Friday, February 23, 2018


Opening this weekend:

Annihilation--An extraterrestrial object crashes next to a lighthouse on a remote coastline. This gives rise to a slowly spreading zone with a border of eerie prismatic light referred to, by the government researchers who work on the edge of the evacuated area, as "The Shimmer." Military expeditions are sent into The Shimmer, but nobody comes back out.

We learn all this along with Lena (Natalie Portman), an ex-military biologist. Six months earlier her soldier husband (Oscar Isaac) left on a covert mission. She hasn't seen or heard from him since, and assumes he's dead. Then one evening, just as she's in the therapeutic act of re-painting the bedroom, in walks Isaac, handsome as ever but somehow different--quiet, blank, uncommunicative. Shortly thereafter he falls deathly ill, and he and Lena are both whisked off to the secret facility just outside The Shimmer. When Lena learns that a new expedition into the zone is soon to leave, she volunteers to go along.

That's the set-up for this sci-f thriller directed by Alex Garland, based on a novel by James VanderMeer, and it's intriguing enough that you stay with the movie for a long time. Lena's comrades (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Tessa Thompson) are all women, all intellectual and/or physical badasses, and each with some tragedy in their pasts. Beyond the border of The Shimmer, they find a realm of mutant plants and animals, souped-up versions of familiar species. Some are beautiful and some hideous and lethal, but these external menaces turn out be the least of their worries.

The story echoes ideas and motifs from Lem's Solaris to Carpenter's The Thing to Attack of the Crab Monsters, among others. It's gripping for most of its length, but I wanted to like it better. The tone is somber to the point of pretentiousness, with muted light and murmured dialogue, like a sci-fi flick by Harold Pinter. The monster-picture scare scenes are crudely effective, but there's also a lot of gore that's fairly unpleasant, and the Ligeti-like electronic music is headache-inducing.

Then, after three acts of rising tension and curiosity, the climatic scenes give us a blow-out of (very good) special effects. But the revelations, to the extent that they're made clear at all, are nothing we couldn't have guessed. It's sort of underwhelming.

If I were a more rigorous Freudian I might point out the juxtaposition of the phallic earthly lighthouse with the alien orifice from which the invading presence issues. I might make note of the horror of the male characters at the prospect of life and movement inside their bodies, or of the general atmosphere of gloom and dread that hangs over this story of distaff orientation, written and directed by men.

But I'm not that rigorous a Freudian. So I'll just say that Annihilation is three-quarters of an excellent sci-fi picture, but in the end it loses its shimmer.

Thursday, February 22, 2018


From 1983's Yor, the Hunter from the Future, celebrating its 35th Anniversary this year...


Monster-of-the-Week: ...this week's honoree, the "Stegoceratops," or possibly a "Triceragosaurus," in any event a fanciful hybrid dinosaur with horns on his face and plates running down his back...

...with which our hero Yor does battle near the beginning of that film. That third pic is a glimpse behind the scenes, in which, oddly, the beast looks much more vital and convincing than he does onscreen.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


In reading up a bit, to prepare for my review, on the background of Marvel’s Black Panther character, I learned about All-Negro Comics, which ran for one issue in 1947.

The brainchild of a Philadelphia journalist named Orrin C. Evans, it’s believed to be the first comic created entirely by black artists and writers. A second issue was reportedly written and drawn, but Evans was mysteriously unable to purchase the newsprint needed to produce it and the project was abandoned.

A reprint copy is available through Amazon, and is very much worth reading. It includes an assortment of stories, from a hard-boiled crime tale to a variety of humor features, but the most startling character is Lion Man, probably the first-ever African-American superhero.

He’s described thusly: “American-born, college educated, Lion Man is a young scientist, sent by the United Nations to watch over the fearsome ‘MAGIC MOUNTAIN’ of the African Gold Coast. Within its crater lies the world’s largest deposit of uranium—enough to make an atom bomb that could destroy the world…Lion Man’s job is to report on the doings of any treacherous nation that might seek to carry away any of the lethal stuff for the purpose of war.”

