Thursday, December 29, 2016


RIP to the brilliant and funny Carrie Fisher, departed too soon at 60, and to her mesmerizingly talented mother Debbie Reynolds, who shockingly followed her just one day later, at 84.

In their honor… 

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to Jabba the Hutt, the slimy invertebrate who mistakenly supposed he could enslave Fisher's Princess Leia Organa in 1983’s Return of the Jedi

Sunday, December 25, 2016


Merry Christmas everybody! Here’s part of what Santa brought you: 

FencesDenzel Washington directed and stars in this filming of August Wilson’s 1983 Tony and Pulitzer winning drama. He plays Troy Maxson, an African-American garbageman in 1950s Pittsburgh with a soul full of unresolved fury.

A superb baseball player as a youth, he was too old to make The Bigs by the time Jackie Robinson had broken through. He resents both his older son, a musician, and his younger son, a high school football star, for pursuing their dreams. Preemptively certain that the racist deck will be stacked against him—or maybe just envious—he works to scuttle the younger kid’s prospects of playing college ball. Troy is also keeping a wounding secret from his beloved, long-suffering wife Rose (Viola Davis) which leads to further heartache.

Working from a screen adaptation that Wilson completed before his death (reportedly with an uncredited rewrite by Tony Kushner), Washington doesn’t try to conceal the material’s theatrical origins. He only expands the locations a little from the play’s back-yard setting, and he certainly doesn’t tone down the heightened language and acting style. And as is often the case with movies made from one-set, small-ensemble plays, this was a shrewd move—the result is a highly satisfying focus on masterly performances.

There is fine work from the supporting cast, notably Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s brain-damaged brother, Russell Hornsby as the elder and Jovan Adepo as the younger son and Saniyya Sidney as Troy’s youngest child. Stephen McKinley Henderson is particularly solid as Troy’s devoted, worried friend.

But they’re all secondary to Washington and Davis, who played the roles opposite each other on Broadway in 2010, and who clearly haven’t lost their rapport. They’re able to get across the ways in which grief and bitterness can become so ingrained in a person—or a marriage—that it can coexist quite comfortably with humor, civility, even affection.

Though polished and skillful, this movie is in no way groundbreaking as cinema, and it’s maybe a hair longer than it needs to be. But it’s a chance to watch, quite simply, two of the greatest actors in America, in their prime, in roles worthy of their abilities. The quiet, steady intensity of the stars makes Fences, at its best, almost hypnotic.

Thursday, December 22, 2016


Merry Christmas, everybody. Here…

Monster-of-the-Week: …is Santa Godzilla, comin’ to town:

This guy needs no reindeer, you’ll notice.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Opening today:

PassengersJim and Aurora are passengers on the ultimate red eye, a huge, luxurious interstellar ship on a 120-year voyage to a colony planet. Both of them are awakened from their pods way too early, with ninety years of flight left—Jim first, Aurora about a year later.

They can’t figure out how to put themselves back to sleep, but since Jim’s played by Chris Pratt and Aurora is played by Jennifer Lawrence, it isn’t surprising that they find a way to pass the time. The course of true love doesn’t run smoothly, however, and neither does the spaceship, and eventually perils arise that require derring-do and sacrifice.

This science-fiction romance, directed by the Norwegian Morten Tyldum from a long-postponed script by Jon Spaihts, is lavish and visually elegant. The ship, which resembles a giant corkscrew as it twirls its way through the void, is like a high-end shopping mall, spa and resort on the inside. As solitary confinements go, it’s above average.

And Pratt and Lawrence are rather visually elegant, too. But their characterizations are flat and uninteresting. About midpoint, Jim takes an action that makes it hard to like him, but it’s also just about the only true interpersonal drama that Passengers offers.

The dialogue is most of the problem. Michael Sheen appears as a robot bartender, spouting mindless platitudes in the grand tradition of his profession, and this would be droll if most of Jim and Aurora’s lines weren’t equally banal.

Passengers is cleverly imagined, and it has its moments, like a scene involving a swimming pool and the loss of gravity, that show some sci-fi panache. But overall, it’s slow going, the sort of film that’s only worth watching, say, on a long flight. And even then, only if you can’t get to sleep.

