Tuesday, January 31, 2017


A few days late, as it was unscreened for critics here:

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter—Alice, played by Milla Jovovich, wriggles out of the ruins of the White House and finds America still crawling with cannibal zombies, bio-engineered monsters and amoral corporate mercenaries in armored vehicles. You know, the world the Trump administration is striving for.

In this, the sixth and supposedly the last installment of the series based on the gruesome video game, the badass Alice must return to “Raccoon City” and the underground complex where it all began. She hooks up with some allies—Ali Larter among them—and they try to retrieve some concoction that will shut down the zombies. The corporate scumbags, among them a dastardly Iain Glen, try to stop them.

These movies represent almost everything I despise in contemporary big-budget moviemaking—overblown, hyper-edited action, sterile CGI visuals, actors growling humorless dialogue, too many endings. So it’s a little embarrassing to admit that they’ve been a guilty pleasure for me over the years. Just possibly the ever-fetching Jovovich has something to do with this.

I enjoyed this one, too, but even so I’d agree that it’s time to retire the series. It starts off well enough, as a straightforward chase picture, but when our heroes get to the underground “Hive” it becomes, tediously, very much like a video game indeed, with various “levels.” Also, it’s full of stuff that doesn’t make sense—why, for just one example, do the bad guys wait to shut down the entrance to “The Hive” until most of the heroes, who they knew were coming, have entered?

Happily, The Final Chapter regains its footing in time for a reasonably entertaining final confrontation. And despite the optimistic title, there’s absolutely no reason the filmmakers couldn’t continue the saga if they wanted too.

Thursday, January 26, 2017


RIP to the beguiling and funny Mary Tyler Moore, passed on at 80. She was a significant and influential presence in my childhood, but that’s only saying what most people of around my age who grew up watching TV can say.

Many of the encomia that have been offered to her since the news of her death broke have focused, rightly, on how The Mary Tyler Moore Show pioneered the image of an independent single woman. Important as this was, I think the show’s magic and originality ran even deeper.

It wasn’t just that Moore’s character, Mary Richards, was a career woman, or even that her career wasn’t just something to do until a husband came along. The show depicted how Mary Richards built, from her coworkers and her neighbors, a true family that was entirely sufficient to a fulfilling life. This seems commonplace now—indeed, it’s the basic dynamic of most sitcoms—but if there was an earlier TV series that hinged on it, I can’t think of it.

There was no real sense that Mary Richards was a lonely person. She wasn’t averse to marriage, but even if it never came along, the lyrics of the theme song weren’t just a platitude—the pleasure of the series was Mary’s discovery that love really was all around, and there really was no need to waste it.

Time for one more 2016 list, Your Humble Narrator’s annual rundown of the books I’ve read over the past year (as always, excluding newspaper and magazine articles, short stories, poems, comic books, blogs, facebook posts, shopping lists, owner’s manuals, graffiti, etc.):

Slade House by David Mitchell

The Mommy Dearest Diaries by Rutanya Alda

Communion by Frank Lauria

Almost Interesting by David Spade

Night of the Trilobites by Peter Leslie

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Close to Critical by Hal Clement 

Kramer’s War by Derek Robinson

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace

The Green Man by Kingsley Amis

Alpha Centauri or Die! by Leigh Brackett

Frankenstein Unbound by Brian W. Aldiss 

Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock

A shorter-than-usual list this year—I’m a ploddingly slow reader even with short books, and the ponderous Cloud Atlas and Ben-Hur slowed me to a crawl this year. Both were wonderful, however. In Ben-Hur, for instance, Wallace offers this bit of 19th-Century wisdom that the 21st Century seems to be having a hard time with: “A certain facility of accommodation in the matter of religion comes to us after much intercourse with people of different faith; gradually we attain the truth that every creed is illustrated by good men who are entitled to our respect, but whom we cannot respect without courtesy to their creed.

Note to Milla Jovovich: 

I know how you feel about me, so if there’s no review of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter on this blog Friday morning, please don’t be hurt: It’s not because I didn’t want to see it. It’s because the movie wasn’t screened for critics, at least not here in Phoenix. All the same, I did watch your convenient video recap of the series on Youtube, and greatly appreciated the refresher course.