So, he’s named after a big cat, and he keeps vigil over an African mountain that conceals a mineral of great power. No chance that he influenced the creation of Black Panther?

Monday, February 19, 2018


Check out my review, on New Times online, of the 35th Anniversary Blu-ray edition of the '80s saga Yor, the Hunter from the Future:

Friday, February 16, 2018


Good stuff this weekend:

Black Panther--Dreamed up by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Black Panther was the first black superhero of any significance, debuting in Fantastic Four in 1966, and gradually taking over the pages of Marvel's Jungle Action in the '70s. He made his movie debut in 2016's Captain America: Civil War, played, as he is here, by Chadwick Boseman.

The roll that Marvel movies have been on continues, and maybe reaches a high point, with this extravagant, stirring saga. The title character is T'Challa, a royal in Wakanda, a tiny, isolated African nation. He's a rare (maybe singular?) specimen of both the Superman-Captain Marvel type of superhero, in that he has psuedo-scientifically and/or mystically bestowed superhuman powers, and the Doc Savage-Batman-James Bond school, in that he's a rich kid with unlimited technological resources and official sanction.

Wakanda, you see, has a secret: to the outside world it looks like a bucolic third-world backwater, but the big mountains in its center are a projection masking a futuristic, technocratic civilization far in advance of the rest of the world. It's powered by the deposits of an element called "vibranium" on which the country sits and which, along with training and traditional rituals, are also what give our hero his abilities. The Wakandas keep their real nature secret to keep the vibranium from falling into the wrong hands, and to protect themselves and others from the corruption of interfering in other people's affairs. They're like Switzerland, or Star Trek's Federation with its annoying "Prime Directive."

Near the beginning of the film, we see a Wakandan airship cruise into the skyline of this utopia. At the screening, I was sitting next to an African-American friend who leaned over and whispered in my ear "Thanks for the help during slavery." I must admit that, in all my readings of the comic, this potential for resentment of the Wakandans by other people of African descent, and by disadvantaged people in general, had simply never occurred to me. But it turns out to be the center of the movie's conflict.

The story here involves two villains. Klaue (a version of "Klaw" from the comics), a tatted-up South African weapons peddler with a vibranium-powered mechanical arm and a grudge against T'Challa, is played by Andy Serkis, out from behind the CGI for a change, and grinning with jolly murderousness. But in the course of the story he's overtaken as antagonist by Killmonger, a veteran of the U.S. military with an even deeper and more complicated grudge against our hero. Killmonger is played by Michael B. Jordan, who played the leads in director Ryan Coogler's previous films, the enjoyable Creed and the terrifyingly direct Fruitvale Station.

Coogler, who co-wrote the script with Joe Robert Cole, nails nearly every element in Black Panther.  The narrative unfolds conventionally, but with a precision and a steady pace that makes it feel mythic. The movie is unhurried, yet I can't remember a boring moment, and the strength of the emotional payoff in the final minutes may sneak up on you. The costumes, sets and cinematography have a lush visual whimsicality--an affectionate hint of an old-Hollywood idea of Africa--that borders on the tongue-in-cheek but avoids kitsch.

Better than any of this, however, is the cast. Boseman plays iconic figures--Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall--so often that it's easy to miss that he plays them as human beings. His princely bearing as T'Challa is used, often and wisely, to comic effect. He's a frequent straight man to the ridiculously glamorous women in the cast: Lupita Nyong'o as his spy love interest, Letitia Wright as his tech-genius little sister--equivalent to Q in the Bond flicks--Angela Basset as his mom, and Danai Gurira as the leader of Wakanda's corps of shaven-headed warrior women.

Jordan, on the other hand, brings a touch of the tragic to his performance without milking it. Other cast members, like Forest Whittaker, Daniel Kaluuya of Get Out, Winston Duke and Martin Freeman as a CIA man, something like Felix Leiter in the Bond stories, bring warmth and individuality to what are, essentially, stock characters.

