Friday, January 26, 2018


Opening this weekend: 

The Death Cure--Well, that would be an impressive medical breakthrough, wouldn't it?

This is the third film in the Maze Runner trilogy, based on the young-adult sci-fi novels by James Dashner. This time the pretty-boy hero (Dylan O'Brien) and a few of his more characterful comrades are on a quest to rescue an old pal (Ki Hong Lee) from his days imprisoned in "The Glade" back in Part One. They infiltrate the city stronghold of the sinister agency known by the anagram WCKD--their marketing department should perhaps have put in a little more time on that branding--where his friend is being held as a possible key to a cure for the disease that is turning the human race into zombielike creatures known as "Cranks."

The first film in the series, 2014's The Maze Runner, had the title labyrinth to help generate intrigue and mystery. In The Scorch Trials, from the following year, the boys had escaped their inscrutable prison, and the results were far more routine adventures, with the same overlay of teenage masochism. This third film is a further step down, alas. The dialogue is banal and the plot, as with The Scorch Trials, is full of elements that recall older, better sci-fi flicks, most notably The Omega Man.

The Death Cure is not without strengths, however. Director Wes Ball, who helmed the previous entries, handles the initial big action scenes excitingly. There are a number of capable vets in the cast, including Giancarlo Esposito, Barry Pepper, Will Poulter, Rosa Salazar, Aiden Guillen, Patricia Clarkson as the WCKD honcho and Walton Goggins in a small but memorable role as the noseless revolutionary leader of the Cranks. Thomas Brodie-Sangster, the kid from Love, Actually, is once again touching as our hero's loyal friend. With the help of these actors and others, the film remains watchable enough until the torturously drawn-out, Wagnerian, sturm-und-drang finale wears out our patience.

This movie is another example of a striking recurrent motif in post-apocalyptic yarns of recent years, however: Walls. Walls erected by the frightened powerful to hold the feared and dispossessed at bay have shown up in the Divergent flicks, last year's Resident Evil finale, War for the Planet of the Apes and now this film. It seems like our collective mind has begun to, well, Hit the Wall.

Thursday, January 25, 2018


Kind of hard to resist...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...this portrait of a vampiric Joe Arpiao... Chris Piascik, from the cover of the January 18 issue of Phoenix New Times, in which the case is made, for any who might require it, against voting for Arpiao for U.S. Senate.

Monday, January 22, 2018


Check out the January issue of Phoenix Magazine...

...for my "Four Corners" column on new and new-ish Valley eateries. If you scroll down a bit in the "Where to Eat" section, you'll also find my five favorite restaurants for 2017, in keeping with what is described, not inaccurately, as my "yen for greasy spoons and indie ethnic fare," including Casa de Falafel, the best falafel in the Valley, served out of a Peoria Shell station...

Google reminds us that today is the birthday of Sergei Eisenstein. Check out this scene from Strike (1925) in which a cool old steam fire pumper is misused disgracefully against the people: Proof that this sort of thing didn't start with Birmingham in the '60s.

Thursday, January 18, 2018


Just because Svengoolie is showing 1964's excellent Godzilla vs. Mothra (aka Godzilla vs. the Thing to U.S. audiences) this Saturday...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...check out this impressive piece of tire sculpture...

Friday, January 12, 2018


Opening this weekend:

Paddington 2As far as I know, this is the first crime thriller about the theft of a pop-up book. The title bear wants to buy the one-of-a-kind tome, you see, as a gift for his adored Aunt back in "darkest Peru." Alas, before he's saved up enough of his pay as a window-washer to make the purchase, the book is filched from the antiques store by a mysterious burglar, and Paddington is suspected of the heist and thrown in jail.

The real culprit—it’s revealed early on, but stop reading now if you don’t want the “spoiler”—is a crackbrained, down-on-his-luck actor played by Hugh Grant, who knows, as Paddington does not, that the pop-up book contains clues to the location of a hidden treasure. So as Paddington struggles to negotiate the perils of prison life and his upper-middle-class adoptive London family searches for evidence of his innocence, the thespian gets closer and closer to claiming the loot.

Michael Bond's beloved bear, with his blue coat, floppy red hat and love of marmalade, has been a mainstay of Brit kiddie-lit since the late ‘50s. Bond, who died this past year (Paddington 2 is dedicated to him) claimed that the character’s inspiration came, in part, from the sight of tagged children on railway platforms being evacuated from London during WWII.

There have been several animated TV series based on Bond’s tales, but the first feature film was a 2014 live-action effort, with a CGI Paddington excellently voiced by Ben Wishaw. That movie had plenty of charm, but it was marred, for me severely, by the introduction of a Cruella de Vil-like villainess played by Nicole Kidman, an obsessed taxidermist who, lacking a specimen of Ursa Marmalada in her collection, wanted to stuff Paddington. This nastiness felt really out of place in the gentle context of the movie.

