Thursday, August 31, 2017


RIP to the brilliant Tobe Hooper, passed on at 74. Hooper directed 1974's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, one of the most harrowing of all horror movies. It was one of several films from around those years that helped to launch a new era of hardcore, high-intensity horror that I don't much care for or even entirely approve of, but the ugliness to which it led does not take away in the least from Hooper's cinematic skill, his pitch-black wit, even a certain grotesque poetry that comes through in that classic.

In Hooper's honor...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week let's acknowledge Barlow...

...the Nosferatu-esque vampire played by the ever-cadaverous Reggie Nalder in Hooper's TV-movie adaptation of Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot.

Friday, August 25, 2017


Opening this week:

The Trip to Spain--Two middle-aged British guys drive up the coast of Spain together. As they pass through breathtaking scenery, staying in exquisite, historically important lodgings and eating glorious-looking meals, they focus far less on these pleasures than on one-upping each with celebrity impressions.

That’s the central joke of The Trip to Spain, as it was the central joke of 2014’s The Trip to Italy and of 2010’s The Trip, all of them derived from a BBC series, and all of them directed by Michael Winterbottom. The premise is that it’s a working tour, that the comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are visiting these restaurants to review them. But the meat of the film is the pair’s nattering, a constant dyad of passive-aggressive digs and competitive movie and TV take-offs, of varying quality.

So while grilled anchovies or shrimp or chorizo or Iranian caviar are placed in front of them, we watch Coogan and Brydon’s fictionalized selves try to outdo each as Roger Moore, or Anthony Hopkins, or Ian McKellan, or John Hurt, or Russell Brand. They do David Bowie perusing Twitter, and they do Mick Jagger as Hamlet. They do some Americans, too—Woody Allen and DeNiro and Brando.

We see them pose in front of roadside dinosaurs, and visit the Alhambra, and, inevitably, we see them in front of windmills, in Don Quixote and Sancho drag. Just as inevitably, they riff on the Spanish Inquisition, treating it as a game show, and quoting the famous Monty Python sketch, although in Brando’s voice.

As in the earlier films, a subtle tension underlies this clowning around, a sense that at some level their competition is a serious attempt at dominance—the world’s most un-macho form of machismo. At one point Brydon manages to get Coogan to crack a smile at one of his shticks, and it’s like he’s scored a TKO.

There’s a wisp of nominal plot about the career fortunes of our heroes, and occasionally Winterbottom shoos another actor or two past the camera, just so we don’t overdose on the stars. He also repeats an effective technique from the previous film: Now and then, while Coogan and Brydon are in the thick of one of their routines, he cuts to the chef and kitchen workers, creating culinary masterpieces for two maniacs paying no more than cursory attention to them. These films are an unusually reproachful form of food porn.

Obviously The Trip to Spain isn’t for everybody, and it’s perhaps a hair overlong, but for anglophilic foodie armchair traveling pop-culture buffs, it’s often riotous. I’d be excited to hear that the pair were planning The Trip to Greece, The Trip to Japan and, for an epic finale, The Trip to America.

Leap!--This animated feature is set in France in the late 1800s--the Eiffel Tower is still under construction, and Lady Liberty is still waiting to be delivered to New York. Our heroine is Felicie (voiced by Elle Fanning), who escapes from a provincial orphanage with her friend Victor (voiced by Nat Wolff). The two head for Paris, where her dream is to become a dancer and his is to become an inventor.

A string of kid-movie cliches ensue, the central one being that old standby Hold Onto Your Dream. Felicie ends up training at the Paris Opera Ballet, where's she's in competition with a nasty rich-girl rival for a role in The Nutcracker. In her corner is a kindly cleaning woman (Carly Rae Jepsen) who walks on a cane but knows dance enough to tutor Felicie, but working against her is the rich girl's mom, a Disney-style wicked stepmother type, and...

I'm getting bored just writing this. The look and settings have some cheeriness and imagination, but dramatically the film is without originality and unusually brazen in its pandering. It's also a spectacular demonstration of the so-called "Uncanny Valley" effect--the premise that human beings, as opposed to cute little animals or trolls or toys, come across creepy when represented in CGI.

