Friday, September 25, 2015


A bunch of openings this weekend:

StonewallThe June 1969 riots at the title gay bar in Greenwich Village, credited with goosing the LGBT Liberation Movement into action, are wrapped in a fictitious coming-of-age story. High school senior Danny (Jeremy Irvine), who looks like Troy Donahue’s prettier little brother, flees the Midwest when his dad finds out he’s gay. Landing in New York (he has a scholarship to Columbia), he promptly falls in with the tricking, shoplifting riff raff on Christopher Street.

Danny finds acceptance from this racially and ethnically mixed rabble—especially from the nurturing, flamboyant Puerto Rican hustler Ray (the likable Jonny Beauchamp), who loves him unrequitedly—that he never got at home, but he also learns what it’s like to turn tricks and to get the crap beaten out of him by the cops. He falls for a Mattachine Society activist (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and Ray suffers, and they’re all in the mix at the mobbed-up club that fateful night in June, a few days after the death of Judy Garland.

Directed by Roland Emmerich, this very old-fashioned movie has taken a lot of shit from LGBT commentators for the whitebread nature of the leading man, and the corniness of his story. Fair enough, maybe, but the script—credited to no less than Jon Robin Baitz, though there are thuddingly self-conscious lines that it’s hard to believe he wrote—is structurally very similar to a low-budget indie effort of the same title from 1995 (I reviewed it for Phoenix New Times), and that movie had the same gushy sentimentalities.

Emmerich’s not a director I would normally go to the wall defending, but there’s a simple energy to his work here, and the cast is lively, with the youngsters abetted by enjoyable turns from vets like Matt Craven, Patrick Garrow and Ron Perlman. Above all, the significance of the event—the startling awareness it gave to the mainstream (not to mention other gay people) that, pushed far enough, that community could fight back like any other downtrodden minority—gives the climax a charge. The movie’s very conventionality is cheering, in a way—it’s shaped to offer the protesters as heroes to a mainstream audience, and who, back in 1969, would have predicted that?

Pawn SacrificeAnother historical episode, from just three years later: Tobey Maguire plays chess master Bobby Fisher in Edward Zwick’s intriguing chronicle, focusing on his legendary 1972 match in Reykjavik, Iceland, with Russian master Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). I well remember what an improbably iconic figure Fisher was at that time even in the rural America where I grew up, because he was able to beat the Soviets in a field for which they particularly prided themselves. 

What most of us didn’t know at the time was the degree to which Fisher was not just a little eccentric but a full-blown, tinfoil-on-the-skull paranoid megalomaniac, bristling with ugly vitriol against communists and Jews (though he was Jewish himself) and certain he was being conspired against. He was also deeply sensitive to his environment, finding it hard to play without absolute quiet. The title, perhaps, is meant to suggest that Fisher was the pawn, his obvious mental health needs sacrificed by the U.S. for a Cold War win. 

If the script, by Steven Knight, and Maguire’s performance is to be believed, Fisher’s nuttiness didn’t quite excuse him from also being an insufferably arrogant, exasperating bastard. His chess genius apparently did, however—the people close to him, including his coach, the chess master and Catholic priest William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), seemed capable of forgiving him anything, and going to any lengths to accommodate him.

It’s to Maguire’s credit that, without softening Fisher, he makes him a poignant and haunted and also comic figure as well as an infuriating one. The supporting cast helps too, especially Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg as the shady, possibly covert-intelligence-connected tournament promoter, and Schrieber. Spassky isn’t a large role, but Schrieber brings it a warm, indolent virility, like a self-possessed old tomcat, yet with the suggestion that he may have his own, less virulent streak of paranoia

 A Brilliant Young MindThough he’s far less abrasive than Maguire’s Bobby Fisher, the main character of this Brit drama suffers some of the same miseries. Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield) is a mathematical genius. He’s also, thanks to some degree of autism but also to a horrifying childhood trauma, a social disconnected misfit, unable to show affection even to his desperately deprived mother (Sally Hawkins).

Under the dryly sardonic tutelage of a teacher (Rafe Spall), himself a “maths” whiz as a kid but now a multiple sclerosis-afflicted pill-popper, Nathan prepares to compete for a spot in the International Mathematics Olympiad. His quest takes him to Taiwan, where a girl from the Chinese team (Jo Yang) takes a shine to him.

The movie, titled X + Y in the UK, is fiction derived from a documentary called Beautiful Young Minds by the same director, Morgan Matthews. For a while it seems like one more variation on the sports movie, sort of a Rocky for people with Asperger’s. And that would be entertaining enough as far as it went, but A Brilliant Young Mind takes a turn in its homestretch that I must admit I wasn’t expecting, and which carries it beyond the simple triumph of the underdog climax toward which it seems to be building to something far more emotionally satisfying. I don’t know how it squares with the clinical realities of this sort of condition, but dramatically it works. 