In Milla’s honor…

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week we acknowledge the Popokarimu… 

…a bioengineered flying abomination from the movie.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


Check out Phoenix Magazine’s “Desert Digest” blog for my story about the nostalgia for the venerable Bashas’ supermarket at 7th Avenue and Osborn in Phoenix, open since 1956 but reportedly soon to close.

Happy Chinese New Year this Saturday! Welcome to the Year of the Rooster. In its honor you can check out the January issue of Phoenix Magazine...

...for my “Four Corners” column on neighborhood Chinese joints as well as my review of Veggie Village, a vegan/vegetarian Asian restaurant.

Friday, January 20, 2017


Opening this weekend:

The FounderNear the beginning of this chronicle history of the McDonald’s empire, we get a look at the hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California that started the chain. It’s 1954, and a long line of customers are waiting for a burger, fries and a Coke. We’re seeing it through the eyes of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), the underachieving Midwestern milk-shake machine salesman who’s visited hundreds of dreary drive-ins, diners and dives and knows he’s stumbled on to something big here.

Some might see this scene as the thrilling origin of a great American success story. Others might see it as the chilling start of a sci-fi horror film, like the moment that the zombies or the alien pods start to spread soulless conformity—Invasion of the Franchise People.

It’s both, of course. For better and worse, this is no minor episode in the history of America, or indeed of the developed world—as a friend of mine noted recently, it’s unlikely that most of us have ever met anybody who has never in their life eaten at McDonald’s. The makers of The Founder know this, and they go about their business with breezy speed and humor but, quite rightly, without irony.

Kroc, a hustler who’s never found quite the right hustle, talks his way into a job franchising the chain on behalf of the brothers Maurice “Mac” McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman), New Hampshire natives who had gone west in search of fortune. According to The Founder, the genial, conciliatory Mac and the quiet, wary purist Dick were just trying to run a good quality, profitable burger joint, but with the system he had designed—limited menu, choreographically precise preparation, ridiculously rapid service—Dick had essentially invented fast food.

The film tells how Kroc turned this concept into a third locus for American communities, alongside the city hall and the church—Keaton gets a ripe speech describing Kroc’s vision of the Golden Arches taking their place alongside the flag and the Cross in towns throughout America. Within a few years, he’s on his way to realizing this, and he’s also at war with Mac and Dick, who are still in control of the brand and slow to approve any of Kroc’s innovations.

The director is John Lee Hancock of The Rookie and The Blind Side, working from a script by Robert D. Siegel, the former Onion writer who scripted The Wrestler. There are lines and moments that hit a sour note in terms of period—the phrase “family friendly” somehow didn’t sound like 1954 to me, for instance. But I liked how conflicted Hancock and Siegel seem about their protagonist, an admirable entrepreneur and a selfish, hubristic S.O.B. at the same time. About midpoint, Kroc, who’s not too happily married, falls in love at first sight with the wife (Linda Cardellini) of a man with whom he’s doing business. The tension between the Norman Rockwell wholesomeness of Hancock’s style and the complex and unsavory sexual and economic subtext makes the scene really uncomfortable—and really interesting.

It’s doubtful that any of this could have anywhere near the same charge without Michael Keaton. He deploys his usual manic star persona, the jumpy guy who turns his bouncing-off-the-walls patter into a constant, disarming self-parody. But here he shades it to a character that’s not altogether likable, and he’s no less vibrant and riveting for that. 

PatersonThe title is the name of the setting—Paterson, New Jersey, home of, among other notables, the great modernist poet William Carlos Williams. It’s also the name of the hero (Adam Driver), who works there as a city bus driver and is also a poet—a contentedly unknown bard, jotting carefully-turned lines in the driver’s seat before his shift starts. As he composes, his verses (actually written by Ron Padgett) appear onscreen.

Jim Jarmusch’s idyll traces a week of this fellow’s pleasant routines—waking up in the mornings next to his gorgeous wife (Golshifteh Farahani), walking their jealous bulldog in the evenings, hanging out in a local bar. He witnesses a bit of minor drama here and there in the course of the week, and responds to it perfectly, and he himself suffers one painful but entirely survivable disaster.

