Friday, December 25, 2020


 Merry Christmas everybody! In theaters today:

Promising Young Woman--Cassie, played by Carey Mulligan, is "promising" in a rather grim sense here: promising as prey. Guys find her alone in bars, tipsy and mumbling. They gallantly offer her a ride, then when the get her back to their places, they start to undress and assault her. At this point, she drops the bleary manner and they realize that she isn't drunk at all, and they're in trouble.

She was on track to graduate med school, but something bad happened, and now Cassie lives with her worried parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) and works by day in a coffee bar. A pleasant young doctor (Bo Burnham) that she knew back in school buys coffee one day, and flirts with her, and she's pulled into a romance with him, but her secret nighttime hobby persists.

The feature directing debut of the English actress and writer Emerald Fennell, this revenge shocker explores the ugly truth that men widely regard an incapacitated woman as, quite literally, fair game; Cassie's would-be rapists react to her trap as if it's a mean and unfair trick. But Fennell is more ambitious than merely giving us the satisfaction of seeing the tables turned on these creeps. She's determined to have Cassie take on the whole structure that tolerates rape culture; the enablers, the passive witnesses, etc.

The results are quite convoluted and brutal and harsh. But Fennell and Mulligan maintain an edge of caustic wit that gives the film a charge. It ends with a smile, but not a smile that lets us off the hook.

WW84--Wonder Woman was introduced in the comics in 1941 to fight Nazis and Mussolini and other thugs of that period. Her first star vehicle in the movies, just three years ago, reset her origin story in the World War I era. This cheeky sequel, with Gal Gadot returning as Diana, has her living in Washington D.C. in the mid-'80s, working at the Smithsonian and not looking a day older than she did when Woodrow Wilson was president.

Diana befriends a supposedly dowdy, recessive coworker (Kristin Wiig), and runs afoul of a blustering TV conman (Pedro Pascal), a "Greed is Good," You-Can-Have-It-All type, who has stumbled upon the supernatural power to grant people's wishes, but who, of course, has never heard about being careful what you wish for. This same rather vague McGuffin allows Diana to reunite with her love interest from the earlier film, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Before the end of this two-and-half-hour tale, we get the origin of WW's Invisible Jet, and our heroine also has to grapple with a new iteration of one of her '40s-era enemies from the comics, the were-cat known as The Cheetah. 

Returning director and co-writer Patty Jenkins generates period through style as well as sets and costumes; the film often feels like an overstuffed '80s big-budgeter. I lived in D.C. in the late '80s, and neighborhoods where I worked are featured in a number of scenes, which gave me an extra nostalgic buzz. It's all a bit fuzzy around the edges, but it doesn't take itself too seriously, and like the first movie, though perhaps more so, it has a generous spirit. Gadot is good company once again, and Wiig brings both humor and unexpected anger to her role.

The TV fraud's worldwide mischief results in the appearance of a huge wall, of national and international chaos, and of the threat of nuclear war. It's just possible he's meant to remind us of somebody or other.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020


Available at Laemmle virtual theaters...

Ham: A Musical Memoir--"I fear that my karmic lesson in this lifetime is humility. But I think that lesson is beneath me."

So quips Sam Harris, the Star Search singing prodigy who went on to Broadway and TV success, at the end of the title number of the nearly one-man show adapted from his book Ham--Slices of Life. He says it with an admirable, Nathan Lane-worthy ironic grandiosity, too.

In this filming of his stage show, shot in front of a live audience at the Pasadena Playhouse under the direction of Andrew Putshoegl, Harris recounts his childhood and youth in Sand Springs, Oklahoma: his love of musical theatre, his growing awareness that he was "different" in a way that was dangerous in small-town Oklahoma; his humiliations and brushes with tragedy, his distant father, his mentors; the joy he took in performance. In its broad strokes, it's a familiar story, but a story that works every time, and Harris shuttles effortlessly between the heartfelt and the comically over-the-top. Most importantly, the movie offers a generous dose of his brassy, stirring belt.

It's only almost a one-man show, because he's joined onstage by his accompanist, occasional back-up singer and heckler Todd Schroeder, who also co-wrote some of the songs with him. He's a talented fellow, even if he's not such a ham.

Available on Prime Video:

Sunny Side Up--When we first see Greg, a nebbishy guy who resembles a young John Oliver, he gets up, showers, and makes himself a couple of eggs, sunny side up. He dresses in a dark suit, and then...the voice of his inner critic starts berating him, telling him all the reasons why he shouldn't leave his apartment--everyone will be staring at him, thinking he's weird, etc.--while at the same time furiously haranguing him to just get over it and go.

Greg manages to get to his job as a funeral director, the voice in his head abusing him all the way. Casual passive-aggressive remarks from coworkers are seen as vicious attacks; even compassion from a kind coworker seems like pity and repulsion to him.

This attempt, by writer-director Mike Melo, to dramatize what a social anxiety disorder feels like in the first person is highly unsettling at first; it's what the voices in most of our heads probably say at times, but psychotically, intolerably intense, and constant. Poor Greg only seems at peace when he's preparing a dead man for a funeral; he and the guy have a mellow imaginary chat. But then a coworker barges in and rattles him.

In light of what we see, it seems pretty heroic that Greg functions as well as he does. As such, this film may serve, as A Beautiful Mind did, to help audience members grasp how useless "Oh just get over it" responses are to people struggling with mental illness.

But there's no way around it; after a while Greg's nasty inner babble grows as tiresome for us as it does for him. Hunter Davis, who plays Greg, holds our sympathy, but the movie's conceit threatens to wear us out. Also, Melo can't find a better rescuer for Greg then the cute whimsical non-judgmental woman downstairs (Samantha Creed) who pushes her way into his life and accepts him as he is. She swerves dangerously close to Nathan Rabin's notorious "manic pixie dream girl" stereotype, although, to his credit, Melo doesn't allow this adorable deus ex machina to give the movie a pat resolution.

Thursday, December 17, 2020


Have I got the perfect 2020 holiday stocking stuffer for you, at least for the degenerate Grinches on your list! The UK's Dockyard Press has republished my holiday horror novel The Night Before Christmas of the Living Dead in an authoritative new edition...

It's not fit for respectable readers, but those who enjoy blood and gore, raunchy sex, foul language, depraved characters and sophomoric preachiness about the evils of holiday consumerism should love it!

You'll notice that I'm willing to put my sanctimony about the evils of consumerism on pause long enough to ask you to buy this book...

Friday, December 4, 2020


 Opening this weekend:

Half Brothers--Back in the '90s, young Renato's adored father left Mexico on an undocumented crossing into the U.S., promising to return when his fortunes improved. He never did.

Fast forward to the present, and Renato (Luis Gerardo Mendez), grown into a snazzy, successful businessman, gets called to his father's deathbed in Chicago. Understandably bitter, he initially declines the invitation, but his fiancee insists, sure he needs to resolve his father issues in order to be a decent stepdad to her disturbingly eccentric son.

When Renato gets to the Windy City, he's stricken to learn that he has a half-brother, Asher (Connor Del Rio), a good-natured but insufferably obnoxious screw-up. The old man's final wish is for Renato and Asher to take a road trip together to learn why he never came back to Mexico, and the two have wacky adventures along the way.

