Monday, February 27, 2017


Best Picture is usually the least interesting of all the awards at the Oscars. At least, that’s how it seems most years. Which film will win often feels, after the results of all those other awards shows, like a fait accompli going in, and even when it doesn’t, by the time we’ve arrived at the last award of the night, you typically have a sense of how things are leaning. There are exceptions, of course—Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan in 1999, for instance—but as a rule, Best Picture tends to be an anticlimax.

That sure wasn’t the case this year, however.

The show Sunday night began in normal fashion. Host Jimmy Kimmel, not being of the Neil Patrick Harris, Seth MacFarlane or Billy Crystal mold, didn’t try to wow everybody with a big semi-ironic song-and-dance production number, so that duty was managed by Justin Timberlake, extravagantly performing “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” his nominated song from Trolls.

Kimmel took over from there, and handled himself well, with some relaxed, mostly uncontroversial but quite funny standup and an unobtrusive modesty. There were oddball routines—like concessions dropping from the ceiling in tiny parachutes, or a group of Hollywood-star-home tourists being led through the Dolby Theatre by surprise—that seemed, as such bits often do, like more laborious trouble than they were worth, but they still had some charm.

There were touching moments as well, like the real-life, 98-year-old NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures, being wheeled onstage to a thunderous ovation. And a friend called me, convulsed with hilarity, after a segment in which Seth Rogen, discussing 1985’s Back to the Future, observed that “They really, like, captured future clothing pretty well, ‘cuz if you saw, like, Tilda Swinton wearing that exact outfit, you would not think it was weird.”

For most of its length, the show chugged along agreeably, if without any particular excitement. Casey Affleck winning Best Actor for Manchester by the Sea was perhaps a slight surprise, as Denzel Washington had taken the SAG Award for Fences. But on the whole, nothing suggested that La La Land wouldn’t win Best Picture as expected.

That Moonlight took the award instead would have been a surprise to begin with, but what made the upset great TV was an unfortunate mix-up: Presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were somehow accidentally given the wrong envelope, a duplicate of the one reading Emma Stone for Best Actress in La La Land. Beatty was confused, paused, and showed the card to Dunaway who, thinking that Beatty was just clowning, glanced at it and announced La La Land as the winner.

The cast and producers of that film came onstage and were in the midst of their acceptance speeches when the error was pointed out to them. Producer Jordan Horowitz stepped to the microphone, announced the mistake, and graciously called the Moonlight team to the stage, saying he was proud to present the award to them.

While I was less enthusiastic than most critics about La La Land, and while the stirring Moonlight topped my Top Ten List this year, it was hard not to feel for the La La Land gang, and harder still not to admire the grace with which they handled the situation. It was painful, but it sure wasn’t dull.

Another friend called me after the show to tell me he had the inside scoop on how the practice of two sets of envelopes originated. He claims that at the 1964 Oscars, the agent for Pricewaterhouse (then still known as Price Waterhouse) suffered a fatal heart attack just before showtime. These being the days when, probably mostly for the sake of showmanship, the operative would be presented onstage handcuffed to the briefcase containing the winners, the misfortune created an obvious problem for the ceremony, and the need for a backup became clear.

But there was another twist to the tale, according to my friend (who claims he knew the Price Waterhouse man's family as a kid in Reseda, California). He says the guy's heart attack was brought on by stress because he was related to Governor John Connally of Texas, who had been wounded a few months earlier in the Kennedy assassination. So there you have it: Last night's Oscar telecast was one more casualty of that fateful day in Dallas.

I have been unable to find any independent confirmation whatsoever for this. But hey, if you can't trust the testimony of a guy who calls you late at night after playing bar trivia, what can you trust?

Friday, February 24, 2017


Opening this weekend:

Get OutChris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young, gifted and black art photographer in New York City, goes upstate for a weekend in the country with his white girlfriend of four months, Rose (Allison Williams), to meet the affluent parents. Dad (Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon, Mom (Catherine Keener) is a hypnotherapist, creepy brother (Caleb Landry Jones) is a med student.

