Friday, December 31, 2021


 One more for 2021; still in theaters...

House of Gucci--Lady Gaga plays Patrizia Gucci in Ridley Scott's dramatization of the family turbulence leading up to the 1995 shooting of her husband Maurizio. She's deliciously ripe and amiable in the first half of the story, depicting how she and Maurizio (Adam Driver) met in Milan in the late '70s, how he was willing to renounce his fortune over the disapproval of his father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) for the marriage, and how Maurizio eventually did join the family business, helped to revive the venerable but declining brand, and engaged in internal intrigues with his Uncle Aldo (Al Pacino) and cousin Paolo (Jared Leto).

Gaga is also believable and sad, if inevitably less fun, in the second half, when Maurizio drifts away from her. She grows desperate, and, under the influence of a psychic (Salma Hayek), dangerous.

The leading lady is strong; whether that makes House of Gucci's 158 minutes worth sitting through is another matter. Scott's usual panache seemed to desert him here. The pacing is flat, and the effect is of a competent, expensive but unexciting TV movie.

Still, there's undeniable camp value in watching this star-studded cast spew their dialogue at each other, in English but with radio-comedy Italian accents. Driver makes some effort to underplay, and comes across respectably. Pacino hams away enjoyably, and Irons, who's starting to resemble the late-vintage Boris Karloff, manages some impressively suave nastiness.

The shocker is Leto, who turns the hapless Paolo's lines into aggrieved sing-song arias. It feels like he was trying to see how far he could go before Scott asked him to tone it down. Apparently that didn't happen.

Saturday, December 25, 2021


 Merry Christmas everybody!

The Tragedy of Macbeth--Nothing says "Christmas" like a tale of witchcraft,  madness, tyranny and the murder of a guest by his host. So Joel Coen, working independently of his brother Ethan for the first time, has served us up an adaptation of Shakespeare's bad-juju masterpiece, with the great Denzel Washington in the title role and the great Frances McDormand as the Lady.

It's a fine-looking film, shot in lustrous black-and-white by Bruno Delbonnel on stylized, angular sets by Stefan Dechant, and it isn't saddled with any heavy-handed "interpretation." Still, it's full of choices I found disappointing.

All Three Witches, for instance, are played by the same actress, Kathryn Hunter, switching voices and contorting her body. She's brilliant, but the conceit doesn't come off authentically; it feels like an Oral Interpretation class exercise rather than true drama. As in Roman Polanski's 1971 version, the Thane of Ross is here portrayed as a scheming, side-switching Machiavel; in both versions this seems to me to dilute the central spiritual tragedy of the main characters.

There are successful aspects to the film: Coen's use of crows as a recurring motif is creepy and effective, for instance, and the confrontation with Young Siward is handled imaginatively. Stephen Root, excellent as usual, tosses off the Porter scene with no mugging.

On the whole, Polanski's Middle Ages bloodbath of '71 is a more satisfying version. But Coen's film has something Polanski's doesn't: true, charismatic stars in the leads. Washington keeps it reserved and quiet, but his internal power is commanding.

McDormand, on the other hand, lets it rip from her first scene, with terrifying intensity but also with lucidity and focus. You can see why her husband's reluctance to commit the dreadful deed wilts before her inexorable will; you can also see, appallingly, the psychological pit she's digging for herself. She's flawless. 

Whatever its shortfalls, this movie has two of the very best actors of their generation playing two of the greatest roles in Western drama. That's not something one should skip lightly.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021


Opening today:

The Tender Bar--J. R. Moehringer's 2005 memoir is the basis for this  coming of age story directed by George Clooney, from a script by William Monahan. J. R. (the excellent Daniel Ranieri as a kid; the perfectly acceptable Tye Sheridan as a youth) grows up in the run-down Long Island home of his run-down Grandfather (Christopher Lloyd at his most run-down). His single Mom (Lily Rabe) has retreated there, in common with other failed or struggling or stuck descendants of the house.

J. R.'s father (Max Martini) is barely in the picture; a radio disc jockey known as "The Voice," he's a mean and unreliable drunk, so this is likely for the best. In his absence, the narrator turns to his Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck) as a surrogate father, and lucks out. Charlie, another inmate of the shabby Manhasset manse, maintains a mildly gruff pose, but is a pussycat who adores his nephew, slipping him a bill now and then and dispensing life wisdom about how to be an upstanding guy. He's also a bibliophile who runs a bar called "The Dickens" which is full of great literature that he encourages--dares, really--J. R. to read.

Apparently this educational strategy works out, because in the second half, the grown-up J. R. goes to Yale. We follow him there as he chases a gorgeous rich kid (Brianna Middleton) who likes him but doesn't take him seriously, though he can't get this through his head; we also see him break into the pages of the New York Times and begin his meteoric career. Through it all, he never loses his affection for The Dickens, its regulars, and the quietly tender Uncle Charlie.