As usual with Jarmusch, the hipster pose and the comic stoicism of the style help the whimsical sentiment to go down more easily. The movie is suspiciously rose-colored in its view of the heartsease of an unknown artist with a working life. Paterson (the guy, not the town) doesn’t require literary fame, because he’s vanity-free, and every other benefit that fame might bring to a person of moderate habits—comfort, stability, a beautiful and adoring lover—he already has.

It seems, in short, a lot like a famous person’s daydream of happy creative anonymity. But it’s such a serene and lovely daydream, and Driver is so sweet, that you’re likely to be drawn in.

When Paterson and his dizzy, cuddly wife go out to the movies, it’s to a revival showing of the 1932 masterpiece Island of Lost Souls, and as they leave, Paterson notes—very accurately—that his wife resembles the Panther Girl (Kathleen Burke) from that film. Who wouldn’t want some version of this guy’s life?

Thursday, January 19, 2017


RIP to Dick Gautier, who played Conrad Birdie on Broadway in Bye Bye Birdie, and Hymie the robot on Get Smart, passed on at 85. Last night I watched him in an episode of the short-lived sitcom When Things Were Rotten, in which he played Robin Hood, facing off against The Black Knight, played by the recently late and much-lamented Ron Glass.

A Canadian entomologist has named a newly-discovered species of moth Neopalpa donaldtrumpi after our incoming President, on the basis of a similarity in coiffure.

The difference is, it works on the moth. Most becoming.

You can read about it in the Washington Post, although presumably that makes it fake news. Anyway, in the creature's honor...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...we can hardly do other than to acknowledge Mothra...

...star of the 1961 classic and many subsequent Toho favorites. We'll be lucky indeed if The Moth's Eponym in the White House wreaks no more havoc than Toho's larger but far less repulsive bug.

It was also pointed out to me that Turner Classic Movies is showing the Budd Schulberg-Elia Kazan classic A Face in the Crowd on Inauguration Day.

Great movie, great gesture, but I don't think I can watch it, anymore than I can watch the spectacle itself. That movie came true, and what's heartbreaking is that the tape exposing the character of the real Lonesome Rhodes (far more reprehensible than Andy Griffith's character in the film) surfaced, right on cue, and the public failed to give a shit. As cynical as they always seemed, it turns out that Schulberg and Kazan overestimated us.

Friday, January 13, 2017


Opening in the Valley this weekend: 

Monster TrucksDrilling deep in North Dakota, an oil company dredges up three slimy tentacled creatures from an underground sea. Two are captured by the company, but a sweet-faced third escapes and makes friends with a frustrated local “teen” mechanic named Tripp (26-year-old Lucas Till) who dubs him “Creech” and uses his tentacles as the motive power for his beloved engine-less truck.

“It’s like the truck is a wheelchair for him,” says the pretty “teen” girl (27-year-old Jane Levy) who likes Tripp. “No,” replies the empowerment-minded Tripp, “It’s like he’s the engine for my truck.”

In short, this family film of long-delayed release is in the lead, so far this year, for literal-mindedness: Monster Trucks is about trucks powered by monsters. I suppose it’s another example, akin to the Transformers or Cars, of the child’s impulse to anthropomorphize beloved inanimate icons of power, like a truck or a gun.

Even so, it’s not every day you see a kid movie quite this weird. The oddity doesn’t derive just from the laboriousness of the premise, nor from the mixed bag of name players in the cast—Rob Lowe, Danny Glover, Thomas Lennon, Amy Ryan, Barry Pepper, Frank Whaley. It’s also in the tension between the movie’s Trump-demographic setting and interests—rural white folks, souped-up trucks, a hero named like one of Sarah Palin’s kids—and the values implied by its environmentalism, its corporate villains and its general generosity of spirit.

This eccentricity left me unable to dislike Monster Trucks, though it’s corny and silly. In its visual style and its John Williams-ish music, it has the feel of a throwback, like a Spielberg knockoff from the ‘80s, and the audience with whom I saw it responded to it happily. 

