Tuesday, October 31, 2017


Wednesday evening’s offering from No Festival Required, The 19th Annual Animation Show of Shows, is a startlingly diverse collection of short films. Much like the Rural Route touring show presented by the redoubtable not-a-festival this past August, this Show of Shows features shorts from North America and Europe. Inevitably, some of the selections on the bill, assembled by L.A.-based animation production company Acme Filmworks, are stronger than others. But far more are interesting than not.

Highlights include the graphically beautiful music video, by Quentin Baillieux of France, for the Charles X song Can You Do It, and the British sci-fi domestic comedy The Alan Dimension. From Switzerland comes George Schwitzgebel’s The Battle of San Romano, a riff on Uccello’s vision of the 15th-Century scrap. There’s also The Burden (Min Borda) a deeply bizarre musical from Sweden featuring anthropomorphic fish, telemarketing monkeys, grocery-shopping dogs and dancing custodial hairless rats.

From the U.S. comes Dear Basketball, an ode to hoops created and narrated by Kobe Bryant and directed by Glen Keane (son of Arizona’s Bill Keane, of The Family Circus).

Also from the U.S., and worth the price of admission all by itself, is a revival of The Hangman, a 1964 project from Looney Tunes background artist Paul Julian which stunningly (and chillingly) brings to life the Maurice Ogden poem, here spoken by the late Herschel Bernardi, and as relevant as ever.

In short, this Show of Shows features subjects ranging from the dizzyingly cosmic to the mundane. Then comes the finale, Everything, a strange and lovely visualization of an engaging lecture on consciousness and cosmology by Alan Watts, carrying the lofty suggestion that the cosmic and the mundane are interconnected.

Thursday, October 26, 2017


Halloween is next Tuesday, so...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...it seems like this week's honoree should be one of the all-time classics. So how about...

...Karloff's Frankenstein Monster, in this masterly, iconic rendition from the recently late and much-lamented Famous Monsters of Filmland cover artist Basil Gogos.

Happy (and safe) All Hallows' Eve everybody!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


It was a busy and oddly Italianate weekend for Your Humble Narrator. Luckily, I had the stamina to get through it, as this rare shirtless photo of me demonstrates…

Sunday afternoon my pal Dave and I saw Arizona Opera’s Hercules vs. Vampires, Patrick Morganelli’s operatic setting of the 1961 Mario Bava “peplum” Hercules in the Haunted World, performed live to a screening of the film. It was a great time, from the show itself to the witty pre-show Q&A by Morganelli to the wacky props in the lobby with which we were encouraged to play... 

All of this came on the heels of my adventure up north the previous day.

Despite having lived in Phoenix nearly 26 years, and despite having had its virtues extolled to me multiple times from multiple sources, I had never visited the city of Prescott, an hour and half to the north. Never, that is, until they offered me pizza.

When I was asked to judge the inaugural edition of Prescott Pizza Palooza, a fundraiser for Prescott Meals on Wheels, this was a duty I did not shirk. I mentioned this honor to my pal Richard, one of the town’s extollers, and he kindly offered to drive me up to and drop me off at the event. He did not, however, join me for pizza, as there was a German restaurant nearby at Lynx Lake he wanted to try.

The event, held on a blocked-off street adjacent to Courthouse Square, featured six pizzerias. For fifteen bucks, you got ten tastings—a great deal in any case, and all the more so when you know the money’s going to a good cause. Only two of the pizza-makers there were local—Mama’s Artisan Pizzeria in Prescott Valley and Two Mamas’ Pizza near downtown Prescott. The rest were familiar chains: Papa John’s, Rosati’s, Pizza Hut and…

…Little Caesar’s.

There were four categories of competition—traditional, exotic, gluten-free and dessert. Trying to pace myself, over the three hours or so I was there I dutifully sampled at least one slice of everything that was in competition—something like 13 pieces in all—although toward the end I was just taking a bite or two and dumping the rest. I’m capable of serious eating, but I felt pretty woozy by the end, and I belched audibly, twice, while chatting with the lady who planned the event (she just laughed, which made me feel all the more like an uncouth lout).

It wasn’t a blind tasting, but insofar as I can be unbiased, I really think that the best bites I had all day came from the local joints, especially Mama’s Artisan’s luscious ricotta-topped Mama’s Pesto Especial. I was pleased to see that my voting was reflected in the outcome; both Mama’s Artisan and Two Mamas’ were among the winners. In coming years, I would hope to see more local, independent pie-makers represented, and maybe some from elsewhere in the state or region, but in any case it was a fun and delicious way to spend a gloriously cool, sunny Saturday.

