Thursday, March 31, 2016


RIP to the brilliant, versatile, prolific Patty Duke, passed on at 69.

In her honor…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree is the giant black widow into which she periodically shape-shifted in 1977’s Curse of the Black Widow, one of her innumerable TV movies…

Friday, March 25, 2016


Opening this week:

Batman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeThe title sounds like a Supreme Court Case, but it just refers to a spat between the two biggest names in the DC superhero stable. The Man of Steel thinks Gotham’s Dark Knight is a creepy vigilante, while the Caped Crusader thinks that the near-omnipotence of Krypton’s Favorite Son represents an existential threat to all humankind. Can either be called wrong with perfect confidence?

This had possibilities, certainly, and a deft director in Zack Snyder. And the film has its moments. The acting is quite strong—Ben Affleck makes a brooding, intriguing, suavely attractive Bruce Wayne, and his costume gives a perfectly competent performance as Batman. He’s far more credible as a superhero here than he was as Daredevil back in 2003.

Henry Cavill makes a serviceable Superman—like most actors who have played this role, his charm doubles whenever he’s in Clark Kent drag—and Jesse Eisenberg darkens his persona as a manic, nattering Lex Luthor. A young Israeli actress named Gal Gadot is introduced as Wonder Woman; she doesn’t get much to do, but she is unquestionably a wonder.

Parts of the clash between the title icons are amusing, but mostly Batman v Superman is an overwrought, laborious, punishingly heavy slog. The conflict is muddled and lacking in urgency, there isn’t nearly enough humor, and, above all, the movie is too freakin’ long. It’s TOO. FREAKIN’. LONG. By at least twenty minutes, probably more.

Various theories can be advanced as to why so many blockbuster action movies insist on being so outrageously overlong. But I would rather this review, unlike Batman v Superman itself, remain brief. 

City of GoldThis documentary challenges the commonplace that good stories require conflict. It’s a portrait of Pulitzer-Prize-winning L.A. Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, and it has almost none.

For an hour and a half, we watch the pleasant fellow galumph around the Greater L.A. area, going to Mom and Pop ethnic restaurants where adoring owners serve him plates of delicious-looking food. He takes a brief side trip to New York to dine with his idol Calvin Trillin, but otherwise that’s pretty much the whole movie, in terms of content. None of the talking heads have an unkind word to say about him, no appalling personal tragedies are revealed.

Of course, we do learn that Gold is a chronic procrastinator. A newspaper columnist who procrastinates? What a shocker! And his environmentalist brother gently reproves him for his fondness for overfished varieties of sushi. That’s about as much Shakespearean drama as we get.

But director Laura Gabbert, abetted by Bobby Johnston’s fine score, keeps City of Gold gliding along enjoyably. Gabbert’s bird’s-eye dissection of L.A.’s neighborhoods is fascinating and undeniably glamorous, and the movie works as genteel food porn as well. Mere humans may feel a pang of envy at seeing someone so seemingly contented with and well-rewarded by his talents, but Gold comes across so unassumingly that it doesn’t deepen into resentment.

Thursday, March 24, 2016


With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opening this weekend, Your Humble Narrator is reminded of the Fleischer Superman cartoons of the ‘40s, which constitute some of the most visually beautiful superhero art ever. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week our honoree is the King or Duke or Grand Poobah of the underground race of hawk-men…

…who try to sacrifice Lois and her Professor pal in 1943’s The Underground World.

Spoiler alert! The Man of Steel shows up to discourage the birdbrains from this plan… 

Friday, March 18, 2016


Opening this week:

The BronzeAlong with Race and Eddie the Eagle, this is the third movie in the last month or so about the Olympic Games, and all three are very different from each other indeed. Diminutive Melissa Rauch, who plays the squeaky-voiced Bernadette on The Big Bang Theory, stars in this comedy, which she co-wrote with her husband Winston Rauch. She plays Hope Annabelle Greggory, who finished her routine in Women’s Gymnastics at the Olympics in heroic, soul-stirring fashion, fighting through an ankle injury a la Kerri Strug.

Unlike Strug, however, Hope took the Bronze rather than the Gold, and the injury effectively ended her career. She returned to Amherst, Ohio (“Sandstone Center of the World”), where more than ten years later she’s still treated like a privileged celebrity—her own parking space, free stuff at the mall and the diner, her name on the sign coming into town. Unemployed, she still lives with, sponges off of, and verbally abuses her long-suffering widowed postman Dad (Gary Cole). She’s bitter, selfish, defensive, deceitful and extremely foul-mouthed.

Despite the raunchy, raucous tone, this very plausible story has a poignant edge, and for a while I thought it was going to sink the movie. An ongoing shtick on The Big Bang Theory is the steeliness and bullying threat that regularly burst out of Rauch’s Bernadette, in contrast to her superficial cuddly sweetness. The Bronze starts out as, more or less, a whole movie hinged on this gag, and while it’s funny for a while, Hope seems too mean and unpleasant to hold our interest at feature length.

