Friday, May 29, 2020


Opening virtually this weekend:

The Vast of Night--In a small New Mexico town one night in the mid-'50s, a teenage switchboard operator and the cocky young radio DJ with whom she's infatuated hear the same weird, unearthly sound coming through both of their boards. When they're contacted by a couple of listeners who claim to remember the sound, and narrate their backstory with it, things get weirder still.

This sci-fi flick, directed by Andrew Patterson from a script by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, begins with the conceit that we're seeing an episode of Paradox Theatre, an earnest anthology series in the Twilight Zone manner. The filmmakers wisely don't try to maintain this throughout, but now and then they shift back to a grainy TV image for a few minutes, as if to remind us of the tradition they're working in.

The script is so talky, really, that it could probably be an effective radio play, yet the film is visually wondrous as well, with flashy editing and dazzling long tracking shots (accomplished by drones, I guess) that evoke an otherworldly flavor. Best of all is the acting; Sierra McCormick is extremely adorable as the sweet, bespectacled young heroine, loping through the streets of the town at the slightest, always decent, impulse. Jake Horowitz seems for all the world like he's doing his best junior-league Matthew McConaughey as the DJ, and it works well. Bruce Davis, in a voice-over performance, and the excellent Gail Cronauer cast a cumulative chill as the witnesses.

The film isn't quite a home-run; the resolution is somehow both a little too vague and a little too literal. But The Vast of Night is so rich and inventive that I feel ungrateful pointing this out. It's as if Robert Altman and Stephen Spielberg collaborated on a Twilight Zone, and it almost worked.

The High Note--Tracie Ellis Ross plays a superstar pop singer. She'd like to work on new material; her handlers, led by Ice Cube, want her play to it safe with a Vegas residency. Dakota Johnson plays her put-upon personal assistant, who of course is an aspiring music producer. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. is the inexplicably obscure young musical prodigy the assistant falls for, and would also like to produce.

Although I don't know if audiences will (or should) share my reasons, I liked this movie, one of the higher-profile releases so far to get exiled to streaming by the pandemic, precisely because it was an undemanding big-budget indulgence; a pop-music story without a lot of drug use or other torturous, tiresome self-destructive behavior on parade. Although Johnson is attractive and agreeable enough as the reckless heroine, the star performance is the charming, funny Tracie Ellis Ross; defiantly batty, mercurial and high-maintenance, but not a villain. Mostly thanks to Ross, The High Note stays on-key.

Friday, May 22, 2020


Another selection in the Steve Weiss "No Festival Required" virtual cinema...

Lucky Grandma--Grandma Wong's fortune teller pronounces that her luck looks uncommonly auspicious, and at first the prophecy seems true: She returns from a bus trip to a casino to her little apartment in New York's Chinatown with a bagful of cash. The trouble is, a local gang thinks the money belongs to them and sends goons to intimidate her. Grandma Wong hires a bodyguard, Big Pong, from a rival gang, but she's still in danger.

The title character here is played by Tsai Chin, best known to American audiences as a "Bond girl" in You Only Live Twice, though I tend to remember her as Lin Tang, daughter of Christopher Lee's Fu Manchu. Stripped of glamour in her mid-eighties, she has an exhilarating furiousness as the crabby, disappointed yet still determined Grandma, trudging the streets with a cigarette constantly dangling from her lips. It's one of those marvelous near-minimalist performances that elderly actors sometimes give, at the stage of their careers when they've finally internalized the idea that less is more: Tsai Chin gets more punch with a slight widening of her eyes or tightening of her frown than a younger actor would with ten times the emoting.

Aside from her formidable performance, and that of the mountainous Corey Ha as sweet, slow-moving Big Pong--he's amusingly contrasted with the tiny Tsai Chin as he follows her down the street--Lucky Grandma is a taut, snappily-edited noir, directed by Sasie Sealy from a script she wrote with Angela Cheng. It's funny but never quite farcical, with a sense of genuine peril and some touching, reflective moments toward the end. Also, Andrew Orkin's menacingly percussive, unhurried music is the best film score I've heard so far this year.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020


On this date in 1989, Steve De Jarnatt’s film Miracle Mile opened. I saw it the following afternoon, at a shopping mall multiplex in Greenbelt, Maryland. I loved it, but because it potently dramatized certain morbid scenarios that have long haunted my imagination, I could never bring myself to see it again. Yet scenes and details from the film stayed in my memory through the decades, more vividly than many films I’ve seen multiple times.

