Friday, December 28, 2018


Happy Friday everybody! Check out my "Friday Flicks" column, on Phoenix Magazine online, featuring my review of Adam McKay's Dick Cheney biopic Vice.

Come to think of it, check out last week's column, which I neglected to post here, featuring reviews of Aquaman and Mary Poppins Returns.

Have a great weekend!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018


The Phoenix Film Critics Society, of which I am always proud to point out I was a founding member, has announced our 2018 Award Winners. Peter Farrelly's Green Book had four wins, as did Alfonso Cuaron's Roma.

As always, some of the winners reflect my voting, others do not, but there are a lot of movies worth seeing among them. I was especially delighted that Bart Layton's brilliant American Animals took "Overlooked Film of the Year."

I plan to post my own Top Ten list early in the New Year.

Friday, December 14, 2018


Happy Friday everybody! Check out my Friday Flicks column, on Phoenix Magazine online, this week reviewing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse...

...and Once Upon a Deadpool.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018


Happy Psycho Day everybody!

That's right, December 11 is the date that appears over the downtown Phoenix skyline at the beginning of the 1960 Hitchcock classic Psycho, one of my all-time favorite movies, before the camera peeks inappropriately into a window to show John Gavin and Janet Leigh sharing an afternoon tryst. The fine folks at FilmBar Phoenix, situated not far at all from the area seen in that opening shot, celebrate the auspicious occasion this evening at 7 p.m. with a showing of the film.

Check out my Phoenix Magazine column noting the event, along with my reviews of Alfonso Cuaron's superb Roma and Swimming With Men, a Britcom starring Rob Brydon.

Monday, December 3, 2018


RIP to George Herbert Walker Bush, passed on at 94.

In January of 1989, when he became the 41st President of the United States, I was living in D.C. Though I was a disappointed Dukakis supporter, my roommate Alex persuaded me that a presidential inauguration was not the sort of spectacle that came along every day, so the two of us walked, through what I recall being a fairly bitter, snowy-wet winter morning, from our apartment to the Mall to join the crowd there in front of the Capitol.

We couldn't really see much from where we were standing, though we had the satisfaction of watching the helicopter ascend and fly away, taking Ronald Reagan out of town. My fondest memory of the event, however, is of a Rastafarian-looking guy hawking pennants in the crowd by yelling "Bush! Two dollars! Bush! Two dollars!"

Though like many people I found him likable (perhaps perversely, Dana Carvey's SNL caricature made him even more so), I wasn't a fan of 41's politics. But it must be admitted that he kept his war in the Middle East relatively short and efficient, and didn't use it, or at least not too much, as a macho-nationalist psychodrama. And he signed the Americans With Disabilities Act. And by almost all accounts, he was a very nice man on a personal level. All of which is to say, in retrospect, and especially at the moment, he looks almost Lincolnesque.

Funny the stuff you remember: The evening of his inaugural, I went with my then-girlfriend to see the sci-fi horror picture DeepStar Six, in which an underwater research station is attacked by a sort of giant sea-louse. While watching it, I noticed a persistent pain in my left foot which increased considerably when I put weight on it leaving the theater. It didn't go away, and some weeks later a doctor told me I had likely given myself a stress fracture that morning on the long walk through the cold. It's bothered me, off and on, ever since, sometimes to the point of giving me a noticeable limp.

So that was my souvenir of the George H. W. Bush inauguration. And it didn't even cost me two dollars.

Saturday, December 1, 2018


Happy December everybody! Check out my "Four Corners" column in this month's issue of Phoenix Magazine, on places to eat while in the midst of holiday festivity, including my farthest-flung "corner" to date, the Lynx Lake Cafe in Prescott. Also check out my Phoenix Magazine online review of The Favourite, opening this weekend.

The Wife has done her decorating. She kept it low-key this year:

Monday, November 26, 2018


This one’s been out for a couple of weeks, but I just caught up with it:

The Front RunnerIt’s hard to say at what audience this movie has been aimed. Younger people may well have no idea who Gary Hart is, and for his supporters back in 1988, the episode that ended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President may seem painful and embarrassing and best forgotten. Shadenfreude–seeking opponents of Hart or of his party are unlikely to form a very large audience bloc either.

