Sunday, December 28, 2014


The day after Christmas I was turned away, twice, from sold-out shows at the Harkins Valley Art Theatre in Tempe. The film that was packing them in was, of course, The Interview, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s lowbrow farce involving a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

As you’ve possibly heard, a massive hack of Sony and hints of terrorist reprisals, both thought to have originated from North Korea, resulted in the decision, both by the studio and many theater chains, to cancel the movie’s Christmas Day release. For a couple of days it looked like The Interview might become a “lost” movie, but then Sony reconsidered, releasing the picture both to theaters and to video-on-demand. Perhaps with a thought to the safety of other audiences in the multiplexes, Harkins opened the film only at the chain’s one remaining free-standing single-screen house.

I had skipped the screening, so I decided to go to the Valley Art, but got to the box office too late, for two different shows, to get a ticket. No front row, no standing room. The prescient people who were lining up with pre-ordered tickets were mostly the younger sort one would expect at a movie like this—couples on dates, groups of frat-boy-looking buddies—but people of all ages were represented.

Anyway, I went back Saturday morning and saw the film, with a house that wasn’t full but was still surprisingly crowded for an early matinee. On the way in I was given a pin with a picture of stars Rogen and James Franco. It said “I [picture of a popped kernel of popcorn] FREEDOM! HARKINS THEATRES.”

I was puzzled at first by what this meant: I Pop Freedom? I Snack On Freedom? Slow on the take that I am, it took me a minute to realize that the popcorn kernel was vaguely heart-shaped. I Love Freedom. Indeed I do.

Grateful though I was for the souvenir, however, I declined to pin it on my shirt. Having failed, over the last few years, to take to the streets to demonstrate for or against any of a dozen issues I truly care about, it seemed a little much to congratulate myself for going to a silly comedy.

As for The Interview itself, it’s enjoyable enough of its kind, that kind being the self-consciously raunchy Hangover vein. It goes badly off the rails toward the end, but up until then it has some solid laughs and good performances. Franco plays it pretty broad as the nitwit TV interviewer who scores a sit-down with the tyrant and is pressed into service by the CIA to “take him out.” But Rogen, as Franco’s producer, carries the film with his boyishly commonsensical charm, and Randall Park is excellent as (and much handsomer than) Kim.

After it was over, as we were filing out, I heard an usher thank a middle-aged woman for coming, and she replied, very sincerely, “Thank you for having it. I really appreciate it.” If I had to guess, I’d guess that this lady, and quite a number of others in the audience, wouldn’t have thought of going to this particular movie if North Korea hadn’t told them they wouldn’t if they knew what was good for them.

Certainly I think that in the years since 9/11 fear of terrorism, and exploitation of that fear, and even an odd and carefully cultivated sense that one is being unpatriotic if one doesn’t show enough fear, has led our country into atrocious decisions, including ridiculous and probably futile encumbrances to our travel and recreation. I thought the initial decision to pull The Interview was wrong, for instance.

Having said that, I had sympathy for Sony’s cautious position, and even more so for that of the exhibitors. It’s easy for commentators like me with no real responsibility to decry the cancellation as craven, but if, God forbid, one bomb were to go off in a theatre, you can imagine the invective that would be poured on “Hollywood” for endangering people’s lives for a dumb movie. And if the release, and the packed houses, are a healthy step away from "letting the terrorists win," it’s no more than a baby step.

But I had to wonder if, at bottom, the long lines for The Interview not only weren’t about the movie itself, they weren’t even about politics or patriotism or standing up to terrorism. Maybe they were simply a gesture of early nostalgia for the increasingly gratuitous act of actually going to the movies. At any time this weekend, after all, I and just about anyone else at the Valley Art could have seen The Interview in the comfort of our homes, for a couple bucks less than the price of a ticket, and without the hassle of parking in downtown Tempe. Somehow, though, seeing the film in a gathering of strangers turned the experience from sitting through an average comedy into the kind of shared social experience that makes up many of our best movie memories.

Thursday, December 25, 2014


...from Less Hat, Moorhead!

Into the WoodsA friend of mine likes to say that “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” and “Pittsburgh” are two of the more aptly named entities in creation. I can’t agree with him about the second; I’ve always been fond of Pittsburgh. But there’s no arguing the grimness of those tales.

So Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1986 fairy-tale musical Into the Woods can’t really be called “dark” by comparison to its source material. This retelling of several Grimm yarns is dark only by comparison to the toned-down and glitzed-up style of fairy tales popularized by Disney and its ilk over the past century. Perhaps ironically, it’s Disney that has produced the lavish, star-studded and entertaining movie version of Into the Woods opening today.

Set, like a Ren Faire, in a period-vague Once Upon a Time with elements of the Renaissance, the 19th Century and the 20th Century—the Big Bad Wolf dresses like a swing dancer—Into the Woods weaves the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk around the plight of a Baker and his Wife who are unable to conceive. These two learn from a neighborhood Witch that this is because of a curse upon their house. She gives them the recipe to lift the curse, which brings them into contact with the other characters.

Rob Marshall, who more or less revived the big-screen musical as a viable genre with his 2002 Chicago, directs nimbly, but with an agreeably more straightforward, less hyper-cut style. His work is accomplished, but as usual with musicals, the real key to its success lies in the cast, and the score.

The standouts in the cast, for me, were Meryl Streep, a hoot as the Witch, Emily Blunt as the Baker’s potentially naughty Wife, James Corden as the kindly young Baker, and a startling, apparently genetically-engineered little belter called Lilla Crawford as Red Riding Hood. Johnny Depp is droll in the brief role of the Wolf, Tracey Ullman is funny as Jack’s fed-up Mum, Anna Kendrick makes a sweet Cinderella, and as her self-impressed Prince Charming, Chris Pine, along with Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince, scored spontaneous applause from the preview audience with whom I saw the film for their self-parodying duet “Agony.”

