Thursday, May 31, 2018


Time to pile on. This week...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...we'll give the nod to Kraang Prime...

...from the 2012 season of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, just because the hideous tentacled alien overlord was voiced by Roseanne.

If I was the sort willing to make comments about people's appearances, I might point out that Roseanne's voice has rarely issued from a lovelier face.

But I'm not that sort, of course.

Friday, May 25, 2018


Opening this week:

Solo: A Star Wars Story--Fair warning: I'll try to keep what follows free of significant "spoilers," but if you want to go in with no foreknowledge whatsoever, stop reading now.

For those still reading: This one, set years before the events of the original 1977 Star Wars, is an origin story for dashing pilot Han Solo, played back then by Harrison Ford, and arguably the best-loved character in the franchise. When we meet Han, played here by young Alden Ehrenreich, he's a runaway who has fallen into a Dickensian life of street crime on a dreary industrial planet, in servitude to a sort of giant tomato worm (with beautiful diction).

He escapes, albeit at a painful price, and we're shown his first meetings with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his beloved spaceship the Millennium Falcon. Han and Chewie fall in with a gang of space bandits including Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton and a little multi-armed dude voiced by Jon Favreau, who are working for odious crime boss Paul Bettany and his beautiful consigliere Emilia Clarke. The gang, along with Lando and a revolutionary-minded robot (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) end up on another crazy, daring exploit.

As an audience member, I may be in an unusually fortunate position where Star Wars is concerned. I've always liked Star Wars, liked it a lot, really, but it was never the gold standard of entertainment for me. Probably because I came to it as a teenager rather than as a child, I never had the emotional investment in the franchise that so many in the generation after me did (and that I have in, say, Star Trek), so I can take pleasure in the movies on their own merits, and if something feels a little off to me, it doesn't seem like a desecration.

Within that context, I found Solo very authentic, and enjoyed it thoroughly. The credited director is Ron Howard, who reportedly took over late in the shoot, after the directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired (they're credited as executive producers). Whoever's work predominates in the finished product, it has that inimitable Star Wars feel, with one possible exception: It's a bit dark, in the literal sense, especially early on. To emphasize the grittiness of Han's background, the initial planets we visit are on the gray, overcast, or even downright murky side. While this is appropriate enough to the story, the loss of some of the color and visual vibrancy we expect from a Star Wars movie mutes the effect a bit.

That's about as much of a criticism as I can muster. Solo is a rambling, rollicking space opera, with all the chases and dogfights and shoot-outs and monsters and double-crosses and noble sacrifices one could wish for, supported by a truly engaging cast.

Ehrenreich, who jumped off the screen a couple of years ago as the cowboy star in the Coen Bros. comedy Hail, Caesar!, is even better here as the cocksure but likable Han. He has a no-kidding movie star's face, and dare I say it, I thought he came across here as less aloof, more openhearted than the young Harrison Ford did in the original film (Ford grew much warmer as an actor as he matured). Ehrenreich and Suotamo, the Finnish basketball player who takes over the role of Chewbacca from Peter Mayhew, generate an easy and touching rapport from their first scene together.

Glover channels the suavity of Billy Dee Williams as Lando, and adds a welcome touch of comic vanity and youthful overconfidence. Clarke has the English hothouse-flower charm that seems to recur so often among the leading ladies in the series in recent years, Bettany's bad guy has an unctuousness that's very easy to hate, and the brash line readings of Waller-Bridge are amusing. Best of all among the supporting cast, though, is Harrelson as the wearily cynical leader of the bandits: In the midst of all this Buck Rogers silliness, he manages to create a complex character.

Part of the credit for this must go to the dialogue, by the father-and-son team of Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan, with its touches of humane anti-authoritarian idealism, little riffs on loyalty and selflessness that pop up here and there as if smuggled in. If the movie was made in the '50s, you wouldn't surprised to learn that the script was the work of some blacklisted writer, toiling behind a front.

Always at the Carlyle--George Clooney, Wes Anderson, Anthony Bourdain, Anjelica Huston, Jeff Goldblum, Tommy Lee Jones, Paul Shaffer, Condoleezza Rice, Fran Leibowitz, Lenny Kravitz, Bill Murray: These are just some of the famous people who gush to the camera in this documentary about the tastefully swanky Deco hotel at 76th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan. What's striking is how the Carlyle's staff, the maids and waiters and bell captains and elevator operators, and maybe especially the august yet sportive concierge Dwight Owsley, don't really come across as any less glamorous than the stars they serve.

