Monday, November 26, 2018


This one’s been out for a couple of weeks, but I just caught up with it:

The Front RunnerIt’s hard to say at what audience this movie has been aimed. Younger people may well have no idea who Gary Hart is, and for his supporters back in 1988, the episode that ended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President may seem painful and embarrassing and best forgotten. Shadenfreude–seeking opponents of Hart or of his party are unlikely to form a very large audience bloc either.

But the movie, directed by Jason Reitman from a script he wrote with Matt Bai and Jay Carson (from Bai’s 2014 book All the Truth Is Out), is a solid, absorbing piece of cinema craft, and shouldn’t be allowed to fall through the cracks of the season. It depicts, arguably, the end of an era in the relationship between the media and politicians and candidates, and the beginning of another.

For those who don’t know or have let it slip their minds: The Kansas-born Hart, an intelligent, handsome, commandingly no-nonsense senator from Colorado, found himself in the title position for the Democratic nomination in 1988. He looked like a cinch to be the candidate and to have a real shot against George H.W. Bush for the presidency.

Hart’s marriage had been troubled in ways that would seem quite routine to most of us today, but which were still a little less publicly acceptable—though probably no less privately common—for a politician thirty years ago, and there were rumors that he was a womanizer. The Miami Herald got wind of Hart’s connection with a young woman named Donna Rice. Partly on the strength of Hart’s defiant challenge to the Washington Post to tail him if they suspected hanky-panky—he assured them they’d be bored—the Herald broke the long journalistic tradition of discretion on such matters and went with the story.

Hart tried to stonewall the media after the story broke, insisting that it was nobody’s business. The rest is…well, you know.

Reitman spins the yarn in a brisk manner, with Altmanesque overheard and overlapping dialogue, and some near-Wellesian camera flourishes that bring order to the chaos of the campaign trail or the newsroom. There’s a large cast of characters, of which we get to know, more than in passing, only a few, but all of which have the feel of authenticity.

The Front Runner gains its integrity, however, from Hugh Jackman, who has the courage to make Hart an unlikable man. Had he played the title character as a martyr, the movie might come across disingenuous; because he plays him as an obtuse, defensive cold fish it becomes possible, paradoxically, to have some sympathy for him. It’s certainly possibly to have sympathy for Hart’s campaign manager Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons, wry as ever), his wearily illusion-free wife, Lee Hart, superbly played by Vera Farmiga, and for the other women in the story, including Sarah Paxton as Rice.

The movie’s pace and comic edge should make it exhilarating, but there’s a sad, even ominous tone that hangs over The Front Runner, because whether or not Hart deserved what he got, the story marks the beginning of a turn for the worse in American mainstream media. I was living in D.C. at the time of this scandal, and I well remember what people said: They agreed that a candidate’s personal life ought to be private, but that this didn’t excuse Hart’s dishonesty and phony indignation.

Hart might have made an excellent president, and obviously he was hardly the only politician, on ether side of the aisle, with this sort of baggage. He got clobbered, probably, by a combination of his own demeanor and the beginning of a new style of anything-goes reporting, under which by now his story would seem quaint.

Thursday, November 22, 2018


Happy Thanksgiving everybody!

Check out my reviews, on Phoenix Magazine online, of Creed II...

...and the Milestone Films Blu-Ray release of the exquisite 1926 animated film The Adventures of Prince Achmed... well as a preview of the "No Festival Required" showing of the Rural Route Film Festival Touring Shorts at Scottsdale Center for the Arts.

Eat hearty!

Friday, November 16, 2018


Whenever I think of the greatest live performances I've been lucky enough to see, along with Stacey Keach as Richard III at the Folger Theatre and Penn & Teller at Ford's Theatre, and Screamin' Jay Hawkins at the 9:30 Club, all in Washington, D.C. and Tito Puente at the Celebrity here in Phoenix, I also think of Roy Clark, playing Ernesto Lecuona's magnificent "Malageuna" at the Sundome in Sun City. RIP to the funny and unpretentious but virtuoso Clark, who passed on this week at 85.

RIP also to the Canadian classical stage actor Douglas Rain, immortal in the movies as the voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, passed on at 90.

Opening this weekend:

Pete and Ellie, childless “houseflippers” in their forties, decide to foster, and then adopt, three kids all at once, a teenage girl and her two young siblings. All three come with behavioral and social issues, and this, combined with the naïveté and inexperience of the new parents, leads to trouble, some of it wacky, some of it serious, in the comedy-drama Instant Family.

Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne both do sweet but never maudlin work as Pete and Ellie. They convey an awakening sense of open-hearted mission as they become aware both of the needs of foster kids and of their own desire to parent.

There are capable supporting turns in the film as well, notably by Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro, who turn a pair of social workers into a low-key comedy team, and by Julie Hagerty and Margo Martindale as the Grandmas, demure and boisterous respectively. Most impressive of all, maybe, is Isabela Moner as the teenage daughter, convincing as a bright, decent-hearted kid who’s also an infuriating problem child.

The director and co-writer is Sean Anders, drawing on his own life for inspiration. Anders’ other credits include the likes of Horrible Bosses 2 and Daddy’s Home and similar broad comedies in the modern vein, and that sensibility finds its way into this movie as well. There are slapstick sequences that feel heavy and contrived, and throw the movie off-balance at times.

But the overall effect of Instant Family is surprisingly moving. What Anders gets right about the experience of coming to parenting later in life, and of parenting a teenager—especially in the terrifying era of social media—feels considerable.