But the movie, directed by Jason Reitman from a script he wrote with Matt Bai and Jay Carson (from Bai’s 2014 book All the Truth Is Out), is a solid, absorbing piece of cinema craft, and shouldn’t be allowed to fall through the cracks of the season. It depicts, arguably, the end of an era in the relationship between the media and politicians and candidates, and the beginning of another.

For those who don’t know or have let it slip their minds: The Kansas-born Hart, an intelligent, handsome, commandingly no-nonsense senator from Colorado, found himself in the title position for the Democratic nomination in 1988. He looked like a cinch to be the candidate and to have a real shot against George H.W. Bush for the presidency.

Hart’s marriage had been troubled in ways that would seem quite routine to most of us today, but which were still a little less publicly acceptable—though probably no less privately common—for a politician thirty years ago, and there were rumors that he was a womanizer. The Miami Herald got wind of Hart’s connection with a young woman named Donna Rice. Partly on the strength of Hart’s defiant challenge to the Washington Post to tail him if they suspected hanky-panky—he assured them they’d be bored—the Herald broke the long journalistic tradition of discretion on such matters and went with the story.

Hart tried to stonewall the media after the story broke, insisting that it was nobody’s business. The rest is…well, you know.

Reitman spins the yarn in a brisk manner, with Altmanesque overheard and overlapping dialogue, and some near-Wellesian camera flourishes that bring order to the chaos of the campaign trail or the newsroom. There’s a large cast of characters, of which we get to know, more than in passing, only a few, but all of which have the feel of authenticity.

The Front Runner gains its integrity, however, from Hugh Jackman, who has the courage to make Hart an unlikable man. Had he played the title character as a martyr, the movie might come across disingenuous; because he plays him as an obtuse, defensive cold fish it becomes possible, paradoxically, to have some sympathy for him. It’s certainly possibly to have sympathy for Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons, wry as ever), his wearily illusion-free wife, Lee Hart, superbly played by Vera Farmiga, and for the other women in the story, including Sarah Paxton as Rice.

The movie’s pace and comic edge should make it exhilarating, but there’s a sad, even ominous tone that hangs over The Front Runner, because whether or not Hart deserved what he got, the story marks the beginning of a turn for the worse in American mainstream media. I was living in D.C. at the time of this scandal, and I well remember what people said: They agreed that a candidate’s personal life ought to be private, but that this didn’t excuse Hart’s dishonesty and phony indignation.

Hart might have made an excellent president, and obviously he was hardly the only politician, on ether side of the aisle, with this sort of baggage. He got clobbered, probably, by a combination of his own demeanor and the beginning of a new style of anything-goes reporting, under which by now his story would seem quaint.

Thursday, November 22, 2018


Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

Check out my reviews, on Phoenix Magazine online, of Creed II...

...and the Milestone Films Blu-Ray release of the exquisite 1926 animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed... well as a preview of the "No Festival Required" showing of the Rural Route Film Festival Touring Shorts at Scottsdale Center for the Arts.

Eat hearty!

Friday, November 16, 2018


Whenever I think of the greatest live performances I've been lucky enough to see, along with Stacey Keach as Richard III at the Folger Theatre and Penn & Teller at Ford's Theatre, and Screamin' Jay Hawkins at the 9:30 Club, all in Washington, D.C. and Tito Puente at the Celebrity here in Phoenix, I also think of Roy Clark, playing Ernesto Lecuona's magnificent "Malageuna" at the Sundome in Sun City. RIP to the funny and unpretentious but virtuoso Clark, who passed on this week at 85.

RIP also to the Canadian classical stage actor Douglas Rain, immortal in the movies as the voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, passed on at 90.

Opening this weekend:

Pete and Ellie, childless “houseflippers” in their forties, decide to foster, and then adopt, three kids all at once, a teenage girl and her two young siblings. All three come with behavioral and social issues, and this, combined with the naïveté and inexperience of the new parents, leads to trouble, some of it wacky, some of it serious, in the comedy-drama Instant Family.

Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne both do sweet but never maudlin work as Pete and Ellie. They convey an awakening sense of open-hearted mission as they become aware both of the needs of foster kids and of their own desire to parent.

There are capable supporting turns in the film as well, notably by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, who turn a pair of social workers into a low-key comedy team, and by Julie Hagerty and Margo Martindale as the Grandmas, demure and boisterous respectively. Most impressive of all, maybe, is Isabela Moner as the teenage daughter, convincing as a bright, decent-hearted kid who’s also an infuriating problem child.