As for the score, it’s very, well, Sondheim-y, which for many is about the highest compliment a score can be paid. It’s pretty, if not, overall, as melodically soaring as some of Sondheim’s; it has a more frenetic, haywire sound, in support of the complex, almost patter-song lyrics. It’s compelling, though—when each number is done, you know you’ve really heard something, and you want to hear it again.

About halfway through the movie—at the end of Act One in the stage version—the plot strands are all ingeniously brought to a traditionally happily-ever-after resolution. But Sondheim and Lapine want to remind us that happily-ever-after is fantasy, and that a wish fulfilled always comes at a price—worth it, maybe, but never painless.

The long second act in which the characters wander the forest, struggling with the consequences of their wishes, is the unconcealed point of Into the Woods. But while there is much good music and comedy in this section, you can feel the impatience of the audience—plenty of them were quite satisfied with the corny fake ending, and palpably regard this elaboration as a tiresome imposition (I understand the school-play version of the show simply drops Act Two). It isn’t enough to ruin Into the Woods, but many viewers would have been perfectly happy with happily-ever-after.

So anyway...

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s make this triceratops skeleton come to life in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb our Christmas Day MOTW…

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


If you’re in an anti-festive mood—I’m not, and I’m sorry if you are, but in case you are—check out my list, on Topless Robot, of The 12 Messed-Up Days of Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2014


Need a last-minute cyber-gift for the twisted, morbid degenerate on your list? Why not send them my holiday zombie novel, The Night Before Christmas of the Living Dead? It’s available on Amazon for a penny less than a buck…

A living-dead-tree edition is available, too, for a couple bucks more.

Friday, December 19, 2014


Opening today:

AnnieThere are plenty of missteps and false notes in this new version of the Broadway musical favorite, reset in modern-day New York. To begin with, the orphanage setting no longer works. The show’s comic villainess Miss Hannigan, here played by Cameron Diaz, is now a bitter, drunken foster mom, which somehow doesn’t have the same menace.

Many of the Martin Charnin lyrics had to be tweaked, while all of the ‘30s-specific numbers had to be dropped entirely, and to make up for this new numbers were added, all forgettable. The movie is badly overlong, needlessly padded with stuff like un-suspenseful chase scenes that add nothing.

On the upside, this Annie, directed by Will Gluck from a script he wrote with Aline Brosh McKenna, starts off well, with a lively opening and several of the show’s best numbers, including the peerless “Hard Knock Life.” Annie’s fellow orphans are spirited, and there are grown-ups who look like they’re going to be bit players but give full-fledged, funny supporting turns, notably Stephanie Kurtzuba as a dazzled social services inspector. The new Sandy, a rescue dog in real life, makes a fine debut as well.

Above all, Quvenzhan√© Wallis is adorable in the title role. She doesn’t have the brassy Broadway-baby belt usually associated with the part, but she has a sweet voice and she’s as indomitable and assured as she was in the role of Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild. She also has a fine, candid onscreen rapport with Jamie Foxx as Oliver Stacks, this film’s standoffish, germaphobic version of Daddy Warbucks, and this carries the picture past its cheesier aspects.

There are a couple of cute in-jokes, too. A band playing in a club, for instance, is called the Leapin’ Lizards. Best of all, Stacks’ opponent in the New York mayoral race is a progressive incumbent named Harold Gray, after the creator of the original Little Orphan Annie newspaper strip. There’s a special piquancy to this gag if you know the truth about Gray: that he was a Union-hating, New Deal-loathing reactionary, and that he—of all freakin’ people—was a staunch opponent of Child Labor Laws! Apparently he believed there were benefits to a hard knock life.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Check out my list, on Topless Robot, of 10 Insults to North Korea You Could Watch Instead of The Interview. The list includes the North Korean giant monster flick Pulgasari, but Pulgie’s been a Monster-of-the-Week twice already, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …in the interest of international equal time this week let’s acknowledge a South Korean beast, the title character of 1967’s Yongary, Monster From the Deep

This late-show favorite may be viewed in its entirety, here:

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Opening today:

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five ArmiesThe third installment of Peter Jackson’s three-part adaptation—and embellishment upon—the Tolkien novel starts off big. The dragon Smaug, voiced by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, wreaks havoc on a nearby fishing village and does battle with a valiant local boy (Luke Evans). While I sat there watching this sequence, I thought it was so strong that Jackson would have a hard time topping it, and as it ended I settled in for a long evening of droning exposition and wearying, incomprehensible-to-non-geeks prophesying.

I was wrong. Hobbit Part Two was better than Hobbit Part One, and for my money, Hobbit Part Three is the most exciting of the lot. Title character Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his pals the dwarves have taken occupancy in the dragon’s treasure-filled lair, and dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is going all Treasure of Sierra Madre with gold-fueled paranoia.

Meanwhile four other legions—the elegant, aloof elves, the ogre-ish Orcs, the humans from the fishing village and more dwarves led by Thorin’s cantankerous brother Dain (the great Billy Connolly) converge outside the lair, each with its own agenda involving Smaug’s hoarded booty. At the heart of this bombast, and comically contrasted with it, is the modest sheepishness and goodwill of Bilbo, scurrying around trying to be honest and do the right thing.

When you get past the brilliance and intricacy of Jackson’s staging, I suppose all these tempestuous fight scenes don’t have anything deeper behind them than pro wrestling. But I liked how almost every positive thing that happens in this finale happens because members of different races reach out to each other.

Now that his Hobbit saga is (presumably!) complete, I really hope that Jackson puts the Tolkien on the shelf, at least for a decade or so, and tries something different. Almost anything different will do—a car chase movie, a bachelor party comedy—as long as it doesn’t involve broadswords and shaggy beards. Middle Earth has been very good to Jackson, but I hope that now this incredibly talented filmmaker will turn his attention, and his camera, back towards regular old Earth.