The Phoenix Film Critics Society has announced its 2016 award winners! La La Land led the field, taking seven awards, and Manchester by the Sea, Hell or High Water, Moonlight and Hacksaw Ridge were also among the winners.

Clearly most critics got more out of La La Land than I did, but I was glad to see Linus Sandgren honored for that film’s superb cinematography.

Check out the complete list of winners here.

Friday, December 16, 2016


Opening this weekend:

Rogue OneIn the advertising, it’s referred to as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but on the screen it’s simply titled Rogue One. That’s the first of many things I liked about this movie—it’s not Episode Anything or Chapter Anything.

This truly seems to have been conceived as a stand-alone tale, and not as a new branch of the franchise. It doesn’t open with the familiar John Williams fanfare—the fine score is by Michael Giacchino, with borrowings from Williams where necessary—or with a crawl of exposition. We get an occasional subtitle explaining what planet we’re on, but that’s it. The atmosphere is tense and hectic and dark and, despite quite a lot of effective comedy, rather fatalistic.

Having said that, this movie nonetheless felt far more authentically like a “real” Star Wars movie to me than Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith, the “official” opening trilogy of the series. Like The Force Awakens last year, Rogue One is a strikingly retro work—by necessity, as it's set just before the events of the original George Lucas Star Wars movie, made in 1977.

So the lovingly re-created sets and costumes have a flaky, dated look to them. They feel as self-consciously “‘70s” as bell bottoms or lava lamps. And while there are, among the leads, plenty of women and non-European-looking men—not to mention robots and aliens—the space fighter pilots and the Imperial officials are mostly played by the same kind of saggy white dudes that generally played such roles back in the ‘70s.

If I had to speculate, I’d guess that the script—by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (based, in turn, on a story devised by effects master John Knoll and Gary Whitta)—grew out of dissatisfaction with a perceived implausibility in the first Star Wars flick: the idea that the whole Death Star could be blown to smithereens by just two wimpy torpedoes from Luke Skywalker. The heroine here, a surly, hard-fighting young delinquent named Jyn (Felicity Jones), is pressed into service by the Rebellion to contact her surrogate father (Forest Whitaker) in hopes of gaining intelligence on that colossal, planet-shattering weapon of mass destruction.

She’s thrown together on this mission with Cassian (Diego Luna), a Rebel agent of uncertain motivation, and K-2SO, a snide, kvetching robot voiced by Alan Tudyk. Along the way, this trio picks up a variety of scruffy misfit allies, and after many twists and turns the story comes to a head in a massive Rebel raid on a force-field-fortified Imperial base.

Director Gareth Edwards, of 2010’s imaginative low-budgeter Monsters, handles the epic action sequences rousingly, and there’s no shortage of visual wonder to the movie. The Death Star and the huge Imperial ships hanging in the skies have a chilling, oppressive awe to them; conversely, there’s a sprightly wit to the sight of swarms of Rebel ships springing out of hyperspace like popcorn kernels popping. The focused storyline allows for less in the way of digressive episodes and strange creatures, although there’s a mind-reading tentacled horror that’s pretty memorable.

But the general visual vocabulary of Rogue One owes as much to classic WWII movies as to sci-fi. “There’s fighting on the beaches,” somebody says at one point. Inevitably, some of the dialogue echoes with contemporary political resonance, and no matter what your ideology, you’re likely to cast “your” side as the Rebels and the other side as the Empire. In any case, the line “Rebellions are built on hope” figures prominently in this film, and hope is something that many of us are sorely in need of right now. 

La La LandMia (Emma Stone) is a struggling actress, working as a barista on the Warner Brothers lot in the title town. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling jazz pianist who wants to open his own club. The story of how they meet, fall in love, drift apart and so forth unfolds via original songs staged as elaborate production numbers.

There’s a lot that’s really good about this picture, and it’s hard not to admire its ambitiousness. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, with music by Justin Hurwitz, and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, it’s a serious, un-ironic attempt to do something that seems to me very much worth doing—reinvent the old-school movie musical as a fully contemporary form. So I feel like a bit of a bum not being able to join in the general critical rapture. But I don’t think La La Land entirely comes off.

