Friday, September 29, 2017


Opening this weekend:

Victoria & Abdul--Judi Dench returns to the role of Queen Victoria in this jaunty historical drama, which serves as a sequel to 1997's Mrs. Brown. Both films have roughly the same point: That poor old Vickie, famed for her dour asperity, was as capable as any schoolgirl of developing painful crushes, even into her dotage.

In Mrs. Brown her favorite was John Brown (played by Billy Connolly), a Scottish groom who had the temerity to treat her like an adult human during her lonely widowhood. The naughty nickname was bestowed upon her, behind her back, by the courtiers and lackeys who were, essentially, her jailers.  In this new film, set many years later in the last stretch of her life, she develops an infatuation with an Indian servant named Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), and the same sniggering, disapproving lot refer to him as "The brown John Brown."

He's one of two Indian Muslims sent to make a ceremonial presentation to Victoria who, stuporous with boredom, happens to glance up and notice him. Later she pronounces "I thought the tall one was terribly handsome" and requests him as a personal manservant. Eventually he becomes her "Munshi," or teacher, tutoring her in Urdu and accompanying her on trips. Her family--especially her son and heir apparent Edward (Eddie Izzard)--and the servants grow increasingly scandalized over the relationship. His less dreamy fellow flunky Mohammed (the dryly fatalistic Adeel Akhtar) likes it no better, calling Abdul an "Uncle Tom" and predicting disaster.

A sly, winking title at the beginning of the film admits that this is a "mostly" true story, but there really was an Abdul Karim, he really did become close to Victoria in the last decade and a half of her life, and it really did drive those around her crazy. An attempt was made to destroy most of the correspondence and other records of the relationship after the Queen's death, but a diary survived and was published in 2010.

The director is Stephen Frears, a master of this sort of thing, and he keeps it bouncing along merrily, even though much of the story is sad, from the point of view of both title characters. Dench makes us see, once again, the appalling personal powerlessness that was the price, for a woman of passionate nature, of serving as the figurehead of that particular crime family. Fazal, a Bollywood star, is harder to read. The smiling, unctuous Abdul does indeed seem like a bit of an Uncle Tom, and it's hard to see whether he's a calculating climber, a sincerely besotted gull, or a heroic self-appointed ambassador of his culture. Or a bit of all three?

It's also hard to see exactly what Frears and screenwriter Lee Hall want us to take away from this interesting but enigmatic historical episode. Is it the story of a woman, isolated all her life at the heart of an Empire, getting an improbable belated broadening, or of her getting worked by a conman? Karim lived lavishly for a time, at Victoria's insistence, and was accused, among other things, of steering Victoria to sympathy with Muslims over Hindus.

Again, these are not mutually exclusive possibilities, but the way the movie declines to dig too deeply into them leaves it less satisfying than Mrs. Brown. All the same, it's perfectly enjoyable, in an undemanding, Masterpiece Theatre sort of way. Dench is always worth watching, Fazal is charming, Izzard is impressive as the furious "Bertie" and there are nice supporting turns by Olivia Williams, Michael Gambon, Fenella Woolgar and the late Tim Piggot-Smith, whose last film this was. Simon Callow also pops up, in an amusing cameo as Puccini, so if you like the sort of movie where Simon Callow might pop up in a cameo as Puccini, this is probably for you.

Woodshock--With the abundance of redwood trunks, wooden paneling and cut lumber, I began to wonder if "woodshock" might be a condition into which this movie could put you. In shot after shot, Theresa (Kirsten Dunst) wanders languorously and depressively, usually wearing a white camisole, around her mother's beautiful old house in northern California, or among the titanic trees nearby, caressing the wooden surfaces.

Near the beginning, we see Theresa use a vial of some unnamed drug to assist her terminally ill mother in ending her life. Seemingly poleaxed by grief, she nonetheless returns to work at a medical marijuana emporium. Trouble ensues, first when she attempts another such mercy killing, and later when she starts smoking the lethal stuff herself, and grows increasingly paranoid.