There's nothing very wrong with any of this, but there's nothing very urgently dramatic about it, either. The scenes between J. R. and his sneering, contemptuous father are the only time the movie shows any real volatility. There's a pleasant, nostalgic rhythm to the first half, buoyed along easily by Affleck's keenly likable performance; the second half, with J. R.'s paysan parvenu adventures in college and beyond, feels more formulaic and tired.

The movie does feel like a throwback, however. Stories of kids striving to make good in the academic big leagues are now customarily not about straight white guys. J. R.'s success feels akin to stuff like The Paper Chase or A Small Circle of Friends. Clooney may not have been altogether at ease with how white The Tender Bar is, as he cast the longed-for rich beauty as biracial, though in the book Moehringer describes her as classically whitebread. There's nothing remotely implausible about J. R.'s (or anyone's) attraction to the movie version of the character, but this pointedly nontraditional casting feels more preemptive than period precise.

Friday, December 17, 2021


Opening this weekend...

Nightmare Alley--"Geek" has now become roughly analogous to "nerd" or "extreme enthusiast." But the term once had horrific connotations; it was carny slang for a sideshow performer who would do ghastly acts--bite the heads off of live chickens, for instance--usually to feed an alcohol or drug habit. The bottom rung of show business (I almost wrote "the bottom rung of humanity" but then I remembered the 45th President and his cronies), this revolting occupation was the jumping-off point for William Lindsay Gresham's classic lower-depths novel Nightmare Alley (1946).

An atmospheric if softened-up movie of it was made in 1947 with Tyrone Power as Stan, the newbie carny who looks at the geek and knows he could never fall to such a degraded level. Bradley Cooper plays Stan in this gorgeously stylized new version from the great Guillermo del Toro, working from an adaptation he co-wrote with Sunset Gun maven Kim Morgan.

Stan, a drifter running away from something awful, makes himself useful as a laborer to a desolate midwestern carny. Soon he's learning the tricks of fortune-telling and mind-reading acts, which here are so talmudical that earning an honest living seems like it would be far easier. He learns how to calm down an angry cop, and how to dispose of a geek who's outlived his usefulness, and where to find a new one. 

And the work brings out Stan's creative side; soon he's designed a spectacular new "electric chair" act for the lovely Molly (Rooney Mara). He's also taught a weird sort of hustler ethic; the veteran fortune-teller Zeena (Toni Collette, magnificent as ever) warns him against doing a "spookshow," that is, actually faking a manifestation of a departed loved one.

This first half, set in the carny amongst its disreputable but mostly warm and likable denizens, is darkly delightful, visually sumptuous and full of terrific, potent acting and pungent dialogue. As with both the novel and the earlier film version, the second half, in which Stan leaves the carny to start a higher-end mentalist scam--and foolishly ignores Zeena's advice--is less engaging. His scenes as the hapless fly in the parlor of a lacquered, satanic psychoanalyst (Cate Blanchett), though entertaining enough, border on camp, and are a little oppressive after the buoyant, motley first act.

Still, this is a rich and absorbing melodrama. Actors seem to thrive in front of del Toro's camera, and alongside the leads and the wondrous Collette, scene-stealers here include Willem Dafoe as the candidly heartless boss, Ron Perlman as an avuncular carny and, perhaps best of all, David Strathairn as Pete, Stan's washed-up, gently rueful mentor. Even in the second half, there's a splendid quick turn by Mary Steenburgen, and Richard Jenkins is scary, and briefly piteous, as the cold-hearted tycoon for whom Stan puts on his spookshow.

Finally, a word should be said for Paul Anderson, as the geek. He plays the part to the hilt, yet without hamming, and with a dreadful glimpse of the human being he was.

Monday, December 13, 2021


Phoenix Film Critic Society, of which I'm always proud to note that I'm a founding member, has announced our 2021 award winners. Kenneth Branagh's autobiographical drama Belfast...

...won Best Picture, Best Director and three other awards; the new version of Dune also won five awards. Check out the full list here. As always, some of it reflects my voting, some doesn't, but there are lots of movies worth seeing on the list.

Friday, December 10, 2021


Opening this weekend:

West Side Story--The original 1961 film version of the 1957 Broadway musical has aged well, on the whole, but it has aged. The retelling of Romeo and Juliet in New York street gang dress still holds an audience beautifully, and the performances and numbers remain exciting, at their best electrifying. But the depiction of gangs can feel a bit quaint; the Jets, in particular, come across more like the Bowery Boys than like convincingly dangerous hoodlums, and the take on Puerto Rican culture is narrow. The dubbing sounds a little canned at times, and the orchestrations are over-symphonically lush.

That said, it remains a terrific picture, and it was hard to see a pressing need for a remake. But director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have given us one, and it's improbably superb, better than the original in some ways (not all), reimagined without laborious "reinterpretation"; new, yet somehow entirely faithful to the material.

