Friday, September 30, 2016


Opening this weekend:

Considering how few people play or understand chess, it’s surprising how many movies about chess there are, and how enjoyable a lot of them are. We watch the actors move the pieces around the board, and dramatically react to these moves, and just sort of take the film’s word for it that we’re seeing tactical brilliance. There are life-and-death chess games, like Karloff versus Lugosi in The Black Cat, or life-versus-death chess games, like in The Seventh Seal, or magical chess, like in Harry Potter.

Then there is chess as the subject of a standard inspirational underdog sports flick, as in Searching for Bobby Fischer in 1993 and Pawn Sacrifice, which was about Fischer, two years ago. Disney’s Queen of Katwe is of this sort. 

The real-life heroine is Phiona Mutesi, who around five years ago, in her mid-teens, began winning junior chess championships in her native Uganda, and representing that country in international tournaments. What made this remarkable enough to be the subject of an ESPN book by Tim Crothers wasn't just the excellence of Mutesi's play but the circumstances of her background: She was from Katwe, a massive slum neighborhood in Kampala, where she worked selling maize in the street for her widowed mother. According to the movie, she was illiterate when, by chance, she learned to play, and she learned to read mainly so that she could study chess manuals.

If you're cringing already, granting that it's a wonderful story but worried about a Disney-fied tone of cultural condescension and saccharine uplift, have no fear. The script, adapted from the Crothers book by William Wheeler, undoubtedly follows the Rocky/Hoosiers template. But the director, masterly Mira Nair of Salaam Bombay!, avoids the potential schmaltz in the yarn without sacrificing its potent emotion, and she shows her usual skill at giving third-world settings their teeming, at times almost epic due without denying or sanitizing their squalor and hardship.

Best of all, she gets terrific performances. There are two star turns, from Lupita Nyong'o as Phiona's desperately wary mom, and by David Oyelowo as her saintly mentor and teacher. But Nair's real triumph was with the kids; chattering in their oddly-inflected, somehow musical cadences, they're believable and funny. Especially fine is Madina Nalwanga as Phiona, whose uncertain but probingly intelligent gaze suggests that she has inherited, along with a high fighting spirit, some of her mother's fretful distrust of good fortune. It's easy to believe that she's a natural at chess. She always seems to be thinking many moves ahead.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


It's almost October, but here in Arizona it’s still really hot, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s make this week’s honoree this fanciful prehistoric beast…

…from Hot Stuff, a hilarious 1971 fire safety cartoon from the National Film Board of Canada and the Dominion Fire Commissioner, Department of Public Works, Canada.

This short, directed by Croatian animator Zlatko Grgic, also played stateside on Saturday morning TV in the early ‘70s; I saw it then, and it made me laugh so hard I thought I’d need medical attention. I still find it funny, especially the cat.

Friday, September 23, 2016


Opening this weekend:

The Magnificent SevenIn Rose Creek, some years after the Civil War, poor farmers hire a gunslinging warrant officer to defend them against the mining kingpin who’s trying to run them off. The gunslinger scrapes together six comrades, and they try to prepare the town for the attack of the mining man’s goons.

This variation—it’s only a remake in its broadest outlines—of the 1960 guy-movie classic from John Sturges (itself a reworking of Kurosawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai) has an entirely ersatz atmosphere. It feels like something staged daily for tourists at Old Tucson Studios, except that, like Lawrence Kasdan’s 1984 Silverado, it’s full of big-name actors.

Scene after scene (almost every scene, really) recalls some earlier western. A surprising number, starting from the opening town meeting in the church, bring to mind Blazing Saddles—there’s even a “beans scene,” though it lacks audible flatulence. There are nods to Kurosawa, too, notably a major borrow from Throne of Blood.

None of which is to say that this Magnificent Seven isn’t entertaining from beginning to end. Director Antoine Fuqua evokes the tidy, almost abstracted flavor of the genre at its most allegorically suggestive, and he gets terrific performances from his stars. 

Denzel Washington plays the gunslinger, roughly the equivalent of the Yul Brynner role in the earlier film. Chris Pratt is the wisecracking cardsharp, Ethan Hawke is a desiccated, war-shattered Southern gentleman, Byung-hun Lee is his knife-slinging traveling companion. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo plays a Mexican fugitive, Vincent D’Onofrio is a shaggy tracker, and Martin Sensmeier rounds out the Seven as an outcast Comanche.