This movie perpetuates the Star Wars/Lion King idea of royal bloodlines and birthrights being central to society. And it shares the same limitation as most superhero stories: Boiling its conflict down to a climactic fistfight. But within the context of these obligatory elements, this Black Panther is about as good as big-budget blockbuster moviemaking can be.

Early Man--There are armored rhinos in Black Panther, by the way. Did I neglect to mention that?  Yeah, there are armored rhinos in Black Panther, and there are armored mammoths in Early Man, Nick Park's stop-motion animated caveman travesty. This is my kind of weekend at the movies.

It wasn't clear from the initial American TV ads, but Early Man, directed by Park of Wallace and Gromit fame from a script by Mark Burton and James Higginson, is a sports movie--specifically, a soccer movie. Set "near Manchester" (hence its very title is a pun) during the transition from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age, it offers an origin story for the "Beautiful Game."

It's about a tribe of Stone Agers who are dispossessed from their homeland by technically advanced Bronze Agers who want to mine it. The Bronze folk worship football, so Stone Ager Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) challenges them to a match for the right to return to their Valley or, if they lose, to work "down the mine" for the rest of their lives. A young Bronze Age woman, Goona (Maisie Williams), joins the Stone Agers and coaches them, because girls aren't allowed to play back home. Dug's warthog pal Hognob would like to play too, but everybody ignores this. At first.

I'd guess there are lots of soccer-related jokes and references in this movie that are lost on us Yanks, as it both follows and spoofs the template of the underdog sports tale. But at another level, it's a parody of old-school caveman flicks like One Million Years B.C. or When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, and thus it offers us such showpieces as a towering, fanged duck, the ultimate proof of the dinosaur ancestry of birds.

I'm so in sympathy with this movie's nuttiness that I'm reluctant to admit that it's probably not quite on the level of some of Aardman's other feature efforts, like 2015's Shaun the Sheep Movie, or 2012's The Pirates! Band of Misfits. Besides, so what? Second-tier Aardman is still better than ten regular movies.

Thursday, February 15, 2018


RIP to John Gavin, best known as Janet Leigh's poor clueless hardware man boyfriend Sam Loomis in Psycho...

...passed on at 86.

The highlight of his performance here is the shaken way he delivers the line, near the end, "Why was he...dressed like that?" Norman's cross-dressing seems to trouble Sam more than the murders.

Gavin also played the young Julius Caesar in Spartacus, had stolid leads in Imitation of Life and Midnight Lace and Thoroughly Modern Millie, and appeared in the role of Cary Grant in the 1980 TV movie Sophia Loren: Her Own Story. He reportedly came close to playing James Bond in both Diamonds are Forever (losing the part to Sean Connery) and Live and Let Die (losing the part to Roger Moore). Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, he later served as the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico under Ronald Reagan.


Monster-of-the-Week: 1978 I saw Gavin play the title vampire in Count Dracula in summer stock with the Kenley Players in Akron, Ohio...

...opposite Karen Lynn Gorney of Saturday Night Fever, and the great Victor Buono as Van Helsing (as I recall, Buono made the Professor an amateur magician, so he could work a bit of sleight-of-hand into the show). You may well imagine that seeing Buono, a cast member from Psycho and a stage version of Dracula (even if it was Ted Tiller's corny adaptation) all at once made this one of the highlights of my teen years.

So we'll let Gavin's version of the Count serve as this week's honoree. Notice that he's billed as "Direct From Transylvania! In Person! John Gavin as The Sensuous Count Dracula."

Friday, February 9, 2018


Hopping into theaters this weekend:

Could Beatrix Potter have imagined a movie adaptation of her Tale of Peter Rabbit with Eminem on the soundtrack?

No, I suppose she couldn't have. She died in 1943, after all, so she probably would have had a hard time imagining Eminem at all.

The question was rhetorical, anyway. That's what we've got, a new Peter Rabbit with CGI bunnies and other cute little creatures interacting with live-action human actors, engaging in broad slapstick and bickering family dynamics and slyly "meta" and "fourth wall" gags, all driven along by popular songs.