It begins with urban renewal--Spielberg's camera gliding down and skulking around the wreckage of the slummy Upper West Side neighborhoods being cleared to make way for the Lincoln Center complex in the late '50s/early '60s. To those unmistakable, teasing opening bites of Leonard Bernstein's score, we see the Jets (Anglo gang) stealing cans of paint and making a sortie into the turf of the Sharks (Puerto Rican gang) for a reason that carries a shocking punch.

From there on, Spielberg and Kushner ingeniously, even playfully dramatize the economic and ethnic shifts that created the gang animosities, and give their movie a specific context that the original, with its almost fairy-tale Montague-and-Capulet conflict, only hints at. Other marginalized figures, like "Anybodys" (non-binary actor Iris Menas), get a deeper treatment here as well.

Stimulating as all this is, it would mean nothing if the music and acting were soulless. But somehow these numbers, some of them repurposed and reset, spring to life. Along with choreographer Justin Peck, Spielberg, again, deserves no small portion of the credit for this; he even gets the cars on the streets into the kinetic rhythms of the tunes.

But the actors are even more potent, most surprisingly in the treacherous lead roles. Who knew Ansel Elgort could sing like that? He plays Tony straightforwardly and guilelessly, and he and tiny newcomer Rachel Zegler, as Maria, throw themselves into their joy at each other with no mannerism or embarrassment, so that their pure and perfect love at first sight, always the difficult part of this story, almost becomes plausible.

Mike Faist brings a haunted undertone to his cocksure manner as Riff, and Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez are knockouts as Anita and Bernardo. If neither of them quite have the febrile glamour and sexiness of Rita Moreno and George Chakiris in the original, well, who could?

Moreno, by the way, appears here, not in a honorary cameo but in a real role--the equivalent of Doc the drugstore proprietor--and she nails it with guts and grace. She gave the best performance in the original, and one of the best here.

Friday, November 19, 2021


Opening this weekend:

King Richard--This biopic concerns the early rise of two of the greatest athletes of our time, Venus and Serena Williams. I found myself feeling a pang of sympathy for the casting director; how the hell is anyone supposed to find young actresses who plausibly suggest those two demigoddesses, and who presumably had to have at least some aptitude for tennis as well?

Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton got the parts, and play them well, with unaffected sweetness and physical confidence that brings the tennis scenes to life. But we catch a glimpse of the genuine articles in some video footage near the end, and realize that there's no replacement for them.

This doesn't matter much, however; the real focus of the film, as the title indicates, is Richard Williams, their father and, in their earlier years, their largely self-taught coach and manager. A security guard from Louisiana living in L.A., the elder Williams, played by Will Smith, is shown here to have essentially created his two world-beating prodigies from scratch.

The movie begins with him explaining to baffled white tennis coaches and sponsors he's trying to recruit that he wrote a plan to develop his girls into champs before they were born. Then he talked his wife Brandi (Aunjanue Ellis) into having two more children for this purpose (they both had children from previous relationships), and coached them rigorously, on dangerous, gang-infested neighborhood tennis courts in Compton.

You can hardly blame the guys listening to Williams for dismissing him as a crackpot, or even his disapproving neighbor for wondering if he's working them too hard. The point of the movie, however, is that almost everything Williams predicted came spectacularly true. It also shows him teaching them humility and good sportsmanship, almost tyrannically.

I think you'd have to have a piece of your soul missing not to find this story, briskly directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green from a script by Zach Baylin, at least a little bit moving and inspiring. The role fits Smith like a glove, both in his tireless positivity and his exhausting eccentricity, and we feel it when he gets angry at the racist condescension of the white tennis bigshots. And it's also hard not to love the character's preaching to his girls against unsportsmanlike braggadocio, and his disgust with abusively competitive tennis parents.

But there's no way around it, there's something crazy, almost science-fictional, about this story as well, as if the champs were cloned and programmed for their destiny. This sunny movie shows us happy, well-rounded, singing, squabbling little girls; if either Venus or Serena ever thought they might want to do something else with their lives we don't see it. Probably the world is full of sports parents with grandiose visions like this; what makes King Richard seem far stranger than fiction is that in this case the vision wasn't delusional.

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time--This portrait arrives more than thirty years after it was begun. Over the decades of its gestation, the director, Robert B. Weide, became a talking head and a first-person presence in the film, explaining what Vonnegut means to him, how the project began, and (sort of) explaining the delay in completing it.

In this way it's a bit like many of Vonnegut's own books, especially his swansong novel Timequake, with his authorial intrusions that foreshadowed and influenced the "meta" techniques of contemporary lit. Weide, a veteran documentarian as well as a producer and director of Curb Your Enthusiasm, had idolized Vonnegut since high school, and wrote to him proposing the project in the '80s. The men hit it off, and as shooting continued they swiftly became close friends, maybe even best friends.

