Friday, September 22, 2023


Opening in Phoenix today; wide on October 6:

Dumb Money--As with 2015's The Big Short, there were plenty of twists and turns in this movie that my finance-challenged brain had to struggle to keep up with. Also like The Big Short, this chronicle of the weird January 2021 boom in GameStop stock is waggish fun. But it's easier to root for the heroes here, because, as least as this movie tells it, they're ordinary people sticking it to rich hedge fund jerks rather than rich hedge fund jerks sticking it to all of us.

GameStop, a Texas-based video game retailer that had been a mall mainstay since the '80s under one name or another, had been in decline since the rise of online game purchasing. The COVID pandemic seemed like the death knell for the company, and hedge fund short sellers were moving in.

Dumb Money's focus is on Keith Gill (Paul Dano), a small-potatoes analyst and broker from Brockton, Massachusetts. Gill had a day gig at MassMutual but spent his evenings in his basement making funny YouTube videos on investing, and posting on other social platforms that I don't understand. He believed that GameStop stock was undervalued, and his enthusiasm helped to cause an explosion in its price that made the short sellers sweat.

But the "dumb money"--apparently that's what hedge fund folk call individual small investors--was sweating too, of course. The movie, directed by Cruella's Craig Gillispie from a script by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo (based on Ben Mezrich's's book The Antisocial Network), jumps around among a variety of GameStop investors who were riding the wave with Gill, and resisting the temptation to sell as a matter of economic principle, to the horror and bafflement of their families and friends. These include America Ferrera as a struggling Pittsburgh hospital worker and single mom; Talia Ryder and Myha'la Herrold as Texas college students besotted both with the investment and with each other, and Anthony Ramos as a GameStop employee who buys in.

I presume that some or all of these people are fictional "composites" representing the online rabble who collaborated on the short squeeze. They're nicely played and sympathetic. The millionaire and billionaire vultures are based on real players: Seth Rogen as Gabe Plotkin and Nick Offerman as Ken Griffin and Sebastian Shaw as Robinhood's Vlad Tenev and Vincent D'Onofrio, extra-creepy, as Steve Cohen. A scurvier bunch of parasitical cruds you'd have a hard time finding. Shailene Woodley is touching as Keith's supportive wife, Kate Burton and Clancy Brown are believable as his parents, and Pete Davidson is a perfect fit as the idiot brother.

Driven forward by a lot of stately, foul-mouthed hip-hop on the soundtrack and tricked out with split-screens and montages, Dumb Money cruises along absorbingly and, despite copious comedy, with an ambiguous tension--I wanted to see the hedge fund guys squirm, but I was anxious for the everyday people when they didn't sell. They, after all, need the money. The incidental backdrop of COVID adds to the unnerving atmosphere; the masks and empty malls and streets create an almost sci-fi flavor at times. It may be the first pandemic period piece.

Although the GameStop boom had fans as diverse as Elon Musk and AOC, I was never sure, watching this movie, that I wasn't falling for a simplistic interpretation of the events--the little guys banding together to take the big boys, who have rigged the system so only they can win, down a few notches. Is there another side here? I mean, no doubt GameStop was undervalued, but was it really that undervalued? Did this amount to a whimsical, sentiment-based pyramid scheme, even if it was motivated altruistically rather than as a con job?

One of the posters for the film reads "THE TOP 1% THINKS YOU'RE DUMB." No doubt they do, and as far as finance is concerned, in my case they aren't wrong. So if there's another, more negative, legitimately dumb side to this story, I'm not smart enough to see it.

In any case, I'm not prepared to shed a tear for the hedge funds. Despite the hit some of them took, in the end, the well-connected big investors appear to have pulled strings and avoided ruination; the film resigns itself to the game being rigged. But it also suggests that the big boys will think twice before they ignore the dumb money again, and it claims this as a triumph. As the movie presents the story, it's all but impossible not to invest in it--invest emotionally, that is.

