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.