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.