Friday, September 15, 2023


Opening today:

A Haunting in Venice--Kenneth Branagh returns as Hercule Poirot in this gothic, which he also directed. It's 1947 here, and the vain, dapper sleuth with the elaborate mustache has retired from detective work in gradually reviving postwar Venice. He's pulled back into the game by his old acquaintance, mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), who asks him to debunk, if he can, a supposed clairvoyant (Michelle Yeoh) at a seance after a Halloween party in a beautiful but decaying palazzo.

The seance is intended to conjure the ghost of the daughter of the opera singer hostess (Kelly Reilly), drowned the previous year, but the palazzo has a sinister history beyond this; it's supposedly cursed and haunted. The nonbelieving Poirot naturally is buying none of it, but his skepticism is rattled by the unsettling events of the evening, which include an attempt on his own life.

This is Branagh's third lavish outing as Agatha Christie's elegant gumshoe, after Murder on the Orient Express in 2017 and Death on the Nile in 2022, all three of them scripted by Michael Green. Though Green borrows a few memorable elements from Christie's unusually nasty 1969 novel Hallowe'en Party, Haunting is essentially an original tale; in his amusing preface to the tie-in paperback re-issue of Hallowe'en Party (published under the movie's title), Green preemptively braces himself for the lambasting he's expecting from the hardcore Christie faithful for the movie's liberties.

I've been a Christie reader since high school, and can only say that much as I enjoy her work, I certainly don't regard it as sacred and inviolate. So Green and Branagh's alterations--made with the blessing of the Christie estate--bothered me not in the least. These include changing Ariadne Oliver, Christie's apple-addicted semi-autobiographical alter ego, into an American as a showcase role for Fey, who's a nervy, mischievous hoot and a fine foil for Branagh's sober Poirot. At one point she lets out a scream that could make Fay Wray proud, too.

The rest of the cast--including Reilly, Jamie Dornan,  Riccardo Scamarcio, Camille Cottin, Emma Laird, Ali Khan and Jude Hill, the kid from Branagh's Belfast--all commit to their skulking and lurking and exchanging of pregnant glances, and Yeoh really lets it rip as the medium. The sumptuous, shadowy palazzo setting, designed by John Paul Kelley and shot by Haris Zambarloukos, is properly both gorgeous and claustrophobically oppressive.

I'm generally very dense at whodunits, but about three-quarters of the way through A Haunting in Venice, I correctly guessed who the culprit was. Still, there were plenty of cunning revelations in the story that I didn't see coming. I don't think the mystery is as central to this picture, anyway, as the woozy, nightmarish atmosphere. In many ways this film seems to owe less to Christie than to Don't Look Now, Nicolas Roeg's great Venetian fever dream of 1973.

Despite the sly, enjoyable old dark house trappings, Branagh and Green decline to tip the material into overt camp. Green's literate dialogue--there's even a quick throwaway cribbing from Love's Labor's Lost--allows Branagh to deepen Poirot's response to the situation into a faith-versus-reason internal conflict, without letting the movie slide the other way into pretentiousness. I found Branagh's performance moving; he presents a convincing long dark night of the soul.

Sunday, September 10, 2023


Now in theaters:

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3--This chapter of the jovial family comedy has the distinction of being the first to contain an actual Greek wedding. That is, it has a wedding that happens in Greece, not just among Greek-Americans in Chicago.

Toula (Nia Vardalos) and her WASPy husband Ian (John Corbett), hitched in the original 21 years ago, here lead their rowdy clan on a trip back to the old country. They've been invited to a reunion in the tiny hometown of Toula's beloved late father Gus (Michael Constantine), up a series of switchbacks on a mountainside overlooking the sea.

There they meet variously dour and/or wacky relatives and locals in the gloriously beautiful but depressed and underpopulated village. Much food and booze is consumed, and family secrets are revealed. Among these is the love between a handsome young cousin and the radiant Syrian immigrant he wants to marry.