The director and co-writer is Sean Anders, drawing on his own life for inspiration. Anders’ other credits include the likes of Horrible Bosses 2 and Daddy’s Home and similar broad comedies in the modern vein, and that sensibility finds its way into this movie as well. There are slapstick sequences that feel heavy and contrived, and throw the movie off-balance at times.

But the overall effect of Instant Family is surprisingly moving. What Anders gets right about the experience of coming to parenting later in life, and of parenting a teenager—especially in the terrifying era of social media—feels considerable.

Allowing for the conventions of this sort of mainstream family flick, the degree to which Instant Family doesn’t sugarcoat parenting's challenges is impressive: The language is raw, and so is the guilty candor of Pete and Ellie’s private conversations. So when the movie jerks tears, as it did for me at several points, it jerks them honestly.

I had the opportunity to chat with Anders recently about the experiences that led to this film; check out the interview on Phoenix Magazine online.

Still in theaters:

It’s hard for me to imagine any new version replacing, in my affections, the original 1966 TV version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. That half-hour animated special based on the classic Dr. Seuss children’s book of 1957, directed by the great Chuck Jones and voiced by the great Boris Karloff, was one of the true high points of the holiday season every year of my childhood.

Ron Howard’s laborious live-action feature version of 2000, with Jim Carrey in the title role, certainly didn’t come close to capturing the Seussian magic of the original. Neither does the new animated version, titled simply The Grinch, and featuring the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch. But it has its merits, and it’s better than the Howard/Carrey version.

For the benighted few who may not know, The Grinch is a tall, green-furred recluse who bitterly resents the relentless Christmas festivity of the Whos, elfin citizens of nearby Whoville, and thus decides to steal the town’s presents and decorations, disguised as Santa Claus. It is, of course, a nutty variation on the Scrooge theme, economically unfolded through Dr. Seuss’s inimitable, metrically flawless rhyme.

The new film expands the story in a number of directions, all of them thoroughly gratuitous, for no reason other than to stretch it out to feature length. Most annoyingly, it gives us a psychological backstory for the Grinch’s dislike of Christmas—after the narrator (Pharrell Williams) tells us “please don’t ask why/No one quite knows the reason,” he goes on to explain the banal reason.

He’s no Karloff, but Cumberbatch gives good, snide line readings. Even so, this movie’s Grinch is very watered-down as a villain; his redemption is telegraphed so early and often that it has little impact when it arrives.

This aside, it should be said that the movie has visual wit, and that, as with the TV version, The Grinch’s good-natured dog Max is a very successful character, and that a plus-sized reindeer named Fred is also lovable. It’s a testament to how softened-up this Grinch is that the filmmakers don’t let him be mean to Max.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


This is the shirt...

...I happened to be wearing today, when I learned that the great Stan Lee had passed on, at 95. It demonstrates, if any demonstration is needed, the impact that Stanley Leiber has had on our culture; it links an unrelated entity, a baseball team, to some of his iconic creations and co-creations, for no other real reason than that people like them.

I was a devoted reader of Marvel Comics as a kid, especially Spider-Man, The Hulk,  Iron Man and Dr. Strange, but from around my junior high years on I was simply a fan of Lee. His 1974 Origins of Marvel Comics was an endlessly reread tome for me in those days (I still have it on my shelf), and I loved it at least as much for Lee's autobiographical passages, written in his self-consciously jaunty and persistently alliterative style, as for the comic reproductions.

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Stan Lee was a canny pioneer of personal branding, of turning himself into the ringmaster, the impresario at the center of his world. Like Balzac, he created a Comedie humaine, though maybe in Lee's case it should be called a Comedie superhumaine, full of indelible, mythic figures at least a little bit familiar to almost everybody, even people who've never picked up a comic book in their lives. And he made his heroes, and his villains, subject to human foibles and vulnerabilities; for Stan Lee, no matter what your superpower, being human was your Kryptonite.

Even though he did it in print, there can be no question that Stan Lee was one of 20th-Century America's great showmen, and he invariably gave good value. His brash, brightly-colored, wise-assed but good-natured sensibility chased away a lot of the tedious and dreary side of youth and adolescence. And having claimed the pages of his comics as a soapbox, he used it to rail against racism and preach other good values. He had great power, and he used it with great responsibility.

RIP sir, and, of course: Excelsior.