These staffers are asked, from behind the camera, to share juicy stories of what they may have witnessed working at the hotel, opened in 1930 and the haunt of movie stars and rock stars and presidents, of Princess Di and JFK and Jackie O and Jack Nicholson and Michael Jackson and Woody Allen and Warren Beatty and famed resident Elaine Stritch. Again and again they refuse to gossip, citing the place's long-held tradition of discretion. Director Matthew Miele turns their tight lips into a running gag, but the result is that we don't get any really juicy stories in the length of the movie.

Well, Alan Cumming gives an account of how he obtained a nude photo of himself and two other people for an album cover in the entrance of the Carlyle in the middle of the night. And we're told that Our Current President visited the hotel, and was heard to say "This place is a joke." That's about as indiscreet as things get.

Still, this is a well-made, sometimes amusing hour and a half, with some wonderful music (we hear both Bobby Short and Eartha Kitt perform). But it was hard for me to escape the sense that what I was watching was less a movie than a commercial for very rich people. A frequent (non-celebrity) guest tries to tell us that the appeal of the Carlyle, with room rates running in the tens of thousands of dollars, "has nothing to do with money." Rather, she says, it's "the human touch" it provides. Bourdain tries a similarly disingenuous line, noting that the place could probably be even more profitable if the management abandoned its old-school attention to luxurious detail.

Against this is Jon Hamm, who offers a few respectful remarks about the place in a strangely uneasy manner, then snorts when asked if he's ever stayed there. "You could pay for somebody's school for a year," he says. At that moment he became, for me, the hero of the movie.

Thursday, May 24, 2018


Check out my review, on Phoenix Magazine online, of Hippie Family Values...
...Beverly Seckinger's documentary which screens this Sunday, May 27, at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

So, just because hippies...

Monster-of-the-Week:  ...our honoree is Bert, the shaggy, dune-buggy-driving title character of The Werewolf of Woodstock...

...a curmudgeonly local farmer, furious about the mess left behind at Woodstock after the festival. He's ranting in a lightning storm, like Lear, about the "miserable freaks," until he gets lightning-struck, which turns him, as lightning strikes so often do, into a werewolf.

If you get a chance to see this rather hilarious 1975 shot-on-video TV movie, made by Dick Clark's production company and filled with vets like Michael Parks, Harold J. Stone, Ann Doran, Richard Webb, Meredith MacRae and Belinda Belaski as the goodhearted hippie-chick hostage, I highly recommend. Bert was played, in his human form at least, by Tige Andrews of The Mod Squad. The guy had to put up with hippies throughout his career.

Friday, May 18, 2018


Opening this week:

Pope Francis: A Man of his Word--German filmmaker Wim Wenders, of Wings of Desire and The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, directed this documentary about the current pontiff. It's more a present-tense portrait than a biography. We don't get much about his background, or about the unusual circumstances of his election; unless I missed it there was no mention of his predecessor Benedict XVI, who retired in 2013. Instead, Wenders shows us Francis traveling the world and interacting with people, and we get substantive talking-head interviews with him, in which he explains his interests.

As a non-Catholic, but the veteran of a Catholic liberal education, I've been a fan of this guy since his election. I had a bumper sticker on my old truck with his picture, reading THIS POPE GIVES ME HOPE. The first from the Americas and from the Southern Hemisphere, he's the Pope many of us never thought we'd see: the vociferous environmentalist and anti-consumerist, the tolerant ecumenical, and above all the staunch champion of the poor. Incredibly (or maybe not), he's the first Pope ever to take the name Francis, in honor of Francis of Assisi. He seems almost too good to be true--a part of me keeps waiting, I confess, for the other Shoe of the Fisherman to drop.

But that doesn't happen in this movie, at any rate. When we see him embracing destitute or sick or displaced people all over the world, or lecturing a bunch of stony-faced Cardinals, or addressing a joint house of Congress in the U.S., or just chatting with the camera in his wry, smiling, self-deprecating, yet direct manner, he's extremely hard not to like.

A sadness hangs over the film, however, because at the moment, the fear-mongering leaders of the global superpowers seem to have little interest in this Pope's values, and we citizens of the developed world don't seem to be much in the mood for his notion that we can all be "a little poorer" for the benefit of our neighbors, and of the planet. The melancholy narration by Wenders seems to reflect the doubt that this cheerful, seemingly good man's vision for the world can take hold, and I understand how he feels. This Pope does indeed give me hope, but not enough of his fellow world leaders do.