None of these conflicts feel terribly stressful. Written and directed by Vardalos, Big Fat Greek 3 moves forward in long montages of travelogue footage interrupted at times by short, disjointed bursts of dialogue. It's not suspenseful and it's only occasionally funny, but I enjoyed it anyway; it's about familial and generational issues that connect with most of us, especially as we get older. And it's a relaxing hour and a half vicarious vacation in scenery that looks (onscreen) like paradise, in the company of an agreeable cast, and driven along by a soundtrack full of irresistable Greek songs.

Along with Vardalos and the good sport Corbett, the returning players include Louis Mandylor, Joey Fatone, Gia Carides, Maria Vacratsis and, very briefly, Lainie Kazan, all sweetly and amusingly disappated since the first film, along with the apparently indestructible Andrea Martin as the unshakeably self-impressed Aunt Voula. Elena Kampouris returns from Big Fat Greek 2 as Paris, Toula and Ian's unfathomably college-age daughter.

The wild card character is Victory, the town's ebullient self-proclaimed mayor and booster, puckishly played by the Greek theater actress Maria Kotselou. She's quite a find.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023


Now in theaters:

Jules--Ben Kingsley plays Milton, a widower pushing 80. A mild-mannered guy, he putters around his small Pennsylvania hometown, making inane proposals at city council meetings, tending the flowers in the backyard of his beautiful home, and resisting the efforts of his fretful daughter (Zoë Winters) to make him get a checkup.

Then one day Milton finds that a flying saucer has crash-landed in his backyard, wiping out his azaleas and shattering his birdbath. Soon the craft's silent alien occupant, dubbed Jules, is staying in the house, watching TV and eating apple slices between shifts repairing the saucer.

Initially, Milton doesn't make a secret of any of this. He calls 9-1-1; they think it's a prank. He mentions it to the guy at the supermarket (while buying apples) and it gets back to the daughter, who assumes it's a sign of early onset dementia.

That's the best joke in this wistful, extremely low-key sci-fi comedy--the idea that elderly people are so ignored in our society that an alien visitation could go unnoticed if it happened among seniors. Eventually two ladies (Harriet Sansom Harris and Jane Curtin) from the council meetings learn about and befriend Jules, and advise Milton to secrecy, but there's little urgency to the situation.

Kingsley starts out very deadpan and reserved; it may be that Milton is being careful to hide a cognitive decline. But the performance opens up as the story progresses, and both Jules and the two ladies draw out Milton's perceptive, hospitable warmth.

Harris and Curtin are both lovable as lonely, bored women who know they are, just by virtue of longevity and experience, a resource that's being wasted. Curtin even gets to sing "Free Bird." Under the prosthetics, stuntwoman Jade Quon brings a stoic gravity and woebegone sweetness to the bluish-white, earless, hairless, black-eyed Jules. Standing next to the saucer, wearing an old Spuds Mackenzie t-shirt, this visitor is an absurdly endearing figure.

Director Marc Turtletaub and screenwriter Gavin Steckler seem to have a little trouble figuring out how to end the movie; the last few scenes have a fitful, uncertain quality. But overall, this is a small gem--sort of an E.T. for the other end of the life span.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023


 Now streaming:

Summoning the Spirit--A young couple living in a beautiful, isolated house in the forest find themselves neighbors to a hippie commune led by an obsequious creep.  Emotionally vulnerable after a recent heartbreak, the couple (Krystal Millie Valdes and Ernesto Reyes) are increasingly drawn in by the insufferable cultists. Meanwhile, off in the distance, a glowering Bigfoot keeps an eye on things from the woods.

Bigfoot has had a long if largely low-rent history in movies, from 1972's redoubtable The Legend of Boggy Creek to the amusing 1976 Creature from Black Lake to the big-studio Harry and the Hendersons in 1987, and on TV from Bigfoot and Wildboy on '70s Saturday mornings to the "Messin' With Sasquatch" commercials for Jack Link's jerky. The best Bigfoot movie may have been a startling, too-little-known 2007 chiller by David Blair and Adam Pitman called Paper Dolls, later re-released as The Sighting. But the micro-budgeted Summoning the Spirit, directed by Jon Garcia from a script he wrote with Zach Carter, can probably lay claim to being the weirdest Bigfoot flick yet.