The Phoenix Film Critics Society, of which I am always proud to note that I'm a founding member, has announced our 2014 Award Winners. As always, some of them reflect my voting—despite my gripes about Birdman, for instance, Michael Keaton had my vote—and others don't, but there are plenty of movies worth seeing on the list. I was particularly pleased to see the powerful and artful Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me take Best Documentary.



TOP TEN FILMS OF 2014 (in alphabetical order)

A Most Violent Year
Gone Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Imitation Game
The Lego Movie
The Theory of Everything


Richard Linklater, Boyhood


Michael Keaton, Birdman


Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl


J. K. Simmons, Whiplash


Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game




The Grand Budapest Hotel


Gone Girl


Into the Woods


Edge of Tomorrow


The Lego Movie




Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me


"Everything is Awesome," The Lego Movie








The Grand Budapest Hotel


The Grand Budapest Hotel




Edge of Tomorrow


Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl


Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler


Jaeden Lieberer, St. Vincent


Lilla Crawford, Into the Woods

Friday, December 12, 2014


Birdman has racked up the SAG and Golden Globe nominations this past week. But somehow, big fan of Michael Keaton though I am, that film, remarkable though it is, rubs me the wrong way. Check out my list, on Topless Robot, of some reasons why.

Opening this week:

Top FiveChris Rock is the best American stand-up comedian currently active, and one of the greatest of all time. He is, beyond doubt, a comedy star. But somehow he’s never been able to make a convincing case that he’s a movie star. Something about the guy’s presence has always seemed to shrink a little, grow weaker, when he’s not on stage by himself, but is surrounded by a bunch of actors in a fiction film.

This has nothing to do with his talent. He’s natural and believable enough onscreen, and in an early supporting role in New Jack City (1991) he showed himself capable of powerful acting. But when he’s at the center of a movie, he suddenly no longer has that electric command of the audience’s attention that he has doing stand-up. His star vehicles, like Bad Company, Down to Earth and I Think I Love My Wife, make a sadly forgettable list.

The bad news about his new film Top Five, which he also wrote and directed, is that it doesn’t entirely end this streak. It isn’t a knockout. The good news is that it’s nonetheless the best he’s done so far, by a good margin, and its best scenes are vibrant, complex and extremely funny.

The film, Rock’s version of Sullivan’s Travels or Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, traces a long day in the life of Andre Allen (Rock), a comedian and the star of a string of idiotic but lucrative “Hammy the Bear” comedies. Andre’s in New York trying to promote his new movie Uprize, a tortured drama about Haitian revolutionary Dutty Boukman, and to attend a bachelor party for his upcoming wedding to a reality-TV diva (Gabrielle Union). He agrees, reluctantly, to be interviewed by a New York Times contributor (Rosario Dawson), a big fan of his stand-up who disapproves of the cheesy commercial turn his career has taken.

Can you guess where this is headed? Well, you’re right, but the plot, such as it is, isn’t the point here. Rock has cunningly structured the film so that Dawson provides an onscreen audience for his riffs on various subjects. There are also terrific freestanding sequences, like a punishingly funny (and dirty) flashback of Andre’s lowest point, or a raucous ensemble scene when he visits his family.

The movie hits some false notes and dawdles on a bit too long, and in any case it comes nowhere near Rock’s strongest stand-up. Even so, at least for fans of this genius, it’s well worth seeing.

Exodus: Gods and KingsFor all his diligence as an actor, Christian Bale—like Rock, I suppose, only more so—sometimes shows a recessive puniness of spirit as movie star. At least for me, he lacks the grandeur to play a superhero.

Theoretically, this might make him right for the role of Moses in a movie about the Old Testament prophet, who was, after all, an unimpressive speaker in his own opinion. In practice, however, giving the lead in a nearly three-hour epic to a guy with a brick in his mouth turns out to be inadvisable. Say what you will about Charlton Heston’s monolithic turn in The Ten Commandments, but you caught every furious word. When the old Pharaoh (John Turturro) asks if the Egyptians can beat the Hittites or if the slaves are about to revolt or whatever, Bale’s Moses replies “Fribshm mblim snablub griflb.”

That said, the plagues and miracles are entertainingly staged by director Ridley Scott, and Ramses, played by Joel Edgerton—no champ in the diction department either—has our sympathy when he loses his child on Passover. There’s some ingenious dialogue, too, particularly between Moses and God, here personified as a rather cheeky little boy. The kid has the diction of an RSC actor, by the way. I kept waiting for The Almighty to reply to one of Bale’s mumbles with “I’m sorry, I may be All-Knowing, but I didn’t catch that.”

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Here’s another of the soda can monsters I acquired recently…

Monster-of-the-Week: …a generic horned red-eyed beast filled with A&W Root Beer…

…which claims to be “MADE WITH AGED VANILLA.” I didn’t know vanilla was better old. Or, for that matter, that it was an ingredient in root beer, at any age. But it’s a darn tasty version of the beverage, no question.

Hey, here’s a pretty good joke: If you put root beer in a square glass, do you get beer?

Monday, December 8, 2014


Playing tomorrow night only at Filmbar Phoenix:

The Search for Weng WengAustralian movie geek Andrew Leavold, long fascinated by the diminutive Filipino action star known as Weng Weng, made this chronicle of his investigation into the man’s life and career. “Diminutive” is really an inadequate adjective for Weng Weng—at 2 foot nine, Weng Weng is listed by the Guinness Book as the shortest male movie star ever (Harry Earles, the star of Freaks, was three or four inches taller). One of Weng Weng’s fetching costars describes him as “Very petite, like a potato.”