Anything--Devastated and unsuccessfully suicidal after the death of his wife, fifty-something insurance man Early Landry (John Carroll Lynch) moves from small-town Mississippi to L.A. at the insistence of his rich, fretful younger sister Laurette (Maura Tierney). Much to her horror, he ends up taking a small apartment in a gritty area of Hollywood, where he develops a bond with Frida (Matt Bomer) the beautiful street hustler in the apartment next door.

Written and directed by Timothy McNeil, this is the newest and maybe the gentlest of the movies in which small-town men connect with transgender divas and find their lives enriched. McNeil's dialogue is sentimental but speakable and sweet, and his direction showcases the actors well.

The movie is no great shakes, but it's about time somebody gave a juicy star part to the excellent Lynch, who's been a reliable, lovable presence for years, whether that meant providing emotional support to Marge as Norm "Son of a" Gunderson in Fargo or nobly wading through lava in Volcano. He underplays Early with estimable discipline, and Bomer's wary, intelligent but emotionally hungry Frida stares at him, startled at his capacity for love.

Show Dogs--There's not much idiocy and insipidity I won't put up with if it affords me the chance to watch cute dogs. So believe me when I tell you that this talking-dog comedy is to be avoided at all costs. Even for mush-brained dog lovers, this one is atrocious. The CGI pasted on to the faces of the canine stars robs them of their personalities.

Directed by Raja Gosnell of the Smurfs movies, it's a cop-buddy parody in which FBI man Will Arnett and a NYC police Rottweiler voiced by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges travel together to Las Vegas to infiltrate an illegal-animal trade happening behind the scenes at a dog show at Caesar's Palace. It's sort of a cross between Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Miss Congeniality, but the comparison is an insult even to those movies.

Stanley Tucci plays a papillon called Philippe, who coaches the tough Rottie in the ways of the dog show, a la Michael Caine in Miss Congeniality. The voice cast also includes Gabriel Iglesias, Jordin Sparks, RuPaul, Alan Cumming and Shaquille O'Neal, while Natasha Lyonne turns up as Arnett's love interest. All of these people have had finer hours, and hopefully will again.

OK, I'll admit that there's a fantasy sequence that spoofs Dirty Dancing that made me laugh out loud, once. Part of me hesitates to give the movie even that much credit, but if you run out and see Show Dogs on that basis, I suppose I can't be blamed for your misfortune.

Thursday, May 17, 2018


Early this week, a friend of mine returned from an enviable trip to Scotland, the country of my ancestors. While he was there...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...he snapped this pic of this week's honoree...

...this admirable, plesiosaur-style rendering of the redoubtable Nessie herself.

Friday, May 11, 2018


Opening this weekend:

Measure of a Man--In 1976, chubby fourteen-year-old New Yorker Bobby Marks (Blake Cooper) spends the summer with his family at a cabin in a rural upstate town. Mostly to avoid getting stuck at camp again, Bobby gets a job at a beautiful nearby manse, mowing lawns and cleaning gutters and doing other such disagreeable chores for an imperious and exacting Jewish doctor (Donald Sutherland).

Based on Robert Lipsyte's novel One Fat Summer (written in the mid-'70s but set in the '50s), this movie is about as prototypical as coming-of-age stories get: A sensitive teenage kid is challenged to be a better version of himself by a gruff but wise mentor, and applies what he learns to other conflicts in his life. It feels almost like the result of an assignment:  Encounters with local bullies, who of course loathe "summer people"--check. Platonic friendship with charming girl next door (Danielle Rose Russell)--check. Wild behavior by Bobby's older sister (Liana Liberato) and turbulence in the marriage of his parents (Judy Greer and Luke Wilson)--check and check.

In short, there's nothing especially new or surprising here. That said, the familiar episodes we're given are nicely executed by director Jim Loach, working from a script by David Scearce. The period of the Bicentennial summer is convincingly evoked without heavy-handedness, and the performances are capable. Young Cooper, from The Maze Runner, carries the movie easily. The supporting players don't get a lot to do, but Greer is sweet as the Mom, who's trying to keep up a cheerful front, and in his brief but strategically-placed scenes, Sutherland makes the doctor's forbiddingly formal old-country manners amusing. Beau Knapp is scary, but not without pathos, as Willie, the leader of the bullies.