Sally Hawkins is especially fine in these last minutes, but the whole cast is strong. Spall was my favorite, but Eddie Marsan is also peppery and funny as the UK coach, and Yang is a delight as the unapologetically infatuated love interest. Butterfield (Ender in Ender’s Game) is a touching presence at the center of the movie, and a charismatic one, too—it’s believable that girls might fall for him, not in spite of his strangeness but because of it.

The InternThis heavy-handed message comedy may do well enough at the box office, but something tells me it won’t get a ton of serious critical sympathy. It’s about as soft-edged and undemanding as movies get, with almost all of the story’s conflict kept on the margins, while the center is filled with platitudes and pleasantries. But I can’t claim I wasn’t engaged by it from start to finish.

First of all, said message—that old people are a resource society ought not to squander—is one I find myself agreeing with more heartily every year. Writer-director Nancy Meyers dramatizes this, not very urgently, by sending bored, affluent retired Brooklyn widower Ben (Robert DeNiro) to work as an unpaid intern at an exploding online shopping business founded by Jules (Anne Hathaway). In part because of strained relations with her mother, Jules is uncomfortable with older people, but Ben’s unassuming diligence and discretion quickly break through her defenses, and they bond.

That, I guess, is the second thing I liked about The Intern. Ben isn’t the father Jules always needed; the two bond as friends and colleagues. I think the third and biggest reason I liked The Intern, though, was just because of the chance to see DeNiro in a light, relaxed, funny vein. Though his character is underwritten and preposterously flawless, DeNiro himself is good company here.

Much of Hathaway’s role consists of admiring Ben’s old-school style. Jules, and presumably Meyers speaking through her, seems to regard as the biggest fault of the younger generation of men in this country their failure to wear suits and ties to work, and to carry a hankie with them in case a nearby woman needs a good cry. Strictly from an aesthetic point of view, I entirely agree, but it’s worth remembering the power structure that style symbolized. Whether Jules, or Meyers, would have enjoyed trying to build a career in the suit-and-tie world of Ben’s prime is a point The Intern doesn’t raise.

Friday, September 18, 2015


Opening this weekend:

The Scorch TrialsThe screen version of James Dashner’s novel The Maze Runner, released a year ago this month, was about a bunch of teenage boys with no memory, living in an encampment surrounded on all sides by an enormous maze that only opened during daylight hours. At the end they got out, to find they were test subjects of an evil scientist (Patricia Clarkson) in a post-apocalyptic society.

This sequel follows the surviving boys, and one girl, as they escape from yet another sinister complex, only to find themselves in the Scorch, the godforsaken, sandblasted ruin of an American city. As they try to reach a (possibly mythical) resistance, they’re beset by zombies (here called “cranks”) and other menaces, and are pursued all the while by the scientist’s minions.

The first film was fairly routine masochistic young-adult-fiction melodrama, but that mysterious maze gave it a certain fascination, at least until everything was overexplained toward the end. Scorch Trials doesn’t have anything that tantalizing. It’s just a jumble of sci-fi chase movie tropes. Everything seems to have been borrowed from other movies—The Omega Man, Logan’s Run, The Road Warrior, Coma.

Director Wes Ball, who also helmed The Maze Runner, manages the big action scenes well, and several fine character actors—Giancarlo Esposito, Aidan Gillen, Barry Pepper, Lili Taylor and Alan Tudyk, among others—provide some energy. Most of the kids are attractive but on the uninteresting side, with one big exception: a young actress named Rosa Salazar joins the gang about midpoint, and gives Scorch Trials a much-needed dose of soulfulness.

Black MassJonny Depp plays James “Whitey” Bulger, a notoriously brutal South Boston gang boss of the ‘70s and ‘80s, in Scott Cooper’s somber, violent true-crime drama. Cooper’s focus is on Bulger’s unholy alliance with the FBI, apparently the result of the boyhood hero-worship that one of the agents (Joel Edgerton) had for him.

Depp is convincing and scary but repellent, and you may find yourself wondering why you should care about this charmless monster. Not, of course, that he would be less of a monster if he was more charming, but part of the dynamic of the gangster picture is the transgressive thrill it offers in making gangsters so charming we forget they’re monsters while we’re watching.

We certainly don’t forget it here. But the cast is strong—Benedict Cumberbatch stands out as Whitey’s respectable brother—and the movie packs plenty of punch.

By the way, for the tens of readers out there who are no doubt wondering why there was no Monster-of-the-Week yesterday, the feature is on hiatus. Probably at least until October gets here.

Friday, September 11, 2015


Opening this weekend:

The VisitRecently I was reading a silly online list of pop-culture opinions—though the list referred to them as “pop-culture facts no one denies”—meant to be provocative. Number Six read: “The Village is a borderline excellent movie that would garner unanimous praise if it was M Night Shyamalan’s first film.”