Born into extreme poverty as Ernesto Dela Cruz (the moniker “Weng Weng” is said to have been a reference to a famous cocktail), he showed an early aptitude for martial arts which brought him to the attention of the husband and wife producing team of Peter and Cora Caballes. After some bit and supporting parts in the ‘70s, they gave him the lead in a couple of low-budget actioners, the most high-profile of which, 1981’s For Y’ur Height Only, became an international moneymaker. Weng Weng plays Interpol Agent 00, who flies with a jetpack, mows down “goons” by the dozen with a machine gun and romances sultry sirens, all with the same unperturbed, faintly melancholy look on his face.

Leavold quickly learned that Weng Weng’s career was exploitation in every sense of the word. Not only did Pete and Cora Caballes—they were known as “Ninong” and “Ninang,” or Godfather and Godmother—exploit Weng Weng’s stature, they also paid him virtually nothing. By the late ‘80s, when Cora had entered politics, they stopped making movies, and Weng Weng ended up back in poverty until his death of a heart attack in 1992 at the age of 34, a few years older than the usual life expectancy for people with his type of dwarfism.

It’s a sad story, but it seems likely that it’s less sad than Weng Weng’s life would have been if he had never ended up in the movies—by all accounts he greatly enjoyed the work. Leavold’s lively, unpretentious documentary has marvelous interview material, from Weng Weng’s sweet family to his garrulous, funny colleagues in Filipino showbiz to that country’s sheepish film historians to, get ready, Imelda Marcos herself, who allowed Leavold to interview her on her 83rd birthday.

Marcos and family were hardcore movie lovers—a disturbingly common trait among brutal dictators—and supporters of their homegrown film industry (the nostalgia for their regime among the moviemakers is palpable) and Weng Weng was a welcomed visitor to their home. There were even stories that he was an actual government agent.

Crazily, it’s the former First Lady who puts the most positive spin on Weng Weng’s story: “The appearance of Weng Weng showed the great spirit of the Filipino people. They can make a hero of a disabled, distorted guy. So, everybody had a chance. They had such a democratic attitude. Filipinos have no prejudices.

Leavold is scheduled to appear at the Filmbar screening, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Friday, December 5, 2014


Opening today:

WildBack in the early ‘90s, Cheryl Strayed decided to take up hiking. Maybe a nice stroll around the block to start with, or a lap or two around the mall? No, Strayed figured she’d start by trudging well over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican border to the Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River.

Strayed wasn’t the sort to do things in moderation. She grieved her mother’s death from cancer by plunging into heroin addiction and reckless sex to the point where she drove off her long-suffering husband. Then she decided to exorcise these demons by, as her mother would say, “putting herself in the way of beauty,” hiking the PCT with an enormous backpack. She found plenty of beauty, along with physical exhaustion, bleeding feet and encounters with lots of creepy guys.

Now Reese Witherspoon is playing Strayed in this movie version of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, her 2012 bestseller and Oprah’s Book Club pick about her schlep. Directed by Jean-Marc Vall√©e from an adaptation by Nick Hornby, the movie is shameless Oscar bait: Big doses of Witherspoon grunting and sweating as she struggles up the trail, intercut with flashbacks of her grunting and sweating as she has sex with guys or shoots up.

Laura Dern is touching as the departed Mom, W. Earl Brown is funny as an oddball farmer, and Evan O’Toole has a great scene as a little boy who sings to Strayed. Other than that, the supporting cast of Wild doesn’t get to make much of an impression. It’s pretty much all Reese, all the time.

Still, it’s a credible, convincing performance in a skillfully made film. Glad though I am if it was helpful to Strayed, I admit I’m skeptical of this sort of grand, self-imposed, self-cleansing gesture. Not only would I wonder about its long-term therapeutic efficacy, it’s hard to banish the sense that it’s a middle-class indulgence—Strayed came from the working-class, but her aspirations and, as the movie amusingly acknowledges, her snobberies were of a middle-class literary sort.

Having said all that, I can also understand the psychological appeal of the idea, plausible or not, of setting your spiritual house in order in one hard pilgrimage. And Wild is an absorbing dramatization of it.

Thursday, December 4, 2014


Left over from Halloween, I suppose, are these six-packs of little soft drink cans adorned with monster faces. On the 7-Up can…

Monster-of-the-Week: this week’s honoree…

…a Creature of the Black Lagoon-ish aquatic creature. Best touch: the fishhook in his lower lip.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


Here’s an interesting one I finally caught up with this week, still in theaters here in the Valley:

The HomesmanIt’s not the sort of movie you’d recommend for lighthearted holiday viewing—essentially, it’s one serious downer after another. Spoiler alert: this movie offers a woman losing three babies to diphtheria, a man sexually violating his wife while her mother looks on, and—get ready—a woman tossing her newborn into the pit of an outhouse.

The task of transporting these three near-catatonic women from their wretched Nebraska Territory town back east to a church haven in relatively civilized Iowa falls to Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a capable unmarried farmer. She rescues a scruffy claim jumper (Tommy Lee Jones) from lynching in return for a vow that he’ll accompany her on the trek. He does, and further dangers, miseries and humiliations ensue.

If you can steel yourself to these horrors and heartaches, this bitter western, directed by Jones and boasting a cast that includes the likes of James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, John Lithgow, Barry Corbin and Meryl Streep, is worthwhile. It’s tragic, certainly, but it’s vigorous and expansive; it feels alive.

Jones seems to be a real moviemaker. In this film as in his previous feature, 2005’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, he shows both an eye and an unembarrassed readiness to engage the issues at the core of the conflicted American soul.

