Friday, May 27, 2016


Opening in the Valley this weekend:

WeinerIn case you’re wondering whether the title of this documentary about the Anthony Weiner scandal has a double meaning, the filmmakers open it with a quote from Marshall McLuhan: “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.

For the whole first decade of this century, Anthony Weiner was the Congressman from New York’s 9th District, after a couple of terms on the New York City Council, to which he was first elected at just 27. He had what looked like a hugely promising future as the sort of Democrat that Democrats often pray for—passionate and flamboyantly combative, possessed of the common touch, smart without seeming feckless or elitist. Put simply, he wasn’t a wussy.

How far Weiner would, or should, have gone in national politics is debatable—the short fuse that helped make him popular with New Yorkers could have been a problem for him in Iowa or Wisconsin. It’s also a moot point, as Weiner resigned from Congress in 2011 over a scandal that arose from “sexting”—he tweeted a picture of his…well, you know, to a woman not his wife, along with other sexually explicit messages, and some of these were leaked to the media.

Then he ran for Mayor of New York in 2013, and for a while was in the lead in the Democratic primary. But more dirty tweets from him showed up in the media, dating, insanely, from after the initial scandal. As far as anyone can tell, Weiner never had any actual contact with the recipients of these messages, nor were any laws broken, but two times was one time too many for New York voters. Weiner doggedly stayed in the race, but was crushed, and Bill De Blasio went on to be elected Mayor.

The film, directed by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, mostly focuses on the Mayoral race. Weiner and his wife, Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, gave the filmmakers extraordinary, reality-TV-like access to their lives. In private, Weiner shows little of the swagger and bravado he does in his public appearances. Padding around his apartment in shorts, under the disapproving stare of Abedin, his face a mask of sheepish chagrin, he looks like a prematurely old man—when he’s playing with his baby son, he looks like he’s playing with his grandson.

There’s an inevitable comic edge to much of Weiner, and I wish I could have found the movie funnier. Mostly it made me furious, at a variety of targets.

The first, most obvious and perhaps most deserving is the title character himself. However outrageously hypocritical you may find the prudish response to Weiner’s tweets, however much you may think it was nobody’s business but his and his wife’s, he, like Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal, should simply have known better. The movie raises, without offering an answer, the question of the judgment of powerful men when it comes to sex. It also offers no insight into the urge so many men seem to feel to send women pictures of their junk.

Having said that, and without minimizing Weiner’s disgraceful recklessness in the least, there are plenty of other directions toward whom the film arouses anger. Where, for instance, is the pressure on the current Republican front runner to drop out of the race, in light of public statements about women compared to which sending a picture of your dick seems almost sweet?

But the scene in Weiner that most infuriated me takes place at a campaign event. A large contingent of media is there, and Weiner begins by asking if anyone has an “on-topic question”; that is, a question about the relevant issue he’s there to discuss. Tense silence. A few seconds later, of course, they’re all babbling dick-picture questions at him simultaneously.

Really? Not one? Not one of those assholes who call themselves journalists could muster one on-topic question? If you asked them separately, I bet many if not most of them would bemoan the state of contemporary journalism, but it didn’t seem to occur to them that they had a clear shot at practicing real journalism, and declined. Maybe, just maybe, if somebody had started with a question or two about an actual issue, it would at least have made the first guy to ask a dick-picture question feel a little stupid.

Thursday, May 26, 2016


RIP to Burt Kwouk, passed on 85.

No doubt best known as “Cato” in the Pink Panther series, Kwouk shared the screen with icons ranging from James Bond to Fu Manchu throughout his long career.

So, just because Kwouk is in it…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree is this creepy mutant from 1965’s Curse of the Fly

Friday, May 20, 2016


Opening this week:

The Angry Birds MovieThe Angry Birds franchise began in 2009 as a video game, the object of which was to launch roly-poly little birds from a slingshot at little green pigs. The pigs have stolen their eggs, you see. The game led to more than a dozen spin-off games, and merchandising ranging from toys to clothes to TV cartoons, and now, inevitably, to this animated feature.

Our hero, voiced by Jason Sudeikis, is Red, the scowling, cardinal-like bird you’ve been seeing on kids’ hats and t-shirts the last few years, if you’ve been paying attention. He lives on an island inhabited by oddly flightless avians—it’s the entire Universe, as far as they know. Most of these birds aren’t inordinately angry, so an outburst, early on, lands Red in court, and he’s sent to an anger management class, where he meets other…well, you know.

Then huge ships arrive filled with green pigs. The guileless birds are taken in by their friendly overtures, except for Red, who’s suspicious of them. He turns out to be right, of course. The pigs steal the island’s eggs, and it’s up to Red and his anger management classmates to rouse the ire of the populace, and lead them to the land of the pigs to try to rescue them from the Pig King’s kettle.

The high-ticket voice cast, which includes the likes of Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Peter Dinklage and even Sean Penn—amusingly cast as the Angriest of the Birds—more or less ensures that there will be a few laughs. There’s some ingenious visual shtick, too. But overall The Angry Birds Movie is tiring—too many of the gags and situations seem artificially extended, as if the filmmakers knew they didn’t have much story to work with, and were trying to pad for time.