Washington is poised and commanding, an authoritative axis around which the other six revolve. It would be easy to miss how quietly skilled he is, because his costars are so flashy—Pratt a likable wiseacre, Hawke shaky and soul-wounded, Garcia-Rulfo bright-eyed and vulpine, Peter Sarsgaard a study in twitchy mannerism as the creepy miner boss.

Lee and Sensmeier are less developed, but both of them are physically impressive. The only truly original characterization, however, is D’Onofrio, his voice croaky from disuse, his manner oddly guileless.

If I had a quibble with the movie—on its own corny terms—it’s that I was disappointed that Washington’s character had an old score to settle with the villain. Part of what was touching about the 1960 version is that Brynner and his cronies came to care about the locals, without the need for any backstory.

StorksLast weekend we had Bridget Jones belatedly expecting a baby; this weekend we have a saga of the avians traditionally in charge of delivering it. Like Arthur Christmas a few years back, this is another animated film that derives its comedy from literalizing a folklore motif—probably, in this case, a cover story to avoid telling kids where babies come from.

The birds have a history in Warner Brothers animation. In the Looney Tunes of the ‘40s and ‘50s, the stork (voiced by Mel Blanc) was a depicted as a bleary-eyed, hiccupping drunk, presumably having been unable to decline offers of cheer from delighted new parents, and the result was mis-delivered babies.

In the new film, from Warner Animation Group, the birds have shifted their delivery operations away from babies to consumer items, a la The movie follows the quest of an up-and-coming stork, Junior (voiced by Andy Samberg) and Tulip (Katie Crowne), a human who grew up among the storks when she went undelivered to her family, to deliver a baby unintentionally produced at the request of a boy who wants a little brother. It’s a surreptitious delivery, as Junior knows that word of the screw-up would endanger the promotion he’s been promised by the corporate honcho stork (Kelsey Grammer).

Even though the story obeys, through Tulip, the standard animated kidflick trope of the misfit struggling to fit in, the adventures which ensue are quite off-the-wall and hard to summarize. Probably the funniest element of the film is the wolf pack—the Alpha and Beta are hilariously voiced by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele—able to organize itself into bridges and boats even more ambitious structures. As she flees, Tulip notes that she never saw this behavior in the nature shows.

Storks is so stuffed with peculiar ideas that some of them inevitably misfire. There’s a sense of equating babies with consumer products and procreation with acquisition that feels a little unsavory, even though it’s probably unintentional. But overall this is one of the more unpredictable and funnier animated features in awhile.

There’s a Lego short subject before the movie, by the way, a martial arts spoof called The Master in which the title character (voiced by Jackie Chan) clashes with a chicken. It’s good for a chuckle.

Thursday, September 22, 2016


As part of its participation in the first annual Art House Theater Day this Saturday, September 24, FilmBar Phoenix is showing Don Coscarelli's scrappy and wonderful 1979 indie horror fantasy Phantasm, remastered under the auspices of J.J. Abrams, at 8 p.m. Saturday evening...

Tickets are $9; if you've never seen this goofy gem, I recommend. Many of the crazy images and low-tech effects from this tale of the gruesome and otherworldly side business of a small-town mortuary presided over by the baleful, corpse-hijacking Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) have remained in my memory far more vividly than many more prestigious films: The Tall Man luxuriating in the cold mist from the ice cream cart, the hooded trolls that haunt the cemetery, and, of course, the lethal flying silver ball that patrols the halls of the mausoleum. It seems as if I saw it just last week.

No less vivid is...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week's honoree, the snaggle-pussed little bug creature...

...that emerges from the little wooden box that previously contained...

Never mind. See it for yourself.

Friday, September 16, 2016


Opening this weekend:

Bridget Jones’s BabyIt’s been twelve years since the film version of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, and fifteen years since Bridget Jones's Diary. It didn’t seem like audiences were clamoring for one more movie iteration of Helen Fielding’s hapless chick-lit heroine, but maybe they were. In any case, here she is.

As our story begins, Bridget (RenĂ©e Zellweger) is celebrating her 43rd birthday alone in her flat, with a candle in a cupcake, she and her beloved Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) having long since split. Through some rather laborious contrivances, she has two one-night stands—one with a rich American online-dating mogul (Patrick Dempsey) and the other with Darcy himself—within a week of each other. So when she turns up pregnant, owing to the unreliability of her “Vegan condoms,” whichever of the nice fellows might be the baby daddy? And however will she break the news to the non-daddy, since both gents are enthusiastic at the prospect?