Luke Greenfield's film echoes such earlier movies as A Family Thing and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, among others. But the movie that Half Brothers really reminded me of was 2010's Due Date, a sometimes unpleasant but fascinating, vividly-acted road comedy with Robert Downey, Jr. as a cold-fish upscale architect and Zach Galafianakis as a hopelessly inappropriate aspiring actor forced to travel together. Like that film, Half Brothers sometimes has too much psychological realism; the actors bring a level of emotional exposure that's too painful for the kind of slapstick sentimental comedy it wants to be.

Despite this, the film has warmth, and some potent depictions of the horrors of the Mexican immigrant experience. And, perhaps taking a cue from the French bulldog in Due Date, it has an adorable little goat. When in doubt, put in a cute animal.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020


For reasons too complicated to explain here, Your Humble Narrator recently had the chance to hang out with Boomer, outgoing Arizona Senator Martha McSally's dog...

This is about as nonpartisan as I'm likely to be able to get this time around: Boomer is superb. I'm very happy with the thought that he'll have Mom with him at home in the days and weeks to come.

Thursday, November 26, 2020


Opening today:

The Croods: A New Age--2013's The Croods, an animated feature about a primitive nomadic family struggling to survive, and about the father struggling to adapt to his daughter growing up, was, as I recall, a sweet, mildly amusing film, but nothing that screamed for a sequel. So I was almost as surprised when this one showed up, seven years later, as I was by 2016's Zoolander 2, a decade and a half after the 2001 original.

I was even more surprised that A New Age is better than the original; more imaginative, thematically and visually more interesting.

Once again the central characters are dad Grug, voiced by Nicholas Cage, and his daughter Eep, voiced by Emma Stone. The other Croods are Grug's wife Ugga (Catherine Kenner), son Thunk (Clark Duke), younger daughter Theep (Randy Thom) and the formidable Gran (Cloris Leachman), Ugga's bewigged mom. Traveling with them is Guy (Ryan Reynolds), a rather advanced young man who is Eep's love interest and Grug's nemesis. Eep and Guy are starting to talk about striking out on their own.

The movie takes a startling turn when Grug, looking for a stable new homeland to prevent this breakaway, leads his family straight to...a wall. Sure enough, this movie turns into a flexible allegory for both the immigrant experience and the class mobility experience, seen mostly from the point of view of the aspirant have nots rather than the defensive haves.

The wall demarcates the estate of the Bettermans, hubby Phil (Peter Dinklage), wife Hope (Lesley Mann) and daughter Dawn (Kelly Marie Tran), upscale types with amenities like privacy and beds and windows; staring out of the latter is as addictive to young Thunk as television or smartphone screens are in our time. It turns out that the Bettermans knew Guy as a child, and feel duty bound to reclaim him from the Croods.

This sort of thing is trenchant enough, and happily the satire, if it even rises to the level of the term, remains good-natured and unpretentious. But in the final third of The New Age we learn why eating the copious bananas around the Betterman compound is taboo, and after that the movie pretty much goes, well, bananas. It's quite frenetic all the way through, come to that; feverish slapstick sequences are edited to pop hits, and the fanciful fauna we're shown is seriously weird, ranging from pet sloths to a giant sabertooth cat to land sharks to "punch monkeys," so named for exactly the reason you'd guess. There are even multi-eyed spider-wolf hybrids.

The New Age isn't especially deep, but it's admirably freewheeling and festive and heartfelt. It also has a rather rousing cover of "I Think I Love You," performed by Tenacious D, under the end credits.

Friday, November 20, 2020


 Now available on Prime Video:

All Joking Aside--Adorable young Charlene tries out her standup comedy skills at a New York club one night; she gets heckled off the stage by a middle-aged jerk. Later she learns her heckler, Bob, was once a promising, rising comedian who flamed out for various personal reasons. She enlists him, for money, to help her build a set.

"I've seen this movie before" says Bob (Brian Markinson) when Charlene (Raylene Harewood) makes her proposal. But he takes the gig, Charlene gradually begins to feel her way to getting laughs, and, since Charlene gained her standup ambitions from her late dad, and Bob is estranged from his daughter, the two of them just naturally bond.

You've seen this movie before, too. But there's a reason why: This general story template of "old veteran mentors novice" works. It works in this Canadian production because the veteran Markinson and the relative novice Harewood are both charming, and director Shannon Kohli, working from a script by James Pickering, captures an unforced chemistry between them.

I've never seen a dramatization of standup that has quite the hilarious edge and energy of real standup; not Punchline, not The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The closest I've seen, I think, is Cliff Gorman's brief turn as a faux Lenny Bruce in Bob Fosse's 1979 All That Jazz, but truly funny as it was, even that somehow felt like an actor excellently pretending to do standup, not a standup doing standup.

That's what Harewood seems like here, too. But the story is structured so that after a while we accept this as a convention, like when they don't show you the hands of the actor playing a surgeon actually removing somebody's appendix.

Available for rent on YouTube:

Wild Daze--Phyllis Stuart's documentary makes the case, in passionate, overtly editorial terms, that the killing of big fauna in Africa is a big problem, not just for Africans, not just for animal lovers. The importance of large animals to ecosystems, and thus to the environment worldwide, is insufficiently understood, as is the complex problem of why humans wantonly kill large animals.

So Stuart breaks it down for us, in "Acts." Act One covers the corruption and greed behind the trade in things like ivory and rhino horn; Act Two then explains the conflict between animals and, say, farmers or ranchers; Act Three discusses hunting, legal and not.

There are numerous talking heads, ranging from Jane Goodall to a professional hunter named Pete Swanepoel, Jr. whose cognitive dissonance about what he does seems almost deranged. There's also some rivetingly beautiful animal footage. My favorite moment occurs when Swanepoel repeats the tired line that "Hunting is the best form of conservation" and Stuart times it to a shot of an ostrich taking a crap.

And, as with Saul Schwartz's harrowing 2017 Trophy, there is also plenty of footage of animal death and mutilation and suffering that is all but unwatchable. The use of such horrific material is, of course, perfectly legitimate in terms of these films' purposes, but therein lies the problem: People like Trump's sons or the Jimmy Johns guy--or, say, an art collector who fancies carved ivory--are unlikely to watch Wild Daze, and people sympathetic to animals and to environmentalism already agree with its position. It's a strong movie, but who, exactly, is it aimed at?

Friday, November 13, 2020


Opening today:

Freaky--The full title should be Freaky Friday the 13th, since this is a mashup of the old-school slasher flick with the adult-child "body-swap" genre of Freaky Friday, Vice Versa etc. Vince Vaughn plays the "Blissfield Butcher," a standard-issue masked killer of teens; Kathryn Newton is Millie, a wholesome "final girl" type. Via some mumbo-jumbo involving a mystical "Aztecian" dagger, they swap bodies.

Gruesome farce ensues, with Millie, inhabiting Vaughn's hulking body, trying to elude the police, but also discovering the perks of, say, peeing while standing up. Meanwhile, The Butcher finds himself in the body of a petite blond girl, less physically formidable but far more capable of avoiding suspicion while wreaking bloody mayhem. Millie also has to admit that The Butcher has a better sense of how to dress than she does.

The director and co-writer of this Universal/Blumhouse collaboration is Christopher Landon, who previously helmed 2017's redoubtable Happy Death Day, a similarly avowed horror spin on Groundhog Day. Freaky isn't quite the home run that Happy Death Day was; it's much gorier but not as scary, and it feels a bit more heavy-handed in its contrivance.