20th Century WomenDespite the title—strange to think it now applies to a period piece—this film is a male coming-of-age story. The setting is Santa Barbara in 1979, where Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) lives with his chain-smoking single mom Dorothea (Annette Bening). After a safety scare, Dorothea nervily asks two young women to assist in raising Jamie.

One is teenage Julie (Elle Fanning), a troubled promiscuous neighbor who regularly sneaks over and shares a bed with Jamie but infuriatingly won’t let him touch her—she likes him too much. The other is older Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a purple-haired hipster and cancer survivor who introduces Jamie to the local punk scene. Also around is William (Billy Crudup), a mystical-minded handyman.

The writer-director is Mike Mills, drawing upon his own childhood for inspiration. His style is economical, showing a debt at times to Godfrey Reggio’s fast-motion visions (the film includes a clip from Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi). There’s plenty of high comedy, as when Jamie gets beat up by another kid over a disagreement about the necessity of “clitoral stimulation”—Bening’s facial takes in reaction to this explanation are classic.

Indeed, for all the excellence of Gerwig, Fanning, Crudup and Zumann, Bening is the knockout here. Dizzy with love for Jamie and the terror it breeds, grimacing with the effort not to say anything that alienates him, Dorothea may be the most magnificent, deeply funny, soulful creation of Bening’s career.

Thursday, January 12, 2017


With the family film Monster Trucks opening tomorrow, the choice…

Monster-of-the-Week: …seems obvious: Creech, the slimy tentacled pal of the teen hero…

Here’s Creech as depicted in some of the kid’s activity pages...

…to be found on the movie’s facebook page.

Friday, January 6, 2017


Opening today:

Hidden FiguresWe tend to think of NASA as part of the “New Frontier” and “Camelot” and the general unembarrassed optimistic idealism we associate, accurately or not, with the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. So it’s a slight jolt to realize that the space program, at least in its early days (then NACA, or the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics), was segregated.

It was, of course, decades before there were female or nonwhite astronauts, but in at least one facility, the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, the segregation was overt. A pool of female African-American “computers”—the term was applied to humans who performed complicated mathematical functions in those days—was relegated to a separate building and separate restrooms on the Langley campus until at least 1958.

This drama focuses on Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), who, among many other career achievements, calculated flight trajectories for John Glenn’s first orbital Mercury mission in 1962. It also depicts Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the de facto supervisor of the department, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who became an aerospace engineer.

The director, St. Vincent’s Theodore Melfi, working from a script he wrote with Allison Schroeder (based, in turn, on Margot Lee Shetterley’s nonfiction book) seems to have compressed and conflated the chronology of events here for dramatic convenience, but he gets across the essentials of this remarkable story, another in the seemingly bottomless supply of belatedly-told instances of American achievement by women and minorities, in the face of outrageous intolerance. The style is standard inspirational uplift, and the characterizations aren’t deep, but the cast—the three leads and also Kevin Costner as the Langley big boss—are vibrant enough to fill in the blanks.

The bright primary-color cinematography and the midcentury period detail are parts of what make this cinematically inconsequential movie so pleasant. Another part, I confess, is the glamour of the lead actresses—I know we’re supposed to be celebrating their intellectual and social triumphs, but as they scurry around in their pencil skirts and glasses, they also show a lot of nerd chic.

A Monster CallsEnglish adolescent Conor (Lewis MacDougall) lives in a lovely old country house with his adored, cancer-afflicted young mother (Felicity Jones). One night, after he and his mom have watched King Kong together, Conor receives a visit at his bedroom window from a monster; an enormous anthropomorphic tree, something like the green man of myth, who speaks in the rumbling tones of Liam Neeson.

Over the course of the film, The Monster tells Conor three odd stories of elusive meaning, something like Sufi parables, insisting that when he is done with his three, Conor must tell him a fourth story. Eventually he tells The Monster his story and, as with the end of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, his own agonized, guilty secret is revealed.

