Friday, January 29, 2016


Opening this weekend:

Kung Fu Panda 3A couple of weeks ago I was complaining that Norm of the North, like many animated kid flicks, was ruined by obligatory formula elements—the misfit hero, the contrived villain, the overcomplicated plot. But this third Kung Fu Panda flick demonstrates that all of this can work when it’s done right.

As before, it’s set in a medieval China inhabited by anthropomorphic animals. This time title character Po (voiced by Jack Black) is stalked by some sort of monstrous bull from the spirit world who wants to capture his “Chi.” Meanwhile Po is also reunited with his biological father—his adoptive father is a goose, you’ll recall—and travels with him to a Shangri-La-like all-panda domain. Ultimately he must train his newfound family to defend their home.

This pop-Taoist plot is unnecessarily elaborate, but the ingenuity and speed and panache of the gags buoy the movie. So does the acting—the regulars are back, along with fine additions Bryan Cranston as the Dad panda, and J.K. Simmons, dripping menace as the villain.

By the way, if you like “Kung Fu Fighting,” you’ll get a major dose of it here. Could Carl Douglas have imagined, back in 1974, that he’d written an enduring anthem? 

Playing this week at FilmBar Phoenix: 

Lazer TeamDecades ago, an alien race called the Antareans secretly contacted Earth with the bad news that other aliens, called the Worg, were on their way to destroy us. Fortunately, it would take many years for them to arrive, during which time we could train a “Champion of Earth” to take the Worg on in single combat, wearing a special suit the Antareans would send us. Not so fortunately, the arriving suit crashes in rural Texas, and its weapons—inspired by the mythological weapons of Perseus—are instead commandeered by four small-town nitwits, who become the misspelled superhero team of the title.

Laborious as this set-up may sound, once this sci-fi comedy gets going it’s really pretty funny. Heavily financed by Indiegogo, this first feature from online video production company Rooster Teeth was directed by Matt Hullum from a script he wrote with star Burnie Burns and others. It starts off a little frenetic and overdirected, but once Hullm gets his characters in place with their superpowers—the sad-sack local sheriff has a force shield, the has-been football star has running shoes, the dense current jock has an arm cannon, and the town simpleton has a helmet that increases his intelligence (giving him an English accent)—the movie’s off and running.

The cast handles the snarky, facetious dialogue well, and the slapstick action is freewheeling and inventive. The movie seems intended as a sly homage to ‘80s-style youth sci-fi like The Last Starfighter or D.A.R.Y.L. or Solarbabies. Lazer Team captures some of the exuberance that gave those mostly dopey films their charm, but it has a contemporary dopey charm that’s all its own.

Thursday, January 28, 2016


Like all sensible lovers of great acting, I was saddened by the death of Alan Rickman, way too young at 69, earlier this month.

Here in the Valley, Harkins Theatres is paying a very cool tribute to Rickman with a mini-festival of his films today only at the Valley Art in downtown Tempe: Love Actually (11 a.m.); Galaxy Quest (1:50 p.m.); Truly, Madly, Deeply (4:10 p.m.) and Die Hard (8:45 p.m.). (They’re also showing Labyrinth at 6:30 p.m., as a David Bowie tribute.) Tickets are only $5, and proceeds benefit Save the Children.

Great choices, but I would have included Sense and Sensibility, and one of my sisters always raves about a TV movie Rickman starred in called Something the Lord Made.


Monster-of-the-Week: …this week our honoree is General Sarris, the menacing reptile-arthropod-whatever played by Robin Sachs in Galaxy Quest

He was insultingly named, by the way, after the late auteurist critic Andrew Sarris.

Friday, January 22, 2016


Opening today: 

 45 YearsCharlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are Kate and Geoff, a rural English couple with no kids, a week away from their 45th anniversary. One morning Geoff gets a letter from the authorities in Switzerland, telling him that the body of his previous girlfriend Katya, who was lost in a fall from a mountain 50 years earlier, has been found, preserved in a glacier. He tries to hide the extent to which the news rattles him, and Kate tries to be understanding, but it gradually becomes clear how significant the earlier relationship was to him. The marriage is shaken, just as it approaches the victory lap.

Andrew Haigh directed this quiet, incremental drama, based on a story by David Constantine. It’s mainly a showcase for the leads, especially Rampling, who’s been Oscar-nominated. She’s superb, and Courtenay’s just as good, and the movie is worth watching just for their brilliantly shaded duet.