It’s possible that Chazelle has succeeded in creating a sort of neoclassical style for musicals that can be built on. But La La Land’s jazz tunes, though pretty, are a little tame and unvaried, and the large-scale dances have the feel of flash-mob cavorting—they don’t bristle with the intensity and insolent precision of the numbers in, say, a ‘50s-era MGM musical, or, for that matter, of the average "Bollywood" musical.

More problematically, the leads aren’t natural musical performers. Gosling and Stone have a touching rapport as actors—you believe they’re in love—and they dance well. But their voices seem featureless and slight. They’re vivid screen presences until they start singing. As soon as they do, their personalities recede.

For many of us, there are few forms of entertainment that have the potential to generate the sheer excitement of the musical, both on stage and screen. If La La Land brings the genre back to vitality, I’ll rejoice. But while much of this movie is clever and enjoyable, I can’t say I found it exciting.

Thursday, December 15, 2016


The Phoenix Film Critics Society, of which I’m always proud to note I’m a founding member, has announced its 2016 award nominations. Like every year, some of these represent my nominating, others don’t, but there are a lot of worthwhile movies on this list.

Check out the December issue of Phoenix Magazine

…now on the stands, for my “Four Corners” column on worthwhile chain restaurants. It’s on page 135, or here.

RIP to John Glenn, of whom I once caught a glimpse when he was riding in the Fiesta Bowl Parade, departed at 95. RIP also to Van Williams, passed on at 82, one of the handsomer guys ever to appear on TV, even when his face was half-covered by the mask of the Green Hornet...

Kudos to MeTV this past Saturday for airing the “crossover” episodes of Batman featuring the Green Hornet as “Visiting Hero” and Kato (Bruce Lee) as “Assistant Visiting Hero.”

With the Star Wars movie Rogue One opening…

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

…from Monsters, the intriguing low-budget debut of Rogue One director Gareth Edwards.

Friday, December 9, 2016


Opening today:

The Love WitchAfter a brief run at the Valley Art, this labor of obsessive love from writer-director Anna Biller has resurfaced downtown at FilmBar. It’s an attempt to re-create the look and sound of a drive-in or grindhouse erotic supernatural melodrama of the early ‘70s, something along the lines of Daughters of Satan or Voices of Desire or Simon, King of the Witches. It also has a strong dash of Russ Meyer to the hair and clothes and the saturated colors of M. David Mullen’s lush cinematography—the film was shot and cut, incredibly, on actual 35mm.

Simply as a stylistic forgery, it’s a remarkable achievement. In the opening scene, as our heroine Elaine (Samantha Robinson) drives up the California coast, in blue-green eye shadow with raven hair rising over her head, smoking cigarette after cigarette, with the road receding behind her clearly a back-projection, it’s a marvelous evocation of an earlier era of moviegoing.

And strictly on a visual and aural level, Biller sustains this impressively. If it weren’t for the contemporary cars on the streets of Eureka, California, where Elaine settles, or for the occasional cell phone or computer, you might just believe it if somebody told you that this was a genuine relic.

As the title implies, Elaine is a witch, of the Wiccan, non-Satanic variety—which is not to say she couldn’t be called a wicked witch. Her interest in magic, as she tells us in solemn voice-over narration, is simply as a means to obtain the love of a man. But several times in the course of the film, her potions and rituals reduce the objects of her seduction to sniveling, emotionally helpless wrecks, and she promptly loses interest in them.

It’s a pretty good feminist joke, if a self-conscious one. But the plot wanders around from one strand to another with little rising tension and many interminable digressions—like a Ren-Faire-style wedding ceremony—that leave the movie at least twenty minutes too long. To be fair, of course, the movies that Biller is imitating weren’t always models of disciplined storytelling, but it’s still a shame—had Biller been able to shape the story a bit more tightly and less episodically, to build some suspense and some investment in the outcome, The Love Witch could have been a crazy instant classic instead of an interesting curio.

Having said that, it’s a really interesting curio. A fascinating curio. The women are gloriously beautiful, the men are almost all appropriately repellent, and the defiant emotion behind Biller’s satirical pose…well, no way around it, it casts an undeniable spell. 