Friday, November 9, 2018


Check out my "Friday Flicks" reviews, online at Phoenix Magazine, of  Tom Volf's documentary Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words...

...The Girl in the Spider's Web and the Robert the Bruce chronicle history Outlaw King. Also, check out my article on the General Patton Memorial Museum in Chiriaco Summit, California, which I recently visited...

...and which re-opens on Veteran's Day, Sunday, November 11, after a major renovation and expansion. It's a pretty cool place.

Happy Veteran's Day weekend everybody!

Friday, November 2, 2018


Happy November everybody! Check out my "Four Corners" column in the November issue of Phoenix Magazine...

...this month concentrated into the four corners of The Churchill, the new downtown Phoenix hipster destination.

Also, Happy Friday. Check out my "Friday Flicks" column on Phoenix Magazine online, with my review of Viper Club...

...and previews of Scottsdale International Film Festival and of the Netflix premiere of the Orson Welles movie The Other Side of the Wind.

Also, RIP to a favorite character actor, James Karen, passed on at 94. Karen was fondly remembered as Uneeda Medical Supply's genial, ill-fated Frank in 1985's Return of the Living Dead and as the developer who "didn't move the bodies" in Poltergeist. But he appeared in movies ranging from All the President's Men, Capricorn One, The Gathering, The China Syndrome, Jagged Edge and Wall Street and television roles on The Jeffersons (as a KKK member saved by George Jefferson's CPR) and Eight Is Enough and The Golden Girls and the swansong of Little House on the Prairie, as the evil railroad man who wipes Walnut Grove off the map. He had several Broadway credits including Cactus Flower, worked with Buster Keaton in Beckett's Film, was the heroic leading man in Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, and starred in countless Pathmark supermarket commercials. Despite his frequent villainous parts, he was highly endearing.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018


Happy Halloween everybody! My favorite holiday.

Check out The Wife's costume...

Pumpkin Pi, get it?

Here's my costume...

No clever pun with this one; I'm just calling it "Sharky McSharkboy."

Also, Happy Dia de los Muertos. Here's a pic, by The Kid, of the little Day of the Dead dude now riding on my dashboard...

...a kind gift from my pal Joe Moore.

Here's a couple of catch-up reviews:

It's been a few years--since 2015's heavy-handed but enjoyable Black Sea, unless I'm forgetting something--since we've gotten a big-budget submarine adventure picture. But Hunter Killer, now in theaters, gives us an amusing tour of some of the genre's favorite elements--nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse between underwater vessels, threading the ship through narrow canyons, stony-faced rival Captains who respect each other, an Executive Officer questioning orders, decisions effecting the fate of the world made in the cold depths of the sea. Coolest detail: The standing officers leaning back in unison as the ship dives.

The term "hunter killer" refers to a class of submarine used to attack other subs; the one we follow here is the U.S.S. Arkansas, commanded by non-Academy, up-from-the-working-class Captain Gerard Butler. He's asked to navigate his way through a heavily mined inlet to pick up a Navy SEAL team that has rescued the deposed Russian President (who seems decidedly NOT based on the current real-life holder of that office) from the rogue Defense Minister who wants to start a war with the U.S. Along the way the Arkansas picks up the Captain (Michael Nyqvist) of a sunken Russian sub, who must decide whether or not to help the Yanks navigate their way in.

All of these thrills are excitingly if conventionally handled. But where director Donovan Marsh and screenwriters Arnie Schmidt and Jamie Moss really show their ingenuity is how they avoid the dramatic as well as the literal claustrophobia of the submarine genre. We aren't stuck in the tin can underwater with Butler and his crew for the whole running time; there's a dry-land side to the movie as well.

We follow the Russians, and the exploits of the SEAL team, led by Toby Stephens, that's infiltrating the Russian headquarters. And back at the Pentagon, we get to see the squabbles between the bristling head of the Joint Chiefs (Gary Oldman), a sober-minded Admiral (Common) and a shrewd NSA analyst (Linda Cardellini). We even get a glimpse of the blond, female U.S. President (Caroline Goodall), wistfully reminding us that this film went into production when a different set of political and social assumptions were in place.

Butler is good company once again, and the late Swedish actor Nyqvist, to whom the film is co-dedicated (along with producer John Thompson), brings an effective tinge of the tragic to his Russian counterpart. Those hoping for a good rip-snorting Gary Oldman scenery-chew may be disappointed; he gets less of an opportunity for flamboyant ranting here than in some of his other roles.