But it's pretty entertaining just the same. If you can resist the prospect of seeing the beefy, slovenly Vaughn get in touch with his inner teenage girl, and share a tender love scene with the boy she has a crush on, you're more respectable than I am.

Saturday, November 7, 2020


Okay, to begin with, thank Heaven.

I'm feeling terribly proud of my beloved home state of Pennsylvania, and of my beloved home town of Erie. I hope that within a few days, I can officially feel the same pride toward my beloved adoptive state of Arizona.

All that said, and without wanting to be a buzzkill in the least, here's some more of my unsolicited advice: Celebration is certainly in order today, but maybe we should consider keeping the gloating to a minimum, don't you think? Or, at least, keeping it to ourselves? Or, at the very least, focusing the ridicule on The Loser himself and the disgusting fraudulent enablers that run his party, rather than on his supporters? I understand that the differences we have with many of these folks run far deeper than petty politics, but the necessary work of bridging and healing those differences isn't served by cheap mockery.

First of all, it's unbecoming, unworthy of a gracious winner.

Second, as joyful as I feel today, I still won't completely trust this until Biden and Harris are sworn in. My superstitious side doesn't want to jinx it.

Third, no need to antagonize the already pissed-off, potentially violent losing side.

Fourth, and most importantly: Our side has little enough to boast about. This election was emergency surgery to remove a malignant tumor, and our side is in no small degree to blame for allowing this tumor to grow. This is a time for relief, not for trash talk and swaggering.

The last four years are in large part the result of the ugly bigotries and nationalism and resentment of the educated that, we now must admit, are a major and dangerous social force in our country. Like many people, I wanted a landslide; I wanted the Frank Capra moment of seeing this scumbag crushed like a diseased insect, of seeing decent people, including his supporters who've now had four years to see him in reprehensible and incoherent and incompetent action, rise up and repudiate everything he stands for.

We didn't get that, and while it's bitter, maybe it's for the best. If we'd gotten it, maybe it would have been too easy to dismiss his presidency as a fluke, a bad joke that got out of hand, rather than a symptom of a deeper, perennial pathology in our country that we'll need to work against all our lives.

But the last four years are also the result of dilatory, complacent, too-cool-to-vote-for-a-mainstream-candidate people in my party; people who, deep down, thought Hillary had it in the bag and wanted to play Hamlet about how they couldn't bring themselves to vote for That Woman. I even heard some of that shit about Biden and Harris in this campaign. Hopefully we've learned the hard lesson that voting isn't a pose, it's a tool. Biden and Harris weren't my ideal candidates either, but they were the candidates that could beat President 45 and begin to undo some of his damage, which made them the right candidates. If they're too mainstream and business-as-usual for you, then start organizing to push them in your direction...once they're sworn in.

Also: The people I see partying in the streets on TV, in New York and D.C. and other places...I get it, and I'm glad to see that most (not all) of you are wearing masks, but not for nothing, maybe you should think about celebrating by Zoom or something?

And finally: On TV I saw somebody holding up a sign that says "Thank Youse," which I'm guessing is directed at voters in my home state of Pennsylvania. How about some love for people on the western side of the state? How about a sign that says "Thank Yinz?"

Friday, November 6, 2020


In theaters today:

True to the Game 2: Gena's Story--By way of welcoming our heroine Gena to southern California, her hunky realtor tells her that she hasn't played volleyball yet if she hasn't played it in a bikini alongside the Pacific Ocean. If you suspect that, a few scenes later, we will be treated to this very spectacle, right you are, although Gena (Erica Peeples) wears more of a bodysuit than a bikini. That's the kind of movie this is.

It's a year after Gena's lover Quadir (Columbus Short) was shot by drug lord Jerrell (Andra Fuller). Jerrell is now searching obsessively across the country for Gena, who he's sure has a stash of money he regards as his. When he finds her in sunny SoCal, he puts his smooth flirtatious moves on her, not without success (she doesn't know who he is). At the same time, back east, Jerrell's creepy crony Saleem (Jeremy Meeks) is on the hunt for Gena's cohorts, led by the always-formidable Vivica A. Fox. Crosscutting between different currents of bloodshed ensues.

Directed by Jamal Hill, this sequel to 2017's crime drama True to the Game--both are based on novels by Teri Woods--is seriously R-rated, with lots of nudity and really vicious violence, offset by sisterly empowerment and affectionate solidarity, and a few obligatory dollops of Christian fretting. It was about as deep and complex a movie as I was capable of focusing on this week, and I was grateful for the silly diversion.

Except for the imposing Fox, who isn't onscreen enough for my taste, the best thing about True to the Game 2 is Peeples, who balances a sophisticated, self-possessed reserve with an open-hearted manner. She's a heroine you can root for.

Monday, November 2, 2020


For the past few weeks, my neighbor catty-corner across the street has flown a U.S. flag on one side of his garage door, and a Trump flag on the other. He and his wife have lived there for years, but I had never met him, until this past Saturday.

As has become my custom in the years since The Kid aged out of trick-or-treating, this past Saturday I pulled a chair out front of the house and sat, with a big bowl of candy. This year I wore a (protective) mask, and lined the pieces of candy up in a row six feet away from my chair. Time passed, dusk thickened into night, and no kids at all showed. I could see that my neighbors were out in front of their Trump-flagged garage, doing the same thing. They were looking at me, so I waved to them. They waved back.

"I don't think we're going to get anybody," called the wife.

"Not many, anyway," I called back.

I sat there for hours, reading old Gold Key Grimm's Ghost Stories comics from the '70s and taking far too many samples from my own candy bowl. Over that time I got four, count 'em four, trick-or-treaters; I gave a generous donation to each of their bags. The atmosphere was bitterly sad, with the oppressive sense of unchecked plague. I was about to pack up and go inside when I heard somebody approaching. It was my neighbor, masked.

He had brought his own bowl of candy across the street, and held it out to me from a social distance; a cordial gesture that I don't think would have occurred to me. Plus, he had the Tootsie Rolls Fruit Chews; big favorites of mine.

I took one. He encouraged me to take more. I did. He took some treats from my bowl.

He told me his name, and I told him mine. He pointed to the BIDEN HARRIS sign The Kid put in our front window.

"Is Biden gonna win?" he asked, anxiously.

"I don't know," I said. "I sure hope so."

He was, sure enough, wearing a red baseball cap, backwards. He turned it around.

"I got the Trump thing going" he said.

"I'm not a fan," I said, shrugging. "But you know...neighbors."

"Neighbors!" he enthusiastically agreed, raising a fist in solidarity.

A native of Illinois, he's worked here in Arizona as a skilled machinist since 1981, for the same "mom and pop" defense contractor. He looked a little older than me.

He seemed like a sweet guy. I didn't ask him what made him a Trump fan; I was afraid the answer would depress me. He evinced great enthusiasm for marijuana, and I also decided not to point out that his preferred candidate is no particular friend to the weed industry.

Indeed, after his initial question and my reply, the only political content in our chat came when he said: "I think Nancy Pelosi put a curse on us when she tore up Trump's speech."

I wanted to say that if Pelosi was that potent a witch, then I hope she cursed Trump's chances at re-election. But I didn't; I just shrugged again, as if to suggest it was an interesting theory.