As this synopsis may suggest, there’s little to be said for the carpentry of the script, credited to Fielding, Dan Mazer and Emma Thompson, and the direction, by Sharon Maguire, is no more than efficient. As always, the focus is on hoisting Bridget into slapstick humiliations, which is a bit more problematic now that Zellweger is pushing fifty. She looks great, but rightly or wrongly, seeing her fall face-down in the mud has a different vibe now—less cute, more cringe-inducing—than it did when she was in her thirties.

That said, this trivial movie is full of pros, and I enjoyed them. Zellweger remains good company, and so is Firth, though it’s uncertain whether his dour, discomfited manner derives from the character’s feelings or the actor’s—it’s jarring, somehow, when he smiles. Dempsey’s role, a stereotypical platitudinous American, does him no favors, but he comfortably fulfills the requirements of a mature hunk.

The real fun is in the supporting cast. The regulars from the earlier films, like Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones as Bridget’s parents, make mostly token appearances, but there are a few new adds that are funny. As Bridget’s ob-gyn, Emma Thompson nips her terse lines off smartly but with just the right tinge of underlying kindness, and Kate O’Flynn is amusing as Bridget’s noxious new boss. I’ll also confess that Sarah Solemani’s mischievous sidelong smirks, as Bridget’s wacky anchorwoman pal, left me with a slight crush.

Thursday, September 15, 2016


RIP to Kim McGuire, who played Hatchet-Face in the John Waters movie Cry-Baby, passed on at 60.

By all accounts, beneath the grotesque makeup she was lovely, inside and out.

I had the honor to play one of the prison guards in that film, who chased Hatchet-Face and Milton (Darren Burrows) through the movie screen showing Creature from the Black Lagoon to a bunch of prisoners in 3-D glasses.

So, in remembrance of McGuire…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week the nod goes to that old fave the Creech, just as he appears before Hatchet-Face bursts through the screen.

I’ll never forget standing for hours behind the movie screen in the Cry-Baby prison location in Jessup, Maryland, watching the clip of the Creature climbing aboard the boat to grab Julie Adams played over and over again, while they worked out the timing of the precise moment when McGuire was to leap through the screen—only three takes were possible, as they only had three screens that had been dried out to burst outward with the proper “starring” effect when jumped through. Something about the repetition of the scene filled me with a weird compassion for the poor Creature and his hopelessly unrequited infatuation.

Friday, September 9, 2016


Opening this weekend: 

SullyThe famous belly-flop into the Hudson River by U.S. Airways Flight 1549, back in January of 2009, stands out where many plane crashes run together in memory. One reason for this, no doubt, is that everyone aboard survived. Another is that it wasn’t really a plane crash—it was a water landing, as this movie’s title character, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, defensively points out when the NTSB investigators describe the incident using the C-word.

I was unaware that there was any controversy about Sullenberger’s conduct during the brief flight, interrupted by a collision with a flock of geese. But according to this dramatization, directed by Clint Eastwood, the title character’s decision to ditch in the river rather than attempt to return to LaGuardia was sharply questioned by the NTSB.

Sullenberger was hailed in the media as a feel-good hero for his calm during the crisis, but as Tom Hanks plays Sully—it’s been pointed out online that, after Apollo 13, Castaway, Captain Phillips and this film, it may be inadvisable to travel with Hanks—he wasn’t so calm in the days that followed. He was badly shaken, couldn’t sleep, and soon began questioning his own judgment, although his second officer (Aaron Eckhart) had no doubt he’d saved their lives.

A quiet, reserved man, Sully was further rattled by his new role as a media star. Here, as in the final scenes of Captain Phillips, Hanks seems to be reproaching the very idea of the movie action hero, riding out a terrifying experience with no aftereffects.

Todd Komarnicki’s script seems a bit haphazardly structured at first, but it hinges on gradually expanding flashbacks of the incident, giving us a greater sense each time of the shrinking set of options available to the pilots. Eastwood’s style, as usual, isn’t flashy—it’s simple, unpretentious, even a little prosaic, which means it’s just right for the world of conference rooms and airport hotels in which much of the story unfolds. Contrasted with the fine underplaying of Hanks, this visual and atmospheric banality makes the movie startlingly absorbing and emotional.

The Wild LifeThis animated kidflick depicts another abortive journey. It’s yet another movie adaptation of Robinson Crusoe, maybe the oddest yet. No Friday this time; the story is seen from the point of view of the animals on Crusoe’s island, who decide to help him build a comfortable castaway lifestyle.