He also gives his usual effortlessly commanding performance. For most of the film, however, the real star is Swank. She’s heartbreaking as this strong but emotionally impoverished woman, starved for music, quietly desperate to find a man who doesn’t think she’s too "bossy" to marry, pathetically trying to make a whimsical game of naming her mules. She’s supposed to be “plain,” but even bereft of makeup she is, of course, a fine-boned beauty. If you can look past this Hollywood convention, though, it’s a superb and devastating performance.

The Homesman is based, by the way, on a 1988 novel by Glendon Swarthout. Odd to think he’s the same guy who wrote Where the Boys Are.

Friday, November 28, 2014


Opening today at Harkins Valley Art:

The Better AngelsShot in ravishing black-and-white, this vision of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood in Indiana takes its title, of course, from Lincoln’s famous reference to “The Better Angels of Our Nature” in his first inaugural. Writer-director A. J. Edwards seems to be making the case that said Better Angels were Lincoln’s mother and stepmother. The film even begins with an onscreen quote from Abe: “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”

The dreamlike, free-floating narrative depicts both this biological mother, Nancy Lincoln (Brit Marling), who died when he was nine, and his father’s new wife Sarah (Diane Kruger) as paragons who instilled in the frontier boy (Braydon Denney) not only civility but compassion. It’s less generous to Thomas Lincoln (Jason Clarke), Abe’s dour drudge of a dad—his appearances often heralded by the sharp crack of an ax as he splits wood. He’s acknowledged as a decent sort at bottom, but fairly or not it’s implied that Lincoln’s greatness arose in spite rather than because of him.

Edwards worked as an editor on several of Terence Malick’s films, and was credited as “Key Creative Consultant” on Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life. This isn’t surprising, since The Better Angels—which Malick produced—seems almost like a retelling of The Tree of Life. Not only does Edwards work slavishly in Malick’s elliptical style, but the story is essentially the same—a boy’s memories of saintly maternal influence and of an upright but joyless, emotionally distant father.

Also like The Tree of Life, The Better Angels, with its lingering, quivering attention to the natural world that surrounded these people, will seem hypnotic and powerful to some viewers—like me—and tiresome and exasperating to others. But to no viewers will it seem like a business-as-usual historical film.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


The advice of Baymax from Big Hero 6 is well taken, I suppose…

Happy Thanxgiving everybody! On the staggeringly long list of that for which I’m thankful is the pet microchip. Here’s why:

This past Sunday morning I was coming home with some fast-food breakfast when I saw this sweet lab-pit-bull mix (I’d guess)…

…no collar no tags, wandering in the street a block or so from the house. When I stopped the car she came right up to it and put her paws on the rim of my window. I gave her some bacon, then went home, but after breakfast I went back over in the car and she was still poking around aimlessly. I invited her into the back seat, and amazingly she jumped right in, so I went home, got The Kid, and we took her to Maricopa County Animal Control (AZ Humane Society no longer takes healthy strays; I guess now by law they have to go the Pound).

By the time we got her there The Kid’s face was streaked with tears; they’d totally bonded. Anyway, we took her in there, and sure enough, she had a chip! Then an hour and a half or so after we got back home I got call from the Pound saying that her people were there picking her up. So if you ever wonder if those chips are worthwhile, there’s my testimonial.

Even higher up on my thankful list are my superb nephews and their superb significant others, and on the list of that for which one of my nephews and his wife are thankful is their cat, Miles Davis…

Miles disappeared a few weeks ago, leaving them, it need hardly be said, sick with worry. But after he was gone more than a week, Miles reappeared, visibly thinner but not otherwise noticeably worse for the wear.

So, in honor of Miles…

Monster-of-the-Week: …our Thanxgiving Day MOTW is the Wampus Cat, a cat monster from American folklore sometimes depicted, as in the case of the mascot of Conway High School in Conway, Arkansas, as six-legged…

Go Wampus Cats!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Opening today, for your post-turkey-dinner diversion:

Horrible Bosses 2Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day return as the three numbskulls who, back in the 2011 hit, plotted to murder their vile bosses, with wacky results. This time they’ve gone into business together, only to have an odious corporate bigshot (Christoph Waltz) bamboozle them into fresh ruin. So they switch from murder to kidnapping, this time targeting the bigshot’s equally odious but much stupider son (a pretty funny Chris Pine).

Bateman is the relatively sensible kvetcher of the group. Sudeikis is a buoyantly optimistic, easily distracted lecher, and Day is a well-meaning simpleton. The principal dynamic of the comedy is that they all jabber away at the same time, getting carried away with whatever imbecilic notion occurs to them, heedlessly blurting out inappropriateness ranging from white-boy racial anxiety to each other’s names over their walkie-talkies while they’re in the midst of a felony.

The absurdly twisting plot pulls in characters from the original—Jennifer Aniston as a sex-addicted dentist, Jamie Foxx as a “crime consultant” and Kevin Spacey as a venomous former boss—but the director, Sean Anders, and the gaggle of writers are not carry-overs from HB the First. I confess I missed that film, but on its own terms I can tell you that HB2 is raunchy, coarse, laborious and heavy-handed. Allowing for the context of the different styles of humor and filmmaking in their respective periods, it isn’t a bit less moronic than a Three Stooges short. But I can laugh at the Stooges, and I’d be lying if I tried to claim I didn’t laugh a fair amount at these three latter-day stooges as well.

Penguins of MadagascarThis spin-off from the Madgascar movies also made me laugh—quite a bit more, really. But unlike Horrible Bosses 2, this one earns its laughs from visual precision and imaginative verbal wit.

The stars are a quartet of zoo penguins who regard themselves as an elite covert team. They run afoul of a mad octopus (well voiced by John Malkovich) who, resentful of the popularity of penguins in menageries worldwide, has a nefarious scheme to abduct them all. The tale is organized like a Bond film, with an action-packed prologue and hilarious and exciting episodes in exotic locales ranging from Fort Knox to Venice to Rio to Shanghai. I was sort of disappointed that it didn’t have an expressionistic title sequence, set to a pop song.

