Sunday, May 23, 2021


Opening in theaters this week:

Cruella--The title character is Cruella de Vil, the notorious villainess from Dodie Smith's 1956 novel The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, by way of the 1961 Disney animated movie and its various remakes, sequels and spin-offs. In the original animated classic she's a fur-clad bag-of-bones rich hag with a demonic touring car. She covets the puppies for their black-spotted white coats; they match Cruella's own, weirdly yin-and-yang half-black half-white mop.

Cruella is to One Hundred and One Dalmatians (and the 1996 live-action remake 101 Dalmatians, where she's grandly played by Glenn Close) what the horned sorceress Maleficent was to Disney's Sleeping Beauty: The only truly memorable character. So, as 2014's Maleficent showcased Angelina Jolie, this new origin story offers a deluxe vehicle to Emma Stone.

In this telling, the character starts out simply as Estella; "Cruella" is a teasing nickname for the dark streak in her personality. Cast out of her school, Estella washes up homeless in Regent's Park, then gradually rises through the world of London fashion of the '60s and '70s. She goes to work for the Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), an imperious designer, while at the same time developing her "Cruella" persona to get up to incognito mischief with her cronies Horace and Jasper (Paul Walter Hauser and Joel Fry, both appealing).

Give Disney its due: This lavish production is terrific to look at, and to listen to, as well; the soundtrack is a feast of gutsy, (mostly) '60s- and '70s-era pop hits. Both of the Emmas are in solid form--Stone with her half-sheepish little grins as she wreaks mayhem; Thompson with her unflappable slow burn--and both are costumed to dementedly chic grandeur. The script, credited to a mob that includes Dana Fox and Aline Brosh McKenna, has ideas and gags that recall everything from The Devil Wears Prada to The Winter's Tale to The Terminator, and is by no means lacking in wit or ingenious twists.

That said, Cruella, directed by the Australian Craig Gillespie of I, Tonya, is badly overlong, full of ideas that don't have sufficient payoff for the drag that they add to the narrative. Beyond that, it is, like Maleficent, like 2015's Pan, like 2014's Dracula Untold, even like 2007's Hannibal Rising and 2019's Joker, one of those sympathy-for-the-devil backstories of an iconic evildoer for whom audiences have developed an affection.

I'm not sure why it is that such revisionist sagas irk me, often at the same time that I'm enjoying them; why they bring out my inner Fox News commentator, judgmentally griping about creeping moral relativism in popular art. After all, villains in real life don't typically spring out of a vacuum. Past experiences do matter, and if a fictional ne'er-do-well inspires a fictional backstory, it's a testament to how vividly drawn the character is.

That said, qualifying and quantifying the menace of characters like Cruella or Maleficent reduces their status as symbolic villains, boiling them down to the sum of the specific trauma and betrayals of their youth. It's an impertinence to the scale of their villainy.

Cruella is a fairly enjoyable spectacle, but, like Maleficent, it shrinks its title character a bit. These filmmakers know some good music, but they should have listened more closely to the lyrics of a lesser pop song: In the wise words of Huey Lewis, sometimes bad is bad.

A Quiet Place Part II--This sequel starts as a prequel; writer-director John Krasinski takes us back before the events of the 2018 horror/sci-fi hit, to the day that Earth was invaded by shrieking aliens. Sightless, these ghastly quadrupeds are extremely sensitive to sound, and come charging in to maul any humans who make the slightest racket.

Krasinski appears only in this brief--but pretty enthralling--prologue, after which the movie picks up right where Part I left off. Intrepid Mom (Emily Blunt), her intrepid-er daughter (Millicent Simmonds) and cautious but brave son (Noah Jupe), as well as an infant requiring oxygen tanks, are forced to look around rural New York for a new quiet place. Eventually the daughter, who is deaf, strikes out on her own in search of a radio signal; somebody plays Bobby Darin singing "Beyond the Sea" every day at the same time.

The first film had a wide-awake intensity and deliberation, but Krasinski seems to have grown as a director with this follow-up. Here he gives us sustained, bravura sequences, like the centerpiece in which he intercuts between three currents of action, and the scenes bounce thematic echoes off of each other. This isn't the sort of movie that Hitchcock cared for, but I bet if Hitchcock watched it, he would admire Krasinski's work.

Like the first film, this one has dubious elements. You may look at the aliens and think: Really? These screeching, squalling horrors, looking like creatures from the Francis Bacon triptych, were advanced enough to master interstellar travel? And having arrived on a new planet, they seem to have nothing better to do but to obsessively wait for one of the natives to drop or bump into something. Admittedly, though, plenty of human behavior would probably seem equally incomprehensible to intelligent alien observers.

The family has also discovered the achilles heel of the aliens, and while it's satisfying to see them brought low, it also seems a little too easy. It's essentially the same weakness that the aliens had in the Twilight Zone episode "Hocus Pocus and Frisby."