Since they’re a motley bunch representing various continents—a macaw, a Malaysian tapir, a chameleon, a pangolin, a goat and a kingfisher!—presumably we’re meant to understand that they’re castaways as well, organized into a loose family. The villains here are a pack of bedraggled, matted feral cats.

A Belgian-French co-production dubbed into English without name players, The Wild Life is visually striking, and you almost have to respect its hard-nosed old-school storytelling—an animal dies heroically in the course of the story, for instance. But somehow the movie just doesn’t work. Dafoe’s book is a fascinating, culturally troubling myth, and somehow trying to bend it into anthropomorphic cuteness feels forced and unconvincing.

Thursday, September 8, 2016


Happy 50th Birthday Star Trek!

Yes, that’s right, fifty years ago today my favorite TV show, the original Star Trek, debuted on NBC with “The Man Trap.” This Saturday evening retro network MeTV celebrates the auspicious anniversary by showing “The Man Trap,” after which their horror host Svengoolie presents the Star Trek pilot The Cage—later abridged into the two-part original series episode “The Menagerie”—as his feature selection. Talk about your must-see TV!

Obviously a Star Trek monster is called for this week, and since the hideous salt-sucking shape-shifter (or shape-sucking salt-shifter?) from “The Man Trap” was a MOTW just last year, how about…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this snarling beast…

…from “The Cage,” played by Janos Prohaska, who also designed and played The Mugato and The Horta!

Friday, September 2, 2016


Opening this week: 

The HollarsEven though the small-town middle American family of the title isn’t especially prone to raising their voices, the name somehow fits just the same. They’re an explosive bunch; you get the sense that hollering is what they’re always on the verge of.

John Krasinski plays John Hollar, the son who ran away from home. An aspiring but blocked graphic novelist, he’s been living in New York, working a day job he hates, and reluctant to marry his girlfriend Rebecca (Anna Kendrick) even though she’s in the homestretch of carrying his child. When John learns that his beloved Mom (Margo Martindale) has collapsed and is in the hospital, he hurries home.

Immediately he’s dropped back into the squabbles between his blubberingly emotional, short-fused father (Richard Jenkins) and his divorced, underachieving, angry older brother Ron (Sharlto Copley), whose ex (Ashley Dyke) and two daughters are now living with a maddeningly nice, patient pastor (Josh Groban). Ron, by contrast, is living back at home with the ‘rents, even though Dad has fired him from the family plumbing business, which John also learns is about to go belly-up. Interrupting all of this drama is Mom’s massive brain tumor, for which she’ll quickly need surgery.

If you’re not hearing anything particularly groundbreaking in this synopsis, you’re not wrong. The Hollars, written by Jim Strouse and directed by Krasinki, is fairly standard dysfunctional family comedy-drama, the sort of modest, “character-driven” piece that actors have a hard time resisting.

Fortunately, the actors who couldn’t resist this script include several of the best now in American movies, and Krasinski managed them briskly. There are scenes that seem heavy-handed and obvious, as when the brothers confer with their mother’s Asian surgeon (Randall Park) and the anxious Ron can’t stop himself from bringing up the man’s race. But most of the interactions between these frightened, pissed-off, loving people ring more or less true, and the actors get all that there is to get out of them, and maybe a bit more.

Vibrant as the whole ensemble is, Krasinski deserves highest marks for giving Margo Martindale a juicy opportunity in a feature film. Long valued as a supporting player, Martindale is showcased here, and has a couple of Oscar-clip-worthy scenes with real punch. But her quiet scenes with the lantern-jawed, sadly smiling Krasinski are even better—John and Mom are the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Hollars, and their conspiratorial, amused alliance is the heart of the movie.

Thursday, September 1, 2016


RIP to the beautiful Gene Wilder, whose one-of-a-kind combination of gentleness and manic intensity places him among the greats of American comedy. I love him most for perhaps his least manic role, as Jim, the amiably detached Waco Kid, in Blazing Saddles...

...and also as Willy Wonka, dreamily singing “There’s no earthly way of knoooowing….Which direction we are gooooing…” He was a terrific foil to Richard Pryor in Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, and he gave classic performances in The Producers, Start the Revolution Without Me and few other uneven films. But many regard the 1974 Mel Brooks favorite Young Frankenstein, which Wilder co-wrote and in which he played the title character, as his finest hour. It’s certainly wonderful, so…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week we can hardly do other than give the nod to the Monster in that film, splendidly played by Peter Boyle…

…with whom young Dr. Frankenstein (FRONK-en-steen) performs “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”