A Canadian and French co-production, Leap! was released overseas last year as Ballerina, with a slightly different voice cast. The version we get includes the likes of Mel Brooks, thrown away as an orphanage heavy, and Kate McKinnon, who plays three different characters including the villainess, for whom she seems to be channeling the voice of Susan Sarandon. This, I thought, was the most impressive feat in the movie.

In fairness, I should say that I saw Leap! with a large audience of kids, most of whom seemed to watch it reasonably attentively. And afterwards, I saw a few little girls attempting the Grand Jete on their way out of the theatre.

Thursday, August 24, 2017


Saturday night the "No Festival Required" film series features The Rural Route Film Festival Touring Program...

...a collection of striking shorts, both animated and live-action, from the New York-based fest. Check out my review, on Phoenix Magazine online.

RIP to Dick Gregory, passed on at 84, and to actor Jay Thomas, departed at 69.

And of course, RIP to the great Jerry Lewis, passed on at 91. My Mom always found Lewis' comic persona infantile and annoying, and his public persona preening and obnoxious. I can't say she was wrong on either score; the trouble, for me as a kid, was that I loved him anyway. I always felt sheepish watching his movies because of Mom's disapproval, but privately I thought they were hilarious. I remember once being home alone when The Patsy came on TV, and, unburdened by the need to inhibit my reaction, I was left prostrate with laughter by the pre-credit scene alone.

In the mid-'90s, I was lucky enough to see Lewis perform live, in a touring production of Damn Yankees that had been reshaped into a star vehicle for him. He was superb--even if his style wasn't your cup of tea, his charisma and old-school showbiz chops were stunning.

In his honor...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...the nod goes to this grotesque horror...

...into which Lewis, as Professor Kelp, briefly changes in The Nutty Professor, his 1963 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, before changing into the true monster, Buddy Love...

Friday, August 18, 2017


Opening in Arizona today:

MenasheYiddish movies used to be a thing; more than a hundred of them were made, mostly in Poland or the U.S., in the decades before the Second World War. After that, they became rarities—this indie drama is thought to be the first American feature made mostly in Yiddish since 1975’s drama Hester Street.

The title character is a Hasidic widower in his thirties who works in a grocery store in Brooklyn. He’s a genuinely loving father to his ten-year-old son Rieven, and doesn’t agree with the requirement that the boy go to live with his uncle and aunt until Menashe remarries, because of the belief that a child must not be raised by a single parent. He’s in no hurry to remarry, but he wants his kid back.

The simple story that ensues provides director and co-writer Joshua Z. Weinstein ample opportunity for a peek into a little-understood world. The movie was shot, not quite surreptitiously but with a very low profile, in the Hasidic enclave in Borough Park, Brooklyn, with a cast of non-actors. While this generates a neo-realist, almost verité atmosphere, Menashe transcends cultural anthropology. It’s a character study, brought to life by a gifted first-time star—Menashe Lustig, on whose life the story was loosely based.

Menashe is described as a schlimazel by his own family members, ungenerously but perhaps not inaccurately—he’s a nice fellow, but he’s chronically late, late with the rent, broke, and so forth. He insists on mild rebellion from his culture—not wearing the full Hasidic regalia on the street, for instance—in ways that nettle his family and do him no favors.

As played by Lustig, however, the character is also quietly, unsentimentally, even a little exasperatingly endearing. Lustig gives us a naturalistic portrait of the man’s humor, his guilt, his anger, his mischievousness. At one point Menashe’s disapproving brother-in-law says he’d like to see him become a mensch, but we in the audience see him this way already.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard—Samuel L. Jackson is the Hitman, Darius Kincaid, who specializes in killing rich, powerful scumbags; Ryan Reynolds is the Bodyguard, Michael Bryce, who escorts such scumbags to safety. Michael is recruited to get Darius, his longtime enemy, safely from prison in Manchester, England to The Hague, so that he can testify at the International Court of Justice against a brutal Belarusian dictator (Gary Oldman, who else?).

