topped Mama’s Pesto Especial. I was pleased to see that my voting was reflected in the outcome; both Mama’s Artisan and Two Mamas’ were among the winners. In coming years, I would hope to see more local, independent pie-makers represented, and maybe some from elsewhere in the state or region, but in any case it was a fun and delicious way to spend a gloriously cool, sunny Saturday.

Then, when I got back to Phoenix in the early evening, The Wife and The Kid requested to be taken California Pizza Kitchen for dinner. Fish tacos for me.

Friday, October 20, 2017

HOTSHOTS, HITMEN & HERCULES

Opening this week:
 

Only the BraveWildland firefighting is regarded, on the whole, as more strenuous and demanding than structure firefighting, and usually more dangerous. But it isn’t more cinematic. A structure firefighter with a hose gets to enact one of the iconic cinematic dynamics—shooting at an enemy. But the methods of wildland firefighters, while no less agonistic, are subtler—digging in the dirt, cutting trees and brush with chainsaws, and sometimes, counterintuitively for us laypeople, actually setting fires.

This is what we get in the firefighting sequences of Only the Brave, the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the wildland crew connected to the Prescott, Arizona fire department. Nineteen of these young men—all but one member of the active crew—died in the Yarnell Hill Fire in June of 2013, in the worst loss of firefighters since 9/11, and the worst  loss of wildland firefighters since the ‘30s.

There’s terrifying spectacle, certainly, in a wildfire, but the response to it is guys hiking, digging, sawing. So the meat of the film is less this drudgery than the lives of hotshots, and especially that of Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller), who was assigned as a lookout that day and thus became the Ishmael of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. McDonough had a history of substance abuse and petty crime until he became a hotshot, and was mentored by Granite Mountain Superintendant Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin).

Despite the hopeful outcome of McDonough’s story, there’s no good way to present this material that isn’t horrifying and heartbreaking, and director Joseph Kosinski doesn’t try. There’s a sense of restraint and dignity to his work, and that of the actors. The flavor for much of the movie’s length is that of a John Ford/Howard Hawks/Raoul Walsh male bonding drama, and there’s action and humor and touching sentiment and inspirational uplift, but a somber tinge hangs over it, at least for viewers who know where the story’s heading.

This is reflected in Brolin’s performance. The movie’s Marsh has a look in his eyes that suggests a foreknowledge of disaster, and a sad acceptance of it. It’s an old-school star turn in the Henry Fonda vein, one of Brolin’s best. He even gets a Sam Shepherd-ish Oscar-clip monologue about the flaming bear that haunts his dreams. But Teller also does strong work in the “tenderfoot” role of McDonough, Taylor Kitsch throws a charge into his scenes as hotshot Christopher Alan MacKenzie, and Jeff Bridges, as wildland chief Duane Steinbrink, has a great moment, a small groan of grief that’s like a gut punch.

I had the opportunity to talk with Kosinksi and Brolin before the film’s opening, and they both stressed how they spent a lot of time in Prescott with the families and friends of the hotshots, and became close to them, in order to achieve authenticity. But this may have led the filmmakers, in understandable deference to the feelings of the survivors, to omit or soften errors or interpersonal conflicts within the crew that may had a bearing on the disaster. The climactic scenes, though inevitably powerful, also leave it unclear as to what led to the decisions that placed the crew in the path of the fire.

Partly, no doubt, this is because it remains unclear even from reports of the official investigations. But in terms of the movie’s narrative, it’s just confusing, and it’s about all that keeps this well-crafted, well-acted movie from feeling like a triumph.

You can check out my interviews with Brolin and Kosinski, by the way, on the New Times blog.

On a lighter note...




Killing GuntherSaturday Night Live alumnus Taran Killam wrote, directed and stars in this broad, zany comedy about murder. Killam plays Blake, a high-end assassin leading a plot to kill a legendary veteran hitman known as Gunther (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Blake's team includes a bomber (Bobby Moynihan), a sniper (Hannah Simone), an insufferable tech whiz (Paul Brittain), a poisoner (Aaron Yoo) and other wacky specialists. The central absurd gag is that Blake has hired a film crew to chronicle the mission, so that as with The Office and Modern Family, this movie can employ faux-documentary devices, including straight-to-the-camera monologues.

It's possible that Killing Gunther simply suffers from unfortunate timing; its bloody shootings and mayhem didn't seem as funny to me right now as they might have at another time. That said, just about any six or seven minute stretch of this movie would make a servicebly amusing SNL sketch, and is good for a few chuckles. The cast is a strong, but Schwarzenegger, who doesn't show up until quite late in the proceedings, probably shows more gleeful comic energy than anyone.

Killam's principal comedic mechanism here is deflation. Again and again, someone will be on the verge of a dramatic flourish, and they'll be interrupted, or forget what they were going to say, and the mood will be broken. It's as if the anger under the gags is at life's failure to be like the movies.

