Monday, July 30, 2018


A few days belated...

Mission: Impossible: Fallout--Secret agent Tom Cruise is given a retro-looking recorder informing him of his mission, which seems, quite frankly, impossible. The recording then self-destructs after five seconds. When the opening credits start on this sixth installment in the action series, they're accompanied by the image of a burning fuse and a montage of quick glimpses from the film we're about to see, edited to Lalo Schifrin's familiar theme music.

These nods to the format of Bruce Geller's classic TV show, which ran on CBS from 1966 to 1973, are very welcome. We get more: Improbably lifelike latex masks, for instance. Best of all, when Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg are transporting a captive villain through the sewers of Paris, we hear that insistent background music from the show: the snare drum, and that repeated phrase of "Da-DA-dum-da-dum-da-dum-da-dum-DAAAAA...[pause]...Da-da-da-da-DAAAA..."

But of course, these are just trappings. The hugely successful Mission: Impossible flicks long since abandoned the atmosphere of the old show, with its long, suspenseful sequences of minimal dialogue as the then-high-tech spies engineered massively convoluted, Murphy's-Law-defying scams to trick evil despots or gangsters. We very rarely learned anything about the personal lives of the "IMF Team," much less about the shadowy intelligence agency for which they worked. And there was rarely any sustained action.

The movies, by contrast, are all about the tortured personal lives of the characters, especially Cruise's Ethan Hunt. And they're built from one wildly overscaled action sequence to the next. They aren't a bit more ludicrous than the old show's theatrics, they're just ludicrous in a very different way.

Fallout has Cruise and a colleague skydiving right into Paris to infiltrate a soiree at the Grand Palais--one of the more flamboyant approaches to crashing a party we've seen in a while. Within minutes we get a savage martial arts brawl in a pristine men's room, not long after that we get a motorcycle chase around the Arc de Triomphe, and then it's off to London for a foot chase through St. Paul's, and so on. It all has something to do with stolen plutonium and a scheme by an old enemy of Ethan's to create an apocalyptic disaster.

And on its own terms, the movie, written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie of The Usual Suspects, is relentlessly watchable. Cruise, absurdly boyish for a man in his mid-fifties, reportedly did much of his own stunt work, and it certainly looks like he did. I generally find it hard to take him seriously in hyper-competent man of action roles, but that's not a defect in a silly action fantasy like this, and there's no doubt that he has the energy and professionalism to carry a movie on this scale.

He's ably supported by Rhames and Pegg, along with juicy, hammy turns by Alec Baldwin, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby and Sean Harris as the obsessed heavy. Henry Cavill, who makes a somewhat bland Superman for my taste, shows unexpected intensity and sexiness here as an arrogant CIA man assigned to keep an eye on Ethan. 

My one complaint about Fallout--again, on its own terms--is the same complaint I've tediously made about one big blockbuster after another over the last decade or so: It's too long, by twenty minutes to a half hour. It ends with an extremely protracted, crosscut scene involving different sets of characters trying to avert disaster. It's amusing in itself, but after well over two hours of shootings and beatings and knifings and crashes, we're so worn down we may want them to give up.

But that, of course, would be impossible.

Friday, July 27, 2018


Happy Friday everybody! Check out my reviews, on Phoenix Magazine online, of Teen Titans GO! (To the Movies)...

...and Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings...

Thursday, July 26, 2018


With Tsui Hark's rousing fantasy epic Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings opening here in the Valley tomorrow...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...let the honor go to...

...this cranky gold-skinned multi-eyed giant or demon or ogre or whatever it is from that film.

Friday, July 20, 2018


Check out my reviews, on Phoenix Magazine online, of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and The Equalizer 2, as well as a revival showing Sunday, at FilmBar, of George Romero's Season of the Witch.

Also opening this weekend...

Eighth Grade--The heroine of writer-director Bo Burnham's comedy-drama is Kayla (Elsie Fisher), a 13-year-old, trying to navigate the last few days of the title grade. She takes a very proactive approach, posting online videos offering social advice despite her own awkwardness, the obvious intended beneficiary of her optimistic wisdom being herself.