But Krasinski's taut yet passionate direction carries us past such objections while we're watching the movie, as does the acting. Blunt has a heroic, warrior-goddess presence here, like the carving on the prow of a ship. The kids are superb, especially the soulful Simmonds; Cillian Murphy is effective as a frightened, bereaved neighbor who's given up on humankind, and Djimon Hounsou contributes a warm bit in the later acts.

And aside from all of these merits, any movie that holds up Bobby Darin singing "Beyond  the Sea" as a promising sign of civilization shows good sense to me.

Friday, May 21, 2021


You've heard of Taco Tuesday, right? Well, Your Humble Narrator would like to propose Depressing Documentary Friday, devoted to docs on subjects so worthy that you feel guilty ignoring them, but so despair-inducing and enraging that they're impossible to enjoy, in the usual sense of the word. A couple of good ones are out this week; this first one is in theaters today:

Final Account--The British filmmaker Luke Holland, whose maternal grandparents died in the Holocaust, passed on last July shortly after completing this movie. It's a collection of interviews with some of the last surviving members of the Nazi party; handsome, clear-eyed old Germans who discuss their involvement in, or awareness of, Hitler's regime and its murders. Just as you might expect, their attitudes vary. Some are evasive, some are candid, a few are repentant, at least one very decidedly is not.

Thus the film is in the family of Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity and Hotel Terminus, or Lanzmann's Shoah, among others, in which Nazis and/or collaborateurs are made to squirm under a documentarian's third degree. There can be a certain grim satisfaction in watching this, usually alongside an uneasy self-questioning about what any of us might do in a similar circumstance.

It's a powerful document overall, but one scene stands out: An elderly man named Hans Werk, who was in the Waffen-SS, talks to a group of contemporary German youth at a meeting at Wannsee (of the notorious 1942 conference where the Final Solution was planned). He speaks of his revulsion and regret at what he participated in, and the kids reject his urgent testimony, insisting that he's just trying to make people feel guilty about being German. These kids leave us with the terrifying sense that this film probably won't be the final final account.

Available on YouTube and other platforms: 

The Dark Hobby--The title refers to keeping aquarium fish. Directed by Paula Fouce, the film makes the case that collecting fish for the home aquarium industry is devastating both for the creatures themselves and for the reef environments from which they are taken.

Though it wanders as far as Cuba and the Philippines, the focus is on Hawaii, where fish collection has been legal and unchecked for decades, despite strict environmental regulation of almost everything else. Of several interview subjects, the most vivid is a genial, chuckling but unmistakably furious activist named Robert Wintner, aka "Snorkel Bob," who asserts that 99 percent of fish collected for aquaria die within the first year of their captivity.

I couldn't find any independent confirmation for that figure, but almost everyone seems to agree that the percentage is wretchedly high. As with last year's My Octopus Teacher, the movie also makes the case that marine animals are not mindless beings driven only by instinct, but that they are self-aware, capable of pain and pleasure and curiosity and friendship.

It all leads to a question it had never occurred to me to ask: In light of all this, why should anybody keep little fishies in glass tanks? I had an aquarium for a few years myself as a kid, and I shudder now to think of the (usually short) lives of its unfortunate inmates (which would have been even shorter and more unfortunate had it not been for my Mom, who of course usually cleaned the tank). Those of us who profess to love animals must admit, if we're honest, that our love is not always the best of luck for the animals.

Friday, May 14, 2021


Now in theaters:

Spiral: From the Book of Saw--Chris Rock is, at least arguably, the greatest currently performing American standup comedian. He also gave a fine performance in a supporting role in New Jack City back in 1991. But as a leading man in movies, he's always somehow seemed to shrink, to lose the presence he has as a standup.

He comes across differently, however, as an angry yet honest and thoughtful police detective in this shocker, linked to the Saw flicks. Chris Rock is a true, full-fledged movie star here; his presence gives this gruesome Jacobean cop thriller gravitas.

In a generic unnamed city, Rock and his young partner (Max Minghella) are on the case of a shadowy maniac who is abducting crooked cops--wearing, appropriately enough, a pig mask--by knocking them unconscious. When they awaken, they find themselves ensnared in nightmarish traps that offer them the choice between self-inflicted dismemberment or death. Or, if they wait too long, both. Electrocution, flaying and exsanguination are among the Grand Guignol spectacles that director Darren Lynn Bousman and screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger gleefully serve up.

I only ever saw the first Saw; once I saw that first Saw, I can't say I ever saw a pressing need to see any of the subsequent Saws. So I never saw them. So I can't say how much of a connection there is between Spiral and the other movies in the franchise. To say that with confidence, I probably would not only have to see Saw again, but also see Saw II, see Saw III, and see Saws IV, V and VI. And for that matter, I'd probably have to see Saw 3-D. And also see Jigsaw.

I don't plan to do that, because Spiral, though it isn't boring, is too crass and silly for that much effort. But I enjoyed it anyway, because of Rock, who also executive-produced. As in 2014's Top Five, Rock's role here provides him, especially early on, with an on-camera audience--his new partner--so that he can riff, standup-style, as they walk along. This seems to help him maintain leading-man confidence.