Apparently the imprisoned tyrant is pretty well-connected, as massive numbers of mercenaries try to kill Darius enroute. Hitman and Bodyguard bicker jocularly through mayhem, slaughter, even torture. Michael is persnickety, orderly, a planner, while Kincaid flies by the seat of his pants.

There's nothing new here, but strictly on its own terms, this cartoonishly overscaled buddy picture, directed by the Australian Patrick Hughes, is perfectly executed. Well, almost perfectly; it has the genre's annoying sentimental streak. And like most big-budget action flicks of the last few decades, it could be trimmed by at least ten minutes without losing anything it needs, but as it clocks in at just under two hours it doesn't quite wear out its welcome.

Yet despite the skill with which it's made, there is an imbalance to The Hitman's Bodyguard, in the unsavory contrast between the cutesy comedy and the shocking violence. When the dictator kills a man's family while he watches, and then minutes later we're back with Reynolds and Jackson and expected to crack up at their bantering, it's really jarring, and it doesn't feel like a deliberate black-comedy effect. It just feels like an adolescent sensibility, willing to use the sufferings of people under such regimes as a summer blockbuster plot point.

The leads keep us diverted from this ugliness, however. Reynolds has never been a favorite of mine, but he 's a good sport here, embracing the role of a prim foil to Jackson. That great actor has rarely gotten the chance to cut loose to quite the degree he does here. He seems to have a blast, singing fatalistic blues lyrics (there's a pretty good one written by Jackson himself, and reprised under the end credits) and cheerfully guffawing at the twists of fate that fling him about. Darius is out of his cell, so despite the carnage around him and the constant peril, anything else is gravy.

Thursday, August 17, 2017


Next Monday parts of the U.S. will be treated to the spectacle of a total eclipse of the sun. The great state of South Carolina, for its part, is remaining prudently cognizant of the possibility that this astronomical phenomenon could increase the likelihood of encountering a Lizard Man.

Specifically, this refers to...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...our honoree this week, The Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp, SC's scaly 7-foot-tall reptilian variation on Bigfoot, first reported in the 1980s. Here he is, as depicted by Tim Goheen in Columbia, SC's The State newspaper...

In anticipation of the eclipse, the South Carolina Emergency Management Division actually released this map detailing the spots where Lizard Folk have been sighted...

Consider yourself warned.

Monday, August 14, 2017


Last night The Wife and I betook ourselves to the Comerica Theatre in downtown Phoenix to see...

...Steve Martin and Martin Short, along with the bluegrass ensemble The Steep Canyon Rangers and the gifted pianist Jeff Babko. The comedy legends described it as a "See Them Before They're Dead" tour. I had seen Short, more than a decade ago, perform brilliantly with the Phoenix Symphony--he narrated Peter and the Wolf as Ed Grimly, Jiminy Glick, etc--but I had never seen Martin, and I admit I felt bragging rights after seeing him do the "King Tut" dance during the encore.

Much of the evening consisted of the two men trading companionable showbiz aspersions, and in that way it felt somehow reminiscent of what (I imagine) the famous "Rat Pack" shows in Vegas in the '60s must have been like--famous guys creating the sense that they're just clowning around off the cuff, mostly for their own amusement, in front of thousands of paying customers. It should also be noted--Martin wryly notes it during the show--that while the 72-year-old Martin's style has become relaxed and reserved, Short's is as physically abandoned (and daringly off-color) as ever. He's a crazy whirlwind.

As terrific as the top-billed performers were, however, it's possible that the most exciting part of the show was the Martin-less showcase number of the Steep Canyon Rangers, "Auden's Train." Put simply: Those guys can play.

RIP to the superb Joseph Bologna, passed on at 82. Despite starring in '70s fare like Made for Each Other, Cops & Robbers, Chapter Two and The Big Bus, Bologna's finest hour was in a supporting part: the hilariously virile, blustery "King" Kaiser in 1982's My Favorite Year. (He was also pretty good in 1984's underrated Blame it on Rio.) I was lucky enough to see Bologna live before he was dead, back in 2001 at the Orpheum Theatre here in Phoenix, opposite his wife Renee Taylor in a two-person show called If You Ever Leave Me...I'm Going With You!