But while the idea—that any marriage, no matter how long and durable, can be upended—is provocative, Haigh doesn’t seem sure where to take it. And this is understandable. Neither melodramatic tragedy nor sappy sentiment seems right for it. So the story goes for ambiguity, and it must be admitted that Rampling is able to give us a lot of intriguing ambiguity without even having to speak. Even so, the movie, worthy as it is, ultimately doesn’t satisfy. It has the feel of, say, a New Yorker short story—impeccably executed, maddeningly unresolved.

The 5th WaveAliens invade Earth and start exterminating the human race in a series of “waves.”: First they shut off the power, then they cause massive flooding, then a plague, and so forth. We see this from the point of view of Cassie (Chloe Grace Moretz), a self-described ordinary Ohio teenager, struggling to reunite with her little brother.

Based on a novel by Rick Yancey and directed by J Blakeson, this young-adult Apocalypse begins pretty entertainingly and grows more free-wheelingly ludicrous as it progresses. At times the dialogue seems almost like a parody of the morbid-and-maudlin teen genre, and some of the vets in the cast, notably Liev Schreiber and Maria Bello as gung-ho military types, seem to be playing it a little tongue-in-cheek as well. A tough girl (Maika Monroe of It Follows) even gets a barracks speech that’s pretty close to the “Psycho” scene in Stripes.

Perhaps because of this sense that nobody’s taking it too seriously, I found The 5th Wave more likable, on the whole, than most of the Twilight-Hunger-Games-Maze-Runner stuff. There’s little more to say about it except to note…the hair.

Talk about waves. Everybody’s hair, but most notably Moretz’s hair, and the hair of Alex Roe as the hunky mystery man who rescues her and binds her wounds, is mesmerizingly well-styled. It’s the end of the world as we know it, but Pantene, TRESemmé and blow dryers still appear to be in use.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


The very strange, often delightful Chinese movie Monster Hunt opens tomorrow in Arizona, at AMC Centerpoint in Tempe.

Reportedly a huge hit in that country, it’s an epic fantasy that mixes live action with CGI animation—the director, Raman Hui, co-directed Shrek the Third—to spin a yarn of a conflict between the kingdom of humans and the kingdom of monsters set in a fairy-tale past. The story is hard to summarize, but an example of its oddity is that it involves a guy getting pregnant, like a seahorse. That’s right, the hapless everyman human hero gets himself impregnated by a monster, after which he gives birth to a monster baby.


Monster-of-the-Week: …you guessed it, the little bundle of monstrous joy is our honoree this week…

Friday, January 15, 2016


Opening this weekend:

Norm of the NorthThe title character is not your average polar bear. He’s able to talk to humans, for one thing, and he’s squeamish about hunting and eating seals—though the movie never makes clear what he has been eating up to this point.

When a greedy New York developer plans to build luxury homes in the Arctic, Norm and three lemming pals travel to the Big Apple to find a way to put a stop to it. He becomes a media star shilling for the developer’s project, just waiting for his popularity to peak so that he can use it to turn public opinion against the ridiculous scheme.

This animated kidflick has its heart in the right place, and it’s hard to completely dislike a movie that mocks eco-tourism and gratuitous development of environments that should remain pristine. But Norm of the North falls flat. It has a flicker of wit here and there, but overall, it just isn’t funny.

Much of the problem, as with so many of films of this sort, is that the story is overcomplicated, weighed down with obligatory formula elements, as if the makers were terrified to do without them. Why, for instance, did we need the clumsily introduced human heroine, who wants to send her gifted daughter to a private school but needs the developer’s endorsement? Did we need Norm’s grandfather bear, held captive in a cage in the basement of the developer’s office so that Norm can have somebody to rescue? And then there are those wacky lemmings, who are in absolutely no way imitative of the Minions.

Why, above all, must Norm be a misfit, struggling to be understood? Just for variety, why couldn’t the hero of one of these movies be brassy and confident, and unflappably foil his furious adversaries with silly slapstick and surreal gags? I seem to remember a carrot-wielding rabbit of this sort who had a pretty successful career as a cartoon hero.

Rob Schneider provides Norm’s voice, and there’s nothing very wrong with his work. The cast also includes such talent as Bill Nighy as a Freudian seagull, Ken Jeong as the villain, Colm Meany as the grandfather and even Salome Jens as a nasty councilwoman. This movie does not, I’m glad to say, represent the finest hour for any of them.

Thursday, January 14, 2016


RIP, obviously, to the unforgettable David Bowie.

