Friday, November 29, 2019


Happy Black Friday everybody! Hope everyone had a gluttonously wonderful Turkey Day. Check out my "Friday Flicks" column, online at Phoenix Magazine, of Rian Johnson's Knives Out...

Have a great "Shop Small" weekend everybody!

Friday, November 22, 2019


Happy Friday everybody!

Check out my "Friday Flicks" column, online at Phoenix Magazine, this week featuring reviews of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood...

...and Martin Scorsese's The Irishman.

The Scorsese flick was of special interest to me, as my Dad was a Teamster, and had seen Jimmy Hoffa speak to his local (and was unimpressed, he said), but I was never able to get him to tell me where the body was.

RIP to Michael J. Pollard, passed on at 80. Out of his vast body of work, I have a favorite moment: When he remarks "You sure are good, Melvin" after Paul LeMat, who is driving, refuses his flask in Melvin and Howard.

Happy Thanksgiving week next week everybody!

For nearly twenty years, it’s been a Thanksgiving tradition in our house, once the massive portions of food have been ingested and we’ve collapsed on the couch, to watch the 2000 film What’s Cooking? It’s an ensemble piece, set on Thanksgiving in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Fairfax, which cuts between four families of different racial and ethnic backgrounds—Vietnamese, Hispanic, African-American and Jewish—as they prepare the big dinner and navigate family drama and revelations. Funny, sweet and poignant, the movie is at least as refreshing and meaningful now as it was when it was made.

What’s Cooking? was directed and co-written by Gurinder Chadha, a Kenyan-born Brit of Indian descent. Needless to say, cultural diversity is a recurrent theme in her work. This week another film directed by Chadha was released on video: Blinded by the Light... exuberant coming-of-age comedy-drama-musical set in Luton, England.

Based on the youth of writer Sarfraz Manzoor, it’s the story of teenage boy, Javed (Viviek Kalra), in a traditional British-Pakistani family in the ‘80s who was inspired to a career as a writer through his enthusiasm for the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. Despite the film’s modest budget, Springsteen allowed the filmmakers to use his music, and Chadha ingeniously turned the Jersey legend’s work into the soundtrack for a Brit adolescence.

I had the chance to chat with Chadha when she visited the Valley recently in connection with the release of Blinded by the Light, and she described the balancing act of her directorial approach:

“I’ve always worked with music a lot in my films; I love music. The challenge here was in making a film about a writer, and making that cinematic. But at the same time I had a big responsibility to Bruce, not only because he gave me carte blanche on his catalog, but also because all those songs mean something to him, and Bruce fans. So my challenge was to direct a movie where I used the music so that it stood up to what the intention was of the songs in the first place, so I didn’t disappoint Bruce, and didn’t disappoint Bruce fans. But at the same there are a lot of people who aren’t Bruce fans, so I had to make sure it wasn’t just about the music.”

Even though she was there to talk about Blinded by the Light, I couldn’t resist asking Chadha about the scene in What’s Cooking? that brings tears to my eyes every year, when we hear a nearly a cappella version of the Beach Boys song “Wouldn’t it Be Nice?”; in the movie’s context the lyrics take on an unexpectedly moving, emotional cultural resonance. Said Chadha:

“I found that version, and I really wanted to play it at the end of the movie. Everyone was like, it’s never going to happen. You’re not going to be able to afford a Beach Boys track. You’ll have to get permission from Brian Wilson…so I wrote him a letter, based on what my movie was about, what I was trying to do. I was trying to show different communities in L.A. Movies show people not getting on; I saw people getting on around me in L.A. It was my first time in L.A., and I saw that and I was struck by that. The letter went out as a fax, and everyone was like, you’d better have a Plan B, and blow me down, I think it was like an hour later, not even a day, we got a fax back saying sure, she can use it. It was incredible. It turned out he’s from L.A., and he really liked the sentiment.”

It seems like a Thanksgiving showbiz miracle, but the current Chadha project experienced a similar generosity; notes Chadha: “The way that Brian responded to my letter was similar to the way we got permission from Bruce on Blinded the Light.”

If you’re looking for a pleasant after-dinner Thanksgiving video double feature, What’s Cooking? and Blinded by the Light might just leave you thankful.

Friday, November 15, 2019


Happy Friday everybody!

Check out my "Friday Flicks" column, online at Phoenix Magazine, with reviews of The Report...

...and The Good Liar...

Last weekend at Scottsdale International Film Festival I got to introduce the American premiere of the Austrian film Cops, about police violence in Vienna, and to moderate the Q&A with its director, Stefan Lukacs, known by his screen name "Istvan." Nice guy; remarkable film. Here's a picture of us together, just in case he becomes internationally famous in the next few years. Which is far from impossible.