They seem, initially, like nice folks, a little awkward and self-conscious about Chris’s race, but well-intentioned, even compensatorily over-friendly. But small weirdnesses crop up at once, first with the mannered, inauthentic behavior of the family’s black domestic help (Marcus Henderson and Betty Gabriel) and of another black man who shows up at a party (Lakieth Stanfield), and then with other hints of the sinister.

To say much more would be to give away too much about this horror tale, written and directed by Jordan Peele (half of the comedy team of Key & Peele) in his directorial debut. Suffice to say that it’s a splendidly successful, witty shocker, in large part because Peele is disciplined about playing by the rules, using the theme of racial unease to generate terror along a wonderfully old-fashioned, Ira-Levin-ish Gothic structure.

Kaluuya, a Brit, easily pulls us into his gradually-rising paranoia and makes us root for Chris. The white actors are flawless, from the subtlety of Williams, Whitford, Keener and Stephen Root as a blind gallery owner to the ripe caricature of the unwholesome party guests. And the wide-eyed servants, with their stilted unctuousness, can raise the hairs on your neck. There’s overt comic relief, too, in the form of the ebullient LilRey Howery as Chris’s worried TSA agent pal.

Best of all, while Get Out is sincerely meant to scare, Peele still brings his comic sensibility into play here. There are well-crafted jolts and jumps, and the climactic clashes are conventionally gruesome, but the movie never loses a sense of audience-pleasing fun. Peele connects the film not only to classic horror templates but also to hardwired racial beliefs, both black and white. The plot partly hinges, for instance, on the familiar white conviction, recently displayed by our president, that all black people know each other.

Opening at Sonora Cinema at Desert Sky Mall:

You're Killing Me SusanaEligio is a Mexico City soap actor who likes to stay out late, drink, and fool around with women from the set. One morning he wakes up to find his stunning writer wife Susana (Veronica Echegui) absent from bed and apartment. Her clothes are absent from the closet, too.

Stunned and shaken—he thought they were doing great—Eligio traces Susana to a writer's workshop at a college in Iowa. He drops everything and follows her there, where he finds her involved with a virile, silent Polish poet.

From here on, You're Killing Me Susana (Me Estas Matando Susana), directed by Roberto Sneider from a Jose Agustin novel, becomes both a romantic comedy with serious overtones and a spiky look at U.S. culture through an outsider's eyes. In both functions it's charged up by the performance of Gael Garcia Bernal—probably best known to U.S. audiences as the young Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries—as Eligio.

With his insolent sexual confidence and persistent (if mostly ineffectual) machismo, Eligio is the sort who can smirk at his own infidelities yet throw wailing, floor-pounding tantrums at Susana's without seeming to notice the incongruity. The breathtaking Echegui makes you see how the combination of Eligio's oppressive selfishness and his unshakable lovability could make sneaking away while he's asleep seem like the only escape.

This wry, absorbing, unpredictable movie can truly be called a comedy-drama, deftly tipping from near-farcical to poignant without losing its balance, on either side of the hyphen.

Thursday, February 23, 2017


Since we were discussing MeTV last week, allow me to point out that the vintage network's old-school horror host Svengoolie, who's been on a welcome Godzilla kick lately, shows Godzilla's Revenge this Saturday.

I have exceptionally fond memories of that one (released in the U.S. in 1971), as my sister Priscilla took me to see it at the Warner Theater in Erie when I was about nine.


Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's acknowledge Gabara, the monster who acts like a jerk to Godzilla's kid Minya in that film...

Excuse the spoiler, but needless to say, both Godzilla and son get their revenge...

Monday, February 20, 2017


Happy President's Day everybody!

In observance of the day, check out Your Humble Narrator's story, on the New Times blog, about my adventures campaigning in my neighborhood for our current President's opponent. Also...

...check out the February issue of Phoenix Magazine for my review of North Mountain Grille (page 152, or here) and my "Four Corners" column on Indian food joints (page 153, or here).

Friday, February 17, 2017


Opening this week:

Fist FightCharlie Day is Andy Campbell, a milquetoast English teacher at an underfunded, underachieving, metal-detector-enclosed high school. Ice Cube is Strickland, a tough history teacher. It’s the last day of school, the odious, arrogant students are playing outrageous pranks, and the teachers are re-interviewing for their jobs in the face of layoffs. Things are tense.

