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.