The scenes in which Bobby is tormented by Willie and his pals are frightening and infuriating, but not, alas, implausible. Like Bobby, I was fourteen in 1976. I was one state over in rural Pennsylvania, and while I was socio-economically a lot closer to this movie's locals than to its "summer people," I can attest that whatever its shortcomings, Measure of a Man gets its bullies right.

Check out my short column, on Phoenix Magazine online, about a special free sing-along screening of the original Mamma Mia! at Harkins Camelback at 10 a.m. this Sunday morning, for Mother's Day. Also, check out my Phoenix Magazine "Four Corners" column about new restaurants that have, like culinary hermit crabs, taken over the spaces left behind by notable earlier eateries.

Thursday, May 10, 2018


Happy Mother's Day this Sunday to all Moms!

The monster world is full of devoted mothers, from Gorgo's Mom to the shark mom in Jaws 3-D. But this year...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let's give the nod to the mother of Gappa...

...from the 1967 Japanese kaiju flick known in the U.S. as Gappa the Triphibian Monster or sometimes as Monster from a Prehistoric Planet, who (along with the dad) comes looking for her offspring when he's abducted from his island home by reckless humans and taken back to Japan.

Mess with a mother's kid, and you could be up against "terrible destructive powers" that are "even mightier than King Kong."

Friday, May 4, 2018


Opening today:

Tully--The latest from screenwriter Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman, the team that brought us 2007's Juno, is another brightly-written comedy about pregnancy and motherhood. But the mother in question isn't a teen this time, she's a full-fledged adult. This may, indeed, be what's bugging her.

When we first meet Marlo (Charlize Theron), a suburban mother of two, she's massively on the verge of becoming a mother of three. Her husband (Ron Livingston) is an OK guy, but travels a lot for work, and spends a lot of time playing video games when he is home. Her sweet-natured but socially odd little son (he's euphemistically described as "quirky") creates difficulties at the private school he can only attend through the good graces of Marlo's irksomely rich and successful brother (Mark Duplass).

This same brother offers Marlo the gift of a "night nanny" for the new baby so that she can get some sleep. Marlo's repulsed by the idea at first, but soon after the baby is born, utterly overwhelmed and exhausted by her workload, she capitulates. The nanny, a lissome young hipster called Tully (Mackenzie Davis) swoops in like Marlo's own private Mary Poppins, not only minding the baby but cleaning the house overnight, making cupcakes and seeing to other domestic duties. Perhaps more importantly, she gets Marlo back in touch with her own identity.

The first quarter or so of this movie impressively dramatizes the daunting challenges of navigating motherhood, especially with multiple kids, especially if you aren't rich. It gets to you like a lot of movie depictions of harried parenting don't--it's almost frightening at times. This is partly due to Cody's snarky but emotionally plugged-in, glibness-free dialogue, and partly to Reitman's deft montages.

But it's also due in large part to Theron, who has a mature openness here, and a wild, harrowing beauty that makes even her own conventionally glamorous earlier roles seem tame. There's poignancy to Marlo, even a hint of the tragic, at the same time that she's a deeply sympathetic comic figure. As the breezy yet direct Tully, Davis is a fine foil for Theron; the two actresses slip into a startlingly relaxed and intimate rhythm from their first scene together.

As the story progresses, however, it slowly becomes clear that Marlo's conflict isn't just about the logistics of parenting, it's also about the perceived implications of the role. Marlo, we learn, was once an English Lit major and downtown NYC type, and, as with Jason Bateman's character in Juno, she's shaken by the prospect of permanently trading in the hip boho cred which Tully reminds her of for domesticity. Diablo Cody seems to regard this loss of pose as an adult rite of passage: For Cody, becoming a fully committed parent means giving up your dreams of being cool.

Thursday, May 3, 2018


While giving a speech at West Point this week, Our President once again floated the idea of adding a "Space Force" as a branch of the U.S. military (on the grounds that "We're getting very big in space...").


Monster-of-the-Week: another potential enemy for the Space Force...

...a Selenite, a lunar dweller as rendered by the great, pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies (honored today with a virtual reality Google Doodle) in this conceptual art for his 1902 masterpiece A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune). Not that they were the most formidable enemies; you may recall that the Selenites in that film would explode in a puff of smoke when whacked over the head with an umbrella.

Even so, it wouldn't be surprising if Our President also promised to build us a space wall, and make the Moon pay for it...