He invited me to come over and burn a fat one with him sometime if I wanted. I said something about how I don't do that much anymore. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I only tried weed once, back in the '80s, and then only because a gorgeous woman offered to "shotgun" me. Unlike Bill Clinton, I did inhale; like Clinton, I didn't notice any high.

It occurred to me after hearing my neighbor's rhapsodies, and all those of many friends over the years, and documentaries I've seen in which weed is treated like a subject for porn, that the vilely exaggerated and hypocritical anti-drug propaganda to which I was exposed as a kid must have really taken hold in my psyche. Certainly there has never been a product that got better reviews, by word-of-mouth, than weed, that I've never seriously tried.

Anyway, late this afternoon I happened to step outside, glanced over at my neighbor's house, and...he's taken his flags down. The day before Election Day, and he's taken his Trump flag down.

Does he just figure the die is cast at this point? Or did his brief exposure to me cause him to reconsider his position?

Yeah, that's probably it.

I don't really have a point in all this. It's Election Eve, my vote is cast, and I'm stress-writing.

If you haven't already, please for God's sake go vote, unless you plan to vote for Trump, in which case please for God's sake stay home and eat leftover Halloween candy. Or better yet, change your mind and go vote for Biden.

Peace. Love. Community. Kindness to neighbors. I don't think we'll regret any of these.

God bless America. See you on the other side.

Saturday, October 31, 2020


Happy Halloween!

This year my attire pays tribute... Frankenstein's Bloody Terror, the 1971 American version of the 1968 Spanish horror movie more properly called La Marca del Hombre Lobo (Mark of the Wolfman)...

...the first of the many films written by and starring Jacinto Molina, aka Paul Naschy, as tortured werewolf Waldemar Daninsky. The American title is a notorious cheat; the story includes two werewolves and two vampires but zero Frankenstein monsters. Supposedly the U.S. distributor Sam Sherman had promised somebody a Frankenstein picture, and when that fell through he pasted on an animated prologue explaining that this was what happened when the Frankenstein family was cursed with lycanthropy (as writer Ed Naha put it back in the '70s: "Peeeeeyooooo.").

The poster above claims that it's "ONE OF THE BEST HORROR MOVIES YOU WILL EVER SEE!" Not so much; the story is twisty, not in a good way. Still, it has that luridly creepy yet elegant atmosphere that European horror flicks do so well, and I kind of enjoyed re-watching it this week.

More familiarly, tonight the redoubtable Svengoolie is showing a childhood favorite of Naschy's, Universal's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man...

...with Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr., respectively, in the title roles. It's arguably the first movie to exploit the "shared universe" concept later used by Star Wars, Star Trek, DC, Marvel, etc etc.

Thursday, October 22, 2020


Happy October, everybody! As stressful as things are right now, I hope everyone is able to take pleasure in my favorite month on the calendar.

Obviously, a creature feature is in order for the season, so this year I thought we'd pay tribute to a classic movie monster who, after his initial appearance at least, generally served as a friend to and defender of humanity: Gamera!

But to discuss my feelings about Gamera, harder-trying Avis of Japanese monsters to Godzilla's Hertz, I must go back to Cinema 18, around 1969.

Cinema 18 was, oddly enough, a movie theater located on 18th Street, just east of Sassafras, in my home town of Erie, Pennsylvania. Sometime in my college years, it became a porn theater, and later a restaurant of some sort, but for a good stretch during my high school years it was a purveyor of wonderfully discreditable horror, exploitation and offbeat action flicks; everything from Midnight Cowboy (rated "xxx") to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Richard Lester’s Cuba to the Penthouse version of Caligula.

It was a great, screwy place to see them, too. A railroad track ran right behind the theater, so the rumble of trains filled the place a couple of times during most shows. And the floor of the auditorium sloped downward, then, toward the middle of the house, it inclined back upward toward the screen. Somehow, none of this seriously compromised the cinematic experience.

What I remember Cinema 18 for most fondly, however, is playing lots of Japanese kaiju (giant monster) flicks during the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was there, in a packed house, that I saw my first Godzilla picture, 1969’s Destroy All Monsters!, and later War of the Gargantuas; hugely influential, for better or worse, on my lifelong tastes in movies, and art in general.

It was the scene of a bitter early memory, too. According to Erie historical sites, Cinema 18 opened in 1968, so I don’t think it can have been open much longer than a year when it booked Gammera the Invincible, the debut movie of Godzilla’s rival from Daiei Film, the gigantic tusked, twirling, titular turtle. I was taken to see it on a Sunday afternoon, when I was 7 or 8 years old, along with my best friend Mike, only to learn, from a hand-scrawled sign on the door, that the show—the last show of the run—was sold out.

You may well imagine my disappointment at this denial, and the even-tempered maturity with which I expressed it. The walk back to the car, past the tauntingly beautiful poster of the enormous beast trampling Tokyo...

...was one of the more miserable retreats of my life to that point.

This all came back to me this season when I was sent a screener of Gamera: The Complete Collection from Arrow Video. It’s a magisterial box set of all 12 Gamera flicks, starting with the 1966 original, Gamera, the Giant Monster, that made it to the States a few years later, recut for American audiences, as Gammera the Invincible, and sold out Cinema 18 on that fateful Sunday.

Thus I finally got to see the film, the stirring tale of how a legendary prehistoric turtle is freed from arctic ice by a Cold War mishap, how he flies to Japan using jets in the leg apertures of his shell; how he becomes the object of fanatical adoration by a little boy; how he tears up nuclear power plants and rampages in Tokyo; how he does, indeed, seem to be invincible. I watched it in both its original Japanese form and in the American version, with interpolated scenes featuring Brian Donlevy and Albert Dekker and some other American actors all keeping very straight faces.

As silly as it is, it’s a beguiling movie, shot in a gorgeous, charcoal-drawing black and white (the other films in the series are in color). The added material in the American version offers some pretty amusing touches that suggest that the people who made these scenes maybe just weren't taking things all that seriously: The dissenting scientist on a TV discussion show, for instance, is named "Dr. Contrare" (and is played by famed voice actor Alan Oppenheimer, later the voice of Skeletor); they should have given him the first initial "O."

The newspaper headlines we're shown are pungent as well; La Monde promises INSIDE REPORTS OF GIANT TURTLE CONTROVERSY while Corriere Della Sera's front page ungrammatically declares GIANT TURTLE? BALONEY SAYS SCIENTISTS.

The Complete Collection boxed set includes a staggering amount of special features; commentary tracks and trailers and German TV spots are attached to each of the movies. Gammera the Invincible even includes a title song, "Gammera," recorded by "'The Moons'...The Most Exciting Group Since The Beatles!! With the New Out of This World...PSYCHEDELIC SOUND!!" The song's music and lyrics are credited to a certain Wes Farrell, but the only lyric I heard was the repeated word "Gammera," here pronounced "Gam'raaaah!"

In the subsequent films in the series, several of which I had seen on afternoon TV in the intervening years, Gamera shifts from a menace to the defender of Earth and humanity, especially children, against a variety of what Milton would call "complicated monsters, head and taile..." He takes on the lizardy, horn-nosed Barugon (1966); the winged Gyaos (1967), sort of like a pterodactyl with a wedge-shaped head; the tentacled Viras (1968); the blade-headed Guiron (1969); the horned, finned Jiger (1970), known as "Monster X" in America, who disrupts Expo '70 in Osaka; the sharky sea monster Zigra (1971) and a gang of all of the above in 1980's Gamera: Super Monster.