When her old coach dies, however, Hope receives notice of a sizable inheritance, if she takes over the training of the promising young gymnast Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson), who idolizes her. At first, fearful that her pupil will outdo her and usurp her place in town, Hope blatantly sabotages her, but eventually…

Well, you see where it’s heading. There’s even a love interest, in the form of the talented young comic Thomas Middleditch. The good news is that Rauch shades her characterization from despicable to sort-of-likable gradually and incrementally, and director Bryan Buckley keeps the proceedings lewd and crude throughout. As a result, the story’s potential sentimentality is held at bay, and sure enough, we start to care about, and develop some hope, for Hope.

 AllegiantAs with the high school romantic comedies of a decade or so ago, the futuristic teen dystopias are starting to run together in my head. It takes me a minute to be sure that I’m not mixing Divergents with Maze Runners and Hunger Gamers and Surfers of the 5th Wave.

Assuming I’m not, then this third entry in the series based on Veronica Roth’s Divergent books—it’s called The Divergent Series: Allegiant on the posters—has heroine Tris (big-eyed Shailene Woodley) and her pals fleeing Chicago, now in a turmoil of summary trials and executions. Beyond the city’s walls they find a toxic wasteland, beyond which they find a force field, beyond which they find a futuristic complex in what used to be O’Hare Airport.

Presiding over this is Jeff Daniels as a scientist who’s been studying Chicago’s various factions, trying to produce a person who is “genetically pure” instead of “damaged.” Talk like this tends to make people uneasy, but the guileless Tris thinks Daniels is a good egg. The hunky Four (Theo James), quickly pronounced “damaged,” isn’t buying it, however.

That’s just the gist of the plot of Allegiant, which is a good deal more twisted, with schemes and betrayals and redemptions spilling out everywhere. The dialogue is quite poor, but luckily it occurs mostly in little pockets, linking together director Robert Schwentke’s big, lavish action scenes. These are reasonably exciting, in their mindless way.

Alongside the pretty youth are some vets, like Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer and Ray Stevenson. The unctuous Daniels makes a capable if less elegant replacement for Kate Winslet, whose honking American villainy was the best aspect of the previous flicks. Or at least the sexiest.

Thursday, March 17, 2016


Happy St. Paddy’s Day everybody!

Who knew the Irish had their own version of the Headless Horseman?


Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree, the Dullahan, seen here... depicted in the video game Blue Dragon, and here… depicted in the Rage of Bahamut card game. No doubt the Dullahan predates by many centuries our Yank Horseman who chased Ichabod Crane through Sleepy Hollow.

Friday, March 11, 2016


Opening this week:

 10 Cloverfield LaneAfter a car crash on a rural Louisiana road, a young woman named Michelle wakes up imprisoned in an underground bunker equipped for doomsday. Her survivalist host/captor Howard tells her that there’s been an attack—maybe nuclear, maybe chemical, maybe alien, he’s not sure—that the air outside is toxic, and that they’re stuck underground for at least a year or two.

At first Michelle thinks Howard’s crazy, and tries several times to escape, but indications start to accumulate that maybe something apocalyptic really did happen outside. Corroborating Howard’s story, for instance, is the bunker’s uninvited third resident, Emmet, a young local guy who helped Howard build the shelter, and forced his way in, to Howard’s dismay, when he saw disaster starting to strike. All the same, over time Michelle also sees signs that Howard may not be entirely trustworthy.

This chamber-piece thriller, directed by Dan Trachtenberg from a script by John Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle, is being marketed as somehow very vaguely a companion piece to the 2008 found-footage monster picture Cloverfield. Any such connection seemed tenuous at best to me, but this isn’t a complaint, as 10 Cloverfield Lane is, on the whole, a stronger, more memorable movie than Cloverfield. The new film, for one very welcome difference, unfolds in conventional narrative rather than through the overused device of found footage.

Better still, this set-bound movie is of necessity driven by dialogue and acting—and, to some extent, by an old-school, high-tension score by Bear McCreary—and it’s anchored on the masterly turn of John Goodman as Howard. Aside from an occasional angry outburst, Howard is soft-spoken, patient, even kindly in a brusque sort of way, and he has moments, like his purse-lipped little smile when he and his guests sit down to dinner, that even suggest ironic humor. Yet a terrible, longing mania keeps seeping out of his eyes and from the corners of his mouth, signaling his scary potential to turn monstrous. Goodman doesn’t hit a false note, and his riveting performance gives the impression of effortlessness, of not breaking a sweat.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, from the third version of The Thing and Tarantino’s Death Proof, among others, makes Michelle a courageous and resourceful heroine—her frightened but never paralyzed reactions win the audience’s admiration. And John Gallagher, Jr. is touching as the dim but decent Emmet; the bond he forms with Michelle is nicely underplayed and convincing.

Near the end, 10 Cloverfield Lane finally gives us a look outside. Without going into details, suffice to say that, for ten minutes or so, it turns into a different sort of movie, and, though entertaining, a lesser one, I’d say. It’s a testament to the claustrophobic force of 10 Cloverfield Lane that it still feels liberating, almost joyous, just to get out of that hole in the ground.