Then, when I got back to Phoenix in early evening, The Wife and The Kid requested to be taken to California Pizza Kitchen for dinner. Fish tacos for me.

Friday, October 20, 2017


Opening this week:

Only the BraveWildland firefighting is regarded, on the whole, as more strenuous and demanding than structure firefighting, and usually more dangerous. But it isn’t more cinematic. A structure firefighter with a hose gets to enact one of the iconic cinematic dynamics—shooting at an enemy. But the methods of wildland firefighters, while no less agonistic, are subtler—digging in the dirt, cutting trees and brush with chainsaws, and sometimes, counterintuitively for us laypeople, actually setting fires.

This is what we get in the firefighting sequences of Only the Brave, the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the wildland crew connected to the Prescott, Arizona fire department. Nineteen of these young men—all but one member of the active crew—died in the Yarnell Hill Fire in June of 2013, in the worst loss of firefighters since 9/11, and the worst  loss of wildland firefighters since the ‘30s.

There’s terrifying spectacle, certainly, in a wildfire, but the response to it is guys hiking, digging, sawing. So the meat of the film is less this drudgery than the lives of hotshots, and especially that of Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller), who was assigned as a lookout that day and thus became the Ishmael of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. McDonough had a history of substance abuse and petty crime until he became a hotshot, and was mentored by Granite Mountain Superintendant Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin).

Despite the hopeful outcome of McDonough’s story, there’s no good way to present this material that isn’t horrifying and heartbreaking, and director Joseph Kosinski doesn’t try. There’s a sense of restraint and dignity to his work, and that of the actors. The flavor for much of the movie’s length is that of a John Ford/Howard Hawks/Raoul Walsh male bonding drama, and there’s action and humor and touching sentiment and inspirational uplift, but a somber tinge hangs over it, at least for viewers who know where the story’s heading.

This is reflected in Brolin’s performance. The movie’s Marsh has a look in his eyes that suggests a foreknowledge of disaster, and a sad acceptance of it. It’s an old-school star turn in the Henry Fonda vein, one of Brolin’s best. He even gets a Sam Shepherd-ish Oscar-clip monologue about the flaming bear that haunts his dreams. But Teller also does strong work in the “tenderfoot” role of McDonough, Taylor Kitsch throws a charge into his scenes as hotshot Christopher Alan MacKenzie, and Jeff Bridges, as wildland chief Duane Steinbrink, has a great moment, a small groan of grief that’s like a gut punch.

I had the opportunity to talk with Kosinksi and Brolin before the film’s opening, and they both stressed how they spent a lot of time in Prescott with the families and friends of the hotshots, and became close to them, in order to achieve authenticity. But this may have led the filmmakers, in understandable deference to the feelings of the survivors, to omit or soften errors or interpersonal conflicts within the crew that maybe had a bearing on the disaster. The climactic scenes, though inevitably powerful, also leave it unclear as to what led to the decisions that placed the crew in the path of the fire.

Partly, no doubt, this is because it remains unclear even from reports of the official investigations. But in terms of the movie’s narrative, it’s just confusing, and it’s about all that keeps this well-crafted, well-acted movie from feeling like a triumph.

You can check out my interviews with Brolin and Kosinski, by the way, on the New Times blog.

On a lighter note...

Killing GuntherSaturday Night Live alumnus Taran Killam wrote, directed and stars in this broad, zany comedy about murder. Killam plays Blake, a high-end assassin leading a plot to kill a legendary veteran hitman known as Gunther (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Blake's team includes a bomber (Bobby Moynihan), a sniper (Hannah Simone), an insufferable tech whiz (Paul Brittain), a poisoner (Aaron Yoo) and other wacky specialists. The central absurd gag is that Blake has hired a film crew to chronicle the mission, so that as with The Office and Modern Family, this movie can employ faux-documentary devices, including straight-to-the-camera monologues.

It's possible that Killing Gunther simply suffers from unfortunate timing; its bloody shootings and mayhem didn't seem as funny to me right now as they might have at another time. That said, just about any six or seven minute stretch of this movie would make a servicebly amusing SNL sketch, and is good for a few chuckles. The cast is strong, but Schwarzenegger, who doesn't show up until quite late in the proceedings, probably shows more gleeful comic energy than anyone.

Killam's principal comedic mechanism here is deflation. Again and again, someone will be on the verge of a dramatic flourish, and they'll be interrupted, or forget what they were going to say, and the mood will be broken. It's as if the anger under the gags is at life's failure to be like the movies.

One more note: In case you haven't had your fill of me, you can check out my very short article, on The PHiX, about Arizona Opera's production of Hercules vs. Vampires this weekend.