Even so, it's a little surprising how much of Potter's 1902 tale survives in this modern-dress version. Peter's siblings and cousin, the encouraging sparrows, Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill), the sieve, the flower pots in the shed, the blue jacket used as a scarecrow, even the grim backstory of Peter's father--these and other elements trace back to Potter's brief but effective heist thriller and juvenile delinquency drama.

But this story line can only take the movie so far. After that, director Will Gluck, who previously helmed the recent modern version of Annie, and his co-writer Rob Lieber concoct a deus ex machina for old man McGregor, then bring in his nephew (Domhnall Gleeson) and heir from London, a control-freak Harrod's employee. This guy goes to war with Peter and his pals as well, but must keep it secret from his neighbor Bea (Rose Byrne), a sweet painter who adores the rabbits.

Some of the battles which follow seem to owe almost as much to the Loony Tunes, if not to Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, as to Potter, and while at times they become a bit tediously repetitive, overall the film is visually deft and light-footed and enjoyably anarchic. Even so, some of the funniest passages are verbal rather than visual, throwaway gags like a store clerk's explanation of the human urge to anthropomorphize animals. The voice cast, led by James Corden as Peter--who also sings a pretty song over the end credits--includes Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Matt Lucas and Sia.

The kids in the audience with whom I saw this film seemed to find it hilarious, and on the whole I was pretty amused myself. I thought it struck a nice balance between edgy mischief and just the right degree of non-sappy warmth. If you remain unmoved by the sight of the rabbits apologizing by inclining their foreheads together, you're tougher than I am.

Thursday, February 8, 2018


Check out my short review, on Phoenix Magazine online, of Saturday Church, a sweet coming-of-age film featured at this weekend's Desperado LGBT Film Festival at Paradise Valley Community College.

With Peter Rabbit opening this weekend...

Monster-of-the-Week:'s the rabbit that menaced Uncle Walt (Kevin McCarthy) in 1983's Twilight Zone: The Movie...

Monday, February 5, 2018


Hope everybody had a great Super Bowl Sunday. Along with a few minutes each of the Puppy and Kitten Bowls, this is what I watched during the big game:

Winchester--This horror yarn wasn't screened in advance for critics, at least not here in the Valley. It's set in the Winchester Mansion in San Jose, in 1906, and stars the great Helen Mirren as a Sarah Winchester, heir to the gun company's fortune.

Enthusiasts of occult lore will know that Mrs. Winchester was a real person, and her massive, rambling house still stands, and is a popular tourist attraction. It's claimed that she was haunted by guilt over the horrific bloodshed the family business had facilitated over the years, and that her constant and seemingly random additions to her home were intended to accommodate the ghosts of these casualties. Hence the place is sometimes hyped as the most haunted house in America.

It's not certain if, or to what extent, this is apocryphal, but the movie is a tall tale.  Mirren makes an imperious entrance and lends a certain understated dignity to the proceedings, dressed throughout in widow's black. But most of the screen time is carried by Jason Clarke, as a washed-up, laudanum-addicted doctor from San Francisco with a tragic past, who has been pressed into service to get the old lady declared mentally incompetent. He's a skeptic, of course, so that he can be shaken up by the rather brazen specters that start appearing to him almost immediately.

The result, directed by the German-born, Australia-raised identical-twin filmmaking team of Michael and Peter Spierig, trades in very old-school, and mostly low-tech, scares. From the opening title on, the film had the feel of a haunted house drive-in shocker of the '70s, like The Legend of Hell House or The House of Seven Corpses, with lingering atmosphere shots of the house's spires and gables and cupolas, and lengthy scenes of characters prowling the halls investigating creepy sounds, telling themselves that their fears are all in their heads. I thought they might find the Cowardly Lion's admission more comforting: "I do believe in spooks, I do I do I do..."

The jolts are conventional, but the Spierigs come up with some crafty variations in the timing. Winchester isn't an especially good movie, but it has a throwback feel I couldn't help but like.

Check out February's issue of Phoenix Magazine...