Dunst is good, intense without hamminess and with a low-key, gentle manner that's believable and touching. But Dunst is always good, has been ever since she was a kid. Alas, Woodshock isn't the sort of movie that can be carried by a fine lead performance alone. It's the feature debut of Rodarte fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, and it's too self-consciously an exercise in directorial style to work as a vehicle for a performance.

Peter Flinckenberg's gauzy cinematography gives the picture a lovely look, but the persistently ominous score and the Easy Rider-like flash-cutting give it the unearned portentousness of a student film, stretched out wearyingly to feature length. It's also more than a little reminiscent of cautionary drug movies of earlier eras, like Psych-Out or The Trip, minus the energy.  I kept waiting for a scene at a hippie club, with low-angle, solarized shots of The Seeds or Strawberry Alarm Clock jamming. Couldn't have hurt.

Thursday, September 28, 2017


RIP to Bernie Casey, passed on at 78. The San Francisco 49er and L.A. Ram turned actor in 1969 with Guns of the Magnificent Seven, and racked up credits in high-profile stuff like Brian's Song, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Sharky's Machine, Never Say Never Again, the Revenge of the Nerds flicks and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, as well as Charles Burnett's neglected 1994 The Glass Shield. But he also did some cool scary flicks; he wore Stan Winston's makeup rather elegantly as the studly lead Gargoyle in 1972's Gargoyles...

...though his voice was needlessly dubbed by the Outer Limits "Control Voice" Vic Perrin. Casey also played both title roles in...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde, a hilarious "blaxploitation" shocker of 1976...

The murderous, pasty-complexioned half of that title combo is this week's honoree:

Monday, September 25, 2017


Having kindly been given free tickets, The Wife and I and The Kid betook ourselves to Chase Field yesterday to see the Diamondbacks take on the Miami Marlins. These were the looks on our faces after the game...

(That's right, that's Randy Johnson with us. These were good seats.)

Back in May, The Wife and I went to the game on Mother's Day, only to see our beloved Snakes beaten by the Pirates. But they made up for it Sunday. Not only did we have the pleasure of seeing the great Giancarlo Stanton not hit his 58th home run of the season for the Marlins, we also got to be there when the D-bax clinched a playoff spot, their first since 2011, in the middle of the 4th Inning courtesy of losses by the Brewers and the Cardinals. Then J.D. Martinez won the game, 3-2, at the end of a nail-biting 9th Inning with a two-out, bases-loaded walk-off smash, thus clinching home field advantage.

Friday, September 22, 2017


Opening this week:

Trophy--If you want to hear the incongruously squeaky bleating that a young rhino makes beside its dead mother, or the oddly resigned groans and sighs of a mortally wounded elephant, this is the movie that will put them in your head, along with many other unshakeable sounds and sights. In other words, this documentary is not the sort of thing you recommend to just anybody.

It is, however, a painfully potent work that digs into commercial big-game hunting, and that industry's claim that it's a part of wildlife conservation efforts. It's full of blood-boiling sequences of pampered rich tourists being led by local guides within rifle range of pre-selected majestic animals, then giggling with excitement after they put a bullet in them, which usually only begins the process of killing them. The hunters seem entirely without self-consciousness about behaving this way on camera; they don't seem to realize that they're coming across like happy psychopaths.

Even so, this isn't just agitprop. The movie makes a serious attempt to get the bottom of the psychology that drives people--like the Jimmy Johns guy, like Trump's sons, like the dentist from Minnesota who killed Cecil the Lion--to seek grinning selfies with the carcasses of animals they've just killed. It also tries to make sense of the weird and maddening economics that underlie the pursuit, like the irony that "canned" hunting may indeed, through the breeding it requires, bolster the populations of some threatened animals.

Trophy focuses on several figures, but probably the most intense scrutiny is of a man named Philip Glass, not the minimalist composer but a sheep farmer and hunting enthusiast from Texas. Glass hopes to kill the "Big Five" of African game: Cape buffalo, leopard, lion, elephant and--most expensive because most scarce--rhino.