JackieNatalie Portman stars, as the most iconic of American First Ladies, in this richly colored but otherwise austere historical drama. Directed by the Chilean Pablo Larrain from a script by Noah Oppenheim, the film focuses on the days just after that fateful motorcade in Dallas—arguably the least mysterious chapter in the title character’s life. The story is told through flashbacks, as Jackie narrates, rather testily, to an equally edgy journalist (Billy Crudup).

As with Peter Landesman’s Parkland a couple of years ago, Jackie doesn’t really tell us anything controversial about the assassination or its aftermath. The ostensible point of the film, insofar as it has one, seems to be that behind the indelible public persona of Jackie Kennedy in the wake of the killing—harrowed yet dignified and stoic in blood-spattered pink Chanel—was an intense anger with no healthy outlet. Her circumstances—the mores of her social class, her celebrity position, her beauty, her pride—closed off every avenue by which this fury could be acceptably expressed.

The movie suggests that even Jackie’s personal mannerisms may have militated against any response except shocked, meek bereavement. As depicted here, she’s an intelligent, well-read, reflective woman trapped behind a breathy, ethereal voice that could come across, quite frankly, as vapid, even simple.

Throughout, the people around her, men and women alike, treat her like a child, with gentle condescension and looks of embarrassed discomfort whenever she asserts herself. The exceptions are the equally infuriated Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard)—though even he insists on keeping the news that Lee Harvey Oswald has been murdered from her—and a befuddled old priest (John Hurt), who speaks comfortingly to her without talking down.

The real point of the film, of course, is to provide an actress with an award-bait showcase role, and Natalie Portman rises to the opportunity, capturing that airy voice as well as the raging human being behind it. There are other strong performances—Sarsgaard and Hurt, Greta Gerwig as Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman, John Carroll Lynch as LBJ, Beth Grant as Lady Bird, Max Casella as Jack Valenti, Richard E. Grant as William Walton—but most of them are little more than bit players. Jackie feels curiously like a funereal pageant, with the Pageant Queen at its center simultaneously rebelling against, resenting and relishing the spectacle.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


RIP to the lovely Margaret Whitton of Major League, The Best of Times and other ‘80s fare, departed too young at 67.

An early Christmas gift from one of my excellent nephews…

Monster-of-the-Week: …is this week’s honoree, Monster-of-the-Week favorite The Gill-Man, seen here in a detail from the classic Albert Kallis poster for Creature From the Black Lagoon

…on these splendid coasters pleading that my beloved hometown of Erie, PA, be kept weird. Not too tough an assignment, I’m afraid.

Thursday, December 1, 2016


There have been some sad showbiz passings recently: RIP to Ron Glass, the ever-acerbic Detective Harris of Barney Miller, departed at 71, and Napoleon Solo himself, Robert Vaughn, departed at 83.

This week…

Monster-of-the-Week: …the nod goes to the behemoth in this Reynold Brown poster for Roger Corman’s 1958 epic Teenage Caveman

…one of Vaughn’s first starring roles. This beast is far more impressive than any of the creatures actually seen in Corman’s hilarious, endearing saga—most of which are stock footage cribbed from earlier movies like One Million B.C.

Friday, November 25, 2016


In case the leftovers don’t hold up all weekend long, you can check out some dining options in the November issue of Phoenix Magazine

…among them my review of the outstanding Mambo’s Dominican Kitchen in Chandler (page 144, or here) and my “Four Corners” column (page 145, or here) on top-notch sandwich shops. Yum!

Thursday, November 24, 2016


Happy Thanksgiving to all!

In observance of the holiday…

Monster-of-the-Week: …our honoree is this Brobdingnagian turkey…

…that towered over Kurt Kasznar, Deanna Lund and the gang in “The Golden Cage,” a 1968 episode of Land of the Giants. Of all the sci-fi stories made for television about attempts to catch giant turkeys, this is arguably one of the better ones in color.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


Opening today:

Bad Santa 2Back in 2003, I was in the midst of what I regarded as a particularly un-merry holiday season. I saw Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa, and laughed so hard that I thought I might need medical attention. It wasn’t an especially well-made movie, but its childish upending of clich├ęd holiday wholesomeness essentially saved Christmas for me that year.