In case it isn't clear from my description, Hunter Killer is a very old-school piece of work, in the "guy movie" tradition. If you're the sort who could never resist a Saturday afternoon rerun of The Enemy Below or Ice Station Zebra, this might be the movie for you, and maybe your dad or your grandfather or your uncle might want to come along. Much of the action seems cartoonishly implausible, and it's exactly on that basis that you're likely to enjoy it.

A note on this movie's Russians: In another old-school convention, they speak Russian when it's necessary for the American characters to overhear them, and accented English the rest of the time, so we don't have to read subtitles. But at a key moment, a Russian character expresses his feelings to some of his fellow countrymen by showing them his middle fingers. Does that gesture have the same meaning for Russians that it does for us?

Halloween is here, both the holiday and yet another movie named after it that's too scary for younger children and wimpy adults. But there's also a milder movie alternative for such audiences who still want to get into the spirit: Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween. The subtitle begs the question, though--shouldn't any self-respecting Halloween be haunted?

It's a sequel to Goosebumps, the 2015 comedy-fantasy riff on Scholastic Publishing's massively successful young-adult horror paperback series of the 1990s. The heroes of these tongue-in-cheek tales, cranked out by the dozens by author R. L. Stine, were kids, pitted against ghosts and werewolves and aliens and giant bugs and mummies and pretty much any other standard horror or sci-fi menace you could name, most of them derived from the movies.

The 2015 film turned a bunch of these creatures loose on a small town in Delaware; it also brought Stine onscreen as a character, played by Jack Black as a vain but lovable curmudgeon with an imagination so powerful that his creations can literally leap off the page. It was a trifling film, but well-made and enjoyable, with a little more wit than might have been expected.

Goosebumps 2, directed by Ari Sandel and set in a small town in New York, has a Halloween theme. Two scavenging boys inadvertently unleash the power of an unfinished early Stine tale, Haunted Halloween, and the town's elaborate decorations and treats come to life, from a bucket of Gummi bears to an enormous black-and-purple dragon made of balloons. These creepy creatures are led, once again, by Slappy, the sinister ventriloquist's dummy come to life.

Some of the resulting sequences are visually striking, though again, none are allowed to tip over into serious terror, and the film should be fun for all but the littlest viewers. The young cast, led by Jeremy Ray Taylor and Caleel Harris as the boys and Madison Iseman as Taylor's college-bound older sister, are capable. But most of the laughs are provided by the adults, especially the always-amusing Wendy McLendon-Covey as the indomitable mom, Chris Parnell as the drug store guy turned into Slappy's toadying sidekick, and Ken Jeong as the wacky neighbor who really, really likes Halloween.

One of the best features of the first film was the lively music by the great Danny Elfman. The macabre scherzos here are by the British composer Dominic Lewis, and he channels Elfman so well it's scary.

Friday, October 5, 2018


Happy October everybody! My favorite month, back again.

Plenty of opining by Your Humble Narrator, in case you have time on your hands: Check out my reviews of Free Solo and Marvel's Venom, online at Phoenix Magazine... well as my "Four Corners" column on Valley gastropubs, and my short item about the abruptly announced demise and just as sudden revival of Pedro's Mexican in Glendale.

It's always a wacky adventure when my pal Vince Larue visits from Normandy.

Earlier this week we were heading up East Van Buren, along the back forty of the Phoenix Zoo, when we noticed a large object in the road—a turtle. We pulled into the parking lot of the Rolling Hills golf course and crossed two lanes of traffic to get to him. So much traffic went by in that time that I was sure he’d be turtle pizza by the time we reached him, but incredibly he was intact, plodding along calmly, almost to the far side of the road.

There was just a construction site there, however, with no water I could see, and since he was obviously an aquatic species of turtle I thought we’d better try to get him back to the lagoons at the rear of the zoo, from whence I’d guess he escaped; you can often see turtles sunning themselves there. It was tough to find a spot in the fence he could get through, but we finally left him at the bottom of a steep bank, near a muddy pool that led through an abutment under the fence. But not, of course, before getting a few testudine selfies...

Could I look any creepier? "Hey lady, y'wanna buy a turtle...?"

Hope he’s OK. It seemed like a better spot than where we found him, anyway.