She gets invited to a popular girl's birthday party, mainly because the girl's mom is interested in Kayla's single dad (Josh Hamilton). She struggles with a crush on a boy in her class, and assures him of her excellence at giving blowjobs. She participates in a deeply creepy live-shooter drill at school. She shadows a cool friendly older girl at the high school she'll be attending next year. And in a scene that will be excruciatingly familiar to many parents, she endures the clumsy attempts of her adoring dad to get her to put down her phone at the dinner table and engage with him.

These episodes seem to drift into Kayla's life at random, and most of them just drift back out, with no particular dramatic payoff for good or ill. Burnham uses loose ends to emphasize the odd limbo of the middle school years; things pop up that look like they're going to be earth-shakingly important, only to disappear just as quickly, and now and then something that seems inconsequential proves significant after all.

Burnham and the superb, subtle young Fisher refuse to sentimentalize Kayla, but they also insist that we experience the story from her viewpoint. Even when she's the butt of the joke, we may laugh, but we feel her pain, and ultimately she's among the most lovable of teen-movie protagonists. Eighth Grade is low-key, but it packs a cumulative emotional punch. Burnham's disciplined naturalistic touch and sympathetic wit make it funny, poignant, even universal.

Thursday, July 19, 2018


Opening here this weekend is Eighth Grade, writer-director Bo Burnham's chronicle of a few days in the life of an eighth grader. I had the opportunity to sit down with Burnham recently; check out my interview online at Phoenix New Times.

Just because it plays Saturday on Comet TV...

Monster-of-the-Week: ...our honoree is the title character of The Twonky...

...the control-freak ambulatory TV set that bedevils Hans Conried in Arch Oboler's peculiar 1953 satire...

Friday, July 13, 2018


Check out my reviews, on Phoenix Magazine online, of Lorna Tucker's documentary about Vivienne Westwood, punk-era fashion legend, Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist...

...playing this weekend at FilmBar, and Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation...

...playing everywhere.

Thursday, July 12, 2018


With Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation opening this weekend...

Monster-of-the-Week:'s the lounge-singing Kraken...

...voiced by Joe Jonas in that film.

Friday, July 6, 2018


Check out Phoenix Magazine online for my reviews of The First Purge and the remarkable documentary Three Identical Strangers. Also opening this weekend:

Ant-Man and the Wasp--Conspicuously absent from the cosmic struggles of April's Avengers: Infinity War was Ant-Man. But the Marvel superhero, here teamed with his flying counterpart of the title, is kept very busy indeed in this sequel to his 2015 debut.

Ant-Man's form-fitting suit allows him to instantly resize himself, and other objects, from tiny to giant. His superpowers also include the ability to communicate with and command ants, like Aquaman can with fish, and this proves surprisingly handy at times.

He's had several alter-egos since his debut in 1962 in Marvel's Tales to Astonish, but in the movies he's Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) a high-tech burglar given the suit by inventor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man. Hank's daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) takes over the similarly diminutive persona of The Wasp, who also has elegant working wings, from her long-missing mother Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Scott's been under ankle-bracelet-enforced house arrest in San Francisco since his mischief in 2016's Captain America: Civil Wars. He's days away from completing his sentence when Hank and Hope press him back into service as Ant-Man, on the chance that Janet could be rescued from the subatomic limbo in which she was lost when Hope was a child.

There's also a super villain in the mix, a spectral figure called The Ghost, hidden in what resembles a HAZMAT suit. The Ghost is creepy looking, but for my money doesn't make as much of an impact on the movie as the buffoonish comic villain, a shady tech dealer played by the reliable Walton Goggins. Other vets in the cast, like Michael Pena, Laurence Fishburne, Bobby Cannavale and Judy Greer, contribute solid bits as well, and Randall Park is especially funny as an officious FBI man.