...for my "Four Corners" column  on brunch joints.

Friday, February 2, 2018


Opening this week:

The Insult--A nominee for best foreign-language Oscar this year, this drama from Lebanon, one of the most compelling, absorbing movies I've seen in a while, starts over a drainpipe.

Tony (Adel Karam), a forty-something Christian mechanic and garage owner, gets into a petty dispute over his balcony drain with Yasser (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian construction foreman working in Tony's Beirut neighborhood. Yasser throws an obscenity at Tony, and Tony demands an apology from Yasser's boss. When Yasser, who lives in a refugee camp and whose employment is tenuous, can't spit out an apology he feels he doesn't owe, Tony flings a pretty intolerable ethnic taunt at Nasser, who lashes out violently.

From there, this tale directed by Zaid Doueiri from a script he co-wrote with Joelle Touma escalates into courtroom drama, domestic crises, violent clashes in the street and, gradually, into a national epic exploring the lingering hatreds of the Civil War of the mid-'70s to the early '90s. Building all this turbulence around an ugly but minor altercation between two guys gives the film the flavor of a classic short story, like something by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.

What keeps the device from feeling pat is Doueiri's confident directorial touch, as well as the performances, not only of the leads but of the supporting players. Camille Salameh as Tony's wily, grandstanding lawyer, Diamand Bou Abboud as Yasser's quietly principled (though not agenda-less) defender and Rita Hayek as Tony's beautiful, good-hearted but fed-up younger wife, among others, humanize the conflict.

But it's the leads that give The Insult its force. Karam and El Basha are both commanding, virile presences, and Doueiri and Touma cunningly show us that Tony and Yasser are similar men--bitter, short-fused and stubborn, but also honorable on their own terms. In the American vernacular, they're stand-up guys, embarrassed that the whole thing has gotten so far but unable to give it up. Privately both of them, as well as their often critical families and allies, are even shown to be sensitive to the injustices suffered by the other side in the case. You get the sense that they could be friends, and the impossibility of this is what makes the movie sting.

Yet there's a level at which American audiences, indeed probably any non-Lebanese or non-Middle-Eastern audiences, won't be able to understand The Insult. The context is too obscure, too complicated, too confusing, and the depth of these resentments too intense for us to grasp. We're likely see the dispute only in terms of the specific personalities of the characters, and on those terms it was hard for me to find Tony sympathetic, despite Karam's likability. Yasser's insult is personal (and justified), while Tony's is openly bigoted and vicious. It's clear that his Christianity is factional and cultural rather than philosophical; at one point he flatly states "I'm not a Jesus Christ who'll turn the other cheek."

Counterbalancing this, of course, is the legal and moral principle that one shouldn't respond to a verbal attack with a physical attack. Even so, on an emotional level I was pulling for Yasser, and I expect I won't be alone in that.

This response on my part would likely confirm Tony in his sense of grievance that Palestinians are given kid-glove treatment by the Lebanese left, like Yasser's lawyer and, in Tony's view, the courts. It's here that Americans may get some insight into the social and political knot that's depicted: We often hear the same sort of petulance from right-wing whites, especially evangelicals, interpreting any sympathy or even acknowledgement of minority disadvantage as a backhanded aggression.

Doueiri understands that this kind of enmity is too intractable to be resolved, and yet somehow the end of The Insult has a moving, and oddly convincing, sense of serenity and uplift that's hard to explain. It's as if the protraction of their squabble has given Yasser and Tony, and maybe even their respective camps, a mutual exhaustion that offers its own sort of intimacy and emotional release, regardless of the outcome of the case. It's a thin, highly tentative sort of reconciliation, but for an honest audience, anything more optimistic would be an insult.

Thursday, February 1, 2018


Since Tide Pods are on (and sometimes between) everybody's lips these days...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's give the nod to this specimen...

...of the title creatures from Pod People, (aka Extra Terrestrial Visitors, aka Los Nuevos Extraterrestres). This French/Spanish production is best known in this country, since the early '90s, as a favorite on Mystery Science Theater 3000.