Friday, September 28, 2018


Opening in the Valley this weekend:

Smallfoot--The premise of this animated musical kidflick is that Yeti exist, high in the Himalayas, and that they regard us humans just as we regard them--as legendary. These furry, not-at-all-abominable snow-people have a peaceful culture on a mountaintop above a cloudbank, based on a traditional creation story drawn on flat stones worn by the "Stonekeeper." Questioning this mythology can lead to banishment.

This is what happens to our hero Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum) after he encounters a human "smallfoot" and tells his neighbors about it. But he falls in with a secret society of other Yeti who question the literal veracity of the stones, among them Meechee (Zendaya), the daughter of the Stonekeeper (Common). Migo has an adventure below the clouds with a smallfoot named Percy (James Corden), the egocentric, publicity-hungry host of an Animal-Planet-style TV show.

I didn't expect this film do go very far beyond its clever, funny basic idea; I certainly didn't expect it to be a complex satire about skepticism and rational inquiry, and the forces that oppose it. But that's what Smallfoot rather insistently is, even as it fulfills the obligatory demands of the kid movie, complete with slapstick and the occasional flatulence joke.

This conventional stuff is maybe what keeps the movie from being quite the instant classic that it wants to be. There's one terrific rap number, performed by Common, in which the Stonekeeper explains how his orthodoxy arose, and what it does for his society. Otherwise, the songs are pleasant but not really exciting.

Overall, though, Smallfoot is a very pleasant surprise, witty and generous-hearted and expansive. Also, one of the questioning Yeti--voiced by LeBron James--is named "Gwangi," presumably in homage to the allosaurus title character of 1969's The Valley of Gwangi, my childhood favorite movie. So I'd be disposed to like Smallfoot in any case.

The Children Act--Here's another story about the negotiations between reason and faith. But this Brit drama, adapted from an Ian McEwan novel, is a little less lighthearted than Smallfoot.

Emma Thompson plays Fiona, a justice in London. Fiona is routinely charged with making godlike moral rulings on, say, whether a hospital can separate conjoined twins, at the expense of one twin's life and against the wishes of the parents. Her neglected professor husband (Stanley Tucci) announces his plan to have an affair, then leaves her.

While she's in the midst of this turmoil, she's assigned the case of a seventeen-year-old boy, Adam (Fionn Whitehead), who's dying of leukemia and refuses to accept a potentially lifesaving blood transfusion because it conflicts with the Jehovah's Witness faith in which he's been raised. Against her usual practice, Fiona decides to visit the boy in hospital, apparently to decide about the depth and seriousness of his commitment to refusing the treatment.

She finds Adam to be an ecstatic, flamboyantly self-dramatizing fellow, and the two bond at once, in part because of a shared passion for music. But it proves difficult to retreat back to her perch of legal abstraction after her short trip to the world of real humans that her decisions effect. Her connection with Adam continues after her ruling, in unexpected but painfully plausible ways.

Those of us who worship at the altar of Emma Thompson will get a potent dose of her brilliance here. It would be unfair to say that this is in spite of the material rather than because of it, but I think it's partially true, too. Although the quality and intelligence of the production is undeniable, there's something uneasily reductive about the story's approach to its central characters. The persistent suggestion is that Fiona is haunted by her failure to reproduce, and that this is what leaves her emotionally unequipped to deal with the intensity of Adam's, or indeed of her husband's, feelings for her. This feels too thin and pat for the woman that Thompson shows us.

Richard Eyre's direction is tightly proficient, the dialogue is crisp and swift--the script is by McEwan--and the supporting players are all spot-on, especially Whitehead (the everyman soldier protagonist from Dunkirk). But the movie is built around Thompson's performance; it's one of those vehicles where a poised and self-controlled central character is set on a collision course with an Oscar-clip meltdown. Thompson's trademark arch, ironic tones that modulate into a mildly beseeching singsong at the ends of sentences bespeak a self-deprecating reserve that's ripe to be punctured, and Thompson delivers as usual, pushing her performance even past this movie's limits.

Playing Sunday afternoon only at FilmBar is La Chana, the documentary on the famed Spanish flamenco dancer. Check out my review online at Phoenix Magazine.

Monday, September 24, 2018


Check out my review, online at Phoenix Magazine, of Lizzie...