Here's my pal Barry Graham on why he doesn't want to see Joe Arpaio, recently convicted of contempt, locked up himself. Vindictive and spiteful as I am, I nonetheless agree with Barry's reasoning here. This would not, however, make it any less outrageous if President Ubu Roi exercised his pardon power for the first time on Arpaio, as he suggested he might do today.

Friday, August 11, 2017


Opening this weekend:

The Nut Job 2: Nutty by NatureIt may be that Our Commander in Chief raised the profile of this movie a bit when, with the presidential gravitas we’ve come to expect from him, he reportedly referred to his fired FBI Director as a “nut job.” Not much less than executive action could have kept this sequel to 2014’s animated feature The Nut Job, a particularly drab and unrewarding kidflick, from flying under the radar. 

The original, which was based, in turn, on a much better 2005 cartoon short from Canada called Surly Squirrel, was about squirrels and other fuzzy little creatures from a city park raiding the nut shop across the street in the manner of a noir heist movie. It was promising idea, wrecked by the inclusion of a bunch of obligatory kid-movie elements, like an underdog hero and a love interest, which negated the caper-picture atmosphere.

The sequel finds alpha squirrel Surly (voiced, again, by Will Arnett) and his pals living easy on the hoard in the basement of the now closed and abandoned nut shop. When this lifetime supply is destroyed, the gang is forced to return to the hard but character-building work of foraging in the park, as Surly’s love interest squirrel (Katherine Heigl) had been urging all along. But when a greedy Mayor (Bobby Moynihan) decides to turn the park into a shoddy but profitable amusement park, the creatures band together to mount a resistance. 

I’m not suggesting anyone should rush straight to the multiplexes to see Nut Job 2, but for whatever it may be worth, it’s funnier than the original. It has some visual richness—there are scenes which recall everything from Caddyshack to Bill Peet’s wonderful children’s book Farewell to Shady Glade—and some truly crazy old-school cartoon slapstick.

The most memorable character from the first film, a pug voiced by Maya Rudolph, is back again, this time with a love interest (Bobby Cannavale). But the best new element is Mr. Feng, a feral white mouse voiced by Jackie Chan who leads a crack army of martial-artist mice. Toward the end, this rodent collective commandeers a HAZMAT suit, and brings it to wobbly life, something like the mice masquerading as a ghost that torment Sylvester in the classic 1954 Warner Brothers cartoon Claws for Alarm.

Stuff like this bumps Nut Job 2 up a few notches over its predecessor. If you find yourself at a matinee of it with your kid, you may get a few more chuckles than you expected.

Still in theaters:

Atomic Blonde--There's some enjoyment, certainly, in watching the stunning 41-year-old Charlize Theron beat the snot out of skeevy-looking guys. And you can get your fill of this pleasure from this espionage thriller, set in Berlin in 1989, against the backdrop of The Wall coming down. There are lots of fight scenes, intricately choreographed, superbly shot, and performed with a percussive, grunting-and-groaning violence by Theron and the heavies assaulting her, and these sequences go on for a long, long time. 

They often feel like fights in a stage play, with the actors "selling" their highly telegraphed moves with loud vocalizations. The combatants slow down as the fights progress and they get increasingly tired and injured. They're left bloody and dirty and scarred, and our heroine is forced to take ice baths to revive herself afterwards.

This is not to say, of course, that the action in this film is really much more plausible than that in any Bond or Jackie Chan movie. It's just stylized in a different way, and after a while the brutality of it becomes funny--you wonder what makes these people so doggedly determined to kill each other, what could possibly inspire such loyalty and commitment in the face of such savage punishment. 

But it is fun to watch. Many of the film's brawls and stalkings are ingeniously edited to '80s techno-pop hits, Bowie and Falco and Nena and the like, and as with the '70s stuff in the Guardians of the Galaxy flicks, it's a terrific, nostalgic playlist.