It’s also possible that the finale, set in New York, is a penguin-feather-width longer and more involved than necessary. But this is quibbling—Penguins of Madagascar is one of the funnier films I’ve seen this year.

Monday, November 24, 2014


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 the word “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.

Friday, November 21, 2014


Playing this week at Filmbar Phoenix:

HornsTaken for granted as guilty in the murder of his adored girlfriend, young Ig Perrish wakes up one morning to find a pair of the title appendages growing out of his forehead. They have, in addition to a rather elegant, backward-curving look, a startling effect on the people Ig encounters around the Pacific Northwest lumber town where he lives, and is seen as a pariah—without invitation, they disclose to him their baser inner thoughts.

This is the set-up for this film version of the 2010 novel by Joe Hill (the son, as he is probably sick of reviewers pointing out, of Stephen King), directed by Alexandre Aja from a script by Keith Bunin. Ig (Daniel Radcliffe) decides to use his newfound ability to elicit candor to figure out who really killed his beloved. The killer isn’t that difficult to guess—I know this because I correctly guessed who it was—but there are nonetheless intriguing layers to the mystery, and the central premise, Ig’s plight and his response to it, is fascinating and amusingly handled.

The climax is a disappointingly standard gory grapple, and though he’s sympathetic as usual, Radcliffe’s performance here doesn’t get very far past haunted earnestness. But the film is still witty and well worth seeing.

RIP to the brilliant Mike Nichols, passed on suddenly this week at 83. Nichols is remembered for his early-‘60s sketch-comedy partnership with Elaine May, but he amassed a really diverse and lively collection of credits as a movie director, starting spectacularly with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate and Catch-22 and Carnal Knowledge, through ‘80s notables like Silkwood and Working Girl, through enjoyable later works like Primary Colors and The Birdcage and his underrated swansong Charlie Wilson’s War. For all his bright, snappy wit, he tended to serve the material rather than impose his personality on it, and while not all of his movies were great or even good, a bunch of them will endure.

Thursday, November 20, 2014


This past October Jose Canseco accidently shot off his left middle finger while cleaning his gun in his kitchen. Then last week Canseco tweeted that the re-attachment surgery didn’t take, and the finger dropped off of his hand while he was playing poker. He claims there was “no bone to connect it” and that it was “smelling really bad.”

Then Canseco said that he wanted to sell the finger on eBay. Maybe it should be on display at Cooperstown? Maybe with an asterisk next to it?


Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s acknowledge the title character of The Beast With Five Fingers, Robert Florey’s 1946 creeper in which pianist Victor Francen’s disembodied hand is seen scuttling around, tickling the ivories, and generally causing havoc.

And now, today, the slugger is saying that the whole thing was a prank. I, for one, am disappointed. I was hoping that Canseco’s lost appendage could have been featured in a movie called The Beast With One Finger, in which it crawled around pressing elevator buttons, picking noses, stiffening in accusation at other alleged steroid users, and doing all of the other venerable activities that require only one finger. Granted, it’s not an index finger, but, hey, that would have made it an acting challenge.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


“This is my last chance to walk down the creepy hallway!”

That was the lament of the teenage girl in the Dr. Who t-shirt in line ahead of us, as the doors to Monti’s La Casa Vieja popped open a few minutes after 11 a.m. last Sunday. I was pretty sure I knew what passageway she meant, and I was sad at the thought of my last walk through it, as well.

Her sister, who was also wearing a Dr. Who shirt, had an idea. “Let’s all order about 80 steak sandwiches to go.”

A long line was waiting to be admitted, but The Kid and I had gotten there a half-hour early, and we were near the head of it. Even so, as we shuffled in after the Dr. Who Girls and their family, we were told that our wait would be about 30 minutes. People just a few places back in the line from us were being warned of a two-hour wait.

Some of them weren’t happy about it. Since Monti’s announced a couple of weeks ago that it would be closing tomorrow, November 17, people have flocked to the venerable Tempe steakhouse for one last filet or burger or plate of spaghetti. As my friend Richard observed when we met there for lunch the previous Friday—while staff was setting up for a Notre Dame tailgate party in the parking lot—going out of business seems to be good for business. They’ve stopped taking reservations, and I heard one of the beleaguered hostesses tell a customer, disgruntled at the wait he was facing, “We’re just so understaffed. We never expected this.”

I think I could have expected it. Monti’s isn’t just any eatery. Housed in Charles Hayden’s 1871 hacienda, the place lays claim to being the oldest continuously occupied building in the Valley, and, since it was serving food by at least the 1890s, also the area’s oldest continuously-operating restaurant. It was taken over by Leonard “Lenny” Monti in 1956, and Lenny’s son Michael and Michael’s business partner Eddie Goitia took it over in the early ‘90s.

Once The Kid—at 12, a veteran of many dozens of lunches and dinners at Monti’s herself—and I were seated and ordered, I got up to take a last stroll around the place. I headed for what I presume the Dr. Who Girl referred to as “the creepy hallway”: the dim, winding area just east of the bar, leading past the restrooms and through the oldest part of the building.

The walls there are adorned with an assortment of western and Victorian pictures—the Dr. Who Girls and their family were sitting under a scene of bathing sylphs—as well as bric-a-brac ranging from rifles to framed photos, letters and newspaper stories, and weird fluorescent murals depicting pre-Columbian scenes. Then I wandered over to the building’s west side, with its corny cowboy posters—Double Deal at Diamond Mesa—and vintage ad art, or its tiny covered wagons adorned with the legend MONTI’S OR BUST.