Andy witnesses Strickland violently lose it front of his class, and faced with the prospect of losing his job if he doesn’t, he “rats out” Strickland to the principal. On the familiar grounds that “snitches get stitches,” Strickland then challenges Andy to the title combat after school.

The rest of this broad, crude, foul-mouthed comedy, directed by Richie Keen from a script by Van Robichaux and Evan Susser, involves Andy frantically resorting to ever more dishonorable and humiliating tactics in an attempt to avoid this fight. In outline, the plot is very much like that of 1987’s Three O’Clock High, except featuring teachers instead of students. Ultimately, of course, in the grand tradition of movies, Andy and Strickland must face off—if they didn’t, the title would be a cheat.

It’s an indefensibly stupid, ill-conceived, mostly unfunny, often offensive movie. So of course, I feel compelled to defend it a little. A very, very little.

First of all, the actors are good. Day, a veteran nitwit from the Horrible Bosses movies and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, fearlessly plays shamelessness. He isn’t the customary cinematic comical coward, like Bob Hope or Woody Allen, making his avoidance of peril into a self-deprecating dignity—he’s palpably willing to abase himself, and the effect is painful, verging at times on poignancy.

Tracy Morgan brings his querulous, imploring tones to the part of the perennially losing football coach, and he’s pretty funny. Jillian Bell is even funnier as a guidance counselor who seems desperately in need of guidance herself. Only Christina Hendricks, as a possibly psychotic French teacher, seems wasted, although I suppose no footage which features Christina Hendricks walking down the hallway in a form-fitting black dress can be considered a total waste.

Ice Cube is always effortlessly commanding, even in a role like this, which aside from being one-note is saddled with a major idiocy at its core. The moviemakers try to sell us on the idea that Strickland’s rage is because he’s fed up with the disrespect of students and the indifference of his colleagues, and that he’s insisting on going through with his challenge to Andy on the grounds that a fight between two teachers will somehow showcase the problems faced by those in their profession.

This is ludicrous, certainly, but it may point to the reason why, as terrible as Fist Fight is, the movie can’t be called dull. It draws a certain degree of dramatic potency from the near-impossible situation in which public school teachers in poorer districts find themselves—constant frustration if they care about their jobs and their students, soulless defeat if they give up. The dumb fight-between-teachers plot, even though it was probably the inspiration for the picture, is also a weight around its neck. It’s possible to see how, with the same cast and setting, something could have been made that was at least equally funny but genuinely trenchant.

Thursday, February 16, 2017


Your Humble Narrator is a fan of the vintage network MeTV, in no small part because they play silly, nostalgic old-school ‘60s and ‘70s sci-fi on the weekends, including Irwin Allen’s ridiculous The Time Tunnel.

This week’s scheduled episode is “Chase Through Time,” in which our epoch-hopping, stock-footage-fleeing heroes James Darren and Robert Colbert find themselves, among other eras, back in prehistory. So…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s acknowledge the primordial titan that threatens them in that episode…

…obviously played by an unfortunate alligator with fins and horns attached. It appears to have been recycled from Allen’s own 1960 version of The Lost World.

Friday, February 10, 2017


Opening this weekend:

The Lego Batman MovieEven though I never had Legos as a kid, nor played with them as an adult, I enjoyed 2014’s The Lego Movie and A Lego Brickumentary. I think I liked this cubist take on the Caped Crusader best of all, however.

Directed by Chris McKay from a script by, among other hands, Seth Grahame-Smith of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, it’s a highly observant spoof of the sort of turgid, self-important superhero epics that have, for me, taken a lot of the fun out of the genre. Batman, growled here, as in The Lego Movie, by Will Arnett, is a vain loner, obsessed with his “nine-pack” abs, and opposed to letting anyone help him with, or share the glory of, his exploits. Partly this is ego, but he also can’t bear the idea of personal attachments of any kind—he watches Jerry Maguire and cackles loudly at the line “You complete me.”