Thus, along with remarkable access to archival material--vivid home movies from the author's childhood and youth, marked-up manuscripts, rejection slips, drawings etc (and, be forewarned, some hard-to-watch wartime footage)--the interviews Weide captured of Vonnegut, teasing, ruminating, laughing inappropriately at grim stories, seem unusually candid and intimate. Vonnegut's children and stepchildren also appear, as well as friends and colleagues ranging from John Irving to Morley Safer, and generous chunks of his prose are heard, read by Sam Waterston when no recording of Vonnegut is extant.

Vonnegut has been much on my mind of late, as I had the opportunity to visit the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in Indianapolis this past August; some of the artifacts I saw on display there are shown in the film. Although I've been a voracious Vonnegut reader since about the time that Weide started, I learned much from Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. It's a chronicle of a remarkable life; it's also a chronicle of an enviable friendship.

Friday, November 12, 2021


Opening this weekend:

Belfast--One day in 1969, nine-year-old Buddy is walking home through the teeming, friendly streets of his working-class, religiously-mixed neighborhood in the title city. Just before he gets there, a furious mob suddenly rounds the corner and starts smashing windows of his Catholic neighbors. Before long the streets are full of tanks and soldiers and barricades.

This is the beginning of "The Troubles," the decades-long strife between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast. But for Buddy (Jude Hill), the more pressing issues are his crush on a beautiful classmate, or which movie he'll be taken to see, or keeping straight which road his fire-and-brimstone (Protestant) clergyman recommends he take to avoid damnation.

We see the struggles of his beautiful, decent mother (Caitriona Balfe), to raise him and his siblings during the frequent and lengthy absences of his loving but financially nonchalant father (Jamie Dornan), and the gentle teasing between his mutually adoring grandparents (Judy Dench and Ciaran Hinds), all through Buddy's eyes. We also see his father's courageous refusal to be roped in to the mob by local protestant thugs, and we hear his parents debate whether to leave their beloved hometown.

The film, written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, is largely autobiographical; it's much like Branagh's version of John Boorman's great Hope and Glory (1987), about childhood fun during the Blitz. After a glimpse of modern-day Belfast, the movie is rendered in crisply beautiful black and white by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, with moments in vivid color when Buddy sees movies like One Million Years B.C. or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or when he's taken to see A Christmas Carol onstage.

The period detail is convincing, and the acting is terrific, with Dench and Hinds unsurprisingly filching big chunks of the movie as the grandparents. Their roles, especially Dench's, are arguably underwritten, but they let us see, without telegraphing, oceanic expanses of love and worry and pride behind their offhanded manner. Branagh confers a child's-eye glamor on Dornan and Balfe; the latter lets us see her passionate nature in a couple of scenes in which she dances. And young Hill is splendidly unfussy and direct as Buddy.

Not every aspect of Belfast works; Buddy's crush, for instance, doesn't build up much audience investment, and his siblings barely register. But the movie sneaks up on you emotionally. By the end I was in tears, very honestly won.

Also, any movie with a soundtrack made up of one Van Morrison tune after another is sure to be worth seeing, if only for that.

Friday, November 5, 2021


Opening this weekend:

Spencer--In 2016 the Chilean director Pablo Larrain gave us Jackie, with Natalie Portman as JFK's shattered, furious widow. It was an impressive, well-made film that seemed curiously lacking in any real point beyond providing Portman with an award-bait role. Now Larrain is back with another portrait of an iconic, history-adjacent young woman suppressing her rage behind an expected public docility. Again, the role is nomination-bait, this time for Kristen Stewart as Diana, Princess of Wales.

The movie calls itself "A FABLE FROM A TRUE TRAGEDY," an elegant way of saying: we speculated freely about real people (which is, of course, true of all historical fiction). It takes place over a Christmas holiday in 1991. Diana is trying to drive herself to the "festivities" of The Queen (Stella Gonet), her already-estranged husband Charles (Jack Farthing) and the whole creepy clan at rural Sandringham House, but she's hopelessly late and lost. "Where the f**k am I?" is her first line, and one suspects there's a double meaning in that.

She's clearly in no mood to spend a second with any of these people except her boys. But as Spencer progresses, we see that this is more than just routine distaste; our heroine is in major psychological distress. Immersed in loneliness, resentment, sexual frustration, bulimia and bingeing, and isolation without privacy, she's teetering on the brink of a serious meltdown. A copy of an old tome about Anne Boleyn on her bedside table doesn't help her sense of well-being. 

Larrain takes his time, and gradually this slow, stately, hushed film, with its keening orchestral score by Jonny Greenwood, begins to generate some juicy tension in a way that Jackie never did. Toward the end, there are moments that could easily tip over into camp (which wouldn't necessarily be unwelcome) if not for Larrain's austere style. It's to screenwriter Steven Knight's credit that he doesn't offer us a hagiographic take on Diana's character; she's clearly a bit of, well, a drama queen, and early on you may find her obtuse tardiness as exasperating as Charles and the other Windsor waxworks do. After all, you may wonder, does she think she's the only person in the world who dreads family holidays?