In all of these ludicrous spectacles, the title character has a vivid personality; like his rival Godzilla, the monster turtle has a curiously lovable expression of perpetual, epic irritation on his face. From the first film on, he looks, indeed, like he just woke up after a long sleep.

This trait is continued in the post Daiei Film, '90s-era Gamera flicks, none of which I had seen: Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995); Gamera 2: Attack of Legion (1996) and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999).  They're all pretty good, especially Gamera 2, which ends with the plucky heroine (Miki Mozuno) slyly asking into the camera if humans would ever want to get on Gamera's bad side, environmentally speaking.

It's only the single 21st-Century Gamera flick (to date) that strikes a slightly off-key note. In Gamera the Brave (2006), in which the turtle is reborn into the care of yet another little kid, he gets a makeover and is at last made self-consciously cute, with big sappy eyes like a Furby.

Without his grandly irritable expression, the beast loses much of his charm.

Anyway, it was great to get re-acquainted with the big guy. I can only say that had I known, on that unhappy Sunday half a century ago, that I would one day watch Gammera the Invincible and some dozen other Gamera flicks on a big-screen TV in the comfort of my home…it wouldn’t have improved my mood in the least.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020


On VOD today:

J. R. "Bob" Dobbs & the Church of the Subgenius--Yet another in the pandemic-era boom of offbeat documentaries has struck a nostalgic autobiographical chord with me: Sandy K. Boone's behind-the-scenes look at the "parody religion" (or is it?) founded by Fort Worth, Texas weirdo Ivan Stang and his friend "Philo Drummond" in the late '70s. In the mid-'80s, my best friend gave me, one Christmas, The Book of the SubGenius, published by McGraw-Hill no less, a compendium of the Church's exhaustingly dense prophecies, teachings and aphorisms ("You'll pay to know what you really think") mingled with hilarious yet unsettling apocalyptic artwork, much of it clip art collage.

The book, my friend said, was too strange for him, but he thought I'd like it. He was right. I had never heard of the Church, but there was something deeply compelling about its scripture; it was like the Tibetan Book of the Dead crossed with a Chick tract, re-edited by Firesign Theater. And it was hard not to reflect, while reading it, that it contained a high degree of self-deprecating good sense. It's still on my bookshelf.

The impossible-to-summarize theology goes something like this: Social misfits and oddballs are really members of a class of person called a SubGenius, distinct from and superior to the "pinks, glorps and mediocretins" that perpetuate conformist society. The state which SubGenii properly seek is "Slack," an undefinable form of well-being. The Church venerates a figure known as J. R. "Bob" Dobbs, a stereotypically clean-cut midcentury-style clip art white dude with blazing eyes and a pipe clenched in his grinning teeth. The central prophecy was that eventually (well, in 1998) aliens would come to Earth and liberate the faithful.

Now affable old longhairs who look like veteran Deadheads, Stang and "Philo" rather sheepishly tell Boone's camera how their in-joke pamphlets gradually caught on across the country, spawning "Devivals" and radio hours and selling out live shows; other talking heads include Penn Jillette, Mark Mothersbaugh and Richard Linklater. It's to Boone's credit that she doesn't shirk the potentially dark side of the Church's supercilious, misanthropic outlook, or how closely it's flirted, at times, with being a real creepy cult over the years. But overall, this portrait suggests a positive, even comforting religious experience: The meaning of life and the universe, interpreted by a like-minded community.

Friday, October 16, 2020


Opening today at Harkins Shea:

Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something--Sometime in the late '70s, I saw Harry and Tom Chapin perform at the Warner Theatre in Erie, Pa, where I was working as an usher, and got to meet them after the show. I think I still have the souvenir program they autographed somewhere. What I remember most distinctly is that they both gave the two best handshakes I think I've ever received, perfectly firm but not viselike. I also remember it was one of the best concerts I've ever seen; it's stuck in my head far more vividly than many shows I saw decades later.

All this came back to me watching this documentary chronicle of Harry Chapin's hectic, too-short life. Directed by Rick Korn, it's an entirely straightforward account, covering his folkie youth with his brothers, his rise as a purveyor of "story songs," his turn into relentless activism against world hunger, the shock of his untimely death.

There are many tearjerking moments; also a funny centerpiece montage demonstrating the cultural footprint of his signature song "Cat's in the Cradle." The story is inspirational, and as with the Linda Ronstadt documentary, it's told against the background of that peerlessly dramatic and beautiful voice.

Friday, October 9, 2020


Opening today at Harkins Shea (on Amazon Prime October 16):

Time--Garrett Bradley directed this nonfiction portrait of Sibil Fox Richardson, aka "Fox Rich," a Shreveport, Louisiana woman who, desperate for money to keep their clothing store running, tried to rob a credit union branch in Grambling with her husband Rob in 1997. They were caught and went to prison, and while Fox was released after about three years, Rob was sentenced to sixty years, and was still imprisoned two decades later. His wife--and mother of his six children--rebuilt her family's life, but she also worked tirelessly to attempt to shorten this preposterous sentence.

The title has multiple potential meanings. On a social level, it's a reproach against the outrageous "time" for which poor and non-white convicts are disproportionately incarcerated. But it also has a powerful perceptual meaning. Bradley originally intended the film as a short, until she was given hours of Fox's home-video footage covering years of her life, her impressive kids at different stages of their growth, etc.

This material, intermixed with the more current footage Bradley shot, and unified with it in beautiful black and white and with a sprightly, persistent solo piano score, gives the film a powerful sense of refracted time, of access to free-flowing memory, of a whole life seen at once. The feeling, which may sometimes overtake people in middle age, of all the moments of life seeming to constrict into close proximity with each other, is unaccountably captured by this movie.

This trembling, exalted tone-poem quality is worthy of the story's intense central character; with her low, urgent, un-histrionic yet somehow conspiratorial manner of speaking, Fox pulls us into her sense of mission. When she tries to get answers from court officials over the phone, she remains flawlessly courteous, well knowing how counterproductive it would be to lose her patience. But we see the toll it takes on her. We see the quiet worry under the surface of her strong, patient mother. And we see, and feel, her radiant love for her family. This isn't like any documentary you've seen before.

Also at Harkins:

The War with Grandpa--Grandpa being Robert De Niro, as a widower who's become so short-fused and violent that he's a danger to himself and others. He has to move back in with his daughter (Uma Thurman) and her husband (Rob Riggle), thus displacing his snotty grandson (Oakes Fegley) out of his bedroom to the attic. The little crud declares "war" to get his room back, and wacky slapstick ensues.

As cheesy middlebrow family comedies go, this one, directed by Tim Hill from a 1984 children's novel by Robert Kimmel Smith, is by no means the worst you've ever seen,  though the tone is a little artificially lighthearted for the nastiness of some of the pranks. On the shelf since it was completed in 2017, it should wring a few giggles out of your kids or grandkids on a slow afternoon.

But the real interest for an adult moviegoer is, of course, De Niro. How did a guy whose last name has become almost a synonym for "great actor" decide he needed to do this? His costars here include Cheech Marin, Jane Seymour and Christopher Walken--dutifully doing his best "Christopher Walken," of course--and it's fun to see the four of them work together, even in this silly stuff.