But as with Ant-Man the first, Rudd carries the picture--his combination of craggy looks and brash, boyish, unembarrassed silliness connects immediately with the audience. Lilly's Wasp is chic and likable, but essentially a "straight" foil for Rudd, and while Douglas is allowed to score some points off his younger costar, it's Rudd's reactions to these zingers that really get the laughs.

The director of the first film, Peyton Reed, has wisely been returned to the helm for Ant-Man and the Wasp. Once again Reed uses shifts in perspective to create imaginative, sometimes brilliant parody of grandiose superhero action, and even to generate a casual surrealism, with an office building suddenly the size of a briefcase, or a Hello Kitty PEZ dispenser suddenly the size of a tractor-trailer. He stages a San Fran chase-scene finale reminiscent of, but far crazier than, Peter Bogdanovich's 1972 What's Up, Doc?

There's method to the madness, however. As wild as the slapstick is, Reed's touch is disciplined; he never lets the story get away from him, or the characters go fully farcical. Like its predecessor, like Guardians of the Galaxy and like last year's Thor: RagnarokAnt-Man and the Wasp is yet another Marvel movie played as a full-on comedy. But it isn't a sketch comedy. That makes it, maybe, a little less funny than Thor: Ragnarok, but also a little more substantive.

Opening today at AMC Arizona Center:

Bleeding Steel--Jackie Chan stars as a Hong Kong cop doing battle with genetically-modified super-mercenaries while trying to protect the scientist responsible for them. The plot spans years, takes our hero to Australia, and involves a caped villainess, a Frankenstein-like villain, a stage magician, a mesmerist witch, and a long-lost daughter.

Written and directed by Leo Zhang, this actioner is preposterously convoluted, and the English dubbing has a stilted sound. But on its own conventional terms it's well-executed. It lacks, however, the light-footed drollery of Chan's Hong Kong vehicles from the '90s, and there aren't nearly enough of his magical martial arts set-pieces.

About midpoint, we get a short but fun sequence in which Chan uses the stage magician's props, followed by a good confrontation between Chan and the villainess on the roof of the Sydney Opera House. But, probably because of the star's age, much of his other footage is taken up with standard and rather tedious car chases and shootouts.

Jackie Chan is one of the world's great movie stars, but we don't go to see him for this sort of routine cops-and-robbers stuff. Of course, his appeal doesn't derive only from his astounding physical feats, either. It's also in the comically harried, frantic manner with which he performs them, and that gets more pronounced, and funnier, with age. But Bleeding Steel doesn't exploit this potential enough.

No doubt it's also because of Chan's age that much of this movie's screen time is devoted to a younger costar, a cocky but bumbling fellow (Show Lo) who's trying to help. At one point, a thug actually says to this guy "Who do you think you are, Jackie Chan?"

Thursday, July 5, 2018


Hope everybody had a great 4th of July yesterday! It's a day late, but a friend sent me...

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

Uncle Frankie wants you!

Monday, July 2, 2018


Happy July everybody!

Check out the July issue of Phoenix Magazine, now on the stands...

...for my "Four Corners" column on the "wrap" in Valley cuisine. Also check out my reviews, on Phoenix Magazine online, of the films Boundaries and Izzy Gets the F* Out of Town, and my attempt, in these times that demand a patriotism in opposition to our beloved country's Administration, at a patriotic July 4th playlist.

June ended on a sad note: RIP to the irreplaceable Harlan Ellison, passed on last Thursday at 84. I spent the weekend In Memoriam for him. Thursday night I watched his wonderful, dreamlike Outer Limits episode "Demon With a Glass Hand," starring Robert Culp, and also turned up a June 1958 issue of Super-Science Fiction...

...with an early Ellison story called "No Planet is Safe" that I had never read.

On Friday night, my pal Richard showed us a 1964 episode of Burke's Law written by Ellison, in which his self-consciously florid, allusion-studded dialogue was spouted by guest stars like Joan Blondell, Nina Foch and Betty Hutton. Yet for guest star Buster Keaton he ingeniously crafted a silent-comedy bit. Then Saturday I took down my copy of Strange Wine, and sipped from it for the rest of the weekend.