One more note: In case you haven't had your fill of me, you can check out my very short article, on The PHiX, about Arizona Opera's production of Hercules vs. Vampires this weekend.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

ROCK OPERA

This weekend Arizona Opera presents Hercules vs. Vampires...


...Patrick Morganelli's musical setting of Mario Bava's goofy but visually lush 1961 sword-and-sandal fantasy Ercole al Centro della Terra (known in English as Hercules in the Haunted World). So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week's honoree is Procrustes, here depicted as an ambulatory rock...




...but still up to his traditional shtick of stretching people, or chopping them down, in order to get them to fit in bed.

Friday, October 13, 2017

OIL RICH


A couple of gems open in the Valley this week:


Loving VincentThe producers stake an unusual claim for this Polish-British animated feature, six years in the making: that it’s the first completely oil-painted movie. Each of its 65,000 frames, we’re told, was meticulously hand-painted by a team of more than 100 artists, working over the previous frame’s image, all in the style of Vincent Van Gogh.

A documentary about the making of this quixotically crazy endeavor would be fascinating. As with Claymation back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, if you let yourself think too long about the labor you’re witnessing, you can start to feel overwhelmed and it can throw you out of the movie.

Happily, the movie itself isn’t just visually breathtaking, it’s also an engrossing little historical drama, well-acted by the Brit voice cast in a naturalistic manner. The story is set in 1891, the year after Van Gogh’s death, and centers on Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the young man in yellow from the famous portrait. Armand’s postmaster father Joseph, another Van Gogh subject, tasks his son with delivering a final letter from the genius to his brother Theo.

Armand travels from Arles to Paris, and then on to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent died. Initially annoyed by the errand, Armand becomes increasingly fascinated as he delves into the mystery of Vincent’s death.

The directors, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, working from a script they wrote with Jacek Dehnel, use Armand’s investigations to paint a portrait (if you’ll excuse the expression) of a truly loving Vincent. He’s beset with terrible emotional sufferings, certainly, but he’s sweet-natured and ecstatic in his visionary raptures.

But the thrill in the picture is seeing those immortal images brought to life. In the opening minutes alone, we get the Café Terrace, the Zouave reclining against the wall, Lieutenant Milliet, and so on, gliding easily into each other in service of the narrative.

I suppose there are cultural purists out there who might find using the works of one of the great figures in European art as, essentially, a storyboard, to be a crass, literal-minded stunt. But I was enchanted by this gloriously low-tech labor of love, both for Van Gogh and for the possibilities of the cinema.



Professsor Marston and the Wonder WomenThere’s something delicious about the knowledge that the furious accusations of mid-century anti-comics crusaders were, in at least one case, quite right. Wonder Woman, who debuted in 1941 in what would become DC Comics, really was rooted in fantasies of bondage, dominance and Sapphic power.

And not just fantasies, either, but realities. As we’re told in this amusing chronicle, the creator of the character, a Harvard-educated psychology professor named William Moulton Marston (writing under the name Charles Moulton), spun the Amazon by blending traits of the two women with whom he lived—his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and Olive Byrne, a student and assistant who became the third member of their marriage.

It’s likely that the writer-director Angela Robinson (Herbie: Fully Loaded) has heated up the story a bit. But there are true elements that trump fiction, the juiciest being that before his comic-writing days, Marston was one of the developers of the systolic blood pressure test that led to the polygraph—in other words, he invented the Lasso of Truth in reality before he gave it to his heroine. As an adolescent in the ‘70s, watching the Lynda Carter TV version of Wonder Woman, I always found the Lasso of Truth shtick distinctly erotic; now I’d guess that Marston did too.

This movie’s historical accuracy is debatable, and some chapters work better than others, but Robinson has, any case, crafted maybe the wittiest and sweetest cinematic menage a trois in recent memory. Those looking for graphic sex will be disappointed—the threesome scenes, which involve a lot of dressing-up in theatrical costumes, are too tame and discreet for a Cinemax soft-core flick from the ‘90s. But something about their good-natured naïveté makes them sexy.

The charm in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women comes in the deadpan delivery of earnest dialogue by glamorous actors like Luke Evans as Marston and waif-like Bella Heathcote as Olive. There are nice supporting turns by Oliver Platt as early comic peddler Max Gaines and Connie Britton in a peculiarly flirtatious turn as early comic critic Josette Frank. We also see JJ Feild as fetish costumer Charles Guyette, here shown decking out Olive in a get-up very similar to Wonder Woman’s.

But the standout is Rebecca Hall as the brittle, unflappable (well, almost unflappable) Elizabeth. Her readings give a sharp edge even to lines that don’t have one built in, yet she somehow infuses them with a palpable undercurrent of love and emotional directness as well. I hate to resort to it, but indulge me: She’s a wonder.