Thursday, October 19, 2017


This weekend Arizona Opera presents Hercules vs. Vampires...

...Patrick Morganelli's musical setting of Mario Bava's goofy but visually lush 1961 sword-and-sandal fantasy Ercole al Centro della Terra (known in English as Hercules in the Haunted World). So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week's honoree is Procrustes, here depicted as an ambulatory rock...

...but still up to his traditional shtick of stretching people, or chopping them down, in order to get them to fit in bed.

Friday, October 13, 2017


A couple of gems open in the Valley this week:

Loving VincentThe producers stake an unusual claim for this Polish-British animated feature, six years in the making: that it’s the first completely oil-painted movie. Each of its 65,000 frames, we’re told, was meticulously hand-painted by a team of more than 100 artists, working over the previous frame’s image, all in the style of Vincent Van Gogh.

A documentary about the making of this quixotically crazy endeavor would be fascinating. As with Claymation back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, if you let yourself think too long about the labor you’re witnessing, you can start to feel overwhelmed and it can throw you out of the movie.

Happily, the movie itself isn’t just visually breathtaking, it’s also an engrossing little historical drama, well-acted by the Brit voice cast in a naturalistic manner. The story is set in 1891, the year after Van Gogh’s death, and centers on Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the young man in yellow from the famous portrait. Armand’s postmaster father Joseph, another Van Gogh subject, tasks his son with delivering a final letter from the genius to his brother Theo.

Armand travels from Arles to Paris, and then on to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent died. Initially annoyed by the errand, Armand becomes increasingly fascinated as he delves into the mystery of Vincent’s death.

The directors, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, working from a script they wrote with Jacek Dehnel, use Armand’s investigations to paint a portrait (if you’ll excuse the expression) of a truly loving Vincent. He’s beset with terrible emotional sufferings, certainly, but he’s sweet-natured and ecstatic in his visionary raptures.

But the thrill in the picture is seeing those immortal images brought to life. In the opening minutes alone, we get the Café Terrace, the Zouave reclining against the wall, Lieutenant Milliet, and so on, gliding easily into each other in service of the narrative.

I suppose there are cultural purists out there who might find using the works of one of the great figures in European art as, essentially, a storyboard, to be a crass, literal-minded stunt. But I was enchanted by this gloriously low-tech labor of love, both for Van Gogh and for the possibilities of the cinema.

Professsor Marston and the Wonder WomenThere’s something delicious about the knowledge that the furious accusations of mid-century anti-comics crusaders were, in at least one case, quite right. Wonder Woman, who debuted in 1941 in what would become DC Comics, really was rooted in fantasies of bondage, dominance and Sapphic power.

And not just fantasies, either, but realities. As we’re told in this amusing chronicle, the creator of the character, a Harvard-educated psychology professor named William Moulton Marston (writing under the name Charles Moulton), spun the Amazon by blending traits of the two women with whom he lived—his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and Olive Byrne, a student and assistant who became the third member of their marriage.

It’s likely that the writer-director Angela Robinson (Herbie: Fully Loaded) has heated up the story a bit. But there are true elements that trump fiction, the juiciest being that before his comic-writing days, Marston was one of the developers of the systolic blood pressure test that led to the polygraph—in other words, he invented the Lasso of Truth in reality before he gave it to his heroine. As an adolescent in the ‘70s, watching the Lynda Carter TV version of Wonder Woman, I always found the Lasso of Truth shtick distinctly erotic; now I’d guess that Marston did too.

This movie’s historical accuracy is debatable, and some chapters work better than others, but Robinson has, any case, crafted maybe the wittiest and sweetest cinematic menage a trois in recent memory. Those looking for graphic sex will be disappointed—the threesome scenes, which involve a lot of dressing-up in theatrical costumes, are too tame and discreet for a Cinemax soft-core flick from the ‘90s. But something about their good-natured naïveté makes them sexy.

The charm in Professor Marston and the Wonder Women comes in the deadpan delivery of earnest dialogue by glamorous actors like Luke Evans as Marston and waif-like Bella Heathcote as Olive. There are nice supporting turns by Oliver Platt as early comic peddler Max Gaines and Connie Britton in a peculiarly flirtatious turn as early comic critic Josette Frank. We also see JJ Feild as fetish costumer Charles Guyette, here shown decking out Olive in a get-up very similar to Wonder Woman’s.

But the standout is Rebecca Hall as the brittle, unflappable (well, almost unflappable) Elizabeth. Her readings give a sharp edge even to lines that don’t have one built in, yet she somehow infuses them with a palpable undercurrent of love and emotional directness as well. I hate to resort to it, but indulge me: She’s a wonder.