More than this, there’s the whole matter of the theme of anger. Anger is funny. Most comedy is based on some degree of anger. Anger also resonates with children, who feel it intensely but in most cases impotently.

But there’s anger and then there’s anger. There’s legitimate, mature outrage at, say, rudeness or injustice, and then there’s the anger that can arise from annoyance at other people’s cheerfulness, or from changes in our world with which we’re uncomfortable, or simply from daily inconveniences.

We’re all subject to this second sort, of course, and it’s always a good source of comedy. But it shouldn’t be mistaken for wisdom, and I fear that’s how The Angry Birds Movie wants us to see it. I certainly don’t think the film is intentionally reactionary, but I’m also unconvinced that a celebration of anger—resolving itself in war on foreigners—is what our society is most in need of just now. We have plenty of angry birdbrains already. 

 The LobsterHaving been dumped by his wife, David (Colin Farrell) checks into an elegant but cheerless resort hotel for singles. He has forty-five days to find a new partner, and if he fails he’ll be transformed into an animal. This happens often: David shares his room with his dog, who used to be his brother.

David is asked what kind of animal he wants to be if he doesn’t pair off, and he chooses to be a lobster, because of their longevity, and because he loves the sea. The hotel manager congratulates him on his thoughtful choice; the staff’s manner is always one of brisk, patronizing politeness, with contemptuous pity just under the surface.

Compatibility in a relationship is judged by shared impairments—nearsightedness, or a limp, or a tendency to nosebleeds, or sociopathic heartlessness—and people regularly try to feign these limitations to attract a mate. The guest activities include hunts of the neighboring forest, where “Loners”—feral single people—are shot with tranquilizer darts and brought back to undergo their transformations. Bagging a Loner adds days to your stay at the hotel, and thus to your chances of pairing off.

In other words, this is another of those Kafka-lite pop absurdist comedies, sort of a European spin on the likes of Being John Malkovich or Cold Souls. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek known for Dogtooth, from a script he co-wrote with Efthymis Filippou, the film is seamlessly imagined and entirely coherent on its own strange terms.

The pace is a little slow, and it seems to slow down even more in the second half. Other than that, the movie really can’t be faulted in terms of execution. The cast, which includes John C. Reilly, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Olivia Colman and the excellent Ben Wishaw, maintain admirably straight faces, and Farrell, remaining quietly shellshocked throughout, makes you care about his plight.

It might even be fair to call The Lobster brilliant, but for all its whimsicality, it isn’t much fun. The atmosphere is dark and desperate, and many scenes are horrifically violent—those sensitive to violence toward animals are particularly warned to leave this one alone.

The premise seems to have arisen from a genuine, vitriolic bitterness toward the societal pressure to pair off, and the implication that those who can’t, or don’t want to, are regarded as subhuman. This avoids coming off as a hipster pose because Lanthimos pointedly shows us that life in the woods among the Loners is no less oppressive—romance and sex are forbidden there, and severely punished.

So The Lobster isn’t sentimental. It fully acknowledges that there’s a price to going it alone, or two-by-two, and that the price can be high either way. It also implies that our motivations, either way, are generally selfish. It’s possible to be both cynical enough to respect this viewpoint and romantic enough to be unable to fully agree with it. In any case, this Lobster, though admirable in many ways, brought me less pleasure than one served with butter and lemon.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


With the Yorgos Lanthimos film The Lobster opening here in the Valley tomorrow… 

Monster-of-the-Week: ...the choice this week is clear: Gargon, the huge and oddly vertical extraterrestrial lobster-monster…

…from the 1959 classic Teenagers from Outer Space.

Friday, May 13, 2016


Opening this weekend:

Money MonsterGeorge Clooney plays a buffoonish TV financial pundit in the Jim Cramer mold. Julia Roberts plays the long-suffering director of the silly show he hosts, and Jack O’Connell plays the scruffy disgruntled loser with a gun who takes him hostage on the air, demanding to know what happened to the $60,000 he lost to an investment that the TV guy claimed was safer than his savings account.

The screenwriters, Alan Di Fiore, Jim Kouf and Jamie Linden, aren’t exactly Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, but they do manage to give the dialogue a certain amount of snarky, unpredictable wit, and the director, Jodie Foster, stirs up a lot of whirling frenzy around what is essentially a static situation. So the movie generates a Front Page-like energy that carries us along quite enjoyably, even as the story’s complications grow harder and harder to swallow.

It helps that Clooney, who also co-produced, doesn’t seem to mind looking like a stooge onscreen. We’re asked to believe that, in this crisis situation, the host, director and crew of this show would swing into action as highly competent investigative journalists, swiftly tracking down the secret that led to the loss of the guy’s money. But helping us accept this laughable conceit is the look on Clooney’s face—scared, but also glum and guilty; the look of a man who has known all along, at some level, that he’s just a shill, but is only now confronted with the reality of his irresponsibility.