But as the movie progresses, and we get a feel for the oppressiveness of the world into which Diana was swept as a teenager, her plight makes her sympathetic, and ultimately likable. This has a lot to do with Kristen Stewart. Often on the blank, slack-jawed side, Stewart came to life in 2016 in the somewhat overlooked, eerily sexy ghost story Personal Shopper, and this gothic seems to give her a charge as well; her Diana has a desperate eroticism and a sorrowful, self-lacerating anger so deep it frightens her, and those around her.

For a while it also seems as if the movie will be a pure vehicle, with the other characters mere bit players. But a few of them are permitted a candid scene or two with the Princess: Timothy Spall as an unflappable Equerry in charge of keeping her secure (and compliant); the excellent Jacki Nielen and Freddie Spry as her adored young princes; Sean Harris as Chef Darren McGrady. Best of all is Sally Hawkins as Diana's loyal dresser; their scene, laughing together on a beach, has the feel of a liberation from captivity, for both of them.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021


The Wife, The Kid and I spent the weekend before last in beautiful Palm Springs, so that Your Humble Narrator...

...could check out and review a couple of fascinating obscurities at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival at the Camelot Theatre on Baristo.

On the way, we stopped in Quartzsite, Arizona, at Reader's Oasis Books...

...where I had stopped in May of 2019 in hopes of interviewing the celebrated "Naked Bookseller" Paul Winer, only to find the place closed and learn, upon calling his wife Joanne, that Winer had died in a hospice in Yuma just a couple of days earlier (here's the Phoenix Magazine story I wrote about him at the time). This time, I found the store open, and Joanne sitting disconsolately in the doorway, but alas, the place was without electrical power, and the books seemed dusty and dry. Heartbreaking. Nonetheless, I left with several volumes, including a Western paperback called The Man From Padera, by cowboy star Rory Calhoun.

Then we stopped for gas at Chiriaco Summit, California, and paid a quick visit to "William the Conqueror" (Patton's dog) at the Patton Museum there...

In Palm Springs, we had several fine meals, including lox and eggs at Sherman's...

On Saturday, after dropping the ladies off to shop at the outlet malls just west of Palm Springs, I headed back to the incredibly windy exit at Cabazon to visit my beloved roadside dinosaurs (famously featured in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure) to find they had been painted in Flintstones style...

Oh the indignity. "Dinny" looks rather irritable about it...

I went into the gift shop inside Dinny's belly to see if I could establish if the dinos are still under occupation by the anti-evolutionist crowd, and rather to my surprise, could find no evidence of it. There were no books, brochures, tracts or signage to that effect that I spotted, just standard toys, shirts, etc. It made me wonder if, maybe, the owners found their anti-evolutionist views bad for business and decided to self-suppress them, at least in the gift shop. 

In any case, sculptor Claude Bell's bas-relief depictions of earlier humans, which suggest a belief in evolution, may still be seen in the interior walls...

Outside, there's also this snake sculpture...

...and the huge, dinosaur-adorned sign of the Wheel Inn Restaurant...

It's now closed, alas, but I would have eaten there if it wasn't.

On the ride home we stopped in Quartzsite again for gas, and saw still more fauna I would like to have adopted...

Monday, November 1, 2021


Hope everybody had a great Halloween. We got about 20 kids to the door this year, a major improvement on last year's plague-inhibited turnout, and our young neighbors threw a small block party in their driveway, which added a festive atmosphere our neighborhood usually lacks. My doctor's orders forbid me to eat more than a taste of candy, and I'm proud to say that I sat out by our door all night, reading a 1976 issue of The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves...

...with a big bowl of Reese's Cups and Kit Kats and managed to not eat a single one.

The Wife, wishing to avoid giving me any candy, gave me an unexpected and truly delightful Halloween treat this year: Ed Emberley's Drawing Book of Animals...

...and, by the same author, How to Draw Monsters and More Scary Stuff.

Emberley's Drawing Book of Animals (1970) was among my favorite books as a kid, not because I was a gifted artist but because I wasn't. I loved to draw, but I stunk at it (I remember being bitterly jealous of a kid in my class named Jeff because he could draw so well). Emberley's book began with a chart of simple shapes and characters, and the assertion "If you can draw these shapes, letters, numbers and things, you will be able to draw all the animals in this book." He then charted the order in which the shapes are assembled, starting with an ant (a single black dot), moving on to a brown ant (a single brown dot) a green ant (a single green dot) and a "brown ant wearing green sweater" (also a single green dot).

From there, he shows us how to do worms, snakes, pollywogs, on through turtles, frogs, birds, bats, raccoons, wolves, elephants and giraffes, ending with an ambitious dragon...

This last creature proved him optimistic, in my case; I could make all the shapes, sure, but it required patience and space-budgeting skills I didn't (and don't) have to make it look good.