Thursday, March 10, 2016


This week…

Monster-of-the-Week: …our honoree is John Cleese as The Frankenstein Monster, from the classic Monty Python sketch “The Dull Life of a City Stockbroker”:

He’s on my list of Strange Versions of Frankenstein, coinciding with this week’s Blu-Ray release of Victor Frankenstein, on New Times Blogs; you can peruse it here.

Monday, March 7, 2016


The March issue of Phoenix Magazine

…includes my review of BP Street CafĂ©, a Malaysian restaurant in Tempe. It’s on the stands now, or you can read it here.

Friday, March 4, 2016


Opening this week:

ZootopiaThe title refers to a city that looks like a theme park, with frozen tundra, desert, rainforest and other ecosystems all conveniently connected by highway exits. The inhabitants, you see, are animals—anthropomorphic, bipedal, civilized mammals of every sort, from pachyderms to rodents, living side by side.

It’s not Utopia, however. Inter-species tensions continue, especially between predator and prey species, and there are glass ceilings in certain professions. Our heroine Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), for instance, is a bunny who has internalized the high-minded idea that “Anyone can be anything,” and she wants to grow up to be a police officer, normally a job for the likes of tigers and rhinos and cape buffalo.

Through determination and resourcefulness, Judy realizes her dream, but as with many pioneers, she gets stuck with traffic duty. Before long, however, she’s caught up in a mystery involving missing predators, and develops a tense alliance with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a wily vulpine con artist.

The buddy-picture plot that ensues is surprisingly dark and noir-ish at times, and in some ways Zootopia is one of the least sentimental Disney movies I can remember. It’s fraught with unmistakable racial and class subtext, and although it has the struggling underdog protagonist standard to animated features, it honestly grapples with the complex and painful realities behind the believe-in-yourself platitudes of the genre. Thus, the movie’s ultimately positive conclusions feel hard-won, and all the more uplifting.

Zootopia is delightful, but I did have a complaint: the freakin’ 3-D. At least at the screening I saw, it dimmed and washed out the images, and added not one effect that I thought was worth the eyestrain. See it in old-fashioned 2-D.

In case anybody still cares, a few notes on the Oscars:

It was gratifying for me to see the number one movie on my Top Ten list, Tom McCarthy’s low-key powerhouse Spotlight, win Best Picture at the Oscars this year. It was even more gratifying to see the great, 87-year-old Ennio Morricone, who had never won an Oscar for Best Original Score (he won an honorary Oscar in 2007), take the statue for his superb music for The Hateful Eight. It makes up, sort of, for Morricone not even being nominated for his greatest score, for 1970’s Two Mules for Sister Sara.

But most of the satisfactions of this year’s surprisingly enjoyable Oscar show had little to do with the nominees, and more to do with the host. Interest in the Oscars was high this year, less because of any particular suspense as to who would win, and more because of what the great Chris Rock would say and do. While the telecast was glacially paced and overlong as usual, Rock, who had not too memorably hosted the show in 2005, brilliantly managed his tricky duties this year.

What made it a tricky gig was, of course, the controversy over the lack of racial diversity among this year’s nominees. Some African-American industry notables had boycotted the show, and Rock himself had been urged to decline the job.

His approach was marvelously disarming. From the very first line of his monologue, he attacked the subject straightforwardly, good-naturedly and in all directions—his jokes were at the expense of the Academy, the boycotters, and himself, and they ranged from daringly tasteless to thoughtful. A high percentage of them were genuinely funny, and all of them put the controversy into perspective, without disrespect to the validity of the boycott’s grievance.

Perhaps most amusingly, however, was that Rock wouldn’t let it go. I expected he’d try to dispense with the subject with a few jokes at the beginning of his monologue and then move on to a business-as-usual Oscars, but bit after bit kept coming back to it. The show was so single-mindedly devoted to the controversy that, ironically, it probably brought attention to racial inequities in Hollywood in a way that no number of minority nominations could have, deserved though they might be. And it seems pretty unlikely that this would have been the case if Rock hadn’t hosted.

A couple of disappointments: Names eyebrow-raising-ly omitted from the “In Memoriam” segment included Abe Vigoda, Geoffrey Lewis, George Gaynes, Tony Burton and Pat Harrington, Jr. Also, while the brilliant Mark Rylance entirely deserved to win Best Supporting Actor for Bridge of Spies, I still found it slightly disappointing—I wanted to see Stallone win for Creed. But I suppose it’s in the spirit of the original Rocky, where even though he didn’t win, Rocky triumphed just because he got to the Main Event.

Thursday, March 3, 2016


This month marks the 156th birthday of William Jennings Bryan, a narcissistic windbag touted as a “populist.” So… 

Monster-of-the-Week: …here, from an 1896 political cartoon, is a Bryan-headed “populist” snake devouring the Democratic donkey…

 …just because it’s a cool piece of art. Let’s pray it isn’t prophetic.