But it should be noted that while De Niro maintains a certain dignity, the menace of his Scorsese years has faded, even for comic effect. He comes across like an avuncular pussycat, something like he did in 2015's The Intern. Come to think of it, he came across that way last year in Scorsese's The Irishman, too.

Friday, October 2, 2020


Available for purchase and streaming exclusively on Prime Video:

The Glorias--The title characters are all one person: journalist and feminist icon Gloria Steinem, at different stages of her saga. She's played by a couple of excellent child actresses in scenes from her early life, and as a young woman by Alicia Vikander, and in her prime by Julianne Moore. Sometimes the different Steinem vintages interact with each other on the allegorical bus they're riding through life; the script, by Sarah Ruhl and director Julie Taymor, is based on Steinem's 2015 memoir My Life on the Road.

We're shown episodes of her early days in Toledo, Ohio, with her loving, hustling, eternally optimistic screw-up of a father (Timothy Hutton), from whom she inherited a passion for travel, and her ill, long-suffering mother (Enid Graham), who had written newspaper articles under a male pseudonym. We see her post-graduate adventures in India, and her early days as a journalist, undercover as a Bunny in a Playboy Club, or covering the civil rights marches, where she noted that women weren't represented onstage among the speakers; only singers like Mahalia Jackson.

We see her rise to celebrity and the revolting condescension with which she was treated by male editors and interviewers. We see her friendships with Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monae), Florynce Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero) and Bella Abzug (Bette Midler); we see the founding of Ms.

All of this is interesting and at times touching, and the ensemble acting is terrific, although Vikander's Swedish accent peeks out a bit. But this project got away from the enormously talented Taymor, famed for the Broadway version of The Lion King and movies like Titus and Frida; her artsy, theatrical flourishes are a drag on this two and a half hour movie, and add little depth to our understanding of its story or heroine. The Glorias is worth watching, but it isn't as glorious as it could have been.

Friday, September 25, 2020


Opening this weekend at Harkins:

Kajillionare--To call the Dynes small time crooks is to insult small time crooks. The L.A.-based family--paterfamilias Robert (Richard Jenkins), Mom Theresa (Debra Winger) and daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood)--engage in the most pathetic, scrounging grifts imaginable, although Old Dolio tries to bring some parkour-style panache to them. The yields of these scams are, at best, the likes of neckties or gift certificates for a free massage.

The Dynes live in a basement office beneath a factory that produces bubbles; they have to clean up the foamy froth that comes seeping down the walls on a daily basis. This gets them a ridiculously low rent, on which, of course, they are nonetheless badly in arrears. Eventually the trio meets Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), an unflappable, free spirited young woman who more or less invites herself into the operation and throws everything into turmoil.

This is the set-up for this deeply eccentric comedy-drama by writer-director Miranda July. The story meanders, but the acting and left-field dialogue keep it coherent. Jenkins and Winger are so brilliantly, oppressively repulsive that the movie might be unwatchable without the fresh air that Rodriguez riotously provides.

The heart of the film, however, is Wood's Old Dolio--that wretched name is explained in due course--who has grown up isolated in the world of her pitiful chiseling parents. As a result she's a doleful, affectless blank slate in a track suit, with Rapunzel-length hair like her Mom (presumably to avoid the expense of haircuts). She's never experienced a minute of true love and affection in her life. The stillness and deliberation of Evan Rachel Wood's performance gives Old Dolio the radiant sadness of a silent-movie comic heroine; she's hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.

The title refers to Robert's life aspiration: He's content to skim and survive, while everybody else, he contemptuously notes, "wants to be a kajillionaire." In its homestretch the movie seems to go completely crazy, yet July is able to turn Robert's grotesque meaning joyously on its head, and the final seconds of the film are beautiful and weirdly inspiring.

Shortcut--Here's how bad an idea taking a shortcut turns out to be in this scare picture: First, the charming Fiat bus piloted by a resolute driver (Terence Anderson) and carrying a quintet of bored British schoolkids gets hijacked at gunpoint by an escaped maniac (David Keyes) whose speciality, reportedly, is eating the tongues of his victims. But soon after, this guy's menace is far overshadowed when the bus is besieged by a fanged, squalling creature like something from Stephen King's remainder table.

Eventually, the kids end up in an abandoned underground network of tunnels, a military base of some sort. They seem pretty relaxed about the whole thing; rather than try with all their might to find their way out and back to civilization as quickly as possible, they split up and dawdle around, making time for squabbles and hints of teen romance. Eventually we get some fairly perfunctory backstory on the monster, and the kids team up in the manner of It for a showdown.

Big chunks of this movie, an Italian production in English directed by Alessio Ligouri, don't make much sense, not even horror-movie sense. But it's atmospheric, there are some scares, the actors are capable and attractive, and at just 80 minutes it doesn't tax our patience too much.

Available today on YouTube:

Public Trust--This documentary is about the efforts, which have gone on for many decades, of corporate raiders to pillage public lands in the United States. Director David Byars follows a variety of activists and journalists, working everywhere from Utah to Minnesota to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, long droolingly coveted by the oil industry. We see the slow, stubborn progress of the Lorax-like activists, their gratifying successes under the last administration, and their appalling setbacks under the current regime.

It's a well-made movie, firm and convincing in the presentation of its evidence. It's also often visually beautiful; it gives you a sense of what's at stake. But it's open to the same criticism as so many polished lefty documentaries: it's preaching to the choir. There's no position this film takes on this issue that I don't agree with, and, specifics aside, none that I wasn't already more or less aware of.

Much as I admired its tireless subjects, the principal effect it had on me was to boil my blood, and maybe raise my blood pressure. I doubt this will be seen by the people who most need to see it, and if it is, most of them will likely dismiss it as fake news. Vote. Vote. Vote.

Friday, September 18, 2020


Opening today at Harkins Shea; coming October 16 to MSNBC:

The Way I See It--This documentary is about a fly who decides it's time to come down from his place on the wall. Pete Souza was an official White House photographer, first during the Reagan administration and then for all eight years of the Obama presidency, capturing light-saturated, emotionally charged images of heartbreak and happiness.

Discretion and partisan neutrality would clearly seem like a becoming standard for a person in Souza's position. But, relatively apolitical at least when he started, Souza came to feel, in light of the subsequent occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, that whatever one thought of Obama's policies, he behaved the way a President should.

Souza was so struck by the contrast between how Obama comported himself in office and how his successor does that he felt the need to step out from behind the camera. In response to the current President's childish tweets, Souza began posting his photos, showing infinitely more dignified, empathetic behavior by Obama. Eventually he began pairing these images with snarky quips, and was informed by youth that he was "throwing shade," a term with which he says he was unfamiliar.

Directed by Dawn Porter, The Way I See It follows Souza on tour as he signs his book of these images, titled Shade, and tells audiences, and us, the story of his time photographing Obama, his family and his staff.  Despite at least one too many corny montages to inspirational songs, the movie is an absorbing chronicle, drawing much of its power from the potency of Souza's epic yet intimately observed pictures. The man has some eye.