Even so, Emberly's tutorials allowed me to draw pictures that, while they certainly didn't have the charm of his, nonetheless weren't painful for the wretchedly untalented artist to look upon. It was a godsend. The pollywog, the bat, the owl and especially the frog are still among my go-to doodles. Here's Emberley's frog...

And here's one by me, drawn today...

I have long wanted to direct a production of The Frogs by Aristophanes, mostly so I could draw the poster myself.

I was rhapsodizing about all this to The Wife as we headed to lunch, and noted that I probably should, at some point, have written to Emberley to thank him. She looked him up on her phone, established that he is still with us, and suggested that I do so now. So when I got back from lunch I found Emberley's Facebook page and sent him the following PM:

"Mr. Ed Emberley. This year for Halloween my wife, wishing to give me a non-caloric present, gave me Ed Emberley's How to Draw Monsters and More Scary Stuff as well as your Drawing Book of Animals, having often heard about how much I loved your drawing books when I was a kid. I'll be sixty years old on my next birthday, so I'm about a half-century overdue in writing to thank you for your wonderful books: You made it possible for kids like me, who enjoy drawing but have no talent for it, to draw fun pictures. Your frog is still a standard for me if I need to draw something to amuse a child, or just amuse myself. Happy Halloween great man! best M.V. Moorhead"

To my astonishment, shortly thereafter I received this response!:

"Glad a youngster like you could learn from a 90 year old like me. Happy Halloween! And thanks!"

This pleased me enormously. Leafing through the Drawing Book of Animals, I read the dedication, which I either had forgotten or not noticed when I was a kid. A picture of Emberley as a kid, with the words: "For the boy I was, the book I could not find." Thanks to him, the rest of us found it.

Monday, October 25, 2021


This past weekend Your Humble Narrator saw two real gems at this year's belated-from-May version of the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival:

El Vampiro Negro (The Black Vampire)--The "vampire" of the title is of a non-supernatural, psychological nature in this 1953 thriller from Argentina. It's another remake of Fritz Lang's M, loosely retold, although the child-killer still whistles "In the Hall of the Mountain King" when he sees little girls. Played by Nathan Pinzon--usually a comedy star--The Vampire is a nebbishy private teacher of English, tormented by his horrible compulsion.

The star is beautiful Olga Zubarry as a nightclub singer who has witnessed The Vampire disposing of a body, but initially avoids telling the police inspector (Roberto Escalada), not wanting the publicity for a reason that now seems quaint. The connection between our heroine and the handsome, repressed inspector, who has a paralyzed wife, sets up a plot payoff that fails to show up, and the movie, directed and co-written by the Uruguayan Roman Vinoly Barreto, rings other peculiar, convoluted but oddly effective variations on the M plot.

It's possible that the filmmakers attempt to pack too much story into the brief running time, and it's hard to quite pin down the movie's moral point of view. The acting is powerful, however, and the suspenseful flourishes toward the end work superbly.

The movie has a lush score by Juan Ehlert that perhaps sounds a little inappropriately idyllic. But the print shown in Palm Springs, restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in cooperation with the Noir Foundation, shows off the cinematography of Anibal Gonzalez Paz beautifully. See this one if you get a chance.

The Cruel Tower--"I'm studyin' to be a crook," says Casey (Steve Brodie) as he shuffles a marked deck. That way, he hopes, he won't end up like his late colleague Tony. That's how desperate the characters in this roiling 1956 melodrama are; becoming a crook would be an aspirational step up in workplace safety.

They're steeplejacks, you see; the guys who scale water towers and smokestacks and church steeples for maintenance and repair. For those of us with a lifelong terror of heights, this is tension enough, but the movie, directed by Lew Landers, mixes in a romantic triangle between the splenetic boss (Charles McGraw), the handsome, haunted young drifter (John Ericson) who falls in with the crew, and smiling, statuesque Mari Blanchard, often referred to here simply as "The Babe." There's also booze, sabotage, juke-joint brawling and a Mission right out of Guys and Dolls.

Along with Brodie, the terrific supporting cast includes Peter Whitney, Alan Hale, Jr., glimpses of Stafford Repp and Dick Rich, and a nice bit by Carol Kelly as a sassy, deeply unimpressed waitress. The script, by Warren Douglas (adapting a novel by William Brown Hartley) has some ripe noir flourishes; asked if The Babe knows that her lover is married, a character matter-of-factly replies "She's not stupid, she's just evil."

Friday, October 22, 2021


Opening this weekend:

Ron's Gone Wrong--"B-bots" are the hot new item every kid wants. Shaped like big glowing Tic Tacs, B-bots are personalized robotic sidekicks programmed to cater to each individual kid's tastes, and to maximize their social media presence.