It has an undeniable atmosphere of unease, however, deriving more from the human than from the cryptid element. The movie is hampered by a sluggish pace--pauses between the actors' lines big enough for the creature's foot to fit through--and a frustrating vagueness, but the growing sense of unsavory menace generated in the group scenes within the repellent yet somehow plausible cult is quite distressing. 

Jesse Tayeh is effectively loathsome as the leader, and Isabelle Muthiah makes an impression as an intense, seductive flower child. When you watch their overtures to the hapless couple, you're likely to think that you wouldn't tolerate these people for ten seconds, but of course, in life, politeness and group compliance really might overrule wisdom.

Toward the end, after the cult's connection to Bigfoot is explained--sort of--the movie finally downshifts all the way into horror and some rather half-hearted gore, and much of its eerie mood is dissipated. But the final reveal is sort of sweet.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023


It was a bucket list moment for Your Humble Narrator this past week; I was given a ride on the Oscar Mayer Frankmobile!

The vehicle was formerly known, of course, as the Wienermobile; it's been redubbed to showcase the company's All-Beef Franks. Predictably, I found considerable squealing online that the name change is somehow "woke," calls to stop buying Oscar Mayer products, etc.

Anyway, Frankmobile pilots extraordinaire Ann and Allie were most congenial, telling tales of Ridin' the Dog from Madison, Wisconsin to Jacksonville, Florida to San Juan, Puerto Rico! From here in Phoenix, they were off to new adventures in Huntington Beach, California.

They even presented me with my very own whistle!

I think these two should be the stars of a Gen-Z-era anthology TV road series, a la Martin Milner and George Maharis in Route 66. Maybe it could be called 'Kraut 66?

Friday, August 11, 2023


Opening this weekend:

The Last Voyage of the Demeter--Just when you might think that there wasn't another drop of cinematic blood to be squeezed out of Bram Stoker's great vampire novel, we get this travel saga of the neckbiter's cruise from Transylvania to England. Smooth sailing it isn't.

From a script credited to Bragi Schut, Jr. and Zak Olkewicz, this is based on a single, brilliant chapter from Stoker, the log of the increasingly desperate Captain of the Demeter, which carries mysterious coffin-like boxes of Carpathian soil in her hold, bound for someplace called Carfax Abbey in England. The Captain's frightened crewmen claim someone else is aboard, and they also keep disappearing.

Schut and Olkewicz embellish the brief material considerably, especially in the addition of a philosophical-minded ship's doctor (Corey Hawkins), an unwilling stowaway (Aisling Franciosi) and a little boy (Woody Norman), the grandson of the Captain (Liam Cunningham). The dialogue is unabashedly melodramatic--"We have found where the Devil sleeps!"--and director André Øvredal, the Norwegian behind the terrific Trollhunter and the occasionally macabre Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, gleefully churns up old-school atmosphere too.

There's something to be said for these sorts of hokey theatrics, and the movie has its merits, including handsome production design by Edward Thomas and cinematography by Tom Stern, and a strong, bombastic score by Bear McCreary. But it isn't as much fun as it should have been.

For one thing, it tips its hand early, revealing its source in the prologue. Admittedly, many people who would go to this movie probably know, going in, the secret of the cargo's identity. But for anyone who doesn't, there's one layer of mystery gone; we also know the crew won't be successful in stopping the menace.

Eventually we get a look--maybe too good a look--at the unwelcome passenger (impressively mimed by Javier Botet), here depicted as a very spectral, bald, pointy-eared, pointy-toothed Nosferatu-style goblin with wings. In himself, he's a pretty cool monster, but he doesn't really fit the context of the legendary story; it's hard to imagine him charming the ladies in black tie and cape.

Worse yet, when it becomes clear that few if any of those aboard will survive the trip, our interest wanes. Even though Hawkins is a sympathetic everyman hero, after certain characters (and animals) met grisly fates, I admit my emotional investment in the story's outcome was mostly scuttled.