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.