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, Arkansas: 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.