Billy Bob Thornton returns in this 13-years-belated sequel, again as Willie, a drunken, depressive, fetishistic safecracker who uses a Santa costume as his front. Here he’s pressed into service by his diminutive former accomplice Marcus (Tony Cox), donning the costume again to rob a fraudulent charity in Chicago. The mastermind—if that’s the word—behind the plot is Willie’s loathed mother Sunny (Kathy Bates).

Few would suggest that this episodic, clumsily-structured caper farce is crackerjack moviemaking. It relies on a ridiculously easy comedic strategy—set up saccharine Christmas imagery and music and blow raspberries at it.

So sure, Bad Santa 2 isn’t a great movie. But Billy Bob Thornton is a great movie star. I don’t just mean he’s a great actor, though he is; he also has the authoritative presence of a true star. Watching him here isn’t just watching a drawly guy spout vile obscenity and epithets—amusing enough for a while, but only for a while—it’s also getting a taste of the vast, defeated bleakness of outlook from which this invective arises.

His characterization carries a whisper of the tragic to it, and indeed this might take over and spoil the fun if it weren’t for Willie’s strange magnetism, sexual and otherwise. In the first movie he was irresistible to Lauren Graham; here his romantic—if that’s the word—interest is Christina Hendricks. So how sorry for him can we feel?

Besides, like the original, Bad Santa 2 is every bit as sentimental as any Christmas movie. We’re meant to see that the true source of Willie’s misery is that, at bottom, he’s a thoroughly decent-hearted fellow.

The journeyman director, Mark Waters, moves things along with reasonable efficiency. Bates is formidable as ever as Sunny. Cox, Octavia Spencer and Brett Kelly—as the oddball Thurman Merman—are amusing in reprised roles from the original. But Thornton is the real show. If, for whatever reason, you aren’t feeling as festive this year as tradition demands, Bad Santa 2 might help you vent some of your negativity. Just don’t take the kiddies.

Friday, November 18, 2016


Opening today:

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find ThemJ. K. Rowling’s 2001 book, proceeds from which benefitted Comic Relief, wasn’t a novel or even a short story. It was part of the Harry Potter universe, a supposed textbook at Hogwart’s, credited to a certain Newt Scamander, on the histories and habits of creatures of myth and folklore.

In her first produced screenplay, Rowling has a spun a tale inspired by this work. In the 1920s, Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York with a suitcase full of fanciful creatures—magically clown-car full of them; some of them, like the rhino-esque Erumpent, are gargantuan. Others, like the stick-insect-like Bowtruckle, are tiny. Others, like the Demiguise, are invisible. Others, like the endearing hedgehog-like Niffler, are compulsively acquisitive where small shiny objects are concerned.

And so on. It isn’t long, of course, before a number of these creatures have escaped the suitcase, and Scamander is faced with rounding them up. But of course, this being Rowling, that’s not all there is to the story. That’s not even half of the story.

The beasts, as it turns out, oddly aren’t the stars of Fantastic Beasts. The movie twists itself into a dauntingly complex, obsessively imagined saga involving the magical authorities of the U.S., including a sort of magicians’ FBI led by the scowling Graves (Colin Farrell). There’s Tina (Kate Waterston), an outcast magical investigator who first arrests, then allies herself with Scamander. There’s an anti-witchcraft sect led by a puritan (Samantha Morton) and staffed by her spooky foster kids. And there’s the object of Scamander’s visit to the Big Apple, a mysterious, destructive being called an “Obscurial.”

Directed by David Yates, who helmed four of the Harry Potter flicks, the movie is an elaborate and impeccable piece of big-studio craft. James Newton Howard’s music evokes an atmosphere of whimsy taken seriously, and the production design and special effects are impressively rich, despite the usual hint of CGI chilliness. As with the Harry Potter movies, I sometimes got a little lost in the plot, but I was consistently entertained.