In his honor…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week the nod goes to John Blaylock, the glam vampire Bowie plays in Tony Scott’s 1983 The Hunger

That film’s wittiest scene comes when John ages, courtesy brilliant Dick Smith makeup, from a sexy New York Goth-club hipster into a grumpy old man, all while sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room…

Who hasn’t felt this way waiting for a doctor’s appointment?

FilmBar Phoenix shows The Hunger Friday evening, January 15, at 9:50 p.m. It’s an uneven movie, but worth catching if you’ve never seen it. They’re showing another Bowie fave, 1986’s Labyrinth, on Saturday, and maybe Bowie’s best film, Nicolas Roeg’s sad sci-fi tale The Man Who Fell to Earth, on Sunday and Monday.

Monday, January 11, 2016


Proud though I am to be a founding member of Phoenix Film Critics Society, the Society’s choices for Best Picture are not always the same as mine. This year, however, we agree—both PFCS and I lead our list with Tom McCarthy’s gripping Spotlight. The rest of the PFCS awards for 2015 may be read at; my Top Ten list is here:

Spotlight—The title refers to a team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe who, in the early 2000s, uncovered evidence both that priestly child abuse was far more widespread than was previously understood, and that the city’s Archdiocese had consciously and systematically covered it up. Like several of this year’s best movies, this drama directed and co-written by Thomas McCarthy has depressing and infuriating subject matter. But it also has a superb ensemble cast led by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Billy Crudup, Stanley Tucci and Liev Schreiber, and a low-key tension that leads to potent emotional payoffs.

2. The Big Short

3. Inside Out

4. Brooklyn

5. Carol

6. Straight Outta Compton

7. Bridge of Spies

8. The Martian

9. Ant-Man

10. Creed

This is the version of my list that ran in print last week; since then I’ve caught up with a couple of flicks that almost certainly would have dislodged some of the selections above: Anomalisa, for one, and also Taratntino’s blood-soaked Jacobean western The Hateful Eight, which I got to see in the “70mm Roadshow” version he’s suckering format nerds like me into coughing up fifteen bucks a ticket for.

The “Roadshow” is shot (by the great Robert Richardson) and screened in actual, no-kidding Ultra Panavision 70, plus it has all the retro trimmings they used to give big “event movies” back in the ‘60s—an overture, an intermission, and even a full-color program. Plus, the movie itself is a highly entertaining Grand Guignol black comedy, even at three hours, and it has a classic, snaky musical score by the great Ennio Morricone. If the 70mm version is playing in your area, I’d recommend.

Other movies I enjoyed this year, to one degree or another, include: Chi-Raq, The Revenant, Shaun the Sheep Movie, Woman in Gold, Grandma, Steve Jobs, Concussion, Jurassic World, It Follows, Learning to Drive, Trumbo, The Good Dinosaur, Being Knievel, The Visit, Mad Max: Fury Road, Pitch Perfect 2, He Named Me Malala, Lila & Eve, Jupiter Ascending, Spectre and Pawn Sacrifice. Also, not many people here in the Valley seemed to notice Zhang Yimou’s period drama from China, Coming Home, starring the great Gong Li, but it was powerful.

Oh yeah, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. That one wasn’t bad, either.

Friday, January 8, 2016


Opening in the Valley today:

AnomalisaA middle-aged man from L.A. flies into Cincinnati for a speaking gig. He’s the author of a popular tome on customer service, and people murmur his name when he walks into his hotel lobby. He checks into his room, tips the bellhop, orders some room service, calls an ex-girlfriend who lives in town. The setting is mundane and his behavior is entirely unremarkable, though a deep sadness and loneliness suffuses the atmosphere.

All of this, by the way, is depicted in painstakingly detailed stop-motion animation. For a while, I thought that this was the object of the cinematic experiment—could stop-motion lend its sense of stylized wonder even to this sort of naturalistic, slice-of-life drama?

But eventually [spoilers coming, by the way], the tension at the heart of this strange story becomes clear, as we realize that everybody in the movie except our hero, Michael, speaks in the same voice. Michael speaks in the gentle British-accented tones of David Thewlis, but his wife and young son on the phone, the ex-girlfriend, the cabbie, the desk clerk, people on TV, and everybody else speaks in the unnerving adult male voice of Tom Noonan.

It’s clear that this is how Michael’s been hearing the world for a long time, because he springs into action when he suddenly hears an unfamiliar voice passing in the hall. He tracks it down to a young woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who’s staying in the hotel. Lisa’s a sweet, slightly dowdy woman with poor self-esteem. Lisa—who is an anomaly, get it?—and a girlfriend (with the usual voice) have come from Akron to hear Michael speak, so she’s starstruck when he begs her to spend time with him.