He even wounds the feelings of Lego Joker (Zach Galifianakis) by refusing to admit that, as enemies, the two of them share something special. In response the Clown Prince of Lego Crime hatches a magnum opus scheme against Lego Gotham City, involving not only the DC stable of villains but…

Well, I shouldn’t give away too much more. Suffice to say that Lego Robin (Michael Cera), Lego Batgirl (Rosario Dawson), Lego Superman (Channing Tatum) and Lego Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) all get involved in the story, among many other classic characters. The gags are obsessively detailed and fly by at furious speed, yet somehow, maybe because of the geometrical nature of the figures, the action remains more lucid and coherent than it is in many of the movies being sent up here.

Better still, unlike many of the targets of its parody, it clocks in at well under two hours.

Thursday, February 9, 2017


Check out Phoenix Magazine’s blog for my story on the VHS Swap tomorrow evening at FilmBar, followed by a screening of the amusing ‘80s-style horror flick Beyond the Gates...

With The Lego Batman Movie opening tomorrow…

 Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to Lego Clayface, seen here towering over the back row…

…among that movie’s villains.

Friday, February 3, 2017


Opening in the Valley this weekend:

The Space Between Us­—The space in question is hundreds of millions of miles. It lies between Gardiner, the first boy ever born on Mars—he’s the fruit of a moment of poor judgment by an astronaut—and Tulsa, a foster kid on Earth with whom he’s struck up an online bond. Gardiner would like to come and visit, but his heart isn’t up to Earth’s gravity.

There must be some morbid romantic appeal in the idea of a love that your heart literally can’t stand. In 1993's Untamed Heart we saw Marisa Tomei fall for Christian Slater despite his delicate ticker, supposedly transplanted from a baboon (the working title was Baboon Heart, but perhaps that didn’t test so well).

Taking the idea to interplanetary levels seems extreme, but Asa Butterfield, who plays Gardiner, specializes in this sort of fragile-misfit part, and Britt Robertson, who plays Tulsa, isn’t without spunk. Gary Oldman is on hand as the space honcho, as is Carla Gugino as Gardiner’s surrogate Mom, and it’s good to see them, even in uninspired roles.

Directed by Peter Chelsom, the movie is sort of pretty to look at. It gets across a suggestion of the bountiful variety of Earth compared to the drab desert uniformity of Mars, and the gratitude we ought to feel for living here, and too rarely do.

But the dialogue is painfully terrible, and the plot gambits used to turn The Space Between Us into a road movie are clumsy and unconvincing. Throughout, Gardiner keeps asking people “What’s your favorite thing about Earth?” It’s not a bad question, but it’s doubtful that this movie would be anybody’s answer.

The Red Turtle—This animated feature is a Japanese-European co-production, and it looks it. It begins with ocean waves that look like the art of Hosukai. These tempestuous swells maroon a man, who looks like a character out of Tintin, on an island of bamboo forests and beaches crawling with deadpan little crabs.

The man has all he needs to survive on the island except companionship. He tries several time to escape by raft, but each attempt is mysteriously scuttled by some force he can’t see but suspects is a great red sea turtle he encounters.

After he attacks this creature when it comes ashore, the turtle changes into a beautiful woman. The man abandons his plans to leave the island, and the two of them settle into married life and have a child, who grows up to think about what might lie, as the song says, beyond the sea.

Directed by Michael Dudok de Wit, this nearly wordless film couldn’t be much more beautiful visually. It has quietly magical atmosphere, but somehow it doesn’t quite add up to the masterpiece it seems to want to be. I liked a lot about it, but the moment where the story’s dream logic provides a dramatic payoff is missing.

Thursday, February 2, 2017


Happy Groundhog Day everyone! Alas, reportedly Punxsatawney Phil did indeed see his shadow this morning.

So, as I do every year, I’ll simply remind everybody back in my beloved home state of Pennsylvania and other such sub-Arctic climes of what my Mom, a Mississippi native, always said: That ONLY having six more weeks of winter to contend with is something to celebrate in itself.

Of course, it’s quite possible that we’re all in for a Long Winter figuratively as well as literally.

Here’s something odd: The sculptor who created the bronze statue of Mary Tyler Moore flinging her hat skyward in the streets of Minneapolis...

...has herself passed on, just days after her famous subject.

With The Space Between Us—a romance between a Martian-born boy and an Earthly girl—opening tomorrow, how about… 

Monster-of-the-Week: …another Martian visitor, Guilala…

…from the wonderful 1967 Japanese sci-fi saga known in English as The X From Outer Space.