But then it was time for lunch—spaghetti with a side of asparagus for The Kid, filet with fries and spaghetti for me, plus a cup of clam chowder to split. I was well into the meal before I realized that something was missing—no “Roman bread,” Monti’s signature rosemary-sprinkled complimentary appetizer!

I asked our excellent young waiter, who regretfully told me they weren’t serving it any more. But a few minutes later he returned to the table bearing a little basket holding a few precious pieces of it, warm, soft and delicious as ever.

“I found some,” he said. He got a very good tip.

Even so, he’s out of a job soon, and he told us that he hadn’t turned anything else up yet. Neither had the 21-year-old who waited on me and my friend Richard, a silent-film historian and cranky chain-restaurant-loathing Luddite with whom I’d had lunch at Monti’s the previous Friday. “Where else has red-vinyl seats?” asked Richard, gesturing sadly at the upholstery in our booth.

Richard has been coming to Monti’s since 1965, and I, a relative Johnny-Come-Lately, had my first meal there in 1992. This meant, we glumly realized, that we both had been Monti’s patrons since before our waiter was born.

I wondered out loud what would become of all the memorabilia on the walls. “It’ll end up on eBay, or in somebody’s garage, or in the dumpster,” muttered Richard.

Not so, Eddie Goitia told me. There will be an auction for sentimentalists, he says, on December 4 at 5 p.m. For that matter, some of the building will remain, he claims.

“Everything forward of that,” said Goitia, pointing at the bar, “the historic part, isn’t going anywhere…It will probably be a restaurant again. But not a Monti’s.”

Friday, November 14, 2014


Opening today at Filmbar Phoenix:

Burroughs: The MovieWilliam S. Burroughs is my favorite of the Beats, though the work of his I like best is his relatively straightforward early stuff, like Junky (1953). The clarity and velocity of his prose at its best is a marvel, although I doubt it’s ever as good on the page as it is when he reads it aloud, in his metallic Midwestern blare.

This documentary, directed by Howard Brookner, opens with Burroughs on a 1981 episode of Saturday Night Live, introduced by Lauren Hutton. He proceeds to read from Naked Lunch and Nova Express, and get solid laughs. The film then gives us a full but not exhausting chronicle of the author’s often harrowing life, much of it narrated by the man himself, dapper, deadpan and unflappably stoic as ever.

Brookner, who died of complications from AIDS in 1989 at the age of 34 (Burroughs outlived him by nearly a decade), started the film as his NYU senior thesis; Tom DiCillo and Jim Jarmusch were on his crew. He filmed Burroughs for 5 years, and captured some remarkably unguarded footage—Burroughs interacting with his talented, ill-fated son Billy, for instance, or with old cronies like Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr. He also got good talking head stuff from such talkers as Terry Southern and Patti Smith and Brion Gysin and even William’s brother Mortimer Burroughs, who put down Naked Lunch halfway through because he disapproved of the language.

The film’s been around since 1983, but Filmbar is showing a remastered version, in connection with the subject’s centennial. For Beat enthusiasts, it’s a must.

Still in theaters:

InterstellarChristopher Nolan’s sci-fi saga looks, in its first stretch, more like John Steinbeck than Ray Bradbury or Robert Heinlein. Earth of the future has become a dustbowl, wheat has become extinct, billions of humans have died, and farming is understandably the most respected of all professions. Corn is still abundant, but it’s only a matter of time before it goes too, and when it does humankind is done for.

Former NASA pilot Matthew McConaughey has turned farmer, though he doesn’t really like it. But he gets the chance to go back to work for his now-disreputable former employers, flying a spaceship through an inter-dimensional “wormhole” to another galaxy, at the other end of which three planets, each a possible candidate for human colonization, have been discovered.

What ensues is a tale, complex in the Nolan manner, of space travel, time travel, paradoxes, robots, brave new worlds, rationality versus love, survival weighed against worthiness for survival. In other words, it touches on just about every classic theme in sci-fi, none of them all that new since Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer wrote When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide back in the ‘30s.

But Nolan’s treatment of them is absorbing, tense and urgent, and full of hushed, eerie visual beauties that recall such atmospheric ‘60s and ‘70s sci-fi favorites as Kubrick’s 2001, Tarkovsky’s Solaris or Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running, without seeming imitative. At nearly three hours Instellar is, I suppose, a lot of movie, though I can’t think of any point at which I was bored.

Be forewarned though: despite a cast that includes Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, Casey Affleck, Topher Grace, Wes Bentley, Ellen Burstyn and the terrific David Gyasi, this movie's a very heavy dose of Matthew McConaughey—he’s onscreen a lot, and his singsong Texas drawl is heard a lot. If, like me, you’re OK with that, Interstellar may be for you. If not, it’ll be one long space odyssey indeed.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


Congratulations to the European Space Agency for landing an unmanned probe on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko earlier this week. In honor of this achievement…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s acknowledge this specimen…

…of the fauna discovered by Cesare Danova and Sean McClory in 1961’s Valley of the Dragons, after they’ve been swept away from Terra Firma and deposited on the moon, infested by primordial reptiles and cavepeople, by a passing comet.

It’s an adaptation of Verne’s Off on a Comet.

Friday, November 7, 2014


Opening today:

Elsa & FredChristopher Plummer is Fred, a curmudgeonly disappointed widower. His daughter moves him into a New Orleans apartment next door to Elsa, a wacky life-embracing lady played by Shirley MacLaine. Elsa’s bucket list topper is to recreate the Trevi Fountain scene from La Dolce Vita, with herself in the role of Anita Ekberg.

Even if you haven’t seen Marcos Carnevale’s 2005 Argentine film Elsa y Fred, of which this is a Yank knockoff, you can probably guess where this comedy-drama is heading. Nothing that happens is any great surprise, and while the supporting cast of fretful friends, family and caregivers is impressive—it includes Marcia Gay Harden, Chris Noth, Scott Bakula, James Brolin, Erika Alexander and George Segal—they’re relegated to nearly bit roles.