Recently I was urged, by the director himself, that it was time to revisit the film, so I acquired the fine Kino Lorber Blu-ray. I hadn’t misremembered; it was at least as spellbinding this time as it was three decades ago.

For the uninitiated, Miracle Mile starts as a wistful meet-cute romance. Harry (Anthony Edwards), a trombone player passing through L.A. on a gig, meets Julie (Mare Winningham), a waitress who lives in Park La Brea, while they’re touring the Page Museum and gazing at the tarpits.

Whimsical circumstances make Harry oversleep for his big date with Julie; he shows up after three in the morning at the diner where she works, in the title neighborhood, but of course she’s long since gone home. He answers a ringing phone in the booth outside the diner, and on the other end of the line hears a frantic young soldier (voiced by Raphael Sbarge) in a missile silo, who claims he’s misdialed trying to reach his father to tell him: World War III is on, and the U.S. has a little over an hour before the missiles hit.

From there on, Miracle Mile is a headlong real-time nightmare, as poor Harry tries, first, to convince a bunch of strangers in the diner to take his story seriously, and then to find Julie and get her out of town. Even without the threat of nuclear devastation, things do not go smoothly.

Not only by bringing to woozily plausible-seeming life a threat that many of us spent the Reagan years fretting about, but also from Theo Van Sande’s queasy-yet-beautiful pastel/neon L.A.-hangover cinematography and the brooding score by Tangerine Dream, Miracle Mile seems very much an ‘80s movie. But it doesn’t seem dated; especially in our current weird times, the feeling of plausibility very distressingly remains.

I should also note that, while the movie is scary, it isn’t a downer. Edwards and Winningham are almost achingly lovable, and the supporting ensemble is tough to beat: Mykelti Williamson, Denise Crosby, Lou Hancock, John Agar, Robert DoQui, O-Lan Jones, Kurt Fuller, Alan Rosenberg, Danny de la Paz, Earl Boen, Brian Thompson, Claude Earl Jones, Howard Swain, Diane Delano and Edward Bunker, among others.

There’s a surprising amount of grim but hectic and effective comedy, and while De Jarnatt shows us horrifying rioting in the streets near the end, he persistently balances this jaundiced view of humanity with touches of human tenderness and integrity. Indeed, the overall sensibility with which De Jarnatt—who hasn't made another feature since, though he’s written and directed copious TV—imbues the film is warm and generous-hearted, and gallantly romantic.

One specimen of this romance may be found in the extensive and entertaining special features that come on the Kino Lorber disc: De Jarnatt’s alternate “happy” ending—two sweet extra seconds.

Friday, May 15, 2020


For many years my friend Steve Weiss has been the impresario behind the No Festival Required film series in the Valley; in these times he's trying to prove that No Venue is Required, either. Available for at least a week, starting today, at the NFR "virtual cinema" is...

Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music--Trying to cram the story of music in New Orleans into slightly over an hour and a half is the sort of thing that could make the head of Ken Burns explode. But producer-director Michael Murphy (not the actor) follows the great trumpeter and jazz composer Terence Blanchard as he wanders the streets of his beloved home town and gushes about the African-American, Cuban, Native American and even classical roots of jazz, blues, rock, funk and hip-hop, and the NOLA giants who guided these styles.

Fellow talking-head gushers include Wynton Marsalis, Irma Thomas, the Nevilles, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Harry Connick, Jr., Keith Richard, Robert Plant and Sting, among many others. The movie is at most a quick overview, of course, but it's slickly made, the enthusiasm of the participants is infectious, and the music is obviously irresistible. Indeed, as with many music documentaries, there are times when you may want to say to the interviewees "Shut up so I can listen."

Also playing, in the virtual sense, at Tucson's The Loft Cinema...

Clementine--The beautiful Cuban-American actress Otmara Morrero plays L.A. artist Karen, who, dumped by her older artist lover, impulsively travels to Oregon and breaks into the woman's lovely lake house. While staying there, she gets involved with a mysterious, much younger woman (Sydney Sweeney)--a girl, really--from across the lake.