I've never been comfortable, however, with a fanboy attitude toward toward our 44th President. I say this as somebody who voted for him twice and who has come to believe that, graded on a quotient of what he achieved divided by the deranged opposition to him, and taking account of all disappointments and shortfalls, Barack Obama is the best U.S. President of my lifetime. But his excellence can't be captured photographically. Don't get me wrong, Obama's glamor is undeniable, as is that of his First Lady, especially when you look at Souza's photos. But glamor isn't virtue, and the fact that he's absurdly photogenic doesn't prove anything by itself.

Or so I would have thought, during Obama's time in office. Souza's images, seen retroactively, go beyond glamor and, in contrast to our current nightmare, demonstrate something like grace in their subject. This movie, and the photos it presents, suggest that there is something more profound than policy to the Presidency, and that when it comes to showing it, a picture is worth well over a thousand tweeted words.

Friday, September 11, 2020


Available today in the "Virtual Cinema" of No Festival Required...

Our Time Machine--The project chronicled in this documentary is a quintessential definition of the term "labor of love." When the Shanghai-based graphic artist and puppet-maker Ma Liang, known as Maleonn, realizes his elderly, distant father is in the early stages of dementia, he crafts an ambitious puppet theatre piece entitled Papa's Time Machine, about a boy creating a time travel device to retrieve his father's memories.

Once a prolific director with the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theatre, Maleonn's father Ma Ke is now a humbled old codger, vaguely working on his memoirs, sadly embarrassed at his loss of capability, ruled by his loving but tough, practical-minded and overburdened wife (where is her puppet show, you may find yourself wondering). Maleonn wants Ma Ke's collaborative help on the show, but he's past all that.

Ma Ke also seems to realize that Maleonn doesn't really need his help; he's an accomplished, even visionary artist in his own right. His work has Bunraku-like elements as well as a Jan-Svankmajer-Brothers-Quay-Terry-Gilliam sensibility, and when in silhouette it recalls Lotte Reiniger. But it's also unlike anything you've seen before, and this film, directed by Yang Sun, S. Leo Chiang and Shuang Liang, introduces a potentially major new international artist--introduced him to me, at least--in a particularly personal, intimate and touching way.

Friday, September 4, 2020


On Prime Video and other platforms today...

#Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump--Even though there's no proposal in this movie, which makes the case that Our President is a malignant narcissist, that I don't passionately agree with, I have to admit that I wasn't looking forward to watching it. There isn't enough confirmation bias in my head to make me eager to sit through clips of this pathetic menace at his worst.

But watch it I did, and I'm glad I did. It's a focused, sensible review of the man's outrageous public behavior that seemed, to me, free of Michael-Moore-style facetiousness. The talking heads aren't a lineup of lefty all-stars; on the political side, they're the likes of Bill Kristol and George Conway and a startlingly lucid Anthony Scaramucci, who states, overgenerously, of Trump: "He's not a racist...he's an asshole." I know what's he's getting at there, but the two titles are certainly not mutually exclusive.

The other category of interviewees are the commentators on his psychology. The most incisive of these is John Gartner, Ph.D, who easily debunks the criticism that psychologists shouldn't offer opinions on people they've never interviewed, and differentiates the current diagnoses of Trump's psyche from the infamous (and indeed unfair, in Gartner's view) 1964 Fact magazine article on Barry Goldwater's psychology that gave rise to the "Goldwater Rule." There's also some sharp insight offered by sportswriter Rick Reilly about Trump's character as a golfer.

This movie may, if nothing else, make you feel a little less crazy. And since it hinges on actual footage of Trump it's harder (not impossible, of course, but harder) for his followers to dismiss it as "fake news."

Also, on a personal note: By way of explaining the concept of Id/Ego/Superego, this movie includes some footage from a Canadian educational documentary that I now know is called Freud: The Hidden Nature of Man. I saw that movie when I was a kid, on PBS I think, and it hugely creeped me out and burned itself into my memory. On the other hand, it did, very vividly, teach me about Freudian psychology.

Entwined--In this Greek chiller, a young doctor (Prometheus Aleifer) hangs out his shingle in a remote mountain town full of the same sort of dour, fretful locals that saw Dwight Frye off on his way to Castle Dracula in 1931. Sure enough, the doc stumbles upon a lonely cabin out in the woods. Therein he meets Danae (Anastasia Rafaella Konidi), a compellingly beautiful woman with a grotesque skin condition and a peculiar, rococo manner of speaking. She shares the cabin with a white-bearded, violent fellow.

The doc wants to take Danae away from it all and cure her, but she's in no hurry to leave, and when he tries to go back alone for provisions he can't seem to find his way back to his car. Each time he returns to the cabin, Danae offers him another drink, and acts a bit more seductive.

Co-writer and director Minos Nikolakakis generates an intriguing mix of spookiness, eroticism and poignancy, even though it isn't especially hard to see where the story is heading. This, indeed, may be a strength; at its best Entwined has the eerie, mythic inevitability of a Jungian dream.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020


Happy September everybody!

Check out, on Phoenix Magazine online, some hard-hitting reportage by Your Humble Narrator about the odd political signage from my part of town...

...regarding the race for Moon Valley Justice of the Peace. Also, check out the September issue of Phoenix Magazine, now on the stands...

...for the "Love Your Downtown" cover story (page 66, or here), to which Your Humble Narrator also contributed; I got to cover the glamorous downtowns of Glendale, Peoria, Wickenburg and (online only) the Southwest Valley communities of Avondale, Goodyear and Buckeye.

Friday, August 28, 2020


Opening on Amazon Prime...

Get Duked!--"All this fresh air is horrible." So remarks one of the young heroes of this Brit comedy, stranded in the Scottish highlands in pursuit of the (real-life) Duke of Edinburgh's Award, an Outward Bound-like camping excursion meant to expose urban youth to survival skills like "Teamwork," "Orienteering" and "Foraging." One of the lads is a conscientious sort looking to build his resume, another is a hip-hop wannabe who goes under the name "DJ Beetroot" and the other two are ordinary numbskulls looking forward to working in the fish packing plant like their dads.

What the boys don't expect is to be hunted like game by the tweed-clad, rifle-bearing local gentry, led by a disturbingly masked Eddie Izzard. Written and directed by Ninian Doff, the movie spins away into terror and violence, farcical but with a tinge of the authentically macabre just the same.

The local law enforcement also sets aside the hunt for the notorious "Bread Thief" ("A've no hud a ciabatta in weeks," laments one officer) to pursue the boys, who they're pretty sure are terrorists. Hallucinogenic rabbit droppings are ingested, leading to some of the funniest depictions of tripping ever put on film.

The whole movie is freakin' hilarious, come to that. It carries hints of everything from Beavis and Butt-Head to The Wicker Man, but it also feels original, and it has a defiant and unpretentious dash of social anger. In its way it's a harsh movie, but it isn't a heartless one; the laughs it offers are very welcome in these unfunny times.

Monday, August 24, 2020


In honor of the Post Office, and especially, this past week, of Mr. Bannon's new acquaintances in the Postal Inspection Service, let's remember the 1936 Universal picture Postal Inspector...

...with Ricardo Cortez as the two-fisted Postal Service man and Bela Lugosi as the shady nightclub owner he's after. You can watch it in its full less-than-an-hour-long glory here.

The British producer Alex Gordon said that when he was a kid and he and his film buff friends heard about Lugosi in Dracula, Murders in the Rue Morgue, etc, and were desperate to see him, Postal Inspector was their first chance, being the first of Lugosi's films to pass the British censor.