Theron plays Lorraine, sent by MI6 to investigate the murder of a British spy just as the East German government is unraveling, and to recover the McGuffin he was chasing, some sort of list that could restart the Cold War. This allows Theron to be spectacularly showcased, both in terms of her physical abandon and her nicotine and Stoli-charged ‘80s glamour. But there’s nothing especially distinctive about Lorraine as a character, and while I didn’t particularly notice any deficiencies in her British accent, the person with whom I saw the film did. 

The star, the fights and the music have to hold us through a story that's both complicated and somehow uninvolving. Lorraine's bosses tell her to trust no one, including Their Man in Berlin (James McAvoy). Other shady sorts include Sofia Boutella as a neophyte French operative, John Goodman as a CIA man, Til Schweiger as a contact in a watch shop, Eddie Marsan as the Soviet asset they're trying to smuggle into West Berlin, and Toby Jones and James Faulkner as the British Intelligence honchos.

That cast is a game and capable bunch, clearly, but the script, adapted from a graphic novel, doesn't release their full potential. And the director, stunt unit specialist David Leitch, doesn't find a way to unwind the plot twists coherently. The movie feels overlong to no notable benefit; stretches of it are entertaining, but it's ultimately unsatisfying.

Thursday, August 10, 2017


If you haven't been getting enough Vitamin MVM in your diet these days, there's a pretty big dose of Your Humble Narrator available online right now: My feature on the New Times blog about the remarkable Amanda Lipitz documentary STEP...

...opening this weekend in the Valley, and my short interview on Phoenix Magazine's "Desert Digest" blog with area food blogger Joanie Simon about her upcoming appearance on the Food Network show with the alliterative but troubling title Guy's Grocery Games.

RIP to the great Glen Campbell, passed on at 81. The Wife and I were lucky enough to see him perform a few songs some years ago at the Orpheum Theatre, as part of Alice Cooper's "Christmas Pudding" show. But I also vividly remember how ubiquitous he was in his heyday in the early '70s, when his beautiful, subtle, dramatic voice seemed to issue nonstop from every radio and TV, all day long.

With The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature opening tomorrow...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week let's give the nod to the Brobdingnagian squirrel...

...that briefly menaces our hero and heroine in 1960's The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, one of the more mundane monsters ever stop-motion animated by Ray Harryhausen.

Thursday, August 3, 2017


Happy August everybody! The great Alice Cooper adorns the cover of...

...the August edition of Phoenix Magazine, on the stands now, but can he truly be the star of the issue when it also features my "Four Corners" column on Mediterranean restaurants around the Valley? It's also the 2017 "Best of the Valley" issue, and a bunch of these opinionated picks were penned by Your Humble Narrator as well (as in previous years, no prizes for guessing which).

A couple of RIPs: To voice acting giant June Foray, passed on two months shy of her hundredth birthday. She was the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Natasha, Granny and Witch Hazel and Cindy Lou Who, among countless others. Any one of these would gain her admittance to the pantheon.

RIP also to Sam Shepard, passed on too young at 73. I saw his play The Unseen Hand performed outside in Ohio in 1984; one of my great theatrical experiences as an audience member. His work was so charged with beautiful language and hard but not ungenerous truths about America that it didn't matter when it was uneven or jaggedly constructed. He was a wonderful movie actor, too; I love him as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff,  and he didn't get enough credit for his commanding turn as the Ghost in Michael Almereyda's modern-dress Hamlet (2000).

In Shepard's honor...

Monster-of-the-Week:  ...this week let's acknowledge the Bog Beast from his play Back Bog Beast Bait, first staged at the American Place Theatre in 1971. Here's the Beast, as depicted in a poster for a later regional production...

...but perhaps we'd do better to let Shepard's stage directions paint his picture: "He is just as Maria described him. Two heads like a pig, he snorts and spits, lights come from his eyes. His skin is covered with slimy green moss." Alas, he's as hapless as any Shepard character: when the other characters prove "oblivious of the beast's presence" he "...crosses downstage center and faces the audience. The action happens around him. Somehow the beast seems helpless and alone in the situation. He exits."