Near the beginning, Glass, speaking as a farmer, dismisses the naivete of people who view "all animals as pets" and can't see that "you raise a chicken to kill a chicken to eat a chicken." Even those of us who aren't vegetarians and live daily with some version of that equation can admit (if we're honest) that its implications aren't quite so simplistic, but in any case what Glass does on his carefully guided "hunts" in Africa has nothing to do with where McNuggets come from.

A soft-spoken, seemingly sweet-natured man, Glass insists, and truly seems to believe, that he loves the animals he shoots, and says that the act fills him with joy. But a different sort of release is suggested when he shoots a young elephant in Namibia, crows "Got him runnin' away!" and then smokes cigarettes with his guides, as if post-coital. This is tacitly contrasted, later, with the reflections of a Zimbabwean anti-poaching official who must occasionally, in the line of duty, legitimately kill an elephant that has become a threat to local people, and who describes how sad he finds it.

On the anti-hunting side of the equation, we meet John Hume, a South African businessman turned conservationist who keeps more than a thousand rhinos on his ranch. His tactic is to regularly harvest the horns. This makes the beasts worthless to poachers, but Hume would also like to be allowed to legally sell the horns in order to finance his operations. The trouble is that the South African government banned the sale of rhino horn, with the result that illegal poaching promptly spiked. It's another infuriating irony: the desperate Hume wants to use the absurd belief in the medicinal value of rhino horn--the main threat to the creatures--as a means to continue his preservation efforts.

The director here is Shaul Schwartz, of 2013's remarkable Narco Cultura, which explored a similar kind of cognitive dissonance in the form of the Mexican Narcocorrida music culture that celebrates drug-gang murders. With Trophy, Schwartz (with co-director Christina Clusiau) manages an even more epic sweep and, more significantly, richer and more disturbing human insights.

In an interview late in the film, Glass seems on the verge of revealing something telling about his relationship with his late father, who taught him to hunt (as he is shown teaching his own young son). But he just hints at his anger and stops short, and his smile seems frozen and queasy. It's intensely poignant and uncomfortable; one more in a movie full of moments that make you want to turn away, but also demand you look.

Stronger--Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff Bauman, a Bostonian Costco employee. A nice enough guy but an unreliable, less-than-ideal boyfriend, Jeff did manage to show up to cheer on his fed-up girlfriend Erin Hurley as she ran in the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. As it happened, he was standing right next to one of the explosives that went off during the terrorist attack that morning. He lost his legs.

This sort of material has TV-movie written all over it, but director David Gordon Green and screenwriter John Pollono keep things restrained, refusing to exploit the story for melodrama or lurid shock. Make no mistake, there are brief scenes of graphic horror from which Green's camera doesn't flinch. But the focus is on Bauman's painful physical and psychological recovery, and the new level of maturity it gradually brought him.

On the other hand, Stronger doesn't offer us cheap uplift either. As played by Gyllenhaal, Jeff is fully-equipped with self-pity and excuses, not to mention confusion at why people keep calling him a "hero" for happening to stand next to a bomb. Yet what comes to the surface at his moments of greatest crisis--like when he learns his legs are gone--is humor, courage, perception. It's believable that his far more responsible girlfriend would be unable, despite all his faults, to fully disconnect from him.

Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black is very touching as said girlfriend, by the way. Also excellent is Miranda Richardson as Bauman's addled mother, the best loving but dysfunctional Boston Mom since Melissa Leo in 2010's The Fighter.

One other thing: Costco comes across so well in this movie that you may wonder if they paid for product placement.

Thursday, September 21, 2017


RIP to Basil Gogos, passed on at 88. The Egyptian-born Greek illustrator painted many covers for the  classic vintages of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, bathing his gruesome ghouls in vivid, indeed lurid colors. An example...

Monster-of-the-Week: this week's honoree, a handsome portrait by Gogos of the title character...