...the latest big screen whack at the Lizzie Borden case.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018


In theaters now:

White Boy Rick--A few weeks ago we had Kin, and now here's another story about a heavily-armed teenager in the dreary streets of Detroit. A real-life inner city Baltimore teen named Richie Merritt plays the title role in this strange true crime period piece. It's about Richard Wershe, Jr., known in the Motor City in the '80s as White Boy Rick, who at fourteen became the youngest-ever FBI informant, and later became a crack merchant himself, all before he was old enough to legally buy beer.

This isn't Scarface, however. There are reports that the film softens the edges of the truth considerably, but at least as depicted by the French director Yann Demange and played by Merritt, Rick was a quiet, nonviolent young man who fell into crime trying to help his broke, troubled family--his big-talking, small-potatoes gun dealer dad (Matthew McConaughey), his drug-addled sister Dawn (Bel Powley) and his cantankerous grandparents (Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie) across the street. Something about Rick's unaggressive yet direct manner inspires trust, including in the drug dealers that buy his old man's firearms and in the FBI agents and Detroit cops that are stalking them, so he drifts into their world without trying to.

The film is full of excellent acting, notably by McConaughey as the dad, portrayed here, rather rosily but effectively, as a loving man who tries, through American-dream bravado, to navigate around the moral bogs from which he draws his livelihood. There's also Powley, a Brit brilliantly and heartbreakingly convincing as the crackhead sister, not to mention Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane as two feds that don't inspire a lot of trust.

But Merritt, a novice to acting, holds his own as the star presence in the film. It isn't just that he feels authentic--the whole movie feels almost as authentic as a documentary, despite the famous actors in it, and despite its liberties with history. But there's also a sweetness, even a guilelessness to Merritt that made me feel protective toward him.

Something feels missing from White Boy Rick at a thematic level; despite the outrageousness of the story and of the outcome of Rick's case, Demange can't seem to figure out what point he's making with it, and this leaves a gap in the movie's reason for existing. But the acting and atmosphere fill that gap--it's never less than gripping, it's often funny, it's ultimately touching.

Not long ago, on one of the retro TV cable networks, I happened to see "The Bard," an episode of The Twilight Zone from 1963 featuring the young Burt Reynolds. His part was small but memorable: He was playing a self-impressed method actor, obsessed with "tertiary motivation" and the like, that was transparently a spoof of Marlon Brando.

Reportedly, Reynolds had run into trouble early in his career because of his resemblance to Brando; it supposedly kept him from being cast in a supporting part in Sayonara. So he may have taken a special glee in his Twilight Zone role. In any case, he was funny.

Reynolds, who passed on earlier this month at 82, was always funny. Even when he played steely-eyed action heroes, there was usually an underlying irony that came through, as if he couldn't (or wouldn't) fully commit to the tough guy persona. At times, notably in a few late '70s-early '80s efforts like The End, Paternity and Best Friends, and especially in his fine star turn in 1979's Starting Over, he displayed a striking vulnerability. But on the whole, he isn't an actor you associate with a lot of emotional range--he's more like a sly, mischievous friend who's fun to hang out with now and then precisely because his company is so undemanding.

But within that limited range, he was able to carve out a career for himself as a true movie star--indeed, along with Clint Eastwood, he was one of the last of the old-school American male stars. When you run down the list of his films, you'll notice, along with plenty of real dreck, how many thoroughly substantive and re-watchable pictures he made: Deliverance, of course, and The Longest Yard and chase flicks like White Lightning and Gator and that cornpone classic Smokey and the Bandit and, maybe best of all among his car-crash comedies, 1978's Hooper, and his slightly underrated caper movie Rough Cut and his hilarious cameo in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie and his capable leading man work in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I even found his Elmore Leonard-based 1985 misfire Stick, which he also directed, sort of compelling.

Later on he did notable turns in Bill Forsythe's Breaking In, and on television in Evening Shade, and in character parts in Citizen Ruth and Striptease. And in 1997 came his Oscar-nominated performance as the inscrutably easygoing porn director in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. There's a lot of variety there, and a lot of fun. If he never quite scaled the heights that Brando did, he certainly transcended the youthful resemblance, and in his own way made at least as big a mark.

Tomorrow, Wednesday September 12 at 7 p.m., "No Festival Required" offers the documentary Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf, a portrait of the famed Dutch garden designer, at Third Street Theatre, Phoenix Center for the Arts. My pal Steve Weiss, longtime director of the not-a-fest, says it may be his favorite film he's ever presented, a "75-minute vacation," and a sorely needed one in these troubled times. I liked it a lot too.