Paddington 2 is a major improvement. Directed, like the first film, by Paul King of the marvelous Brit TV comedy The Mighty Boosh, the sequel features lengthy, complex slapstick sequences in the sprit of Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati, executed by Paddington (Wishaw again) with similarly earnest absorption. And its softer and sillier villain hits just the right note, without taking too much of an edge off the picture. It does, after all, contain the line, spoken by a security guard at St. Paul’s, “A nun went beserk.”

And that cast! Returning from the first film are Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi and Jim Broadbent, joined here by the likes of Brendan Gleeson, as Paddington’s tough-guy prison mentor, Tom Conti, Joanna Lumley and Eileen Atkins, billed here as Dame Eileen Atkins, if you please. It’s a testament to the bear’s iconic status over there that that sort of a-list talent could be assembled for a kiddie-movie sequel.

Stealing the picture from all of them is Grant, who turns his no-good greedy ham into a star part. He gets to use a variety of accents and wear cunning disguises—including as that aforementioned “very attractive nun.” He even gets to perform a full Sondheim number.

The CommuterLiam Neeson plays a 60-year-old ex-cop turned insurance salesman who rides a commuter train from Tarrytown to Manhattan and back everyday. Heading home on the day he gets laid off, baffled by how he’ll send his son to college, he’s approached by a mystery woman (Vera Farmiga) with a proposition—somebody on the train doesn’t belong, she says.

He’s given a false name that the person is traveling under (he isn’t told the gender), and promised that he’ll be given $100,000 if, using his cop skills, he makes the identification for them. In a moment of weakness he takes the down payment, but quickly realizes that the people who have hired him are ruthless killers, and that he’d be dooming their target by making the ID. He also realizes that his own family is in danger.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, the Spaniard behind 2015’s Run All Night and several other Liam Neeson righteous/reluctant killing sprees, this thriller pays obvious tribute to Hitchcock—overtly to Shadow of a Doubt—but is just as reminiscent of the Bruckheimer-style action excess playbook. The plot gets more convoluted, and the action more ludicrously overscaled, as the movie progresses.

But as usual, there’s Neeson at the center of it, with his quiet masculinity and his decency and his pained, sad-faced acceptance of the distasteful duty of pulverizing his enemies—it’s distasteful to him, that is; we in the audience drool for their retribution. He’s an action hero for middle-aged guys who feel ineffectual, and he delivers again here.

On the whole, The Commuter is more fun than many of Neeson’s other massacres. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s generous-hearted: especially in a Spartacus-like climatic flourish, it’s about strangers sticking up for each other.

Thursday, January 11, 2018


Just because Stephen Colbert made a pretty funny joke about it on his show this week...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...our honoree is the monster at the end of the 1971 Little Golden Book The Monster at the End of This Book ("starring lovable, furry old Grover"), written by Jon Stone and illustrated by Michael Smollin...

However, in case you've never read this suspenseful classic, you'll get no spoilers from me about this particular monster's identity...

Friday, January 5, 2018


Opening here this weekend:

The Post--Steven Spielberg's latest is, in a sense, a prequel to All the President's Men. Scripted by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, it dramatizes the Washington Post's handling of the Pentagon Papers story in 1971, in the face of the threat of legal action by the White House. Not that it's topically relevant or anything.

The revelations in the DOD documents sneaked out by Daniel Ellsberg had already broken in the New York Times but were stopped by a federal injunction after only the first few articles had run there. Ellsberg then gave the documents to the Post, among other media outlets, and editor Ben Bradlee and publisher Katherine Graham were put in the position of deciding whether to defy the injunction.

The result, at least according to this movie, had a lot to do with putting the Post on the map as a national rather than a local paper. In other words, the story did more for the Post than the Post did for the story, and the movie could be criticized for being off-center: A journalist I know said he liked the film but thought it could more justly have been called The Times.

Maybe so, but the specific content of the Pentagon Papers case isn't really the dramatic meat and potatoes here. It's true that, as he did in Lincoln, Spielberg opens The Post with a brief but scary battle scene, to remind us that this isn't a civics class; these decisions have real-world consequences. Still, at some level this could be about any hot-potato exposé. Spielberg and the screenwriters boil the drama down to the choice of whether to run the story, not over doubt in its accuracy but under pressure from government bullying.

This is, admittedly, more superficial than All the President's Men, with its detailed unraveling of the implications of the Watergate case, and of the tiny clues and pitfalls that can make or break an investigative piece. But on its simpler level, The Post is exhilarating journo-porn, shot in newsprint tones by Janusz Kaminski and peopled with a fine pack of veteran character players, from David Cross to Tracy Letts to Carrie Coon to Michael Stuhlbarg to Bradley Whitford to Michael Rhys as the haunted Ellsberg to Bruce Greenwood as the even more haunted Robert McNamara. I think my favorite of the supporting ensemble, however, was Bob Odenkirk as a perpetually downcast Ben Bagdikian.