The craze for this highly plausible consumer product is the premise of this CGI animated comedy, a Brit production distributed in the states by 20th Century. Our junior-high-age hero Barney would love a B-bot for his birthday, but Barney's dad, a struggling novelties salesman, can't afford to get him a brand new one, so he gives him one that literally fell off a truck.

This is Ron (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), and he's damaged goods; he has indeed gone wrong, and his screwy malfunctioning antics generate much wacky mayhem. Initially appalled, Barney gradually learns to love his well-meaning but haywire pal in a way that the kids with functional B-bots can't. Ron, who seems like a cousin of the similarly minimalist and deadpan Baymax in Disney's 2014 Big Hero 6, is indeed a lovable presence.

The overarching point of Ron's Gone Wrong--that true friendship can't be programmed; it's messy and always requires compromise and acceptance--is a good one. But the movie's more direct and immediate points, about our society's alarming if not terrifying addiction to social media, are probably more urgently needed.

Thursday, October 21, 2021


In October's honor...

...Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival presents its first horror movie, for free! The unnerving short subject Dibbuk, about the efforts of a minyan to exorcise a man of the titular spirit, may be viewed from October 21 through October 24. Go to to watch.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021


Now in theaters:

Halloween Kills--Well, it certainly seems to, at the box office, at least. The new installment in the slasher series slaughtered at the multiplexes this weekend, even though it was available to stream for free on video. This suggests that people may still want the communal experience of moviegoing, at least for certain kinds of movies, horror flicks being an obvious example. I find this a cheering thought.

Unfortunately, it's not very good. It's handsomely produced, with a look and a premise and some cast members that link it nostalgically to John Carpenter's 1978 original, and it has some good ideas. But it fumbles almost all of them, and fails to be deeply scary.

Despite being burned alive at the end of the previous sequel (2018) generic masked killer Michael Myers still is not quite dead, and he plods around Haddonfield racking up more victims. Jamie Leigh Curtis is back as Laurie, hospitalized with a wound and fretted over by her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak). The focus this time, cleverly, is on the characters who were little kids in the '78 movie: Anthony Michael Hall as Tommy, Robert Longstreet as Lonnie, and Kyle Richards, who returns to the role of Lindsey which she played in the original (the fact that the little girl from Halloween is now in her fifties is scarier than anything onscreen). Tommy raises an angry mob of townies to kill Michael, just like the torch-and-pitchfork-bearing gang at the end of Universal's Frankenstein.

I was irked when I saw clips of these scenes in the trailer; this does not strike me as the most auspicious moment in our history to extoll the virtues of mob uprisings. I was pleased that screenwriters Scott Teems, Danny McBride and director David Gordon Green did not, at least, fall into this trap; indeed, mindless mass rage is repudiated by the film, and Michael is described as a personification of fear, and the reckless destruction that can arise from it. The reactionary subtext of Michael's hostilities is also hinted at; his targets this time include a middle-aged gay couple and a middle-aged interracial couple.

Something really interesting could have been done with all this, but the movie is muddled and slow and clumsily structured, and--very much unlike the original--it falls back on gore. Buckets more blood are spilled, but Halloween Kills never comes close to capturing that pervasive sense of archetypical dread that Carpenter's film had.

Certainly I'm a fan of the idea of flinty old Jamie Leigh Curtis, past her fear and ready to rise up and kick Michael's ass. The trouble is, they already made that movie, back in 1998. It was called Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, and while it wasn't in the same league as the original, it wasn't a bad picture. It's where the series should have ended, but of course, the prospect of the kind of box office that Halloween Kills is having is the surest way to make a masked killer rise again.

Sunday, October 17, 2021


Playing at 6:30 p.m., Monday, October 18, at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix:

The Maltese Falcon (1941)--This movie is, arguably, the original film noir; it was the earliest of the five movies to which the French critic Nino Frank applied the term back in 1946 (the others were Laura, Murder, My Sweet, Double Indemnity and The Woman in the Window). It's also one of the best of its kind, whatever name you choose to call the genre. If you've never seen it, the Friends of the Orpheum Theatre are doing you a solid by presenting it at that august venue this Monday. You're advised not to miss it.

Adapted from Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel and directed by John Huston, it's the tale of how San Francisco private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) gets caught up with a ring of shady characters obsessed with obtaining the title McGuffin, a figurine of a bird of incalculable value. Spade is (or poses as) a tough, cynical, amoral sort, and holds his own against the gang: oh-so-vulnerable femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), fussy Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), nervous young "gunsel" Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and jolly, lethal gentleman-thief Caspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet).

Every one of these performances and several others in the film--like Lee Patrick as Sam's loyal secretary Effie Perrine--is an instant classic; if they seem like stereotypical stock figures to modern audiences, it's because they were largely responsible for establishing the stereotypes. This is the quintessential screen incarnation of Bogart's pure tough guy persona; he works here without the gallant, romantic side he shows in Casablanca

Under Huston's amazingly confident direction--it was his directorial debut--these actors make the near-opaque exposition that they spew at each other a pleasure, whether you can follow it or not. There's little real action; much of the movie consists of the characters describing (often dishonestly) stuff that's already happened. Yet the film maintains its tension and wit throughout; on its own terms it's close to perfect.