Monster-of-the-Week is on hiatus these days, but there's a de facto MOTW in this week's box office champ, The Predator...

Check out my reviews of that film, Five Seasons and A Simple Favor online at Phoenix Magazine.

Sunday, September 9, 2018


Check out my reviews, online at Phoenix Magazine, of Jeremiah Zagar's We the Animals...

...and The Nun...

...set at the wackiest convent since The Misandrists.

Thursday, September 6, 2018


With the horror picture The Nun opening this weekend...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's give the nod this week to the fanged demonic sister from that film. Check out the "Unholy Card" I was given at the screening...

It's one of the odder pieces of movie swag I've ever had. It has the Hail Mary in Latin on the back, along with a vaguely ghost-shaped figure and the cryptic (to me, at least) phrase "SNAP FOR FORGIVENESS." I snapped my fingers; does that count?

Tuesday, September 4, 2018


Hope everybody had a great Labor Day weekend; Happy September to all!

Check out this month's issue of Phoenix Magazine...

...for my "Four Corners" column on Valley spots for Caribbean food, and also check out my online reviews of Operation Finale, The Bookshop and a "Big Gay Sing-Along" showing, tomorrow night at FilmBar, of 1986's Little Shop of Horrors...

Now in  theaters:

Kin--It's flown a bit under the radar, but this odd, gritty little tale is not without merit. It's set in the economic wastes of Detroit, where 12-year-old Eli (Myles Truitt) scavenges for scrap metal in the shells of deserted factories. Eli, an adopted African-American, lives with his construction contractor Dad (Dennis Quaid), a morose but morally upright widower.

Eli's ne'er-do-well older brother Jimmy (Jack Reynor) comes home--to a chilly reception--after six years in prison, to quickly realize that both he and his family are in serious trouble with a local gangster (James Franco). Jimmy and Eli end up on the run from the gangster and his goons, and somewhere along the line a stripper (Zoe Kravitz) with a heart of gold is added to their party.

This modest, poignant story, which if not for some violence has almost an Afterschool Special atmosphere, would be compelling simply as a realistic drama/thriller. But the directing team of Jonathan and Josh Baker, working from a script by Daniel Casey (an expansion of the Baker brothers' short film "Bag Man"), layers in a sci-fi twist.

On one of his scavenging excursions, Eli comes upon the aftermath of a battle between some otherworldly warriors--time travelers or aliens or something; it isn't made entirely clear. He picks up a sophisticated weapon that only seems to respond to him, and, as you might guess, this eventually becomes a factor in the story.

I don't mean to mislead anyone about Kin--it's uneven, and sentimental at times. But it has an unpredictability that I enjoyed, and the low-key style of the Bakers recalled, for me, certain commercial directors of the '60s and '70s  like John Avildsen and Jeremy Paul Kagan and Matthew Robbins, whose straightforward, unpretentious style has been insufficiently emulated.

Most of all, Kin worked for me because the actors made me care about the characters. Truitt makes a  fine, sober debut as Eli; you feel sorry for this kid's poor luck in family relations. Reynor, who seems like sort of a poor man's Chris Pratt, is exasperatingly likable as the fun, decent-hearted, well-intentioned, hopelessly foolish Jimmy, who introduces his brother to strip clubs and doing donuts in the parking lot in his truck.

Quaid is convincingly downcast as the desperate dad, and Kravitz is charming as usual, even in this stock role. Most striking, perhaps, is James Franco, truly repellent and scary as the mild-voiced gangster. I've never been able to warm to Franco in ordinary leading man parts, but on the basis of this film and The Disaster Artist, he's a natural as creepy freaks.

Thursday, August 30, 2018


Last week we paid tribute to the late Douglas Grindstaff, the brilliantly imaginative sound effects man whose contribution to the atmosphere of the original Star Trek would be hard to overstate. But I think Grindstaff deserves at least one more monster, so...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's acknowledge the "neural parasite" that attacks poor Spock in the second-season episode "Operation--Annihilate!"

In one interview I found, Grindstaff claimed that he produced the creature's icky sounds by using samples of kissing.

While we're on the subject of Star Trek, check out...Quentin Tarantino's Star Trek!