This very quiet, laconic, subtly tense drama, the feature debut of writer-director Lara Gallagher, seems like an idyll about emotional resiliency and renewal after heartbreak. Then, in its last quarter, it takes a turn into thriller territory. The major theme seems to be that age and experience offer little protection from the stings and bruises and social awkwardness of love and attraction. This won't come as breaking news for most of us; still the performances are touching, Gallagher's direction is assured, and it's hard not to like a film that so clearly recognizes the healing power of dogs.

Monday, May 11, 2020


Now available on YouTube, VUDU, etc:

Angelfish--This drama is set in the Bronx in the early '90s; long enough ago that people still called each other on push-button phones and didn't have Facebook profiles. This would give it some nostalgic value even if it weren't a sweet, tender and convincing teen romance, which it is.

Brendan (Jimi Stanton) is a tough but deeply decent and responsible teenage Irish-American kid who works in a grocery deli to support, just barely, his drunk young single Mom (Erin Davie) and his younger brother Conor (Stanley Simons), who's starting to hang with a bad crowd. When Eva, from a Puerto Rican family with a strict mother (Rosie Berrido) and mentally challenged brother (Ivan Mendez), comes into the store, Brendan understandably falls in love at first sight with her. Soon after, in response to his gentle attentions, she reciprocates.

Eva is played by a rapper known as Princess Nokia (aka Destiny Nicole Frasqueri), heartbreakingly lovely and a natural, open-hearted actress. Stanton is equally endearing, and before long we're invested in the fate of their love, and, if we're experienced moviegoers, anxious that something dreadful might be in store for us.

But writer-directed Peter Lee, supposedly inspired by a true story, doesn't punish us too much; trouble arises from the conflict between what these two kids want and the duty they feel toward their families, but nothing lurid or horrible is visited upon them, and by extension on us. Indeed the movie is simple and modest to the point of being slight, but it's so confidently made, and the actors, especially the leads, are so directly and guilelessly charming that it's a pleasure.

Monday, May 4, 2020


Now streaming...

The WretchedA troubled teen, Ben (John-Paul Howard), goes to stay with his Dad and work at a marina in the wake of his parents’ separation. He begins to suspect that the Mom of the nice young family next door is a witch—not a nice, New-Agey Wiccan, but a taloned, skin-stealing, kid-abducting elemental forest crone; something akin to the “Boo Hag” of South Carolina folklore.

There are hair-raising moments and an agreeable Stephen-King-ish flavor to this shocker, written and directed by the Pierce Brothers (Brett and Drew). Ben, a flawed but decent, courageous kid, is easy to root for; the gore and splatter effects, though potently gruesome, don’t feel gratuitous, and there’s an ingenious plot twist. Some sort of subtext about how kids get forgotten during parental drama is rattling around under the movie’s surface, but this isn’t allowed to interfere with the thrills. Despite a misstep here and there, this is one of the more entertainingly straightforward horror pictures in a while.

Friday, May 1, 2020


Streaming this evening as part of the Lionsgate Live: A Night at the Movies! series is 2016's La La Land. Here's what I said about it then:

La La LandMia (Emma Stone) is a struggling actress, working as a barista on the Warner Brothers lot in the title town. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling jazz pianist who wants to open his own club. The story of how they meet, fall in love, drift apart and so forth unfolds via original songs staged as elaborate production numbers.

There’s a lot that’s really good about this picture, and it’s hard not to admire its ambitiousness. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, with music by Justin Hurwitz, and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, it’s a serious, un-ironic attempt to do something that seems to me very much worth doing—reinvent the old-school movie musical as a fully contemporary form. So I feel like a bit of a bum not being able to join in the general critical rapture. But I don’t think La La Land entirely comes off.

It’s possible that Chazelle has succeeded in creating a sort of neoclassical style for musicals that can be built on. But La La Land’s jazz tunes, though pretty, are a little tame and unvaried, and the large-scale dances have the feel of flash-mob cavorting—they don’t bristle with the intensity and insolent precision of the numbers in, say, a ‘50s-era MGM musical, or, for that matter, of the average "Bollywood" musical.

More problematically, the leads aren’t natural musical performers. Gosling and Stone have a touching rapport as actors—you believe they’re in love—and they dance well. But their voices seem featureless and slight. They’re vivid screen presences until they start singing. As soon as they do, their personalities recede.

For many of us, there are few forms of entertainment that have the potential to generate the sheer excitement of the musical, both on stage and screen. If La La Land brings the genre back to vitality, I’ll rejoice. But while much of this movie is clever and enjoyable, I can’t say I found it exciting.