...played by Robert Clarke in the 1959 shocker The Hideous Sun Demon.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


Check out the September issue of Phoenix Magazine, now on the stands...

...for Your Humble Narrator's "Four Corners" column on Valley creperies.

Still saddened by the departure, at 91, of Harry Dean Stanton.

I tend to remember him as the splenetic Bud in 1984's Repo Man--contrasting with Tracey Walter's serene, visionary Miller as the role models for Otto (Emilio Estevez)--but he was also Brain in Escape From New York and Brett in Alien and Asa Hawks in Wise Blood and Jerry in Straight Time and Travis in Paris, Texas and St. Paul in The Last Temptation of Christ and Molly Ringwald's Dad in Pretty in Pink and Richard Farnsworth's Brother in The Straight Story and Sam Shepard's Old Man in Fool for Love. And that's not to mention the earlier small roles he played in everything from Cool Hand Luke to The Godfather, Part II. And somehow, through all of these roles, what he really seemed best at was being his seriously one-of-a-kind self.

Thursday, September 14, 2017


This week...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...our honoree, from Matthew Inman's The Oatmeal, is allegorical...

...and highly recognizable to Your Humble Narrator.

Friday, September 8, 2017


Opening this weekend:

ItThat short title serves one of Stephen King’s longest and most ambitious horror novels. It’s about a group of pre-teen misfits who take on a fear-eating entity that lives in the sewers beneath Derry, their small town in Maine. This being appears to Its victims in the form of whatever scares them most—movie monsters, manifestations of phobias—but seems to default to the guise of a circus clown.

The novel runs to well over a thousand pages. I read it and loved it when it first came out in 1986, and hadn’t read it since, but the names, and nicknames, of the characters came back to me easily: “Stuttering Bill” Denbrough, the alpha male of the “Loser’s Club”—bereaved and enraged over the loss of his brother George—and Bill’s outcast pals, sensitive obese kid Ben “Haystack” Hanscom, bespectacled wiseass Richie “Trashmouth” Tozier, sickly kid Eddie Kaspbrak, Jewish kid Stan Uris, black kid Mike Hanlon, and the sole girl, Beverly Marsh, who has a (false) bad reputation. And of course, the nightmare clown Itself: Pennywise.

The book was loaded with King’s perennial themes: Childhood loss and mortality and alienation from adults, friendship as its balm, small-town life with its bullies and bigotries and sinister secrets from which a supernatural menace seems almost like a logical extension. The book is loaded, period—King, never one for austerity, seemed in that one to have allowed himself to indulge in every digression and tangent that occurred to him, and to have cut nothing out, in an attempt at a broad-canvas, shaggy-dog magnum opus.

As a result, King’s It is a bit of a mess—exasperatingly dilatory, full of ideas that don’t quite come off, and, because of the build-up given to the title character as the Ultimate Horror, inevitably a little anticlimactic. Even granting all this, however, it’s wonderful, one of his warmest and most engaging tales, and I think this has more to do with its depiction of adolescent camaraderie than with its ghoulish side.

There was a TV miniseries adaptation in 1990 that I remember as fairly well-done. Now comes this feature version which, though it runs over two hours, is still obviously a drastic compression of the story. To begin with, the book was a two-tiered narrative, alternating scenes of the Loser’s Club as kids with their reunion in Derry as adults, 27 years later. The film, directed by the Argentine Andy Muschietti from a script by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman, gives us only the kids’ story, presumably saving the adult side for a sequel.

The cultural references have also been readjusted. With the period pushed forward—the kids’ story now takes place in the ‘80s, when the adult story takes place in the novel—Pennywise no longer appears to his victims in Boomer-era shapes like the Wolf Man or the Creature of the Black Lagoon.

On the downside: Speaking as a confirmed wimp, I must say that I didn’t find this It very scary. There’s a scene or two—especially one involving a slide projector—with some chill factor, but overall the evil clown archetype, which King helped to develop with Pennywise, may have slipped over into cliché. I found Bill Skarsgard, who plays the role, skin-crawlingly repellent from our first glimpse of It—It’s evil bearing is impressive, but I saw no sense of wit or wonder that could draw a child in initially.