This film, directed by J.A. Bayona, is based on the much-honored 2011 children’s novel by Patrick Ness, which was based, in turn, on an idea and some notes by the late writer Siobhan Dowd. It’s a poignant, handsomely-made piece of work, with beautiful animated sequences (illustrating The Monster’s stories) and fine acting, not only by MacDougall and Jones but by Toby Kebbell as Conor’s absentee dad and Sigourney Weaver as his stern, terrified grandmother. It’s also nice to see Geraldine Chaplin, in a small but effective role as an authority figure at Conor’s school.

Above all, it has a memorable presence in the great creaking, rustling, uprooted Monster. The special effects depicting him are lovely, and it’s nice to hear that urgently authoritative Neeson voice used for something other than threatening bad guys in lurid action movies.

Thursday, January 5, 2017


Time for that annual list of the movies that, at this particular highly subjective moment, seem like my ten favorites of the year: 

Moonlight—This naturalistic coming-of-age story from director Barry Jenkins about an African-American kid in Miami’s Liberty City and his subsumed sexual identity, among other struggles, inspires a litany of adjectives: Heartbreaking, harrowing, tender, beautiful, thoroughly original.

Manchester by the Sea—There’s an unbearable tragedy at the center of this New England drama, but as usual writer-director Kenneth Lonergan seems incapable of hitting a false note, the long-underrated Casey Affleck is superb in the lead, and Michelle Williams is unforgettable in her big scene.

Florence Foster Jenkins—Heaping praise on Meryl Streep started getting old three decades ago, but when she keeps offering up beguilingly silly work like this portrait of the Manhattan wannabe soprano, what else can you do? Hugh Grant is also at his best in this, as is supporting player Simon Helberg and director Stephen Frears. 

The Eagle Huntress—Whether or not it strictly qualifies as a documentary, Otto Bell’s chronicle, full of engaging non-actors using their real names, of a Mongolian Kazakh teenage girl breaking into the traditionally male field of eagle hunting is one-of-a-kind and exhilarating.

Paterson—Jim Jarmusch’s New Jersey idyll, about a week in the life of a bus driver and contentedly unknown poet, is suspiciously rose-colored in its view of the heartsease of an artist with a working life. But it’s such a serene fantasy, and Adam Driver is so sweet in the lead, that you’re likely to be drawn in.

Hell or High Water—This tight, pissed-off, grimly funny Texas noir features maybe the best use of the “cop about to retire” cliché ever. The four leads are outstanding: Chris Pine as a desperate small-potatoes bank robber, Ben Foster as his cheerfully nihilistic brother and partner, and Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham as the Texas Rangers hunting them.

Loving—A hushed, restrained, moving portrait of the people behind 1967’s famous Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision, which declared interracial marriage a constitutional right. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga are quietly superb in the leads.

Dr. Strange—Of this year’s big-studio blockbusters, this origin story for Marvel’s cheeky metaphysician may have been the most enjoyable. Benedict Cumberbatch is just right in the title role, Tilda Swinton is a delight as The Ancient One, and the production is polished and impressive. 

Star Trek: Beyond—On the other hand, this latest entry in the rebooted Trek franchise was also a lot of fun. It will never replace the original for me, but on its own terms, it’s pretty rollicking.

Morris From America—Another coming-of-age tale, this one a bit lighter: the hero is a 13-year-old aspiring American rapper stuck in Germany with his single father. Markees Christmas and Craig Robinson are terrific as son and father.

Here are some others I’m not sorry I saw: Christine (excellent but painfully depressing), De Palma (made me want to watch a bunch of his movies), Miss Hokusai (Japanese historical anime; would have made the Top Ten but imdb says it’s a 2015 movie), The Edge of Seventeen, Fences, Zootopia, Don’t Breathe, Love & Friendship, Rogue One, Sully, Trolls, The Love Witch, Max Rose, The Hollars, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, City of Gold, Queen of Katwe, Anthropoid, Bad Santa 2, The Bronze, 10 Cloverfield Lane, The Lobster, Green Room, The Jungle Book, The Shallows, Hidden Figures, Finding Dory,  Life, Animated and the maligned new version of Ghostbusters.

Also, A Monster Calls, which opens tomorrow. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to the title character of the 2011 book upon which that movie is based, seen here…

…as rendered in the award-winning illustrations of Jim Kay.