Despite the handsomeness of the production, and despite Rowling’s infectious storytelling glee, it’s mostly to the credit of the actors that Fantastic Beasts cast its spell even on a muggle like me. Redmayne and Waterston are a delightfully sheepish hero and heroine. The soft-spoken Farrell, stalking around with his eyes on the ground in front of him, makes an intense yet elegantly assured heavy—despite his excellent American accent, he reminded me of James Mason in his darker mode.

But it’s Dan Fogler who really connects with the audience, as Jacob Kowalski, a “no-maj” (American slang for a muggle) baker who gets caught up in the adventure. The central function of Fogler’s character is to be our surrogate—to be astonished, and get things explained to him. But Fogler’s capacity for wonder makes him heroic, and when he’s stunned with love at first sight by Tina’s gorgeous sister Queenie (the singer Alison Sudol), she’s stunned right back. The two of them steal the movie, and that constitutes pretty grand larceny.

Thursday, November 17, 2016


With the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opening this weekend...

Monster-of-the-Week: …our honoree is a Quintaped…

…a hostile five-legged people eater, seen here as depicted in J.K. Rowling’s original book.

Monday, November 14, 2016


Your Humble Narrator was taking a lunchtime hike in Papago Park when I came across this in the trail…

Seemed ominous. I didn’t open it.

Friday, November 11, 2016


Opening in the Valley this weekend:

The Eagle HuntressThough it’s full of engaging people using their real names, it’s a stretch to call this feature from director Otto Bell a documentary. Sure, it has a bit of National Geographic-style narration, spoken by Daisy Ridley, but it’s full of scenes that have clearly been staged, and the narrative may have been shaped dramatically in the macro sense, too. It’s more in the tradition of movies like Flaherty’s Nanook of the North or Merian Cooper’s Chang and Grass—cultural documentary techniques in the service of epic-romantic storytelling.

The setting is northwestern Mongolia, among the ethnic Kazakhs that live on the steppes. The heroine is Aisholpan, a teenage girl who takes up the culture’s ancient practice of hunting with eagles. In jolting, visually magnificent sequences, we see her capture a young raptor from its nest, train it, compete with it in a regional festival, and eventually go hunting with the bird for real.

She does all this with the enthusiastic help of her adoring father, but we’re also shown talking heads of some sour guys—one of them reminded me of Bill Murray—who don’t like the idea of a girl encroaching into a traditionally male activity. It’s hard to know to what extent the old-boy opposition to Aisholpan may have been exaggerated for dramatic purposes—the guys at the festival don’t seem all that upset by her—but it is effective.

In any case, it would be difficult not to delight in and admire the pink-cheeked, smiling Aisholpan, with her guileless confidence. If you, or maybe a daughter or niece or kid sister, could use a story of a woman breaking into a man’s field these days, this might be a movie to consider. But be forewarned, there are scenes of an eagle attacking a fox. The footage is electrifying, but for younger kids, or anyone sensitive to animal suffering, it may be tough to watch. 

The MonsterSingle mom Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is driving her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) down a disused stretch of road through a forest. They have an accident, and while they’re waiting for help, writer-director Bryan Bertino builds the tension and dread in excruciating increments. Very gradually, the two become aware they’re under siege in their car from the title character, an unexplained fangy abomination.
Gruesome and pretty grueling horrors ensue in this focused, fairy tale-like shocker. But they’re interspersed with flashbacks to Lizzy’s home life with the alcoholic, screwed-up Kathy that are so appalling (and convincing) that the gory monster stuff seems almost like a nice break by comparison.

Kazan (Elia’s granddaughter) and Ballentine are both impressive. Ballentine, who’s in her mid-teens, manages to suggest, without pushing it, that her awful environment has left her with a touch of arrested infantilism, so when she struggles to be brave in the face of irrational menace it’s particularly moving.

A note about that menace—he/she/it is played, blessedly, by a guy in a suit (Canadian stuntman Chris Webb), not by a sterile CGI ghost. It helps that it’s quite a good suit, and that Bertino deftly keeps it in the shadows most of the time. But even if it was a corny, fake-looking suit, I think the solidity, the presence, of the monster would give this creature feature a punch we rarely get to see anymore.
RIP to the great Leonard Cohen.

Is “Hallelujah” maybe the most beautiful song lyric of the 20th Century in English?