In recognition of the "zombie cicadas" we've been ominously hearing about in recent weeks...

...Dockyard Press has re-published my short story "Cicada Summer" online.

Friday, August 21, 2020


Available this weekend in virtual cinemas...

Desert One--Directed by the great Barbara Kopple, this documentary chronicles the disastrous, abortive April 1980 attempt to rescue the embassy hostages in Tehran, which ended in a fiery collision between two aircraft and the deaths of eight servicemen in the middle of the Iranian desert. The 52 hostages remained in captivity for almost a year longer, and the incident effectively ended Jimmy Carter's chances of reelection.

A two-time Oscar winner for the classics Harlan County, USA and American Dream, Kopple builds her account around talking heads, with their description illustrated by the vivid animations of Iranian artist Zartosht Soltani. The approach feels meticulous, almost forensic, and Kopple's point seems, at least partly, to debunk the long-held right wing narrative that the catastrophe was somehow due to Carter's feckless, dilatory indecision (similar wishful stories went around about Obama's handling of the Somali pirate takeover of the Maersk Alabama).

Kopple and her sad, heavy-hearted interview subjects make it clear that the culprits were just wind, sand, mechanical failure, pilot error and bad luck. Or, if you believe the Ayatollah Khomeini, it was an Act of God; Kopple shows us a festival that takes place annually near the crash site, celebrating the American defeat.

It's a masterly piece of cinema that courageously takes on a rarely-addressed theme: failure. There's no way to spin this mission as anything else. Sometimes, this movie reminds us, brave people make great efforts and take great risk in their country's service, and everything goes wrong, and that's it. There's no last-minute reversal in favor of the good guys, and the attempt is no less deserving of respect.

Available On Demand...

Watch List--If you aren't bummed out enough by Desert One, this stunning drama set in Manila should do the trick. After landing on the "Watch List" of former drug users, Maria (Alessandra de Rossi) loses her husband to one of the "Extrajudicial Killings" under Duterte's regime. Desperate to support her sweet kids in her now even more impoverished circumstances, she tries to negotiate with a police detective to be an informer, and soon finds herself pressed into service as a killer herself.

If this sounds like some hot La Femme Nikita-style action fantasy, forget it. Directed and co-written by Ben Rekhi and also known as Watch List (Maria), it's a tragic and disturbingly plausible-feeling dramatization of how a decent person could be dragged to these hellish depths, and of the toll it would take on their spirit.

Rehki's tightly economical direction has something of the efficiency and immediacy of a Warner Brothers cautionary gangster picture from the '30s. And like the best of the Warner gangster flicks, he also has a star that gives the movie a potent charge; Alessandra de Rossi is heartbreakingly good as Maria, bright and sensible and endearing, and shattered by the knowledge of what she's capable of.

Ravage--This horror picture is of the "rural people are evil" genre. Harper (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) is a nature photographer working alone in a remote part of Virginia. She witnesses, and records, a gruesome crime out in the woods. Soon she's in the clutches of a cadre of sicko hillbillies, led by an excellent actor named Richard Longstreet, who don't cotton to outsiders.

Written and directed by Teddy Grennan, this is unapologetic torture porn in the tradition of a '70s drive-in shocker. The showcase atrocity with which the film ends, however, is of much greater antiquity; a variation on it can be found in the Merry Jeste of a Shrewde and Curste Wyfe, a no less horrific (and misogynistic) 16th-Century ballad that was one of Shakespeare's sources for Taming of the Shrew.

Admittedly, Harper isn't an old-school victim; she has MacGyver-ish combat skills that force her attackers to respect her, often in the split second before they lose their lives. I can't claim I'm too pure to have enjoyed these moments. Also, Bruce Dern turns up long enough to contribute one creepy scene.

On the whole, though, I'm over movies where young women mewl and wail and scream for their lives. This movie's nods to female empowerment weren't enough to override this distaste.

Friday, August 14, 2020


On Apple TV+...

Boys State--Under the opening titles, we learn that alumni of the American Legion's longtime, nationwide youth civic program are as diverse as Rush Limbaugh, Samuel Alito, Bill Clinton and Cory Booker. Watching this documentary by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, it's hard not to wonder if we're seeing a future big deal, or more than one, in this crop.

The movie's focus is on the 2018 program in Austin, Texas, where a thousand or so high school juniors, all boys, assembled to create their own political parties, develop platforms, nominate candidates and hold an election (there's a Girls State, too; which would also make a terrific movie). Seeing these guys in their matching shirts, marching through the streets of Austin waving standards, it's almost impossible not to think of a Fascist youth group. Yet the movie gradually reveals a more complex reality.

Certainly they're a rowdy, wound-up bunch, and at first they seem highly reactionary, bellowing anti-abortion and (especially) pro-gun sentiments to howling approval. "Our masculinity will not be infringed!" declares one kid. Another suggests a bill proposing that all Prius drivers be relocated to Oklahoma. (In 2016 the Texas Boys State Senate voted to secede from the Union.)

But as the movie brings the individual kids into closer focus, we see startlingly open-minded, honest, even vulnerable attitudes come out. We also see cynical political angling, and guilt over it: "Sometimes you can't win on what you believe in your heart," bemoans Robert MacDougall, who's privately pro-life but can't admit it.

MacDougall, who looks like the rotten rich kid who insults Molly Ringwald in a John Hughes movie but proves more thoughtful than we expect, is one of several of the boys who make a strong impression. Others include Ben Feinstein, a Ronald Reagan-adoring double-amputee, and Rene Otero, a flamboyant African-American kid who becomes party chairman.  Probably no one comes across as strongly, however, as Steven Garza, a sober working-class kid from Houston; the son of Mexican immigrants.

He seems an unlikely candidate for prominence at Boys State, not only because of his progressive views but because of his undramatic, soft-spoken personality. Yet his serious-minded and principled approach wins the respect of the boys, and ultimately his party's nomination.

And that's how this movie works; one minute delivering depression or even terror at the prospect of this generation taking over America, the next minute offering inspiration and hope. Just like this country.

Friday, August 7, 2020


Now streaming:

Lake Michigan Monster--Having grown up on the shores of Lake Erie, I've often wondered why nobody has yet made the signature Great Lakes monster movie. So despite a twinge of regional jealousy, I take my hat off to the makers of this very low-budget, very silly spoof, resourcefully shot on cool locations in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Muskegon, Michigan.

Seafield, an ebullient nautical sort played by writer-director Ryland Brickson Cole Tews, assembles a sort-of-crack team including a weapons specialist, a Navy veteran and a "sonar individual" to hunt down and destroy the title creature who, he insists, killed his father. Like Wes Anderson's Steve Zissou, Seafield isn't after research or scientific achievement or even profit; he's out for revenge.

Tightly scripted, crisply edited and shot in lovely faux-vintage black and white, the movie starts with facetious sketch-comedy material, amusing enough for a while but probably not sustainable at feature length. Just as you're thinking this may prove a long hour and eighteen minutes, however, the tone shifts, as we get to Seafield's underwater confrontation with the monster, and with his own mysterious past.

With eerie ruins and anglerfish and unsettling yet somehow endearing robed masked ghosts, the movie spins off in its homestretch into a free-associating surrealism that leavens the nuttiness with a weird visual beauty. It's like a combination of Lovecraft, Georges Melies, Cabin Boy and SpongeBob, and it's pretty memorable.