Samuel L. Jackson also shows up, as Rock's gruff, distant father. This sounds promising, but the two don't get much screen time together, and most of what there is isn't particularly intense. Still, it should be said that a little Samuel L. Jackson is better than no Samuel L. Jackson.

Sunday, May 9, 2021


Junkshop find; a Classics Illustrated comic I had not seen before...

...this 45-page adaptation of The Downfall (more accurately, La Debacle), Zola's 600-ish-page 1892 doorstopper about the Franco-Prussian War...

I would love to have been at the editorial meeting, back in 1955, where this was pitched as Classics Illustrated material: "Come on, it's got everything! Class relations! The Battle of Sedan! The collapse of Napoleon III! The fall of Paris! The kids'll love it!"

Friday, May 7, 2021


On VOD this month:

Tu Me Manques--The title of this Bolivian production translates, from the French, as "I miss you." But the phrase is thought to have a more complex connotation; it's said here to suggest something like "I miss me in you," and it's this sense of traumatic loss, almost of amputation, that is explored in this drama about gay suicide.

Gabriel, a young Bolivian man living in New York, ends his relationship with his boyfriend Sebastian, leaves town and then takes his own life rather than come out to his conservative family back home. His devastated, enraged father Jorge travels to New York to meet Sebastian and try to learn what he didn't know about his son.

Sebastian (Fernando Barbosa), another Bolivian expat, is no less angry and heartbroken; nonetheless he takes Jorge (Oscar Martinez) in, and introduces him to his son's friends. They turn out to be well-played but familiar stock gay characters, bitchy but nurturing, and gradually their hospitality begins to wear down Jorge's judgmental defenses.

Sebastian is also producing a performance piece about Gabriel, which allows writer-director Rodrigo Bellott, adapting his own play, some dreamlike theatrical flourishes; there are also some fourth-wall touches. But the real power of Tu Me Manques is the performances of Barbosa and the Argentinian star Martinez, who lash out at each with electric fury, yet always with an undercurrent of their shared love.

Sunday, May 2, 2021


Last week our beloved Arizona Diamondbacks won back-to-back 7-inning games in a double header, shutting out the Atlanta Braves in both games. In game one Zac Gallen allowed only one hit; in the second game Madison Bumgarner pitched a "no hitter" (not recorded as such, because it wasn't a nine-inning game). As a result, the Snakes offered $14 tickets this Friday and Saturday, in honor of the 14 innings of shutout baseball.

I would have liked it even better had they offered $7 tickets for Bumgarner's seven no-hit innings, but I guess that's pushing my luck. In any case, The Wife and I decided to avail ourselves of the offer, and took our fully-vaccinated selves to Chase Field, for the first time in nearly two years, to enjoy some live baseball.

Here was the view from our third-base-side nosebleeders...

Not far from our seats was a display featuring the jerseys that Gallen and Bumgarner wore in their wins last week, and I was handed a sign asking MLB to "Make It Count" (Bumgarner's no-no, that is) and encouraged to pose with the jerseys; I did not shirk...

Superb as both pitchers were, I obviously can see the viewpoint that it isn't the same achievement as a nine-inning no-hitter. My own eagerly-sought opinion is that if seven inning double headers are going to become a regular thing, than the Seven-Inning No-Hitter should be officially established, and Bumgarner's should be recognized.

Alas, the game didn't go as well as those two last week. Starter Gallen did not, to put it mildly, have his best stuff against the Rockies last night, getting into much trouble with walks, etc. The bullpen fared even more miserably, especially poor Matt Peacock, who gave up seven runs, including a grand slam by Dom Nunez, in the 8th inning. The final was 14-6. Groan!

There weren't many highlights for D-backs fans, although Andy Young hit a homer off the bench, and Josh Rojas belted one out in the ninth, to keep his streak going. Best of all, when the Rockies pulled away, the D-backs sent position players out to pitch: that terrific old warhorse Asdrubal Cabrera in the eighth inning, and young Wyatt Mathisen in the ninth. Some of their pitches registered less than 50 miles per hour, but they didn't really do any worse than the bullpen: they each gave up a hit, but got their men out.

I should also note there were personal highlights for us: Early on the roof was opened, and it was lovely to enjoy the pleasant breeze of a spring night downtown. Also, while I was away for a ridiculous amount of time, standing in a long line to buy pop, a nice young couple down the row sweetly gave the poor abandoned Wife a churro, which she shared with me when I got back. Yummy!

And, nice to see Baxter masked up and looking out for us...

Saturday, May 1, 2021


Check out my short column, online at Phoenix Magazine, about a double feature at Harkins 101 in Scottsdale...

...Citizen Kane at 3:30 p.m., followed by last year's Mank at 6 p.m.  Tickets are just $5, so even if you skip out after Kane, you still get your money's worth and more.