So whether you care to come along will depend on how much of a sucker you are for the star power of Plummer and MacLaine. Middling though this material is, they really are pretty great. Plummer’s measured, musical Shakespearean cadences play an eccentric and winning duet with MacLaine’s casual purr—she’s almost entering into the territory of late-period Ruth Gordon dottiness.

The direction by Michael Radford is efficient, but he can’t make the contrived whimsy of the final stretch as magical as it wants to be. This doesn’t much matter, however—the stars have already given us magic enough to justify the 90-minute investment.

Big Hero 6Set in the conflated city of “San Fransokyo,” this Disney computer-animated adventure is an origin story loosely based on the Marvel Comics superhero team of the title. Hiro, a robotics whiz-kid, loses his older brother Tadashi in an explosion at a tech school. Later, he encounters a supervillain in a kabuki-like mask, marshalling the shape-shifting legion of mini-robots that Hiro invented.

Against this mystery man, Hiro organizes a team consisting of himself and four of Tadashi’s friends, each with his or her own specialty power. The sixth Big Hero, however, is the life of the movie’s party: Baymax, a robotic personal healthcare provider invented by Tadashi.

An inflatable white body with distilled dot-and-line facial features, Baymax speaks (in the voice of Scott Adsit of 30 Rock) with unflappable bland courtesy edged with the faintest undertone of maternal nurturing impatience, and moves with a sweetly deliberate gravity. He’s like Jacques Tati crossed with the Michelin Man, and he’s by far the most imaginative and original element of Big Hero 6. The movie is solidly enjoyable overall, with its mix of Marvel and anime/manga flavors, but Baymax is an instant cartoon classic.

Thursday, November 6, 2014


A pal sent me this image from my beloved hometown of Erie, PA, along with this note of explanation:

Each October, the City of Erie turns its Perry Square fountain pink for Breast-Cancer Awareness. For awhile, the spray is a vivid pink, but eventually the fountain appears to rise out of a pool of blood.


Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s acknowledge the title character in the 1971 Phillipine shocker Beast of Blood

I well remember staring wide-eyed at this poster in front of Erie’s Warner Theater at the age of nine.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


This morning when I started my truck to take The Kid to school, the CD I was listening to on the way home last night started up. The sound of Little Richard filled the cab:

You gotta jump back, jump back,
Heebie Jeebies
Gotta get back, get back,
Heebie Jeebies…

“No” said The Kid firmly, and hit the button switching it to her favorite radio station, 101.5. Immediately the cab was filled with Meghan Trainor:

You know I’m all about dat bass, ‘bout dat bass,
No treble,
I’m all about dat bass, ‘bout dat bass,
No treble…

The Kid settled in. This was acceptable. Nice to know that she insists on intellectual and lyrical depth and complexity.

Thursday, October 30, 2014


We’ve been doing Draculas for the last few weeks so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s wrap up this most monsterish month with one of the all-time greats, probably the first supernatural monster of the sound era, the great Be1a Lugosi in the title role of the 1931 Universal version of Dracula.

Happy and Safe Halloween everybody!

Friday, October 24, 2014


Opening today at AMC Arizona Center:

Stonehearst AsylumIn this period melodrama, an ambitious young fellow (Jim Sturgess) arrives at the spooky, fog-shrouded title institution, late in 1899, asking to learn the ropes of the new field of psychology. The headshrinker in charge (Ben Kingsley) seems a decent, civilized sort, but soon the new guy realizes that this haven for wealthy crazies harbors a shocking secret.

It won’t be that much of a secret to those who have read Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” on which this absorbing, slyly old-school Gothic is based. But the twists are unraveled skillfully by director Brad Anderson and screenwriter Joe Gangemi, and the cast is hard to beat: Along with Kingsley, there’s Kate Beckinsale and Brendan Gleeson and David Thewlis—scary as the asylum’s enforcer—and even the great Michael Caine.

Stonehearst Asylum hits the tropes of the madhouse scare picture, but the subtlety of the script and of these actors brings this conventional material some troubling moral ambiguity and shifts in sympathy. It’s a small gem—a horror movie with heart.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


If the Halloween choices at the multiplexes this year don’t quite cut it for you, have no fear. Or rather, be very afraid—on October 25 at 7:30 p.m., Tempe Center for the Arts is offering one of the all-time great monsters of the movies: “Count Orlok,” the first, albeit unauthorized, screen representation of Count Dracula, in F. W. Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu.

The movie’s subtitle—A Symphony of Horror—has particular significance at the Tempe Center’s showing. The film will be accompanied by live music—Brahams, Dvorak, Wagner—performed by the Arizona Pro Arte Ensemble, under the baton of conductor Timothy Verville.

I’ve seen several of these live music/silent movie performances over the years, among them Eisenstein’s Potemkin, Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula (an early talkie, but made without a musical score). If you’ve never had this experience, I highly recommend it; both the cinematic and the musical sides are enriched. Details here.

And if you’ve never seen Nosferatu, you really need to put that on your movie bucket list as well. This is the rare silent film that still genuinely has the power to spook, or to spook me, at least. The rat-faced, dome-headed, baleful-eyed figure of the vampire Count, played by the unforgettable Max Schreck, is unnerving, more than 80 years after the film was made. I can honestly say that I’ve gotten creeped out, stumbling to the bathroom at three in the morning, imagining that I’d see this bald-pated goblin-Count standing there at the end of the hallway glaring at me.

But since Schreck’s original Count Orlok has already been a Monster-of-the-Week…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week let’s acknowledge one of the many homages paid to him, in E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire, an uneven but wryly funny horror picture about the making of Nosferatu which suggested that Schreck (an excellent Willem Dafoe) really was a vampire…