“Unanimous” might be a bit much, but I quite agree that it’s at least borderline excellent, and I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who thinks so. I’m hoping for a critical rediscovery of that movie. The Village was, however, the only major break in Shyamalan’s streak of misfires and interesting failures since his triumph in 1999 with The Sixth Sense. Until now, that is.

Shyamalan’s latest, The Visit, is a “mockumentary,” and if you’re put off right away by the idea of sitting through another exercise in that overused device I don’t blame you. But it’s not oppressive here, in part because the cinematography, by Maryse Alberti, is rich and warm—the teenage heroine evidently has really good video cameras—and in part because said heroine gives her younger brother a second camera, so we get more than one angle.

Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and her brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are sent by their divorced Mom (Kathryn Hahn) to visit her long-estranged parents in rural Pennsylvania while she goes on a cruise with her new boyfriend. Becca decides to shoot the visit, not only because she’s an aspiring filmmaker but because she’s hoping to get what she calls “The Elixir” for her Mom: A statement of conciliation from her parents for whatever it was that caused the falling-out back in the day.

Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (Peter McRobbie) meet the kids at the train and take them to the handsome farmhouse where their Mom grew up. Their hosts are a charming old couple, but Pop-Pop warns them not to go in the cellar—because of the mold, he says—and to stay in their room after 9:30 p.m.

And thus, gradually, the creepy stuff starts. Nana and Pop-Pop alternate—one does something freaky, gross or inappropriate, and the other gently, soberly explains it to the kids as “sundowning” or whatever. The thriller pacing is expert, though on the “character” side of the writing there are some heavy-handed set-ups that are a little too pat in their payoffs. But we’re carried past this Afterschool Special dramaturgy by the acting, especially that of the lovely DeJonge and the hilarious, freestyling Oxenbould (both Australians, by the way).

It’s a nervy, imaginative gem of a horror picture, even better than David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows, which ran out of steam before the end. The Visit doesn’t—it steadily, cunningly builds, to a well-engineered twist and a hair-raising finale.

Best of all, unlike many contemporary horror pictures, The Visit is fun—Shyamalan’s touch here is playfully macabre, even scatological, and the audience responds with persistent giggles that are both nervous and genuine. As Nana explains, when Becca comes upon her having a laughing fit: “I have the Deep Darkies. You have to laugh, to keep the Deep Darkies in a cave.”

Thursday, September 10, 2015


With M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, The Visit, opening tomorrow…

Monster-of-the-Week: …the nod this week goes to...

…The Scrunt, the wolfish beast from Lady in the Water, Shyamalan’s uneven but interesting urban fairy tale of 2006.

Saturday, September 5, 2015


All right, nerds, prepare to writhe with envy at...

…my new bobblehead!

Now, Your Humble Narrator does not make it a secret that he likes him some bobbleheads, and has a small but cool collection of same. There’s the Arizona Diamondbacks Hello Kitty, and the Arizona Diamondbacks Zombie, and there’s the Gorn Captain from Star Trek who stands on my desk, always ready to give me some enthusiastic affirmation if I tap him on the head. But not until a couple of weeks ago did I experience true bobblehead covetousness, when I learned of the existence of a George Alfred Townsend bobblehead!

George Alfred Townsend, as everyone should know, was a journalist and author from Delaware who, under the byline “Gath”—his own initials plus H (it’s also the name of a Philistine city in the Old Testament, supposedly Goliath’s home town)—covered the Civil War, the Lincoln Assassination and the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth, among other subjects, and also wrote poetry and novels. He founded an estate near Hagerstown, Maryland, which is now Gathland State Park, and the home of the War Correspondents Memorial Arch.

So from one of my excellent nieces, who happens to be employed by the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, I learned that the Hagerstown Suns (Single-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals) were hosting George Alfred Townsend Night at the Ballpark, at which a George Alfred Townsend bobblehead would be handed out! Baseball and Gath in one evening! It pained me deeply that I couldn’t be there, but my niece SENT ME A GATH BOBBLEHEAD!

Isn’t he handsome? And here he is with his new bobble-family…

Left to right, it’s the Diamondbacks Zombie, the Diamondbacks Garden Gnome, the Gorn, Gath, Hello Kitty, former Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero (who recently caught Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter for the Cubs) and Rapa Nui/Easter Island guy.

I’m aware, by the way, that the Diamondbacks Garden Gnome is technically a figurine, not a bobblehead, but around here we don’t discriminate against the Inflexibly-Necked.

Thursday, September 3, 2015


In memory of the great Wes Craven, passed on this week at 76

Monster-of-the-Week: …the title character...

…from his 1982 movie version of Swamp Thing. This Swampy is not as good as the one in the DC Comics scripted by Alan Moore and drawn by Steven Bissette and my fellow Erieite John Totleben back in the ‘80s…

…but he’s still pretty enjoyable.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


Check out my list, on Topless Robot, in appreciation of one of the less-loved films of the late lamented Wes Craven, his 1985 The Hills Have Eyes Part 2...

For various reasons there elaborated, I’ve always been fond of it.