Written by Charlie Kaufman (based on his own radio play), who co-directed with animator Duke Johnson, this solipsistic fantasy grows even more bizarre from there on, in the manner of Kaufman’s earlier pop-absurdist weirdness like Being John Malkovich or Synecdoche, New York. It’s also sexually graphic, with results that are both touching and surprisingly erotic.

This won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, obviously, but on its own terms it’s among the strongest and most emotionally charged pictures of the year. Kaufman takes his time, letting the freaky conceits establish themselves gradually, and also allowing Michael’s terrible sense of isolation to become overpowering.

Lisa is the movie’s greatest success. She’s tremendously likable, and in the face of Michael’s rather predatory neediness, Kaufman, Johnson and Leigh make us feel urgently protective of her.

The RevenantProbably because there’s a part of me that still thinks of him as that little kid from the sitcom, the adult Leonardo DiCaprio is an ongoing amazement to me. In this adaptation of Michael Punke’s 2002 novel DiCaprio is entirely credible as Hugh Glass, the frontiersman who, on an ill-fated pelt-hunting expedition in South Dakota in 1823, was savaged to the point of death by a bear, then abandoned by the men charged with staying with him. Horrifically wounded, he nonetheless dragged himself across hundreds of miles of wilderness, for the sake of survival and revenge.

This historical incident (it was also the basis for 1971’s memorable Man in the Wilderness, with Richard Harris) has been embellished, giving Glass an even more spaghetti-western-ish motive for his vengeance. Director Alejandro G. Innaritu stages scene after scene of gruesome and grueling violence—Indian attacks, the bear mauling, murders, scalpings, disemboweling animals to sleep in their carcasses—with undeniable primal force.

The final clash between Glass and his chief enemy (Tom Hardy, who’s superb) is a standard action-movie grapple, and somehow banal. But on balance, The Revenant is potent stuff, and vividly acted by DiCaprio, Hardy and Will Poulter as the young Jim Bridger.

I couldn’t help but notice, however, that Inarittu’s previous film, the rhapsodically received Birdman, was about a movie star prepared to end his own life because his acting career wasn’t going quite as well as he’d hoped. This time Inarittu gives us a hero who literally crawls out of his own grave, eats raw meat and cauterizes his own wounds with gunpowder just to keep breathing. It’s kind of hard to pin down Inarittu’s philosophy.

Thursday, January 7, 2016


Here, so that you’ll have some idea of who to blame for my warped worldview, is my annual list of the books that kept my lips moving this past year (excluding as usual magazines and newspapers, individual shorts stories, essays, poems, blogs, etc.):

  Prehysterical Pogo (In Pandemonia) by Walt Kelly

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Blood and Kisses (Vampire Love Book 1) by J.T. Blackfriars

I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend by Martin Short

Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film by Patton Oswalt

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

The Realms of Gold by Margaret Drabble

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling 

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey

Food: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan 

Feral by Berton Roueché

Dr. Who and the Genesis of the Daleks by Terrance Dicks

 Clans of the Alphane Moon by Philip K. Dick

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Gods Hate Kansas by Joseph Millard

A Feast of Freedom by Leonard Wibberly

Ratman’s Notebooks by Stephen Gilbert

That last selection was a real surprise. It’s the Irish novel on which the 1971 American film Willard and its 2003 remake were based. I had long been curious about it, but I wasn’t expecting it to be a real work of literature. It’s whimsical, witty and poignant, and the rats trained by the (unnamed) narrator of the title are vividly characterized. Both movie versions are pretty pedestrian by comparison.


Monster-of-the-Week: …this week the nod goes to the tentacled horror from the wonderful cover art of another book on this list, Joseph Millard’s vintage sci-fi tale The Gods Hate Kansas:

Unexpectedly, this picture isn’t a cheat, or at least not too much of a cheat—no such attack on the spaceship takes place, but there are, at least, creatures answering this description in the tale. Better yet, it turns out [spoiler alert!] that they aren’t bad sorts, once you get to know them.

Monday, January 4, 2016


Hope everybody had a great holiday. Happy New Year.

The January issue of Phoenix Magazine, now on the stands…

…features a variety of scribblings by Your Humble Narrator, including my first restaurant review for that publication, of Max’s Mukhaase, a Ghanaian restaurant in Mesa. It’s on page 130, or you can read it here.

Tomorrow marks the release of the “dead tree” edition of Star Wars: The Force Awakens...

...Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of the movie (it’s been available as an ebook since December). Here, on the New Times Arts Blog, is me, on some of Foster’s literary triumphs.