Roberts gives a maternal authority to her role—she’s as much a nanny as a director—and some of the other actors, notably Christopher Denham, Giancarlo Esposito, Caitrona Balfe, Lenny Venito, Emily Meade, Dennis Boutsikaris and Condola Rashad, bring speed, charm and a surprising amount of comedy to what they’re given. Money Monster is too conventional, too close to superficial, to be a really scary monster—I doubt it could be considered much more subtle in its dissection of matters financial than the shows it's spoofing. But it’s fast and well-made and entertaining, and the cast gives it heart.

A personal note: I was sworn to secrecy until it opened, but my pal Gayle Bass, lovely co-host of Right This Minute, appears briefly in Money Monster, playing the complex role of Gayle Bass, lovely co-host of Right This Minute. So even if there was no other reason to see it…

Thursday, May 12, 2016


The May issue of Phoenix Magazine

 …includes my column showcasing four pizza restaurants. It’s on the stands now, or you can read it here.

One of the pizzerias in question is CheezHeadz, a Peoria joint with a Wisconsin theme which offers a massive cheesesteak sandwich called the Hodag. Cheeseheads will of course recognize that as a reference to…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s honoree, The Hodag, terrifying yet beloved beast of Wisconsin tall tales, described in an 1893 newspaper story as having “the head of a frog, the grinning face of a giant elephant, thick short legs set off by huge claws, the back of a dinosaur, and a long tail with spears at the end.” Sounds a bit stegosaurian, no?

Anyway, here…

 …is one of the more spectacular specimens of Hodag, guarding the Rhinelander, WI Chamber of Commerce.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Well, hundreds, anyway…

Just this past weekend I was watching one of my all-time favorite movies, 1954’s Them! and I mentioned to The Wife that William Schallert, who has a small part as an ambulance attendant early on, was one of the few members of that great cast who was still alive. Then yesterday we learned that Schallert has passed on, at 93.

Best known for his regular role as Patty’s Dad on The Patty Duke Show—who would’ve thought he’d outlive his TV daughter?—and his recurring role on Dobie Gillis, Schallert was one of the most ubiquitous faces in American movies and TV in the second half of the 20th Century. He appeared in movies ranging from The Man from Planet X to The Incredible Shrinking Man to Pillow Talk to In the Heat of the Night, and his dizzying list of TV roles includes everything from Twilight Zone to The Andy Griffith Show to The Wild Wild West to Get Smart to Gunsmoke to The Partridge Family to Kung Fu to the disagreeable Federation official in the Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles,” among many, many others.

Schallert, who also served as the President of the Screen Actors Guild from 1979 to 1981, slowed down a little after the ‘90s, but only a little. He was still making fairly regular TV appearances in stuff like My Name is Earl and True Blood and Medium until just a couple of years ago. RIP; his legacy with rerun junkies will not fade anytime soon.

Friday, May 6, 2016


Opening this week: 

Captain America: Civil WarIn March it was Batman and Superman that couldn’t get along; now it’s the gang over at Marvel. The U.N. wants the Avengers to agree to regulation. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) thinks it’s a good idea. Captain America (Chris Evans) doesn’t want anyone telling him what he should and shouldn’t do.

I’ve become a bit of a curmudgeon about the current run of superhero flicks; technically eye-popping though they are, most of them seem overlong and humorless to me. That’s true of Civil War too, but I will say I enjoyed it more than Batman v Superman. About midpoint the quarrel leads Iron Man and his pals into a brawl with Cap and his pals at an airport, and the goofy, semi-slapstick action and the trading of corny quips between adversaries really conjured up the fun of reading an old-school comic. For once, the movie didn’t feel like Wagner without the arias.

The point of contention between Iron Man and Cap is, I suppose, a fair dramatization of a central conflict in the American attitude toward the rule of law, especially international law. But whichever side with which you may sympathize ideologically, there’s little doubt of which leading man wins this Civil War from an acting standpoint—Downey is as manically vibrant as ever, while poor Evans is as pleasantly bland a leading man as you can find in American movies right now.

Also adding some liveliness is Paul Rudd, returning as Ant-Man, Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, and Tom Holland as another new Spider-Man. Spidey gets a new Aunt May his time, too—Marisa Tomei. Yes, that’s right; since the first Spider-Man flick back in 2002 the role of Aunt May has gone from Rosemary Harris to Sally Field to Marisa freakin’ Tomei. It’s a bit of a jolt to realize that Aunt May is two years younger than I am (and looks at least ten years younger).

Thursday, May 5, 2016


Mechanical monster time! Check out New Times blogs for my encomium to the ludicrous and highly entertaining 1986 horror movie Chopping Mall 

 Monster-of-the-Week: …featuring this week’s honoree, the leader of the Killbots…

…the trio of robotic mall cops gone murderously rogue in that movie…

Monday, May 2, 2016


RIP to my pal Phil Strassberg, who passed on late last week at the age of 89.

I had the good luck to share many lunches with Phil, who wrote for The New York Daily Mirror in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, and was the film critic for the Arizona Republic in the ‘70s, among many other adventures, and I turned one of our conversations over Chinese food into a profile for New Times back in 2001; check out his eventful life.