Friday, November 1, 2019


Happy Friday everybody! Check out my reviews, online at Phoenix Magazine, of Terminator: Dark Fate...

...and the documentary Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound...

Also, Happy November everybody! Check out my "Four Corners" column on four new and newish restaurants around the Valley.

Hope everybody had a great Halloween; we counted just 13 trick-or-treaters at our door. I wore my wolf hat, and one young Spider-Man, after grabbing his handful of fun size candy, told me I looked scary. I thanked him even though I thought he was just being indulgent to an old man, and his Mom must have sensed this, because she said that no, really, from down the street, I made a rather unnerving silhouette sitting out by my front door. Glad to hear I still can.

Late Saturday evening this past weekend I was approaching the door of a Quik Trip when I glanced up to notice that The Joker was approaching the door from the other direction. By which I mean, not the campy super-villain from Batman comics or the ‘60s-era Batman TV show, but the Joker as played by Joaquin Phoenix in the Todd Phillips movie Joker, now in theaters.

I was momentarily startled; then I remembered it was the weekend before Halloween. I held the door and let the young man enter before me. But there’s no denying that his costume gave me more of a genuine chill than your run of the mill Halloween party hobgoblin.

As a cultural phenomenon, Joker appears not to be in any hurry to go away; four weeks after its opening, it returned to the number one spot at the U.S. box office, unseating another revisionist take on an iconic villain with Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. Even before its opening, Joker was the subject of anxious controversy for its perceived appeal to alienated young men. There was concern that it could even lead to violence akin to the horrific 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight show of The Dark Knight Rises, by a man who reportedly identified with the character. This shooting killed twelve people and wounded dozens of others.

So far, thankfully, actual violence connected to Joker seems largely not to have materialized. But this doesn’t alter the concern of many social critics that the movie could be seen as validating, even glamorizing, the “incel” (“involuntary celibate”) sensibility and other angry, self-pitying and sometimes violent mindsets held by troubled young loners.

For those who haven’t seen it: The title character of Joker is Arthur Fleck, a young man who lives with his mother in a low-rent apartment in a run-down, monochrome, garbage-strike-stricken ‘70s-era version of Gotham City. Arthur suffers from a condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably and inappropriately. He’s a for-hire clown, work he loves and takes seriously, but which makes him the target of everyone from street thugs to treacherous coworkers. The guy can’t even playfully make faces to amuse a child on the bus without getting scolded by the kid’s mother.

In short, he’s a man more sinned against than sinning; a man who might legitimately wonder if fate somehow simply has it in for him. He suffers mightily and through no real fault of his own, and when he turns to violence initially, it’s in response to being abused by despicable strangers on a subway; for the most part he acts in self-defense. Eventually, as he self-consciously adopts the “Joker” persona, his crimes become more psychotic and calculated, but it isn’t hard to imagine the character’s actions seeming understandable and even justified to isolated, antisocial young men.

When I saw the film, about a week before it opened, what struck me was how powerful Phoenix was in the role, and how curiously unsatisfying the rest of the movie was. I certainly don’t think that Phillips and the other filmmakers had the slightest intention of justifying violence as a response to feeling lonely and persecuted, but by creating a character who suffers to such an improbably unrelieved degree, and so blamelessly, they’ve made a movie that can be read that way. It may not be what the film’s makers had in mind, but apart from showcasing a brilliant piece of acting, it’s hard to say just what they did have in mind, so this dark interpretation has naturally filled the vacuum in Joker’s thematic center.

The real, if grim, value of this movie may be to suggest how widespread this feeling of alienation is in our current angry, hectic, chaotic, social-media-driven lifestyle. Joker may be less a drama and more the description of a symptom: We’re hearing a lot of laughter these days, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of joy behind it.

RIP to the wonderful John Witherspoon, passed on at 77. I got to spend a couple of days with him in 2001 or 2002, when I worked at the Tempe Improv. Truly a lovely guy. He lamented that it had been so many years since he had seen the TV show Lost in Space and that he wanted to share the show with his kids, so I gave him a couple of VHS tapes I had of it. I’ve often wondered if he ever found time to watch them.

Finally, my beloved Mom would be 100 years old today if she hadn’t left us in 2008; Happy Century Mom! Everybody says they had the Best Mom in the World; my siblings and I actually did. Here she is, sometime in the ‘50s, on the steps of the Presbyterian Church in Vernal, Mississippi, where she and my Dad got married in 1939 (they met earlier that same year at Mardi Gras); that’s my sister Priscilla with them.