Allowing for the conventions of this sort of mainstream family flick, the degree to which Instant Family doesn’t sugarcoat parenting's challenges is impressive: The language is raw, and so is the guilty candor of Pete and Ellie’s private conversations. So when the movie jerks tears, as it did for me at several points, it jerks them honestly.

I had the opportunity to chat with Anders recently about the experiences that led to this film; check out the interview on Phoenix Magazine online.

Still in theaters:

It’s hard for me to imagine any new version replacing, in my affections, the original 1966 TV version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. That half-hour animated special based on the classic Dr. Seuss children’s book of 1957, directed by the great Chuck Jones and voiced by the great Boris Karloff, was one of the true high points of the holiday season every year of my childhood.

Ron Howard’s laborious live-action feature version of 2000, with Jim Carrey in the title role, certainly didn’t come close to capturing the Seussian magic of the original. Neither does the new animated version, titled simply The Grinch, and featuring the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch. But it has its merits, and it’s better than the Howard/Carrey version.

For the benighted few who may not know, The Grinch is a tall, green-furred recluse who bitterly resents the relentless Christmas festivity of the Whos, elfin citizens of nearby Whoville, and thus decides to steal the town’s presents and decorations, disguised as Santa Claus. It is, of course, a nutty variation on the Scrooge theme, economically unfolded through Dr. Seuss’s inimitable, metrically flawless rhyme.

The new film expands the story in a number of directions, all of them thoroughly gratuitous, for no reason other than to stretch it out to feature length. Most annoyingly, it gives us a psychological backstory for the Grinch’s dislike of Christmas—after the narrator (Pharrell Williams) tells us “please don’t ask why/No one quite knows the reason,” he goes on to explain the banal reason.

He’s no Karloff, but Cumberbatch gives good, snide line readings. Even so, this movie’s Grinch is very watered-down as a villain; his redemption is telegraphed so early and often that it has little impact when it arrives.

This aside, it should be said that the movie has visual wit, and that, as with the TV version, The Grinch’s good-natured dog Max is a very successful character, and that a plus-sized reindeer named Fred is also lovable. It’s a testament to how softened-up this Grinch is that the filmmakers don’t let him be mean to Max.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


This is the shirt...

...I happened to be wearing today, when I learned that the great Stan Lee had passed on, at 95. It demonstrates, if any demonstration is needed, the impact that Stanley Leiber has had on our culture; it links an unrelated entity, a baseball team, to some of his iconic creations and co-creations, for no other real reason than that people like them.

I was a devoted reader of Marvel Comics as a kid, especially Spider-Man, The Hulk,  Iron Man and Dr. Strange, but from around my junior high years on I was simply a fan of Lee. His 1974 Origins of Marvel Comics was an endlessly reread tome for me in those days (I still have it on my shelf), and I loved it at least as much for Lee's autobiographical passages, written in his self-consciously jaunty and persistently alliterative style, as for the comic reproductions.

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Stan Lee was a canny pioneer of personal branding, of turning himself into the ringmaster, the impresario at the center of his world. Like Balzac, he created a Comedie humaine, though maybe in Lee's case it should be called a Comedie superhumaine, full of indelible, mythic figures at least a little bit familiar to almost everybody, even people who've never picked up a comic book in their lives. And he made his heroes, and his villains, subject to human foibles and vulnerabilities; for Stan Lee, no matter what your superpower, being human was your Kryptonite.

Even though he did it in print, there can be no question that Stan Lee was one of 20th-Century America's great showmen, and he invariably gave good value. His brash, brightly-colored, wise-assed but good-natured sensibility chased away a lot of the tedious and dreary side of youth and adolescence. And having claimed the pages of his comics as a soapbox, he used it to rail against racism and preach other good values. He had great power, and he used it with great responsibility.

RIP sir, and, of course: Excelsior.

Friday, November 9, 2018


Check out my "Friday Flicks" reviews, online at Phoenix Magazine, of  Tom Volf's documentary Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words...

...The Girl in the Spider's Web and the Robert the Bruce chronicle history Outlaw King. Also, check out my article on the General Patton Memorial Museum in Chiriaco Summit, California, which I recently visited...

...and which re-opens on Veteran's Day, Sunday, November 11, after a major renovation and expansion. It's a pretty cool place.

Happy Veteran's Day weekend everybody!

Friday, November 2, 2018


Happy November everybody! Check out my "Four Corners" column in the November issue of Phoenix Magazine...

...this month concentrated into the four corners of The Churchill, the new downtown Phoenix hipster destination.

Also, Happy Friday. Check out my "Friday Flicks" column on Phoenix Magazine online, with my review of Viper Club...

...and previews of Scottsdale International Film Festival and of the Netflix premiere of the Orson Welles movie The Other Side of the Wind.

Also, RIP to a favorite character actor, James Karen, passed on at 94. Karen was fondly remembered as Uneeda Medical Supply's genial, ill-fated Frank in 1985's Return of the Living Dead and as the developer who "didn't move the bodies" in Poltergeist. But he appeared in movies ranging from All the President's Men, Capricorn One, The Gathering, The China Syndrome, Jagged Edge and Wall Street and television roles on The Jeffersons (as a KKK member saved by George Jefferson's CPR) and Eight Is Enough and The Golden Girls and the swansong of Little House on the Prairie, as the evil railroad man who wipes Walnut Grove off the map. He had several Broadway credits including Cactus Flower, worked with Buster Keaton in Beckett's Film, was the heroic leading man in Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, and starred in countless Pathmark supermarket commercials. Despite his frequent villainous parts, he was highly endearing.