Online, by the way, we're told to "expect some theatrical surprises throughout the show, making this a once in a lifetime cinematic experience." Dash Hammett himself couldn't have been much more cryptic.

Monday, October 11, 2021


Now in the multiplexes:

Venom: Let There Be Carnage--The King of the Rumbly Distorted Voice, Tom Hardy, is back in the dual role of Eddie Brock and Venom, the alien "symbiote" with whom he shares body-space. Eddie and Vennie have developed a bickering domestic relationship since the 2018 Marvel movie Venom; Vennie is constantly nagging his host to let him eat the brains of human "bad guys" like a kid begging a parent for permission to get a tattoo.

In this sequel, some of the Big V's genetic material gets blended with serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), who bears Eddie a grudge. Cletus turns into an uber-Venom-ish monster called Carnage, who looks like he stepped out a Francis Bacon triptych. He busts out of prison and liberates his girlfriend Shriek (Naomie Harris), who can yell really loud, and the two of them go on a wild, vengeful rampage in San Francisco.

With his vague working-class Mid-Atlantic accent (he wears a Detroit Lions jacket even though he lives in the Bay area), Hardy's Eddie is a rather recessive leading man; mostly he's a serviceable straight man to Venom. But Harrelson puts on an entertaining show as usual, and Harris is freaky and memorable. Andy Serkis directed, working in a style of headlong visual shorthand that keeps the story flying forward like a driverless speedboat, and using the San Fran locations to good advantage.

But when I tell you what I liked best about Venom: Let There Be Carnage, it will make me sound just like the old guy that I am: It's an hour and 37 minutes long. That's right, this Marvel movie is a freaking hour and a half long. It doesn't have five endings; it doesn't keep you in your seat for more than two hours in fear that you won't feel like you got enough for your money. Make no mistake, there's plenty of weird, near-surreal action. The movie doesn't skimp, but it doesn't overload our plate, either.

Thursday, October 7, 2021


If you need an intriguing read for October, you might consider...

...The Case Against Satan, a brief 1962 novel by Ray Russell of Sardonicus fame. Somehow I had never heard of this one, now out in a respectable new edition by Penguin Classics if you please, but it's a gripping fast read, and it seems inarguably influential.

Set in a Roman Catholic rectory in a working-class Chicago neighborhood, Russell's book dramatizes an exorcism. At the time, apparently, this rite was so rarely performed and archaic that it was a novelty to readers it would not be a decade later, after the release of William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel The Exorcist and its 1973 movie adaptation popularized the concept.

In Russell's yarn, the possession victim is a pretty teenage girl. The exorcism is performed by a younger priest with a drinking problem and an interest in psychology and other "modern" ideas; he's supervised by his Bishop, an older, more traditional sort. The victim is bound to a bed, and at one point she has an upset tummy to a projectile degree.

In short, the book has broad resemblances to The Exorcist that seem unmistakable. Unlike Blatty, however, Russell leaves matters ambiguous; the story could, however unconvincingly, be interpreted in non-supernatural terms.

The author's narrative tone toward then-contemporary religious attitudes is snarky and contemptuous, referring, at the novel's opening, to the modern idea of God as "...a nodding Santa Claus with twinkling eyes and a spun glass beard..." and to modern religion as " unnatural thing of all light and no shadow, a pious bonbon so nice, so sweet, so soporifically bland that a Karl Marx can call it the opium of the people not without justice..." Russell, who died in 1999, lived long enough to see conservative religious attitudes in our culture swing the other direction; I don't know if he was comforted by this change or not.

I, for one, am fervently hoping for the Nodding Santa Claus. That said, if you're looking for a diabolical tale to pass an autumnal evening, rather than revisiting Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist this year I'd suggest you pick the devil you don't know.

Saturday, October 2, 2021


Happy My Favorite Month everybody! The month of sanctioned spooky fun and, here in Arizona, a gradually waning inferno is blessedly upon us again.

The Wife did her usual fine job of bringing macabre festivity to Hacienda del Moorhead:

MeTV's old-school classicist Svengoolie favors us with a Franken-Fest throughout the month...

...kicking off tonight with 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, with its wonderful animated bat transformations, Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf man, Glenn Strange as the Monster, and the great Bela Lugosi, excellent in his final screen turn as Dracula. It wraps up on Halloween Eve with the 1965 rib-tickler Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster.

Your Humble Narrator is a lifelong fan of ol' Frankie myself; a few years ago I did a "listicle" for New Times online about the strangest versions of Frankenstein. Since then I might have added this can of ginger ale...

...meant to promote one of the Hotel Transylvania sequels, in which the monster looks like a member of a boyband.

Anyway, a safe and happy October to us all, and many happy returns.