This may simply be because the use of the traditional clown by the horror genre over the last few decades has ended the era of Bozo and Clarabell. It may be that Ronald MacDonald is the last iconic old-school clown that can still unambiguously delight children—though the clock may be running for Ronald—and that even the Demon Clown is now overfamiliar.

On the upside: It is still quite entertaining, in the manner of an ‘80s-style youth adventure flick like The Goonies or Stand By Me or The Lost Boys. The young actors here are mostly first-rate, with charm and snappy comic timing, and Muschietti helps them to generate an ensemble hum in their group scenes. It’s oddly disorienting, in this virtual age, to see kids actually doing things in a movie—riding bikes, swimming, exploring—but it’s rather refreshing.

And, times being what they are, I doubt I’ll be the only person unable to resist a political reading of this It: A kid with a disability, a smartass kid, a fat kid, a Jewish kid, a black kid, a kid with health problems and a slut-shamed girl join forces against a clown who gains power from fear, and who grows stronger still when It’s able to divide them. Now more than ever, Losers: Unite Against The Clown!

Thursday, September 7, 2017


With the new feature version of Stephen King's It opening tomorrow...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...our honoree is the towering "Jojo the Klownzilla..."

...from the 1988 Chiodo Brothers favorite Killer Klowns from Outer Space.

Friday, September 1, 2017


Opening this week:

I Do...Until I Don't--A noxious British filmmaker (Dolly Wells) shows up in Vero Beach, Florida, to work on a documentary about marriage. The institution, she thinks, is in need of reform. Florida being the divorce capital of the world, or so she says, she starts following three married couples around with her camera, looking for (and trying to engineer) evidence to support her theory that marriage should be a seven-year contract with an option to renew.

Longtime married couples are represented by Harvey (Paul Reiser) and Cybill (Mary Steenburgen), affluent, perennially combative New York expats. Harvey walks around in a leather jacket and helmet even when he isn't riding his motorcycle; Cybill mocks him for it.

Younger specimens are Noah (Ed Helms) and his creatively frustrated wife Alice (Lake Bell). They run his late father's window blind business, which is on the verge of failure, and despite this looming financial disaster are rather halfheartedly trying to get pregnant. Also a target of the documentarian's camera and agenda are Alice's younger sister Fanny (Amber Heard) and her husband Xander (Wyatt Cenac), hippies in a theoretically open marriage.

This is the second feature written and directed by the talented Lake Bell. The actress has kept busy with prolific voice work and supporting parts, and pulled occasional nominal leading lady duty in stuff like No Escape and Million Dollar Arm. But it was with 2013's In a World...,  a screwy, uneven but original comedy about envies and career barriers in the voice-over community, that she showed her behind-the-cameras promise. I Do...Until I Don't, though by no means without strong performances and laughs, suggests, alas, a sophomore slump for Bell.

Neither the critique nor the defense of marriage presented here is anything really new. This wouldn't much matter, if the specific storylines were surprising in some way, but the characterizations, as written, are sitcom-basic--the hippie couple and the comic-villainess filmmaker are particularly weak and stereotypical. And the interweaving of the various plot strands feels awkward and uncertain.

On the upside, there are many passages of bright, funny dialogue, and Bell gets good work out of her cast, down to minor players like Chauntae Pink and Rae Grey as massage parlor workers. Bell's own performance as the sweetly complaisant, melancholy Alice, is the strongest, but Reiser and Steenburgen also develop an impressive comic rapport out of their underwritten scenes that allows us to see the touching, almost reluctant bond beneath their distracted sniping at each other. There's real venom and acid in their bickering, but no real urgency; their marital resentments have a familiarity, a low-key domestic rhythm.

Performances like this allowed me to enjoy I Do...Until I Don't quite a lot, even as I recognized its significant weaknesses and limitations. Bell has ability and vision, and I hope she gets to continue to toll.