As Bradlee, Tom Hanks is unlikely to displace the classic turn by Jason Robards in ATPM, but he's steady and amusing as ever. All are overshadowed, however, by the star turn of Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham. Her attempt to rise to the ethical dilemma and potential legal jeopardy in which she has improbably found herself is touching, and its resolution is thrilling.

Thursday, January 4, 2018


A few Year End/New Year odds and ends:

First of all, as in past years I've kept track of the books I read in 2017, for anybody who might be interested (as always this doesn't include articles, reviews, comics, blogs, poems, graffiti, menus, shopping lists, subtitles, skywriting etc etc): 

Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

The Night Stalker by Jeff Rice

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron

The Adventures of M. de Mailly by David Lindsay

Smilin’ Jack and the Daredevil Girl Pilot by Zack Mosley

Crotchet Castle by Thomas Love Peacock

Death in the Air by Agatha Christie

Iceworld by Hal Clement

The Monster Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs

To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck

Synthetic Men of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Beyonders by Manly Wade Wellman

Finders Keepers by Stephen King

Liner Notes by Loudon Wainwright III

Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix

Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy

The Far Side of the Dollar by Ross MacDonald

The Vegetable by F. Scott Fitzgerald

In 2017 I said a wistful farewell to a longtime companion: My green Toyota Tacoma pickup, which I bought new in 2000.

For financial reasons I asked the dealer for the most stripped-down, amenity-free Tacoma I could get, and I sometimes wondered if I bought the last new motor vehicle in America with hand-cranked windows. I found that I liked her low-tech charm. I spent more years driving this truck than I spent in high school and college put together, than I've spent living in any one home, than I've spent at any single job I've ever had. Her bed moved pianos and framed movie posters and dogs suspected of having bedbugs, and her cab transported, in addition to countless friends and family, celebrities including the late Richard Jeni, the late Mitch Hedburg and the late Ralphie May.

Sometime in 2003 or 2004 I got rear-ended in Avondale, and thrown forward into the car ahead of me. This resulted in the loss of the front bumper. A few years later her catalytic converter was stolen out of the parking lot of our condo in Phoenix and I had to replace it with an after-market part, with the result that the engine light was on constantly. Every two years my mechanic friend Pablo would shut it off long enough to get it through inspections (which it always passed) and a few hours later the light would come back on. Even so, based on the struggles I'd had with earlier vehicles I regarded her as close to trouble-free.

Her back gate became a gallery of odd bumper stickers, so that she looked like an old steamer trunk. But she didn't get to travel much outside of Maricopa County, just a few trips to Tucson and environs, once to Silver City, New Mexico and once to Vegas. Even so, I put hundreds of thousands of miles on her, and slept in her cab more than once.

I never gave her a name, like you're supposed to do with vehicles. But I certainly thought of her, and will remember her, as a good, reliable friend.

Simply because their maddening and clearly very effective radio jingle stuck in my head, I donated her to KARS-4-KIDS; it was only later that I learned that the organization gets a one-star "poor" rating from Charity Navigator. Oh well. Godspeed, old pal.

Over the Christmas holiday I acquired this guy...

...from Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers at Metro Center. The net proceeds from his purchase benefit area animal shelters (there may still be some available at your local Cane's if you want one; they're $8.99). His name is Kevin, and his name and attire were inspired by the character of Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), not from the 1990 favorite Home Alone, but rather from the oxymoronically-titled 1992 sequel Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. The plush dog is part of the chain's perplexing promotion to celebrate Home Alone 2's 25th anniversary. I didn't care for that film when it came out, and I like it even less now, because Our Current President appears in it (as himself). But I have to admit, this is a cute little guy.

Two of the books on my list above were ripping yarns I'd never gotten around to by a lifelong favorite author of mine, Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Monster Men and Synthetic Men of Mars.

Both involved Frankenstein-ish efforts to synthesize human beings, and in both cases the results are, to say the least, uneven. So...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...for the first honoree of 2018 here's the product of an industrial accident in the Synthetic man manufacturing facility on Mars:

"When I reached No. 4 the sight that met my eyes was one of the most horrible I have ever looked upon. Something had evidently gone wrong with the culture medium, and instead of individual hormads being formed, there was a single huge mass of animal tissue emerging from the vat and rolling out over the floor.

Various internal and external human parts and organs grew out of it without any relation to other parts, a leg here, a hand there, a head somewhere else; and the heads were mouthing and screaming, which only added to the horror of the scene."

(Very helpful of Burroughs to have his narrator note the mouthing and screaming of the heads "only added to the horror of the scene," we might not have realized that otherwise.)

Here's an illustration for Synthetic Men by ERB's son John Coleman Burroughs...

...but really, can it compete with the old man's descriptions?