Friday, June 25, 2021


Now playing at Harkins Theatres and at FilmBar:

Werewolves Within--Werewolf movies don't ordinarily begin with a quote from Mr. Rogers. But then this horror comedy, despite some shared elements with the wacky 1974 Brit thriller The Beast Must Die, is no ordinary werewolf movie.

Directed by Josh Ruben from a script by Mishna Wolff (based on a video game), it's set in Beaverfield, a tiny Vermont town beset by conflict over a proposed gas pipeline; some residents want the money the gas company is offering while others refuse to sell, wanting to preserve the wilderness. A new park ranger (Sam Richardson) finds himself, first, thrown into a potential new romance with the adorable mailperson (Milana Vayntrub). Second, he finds himself hunkering down, during a power outage, in the local B&B with the diverse townies, one of whom may possibly be a murderous (and dog eating) werewolf.

The movie starts off genuinely funny, gets a little shrill and chaotic in its middle stretch, then finds its feet (or paws) again in the climactic scenes. Its charm derives from the ensemble of capable journeymen performers making the most of Wolff's off-center dialogue. Especially beguiling are the wonderfully diffident, non-confrontational Richardson, and Vayntrub, the cuddly young woman from the AT&T commercials, here serving as, essentially, a personification and spoof of the notorious "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" stereotype.

Ruben and Wolff are unmistakably presenting Beaverfield as an allegory for our polarized society, with its intractable ideological divides and its desperate need of Mr. Rogers-style neighborliness. But they keep this side of the material light and unforced; at its best the movie is a sweet-natured howl.

Monday, June 14, 2021


Check out my review, online at Phoenix Magazine, of In a Different Key... impressive documentary about autism playing Tuesday morning and Friday afternoon at Sedona International Film Festival. You can also buy a streaming ticket.

Friday, June 11, 2021


Opening in theaters June 16:

Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard--Samuel L. Jackson was the chortling, foulmouthed hitman and Ryan Reynolds was the fussy bodyguard in the 2017 action comedy The Hitman's Bodyguard. About all that really stood out in my memory from that film, however, was Salma Hayek, startlingly sexy and funny as the Hitman's imprisoned badass wife. I will confess I have always had a slight weakness for the divine Ms. Hayek, so I was particularly pleased to hear that she'd been moved front-and-center for this sequel.

Well, insofar as I can be objective, she's fabulous. But the movie, in which our bickering heroes are trying to prevent some (no doubt all-too-plausible) cyberattack against Europe by Greek archvillain Antonio Banderas, is really stupid; aggressively and obnoxiously stupid. It's obnoxious even by comparison to The Hitman's Bodyguard, which is certainly saying something. That film, despite the excellence of its stars, had a disagreeable adolescent jocularity that contrasted poorly with its bloody violence. The sequel is equally bloody but even more cartoonishly broad and by-the-numbers.

This robs Jackson and Reynolds of the chance to bring any shade of subtlety or complexity to their performances. Ultimately it even sabotages the angelic Hayek. The first time we hear her spewing obscenities it's kind of amusing; the fiftieth time even she starts to wear out her welcome.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021


In theaters this Friday:

In the Heights--The Lin-Manuel Miranda musical before Hamilton was this interweaving of the lives and dreams of residents of the heavily Latino upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, over a few summer days including a citywide blackout. It opened on Broadway in 2008, with the ridiculously talented lyricist and composer Miranda in the lead.

For this film version, directed by Jon M. Chu, an older Miranda has wisely given himself the relatively minor supporting role of the "Piraguero" and turned the leading man duties over to Anthony Ramos, who played Laurens in Hamilton on Broadway. Ramos plays Usnavi, who runs a bodega but dreams of returning to his native Dominican Republic to open a beachside cantina. The characters around him also dream of business or artistic or academic success, and of course circumstances and relationships interfere with these.

The storylines, in themselves, are fairly conventional, and Washington Heights is presented, rosily or not, as such a paradisal place to live in this movie that it's hard to see why a person would dream of "getting out." But the numbers through which these stories unfold are thrilling in the way that only a beautifully written, well-performed, well-directed, well-edited musical can be; that is to say, about as thrilling as anything in the performing arts (with the possible exception of really well-done Shakespeare) can be.

Ramos is a delightful master of ceremonies, and he handles Miranda's peerless, slippery run-on rhymes superbly. The standout in the cast, however, is Olga Merediz, from the Broadway production, as the "Abuela," a matriarchal figure in the neighborhood. Her big number "Paciencia y Fe," about coming to the U.S. from Cuba as a kid with her mother, is a knockout; emotionally direct and potent without a trace of Broadway-style pushing or straining.  

I've heard a lot of bitching over the past year or so about how contemporary movies are either too fluffy or too horribly depressing. If you're of this mindset, In the Heights may be for you; it's in touch with the conflicts and hardships of the world, but the tone, beginning to end, is joyous.

Streaming on TubiTV:

We All Think We're Special--Charlie (Jared Blankens) is a raging alcoholic; after a particularly wild binge, his more mild-mannered drinking buddy Ed (William McGovern) suddenly decides to forcibly detox him in Charlie's rambling house (which he's about to lose, as his late mother willed it to AA!). Charlie resists but Ed is implacable, and as the hours and days go by and Charlie gets sicker and more distraught, he shrieks out a lot of invective.

At the beginning we're told that this is based on a true story, that it offers us "neither medical advice nor wisdom," and that we shouldn't "attempt substance withdrawal unless under the care of trained medical personnel." Uh, yeah. The two actors are strong, especially Blankens, and even manage to inject a little wit and warmth into the proceedings, and the direction is moody; there's no denying the movie has some power. Overall, though, it isn't much fun. But it did convince me not to ever try a DIY detox on one of my friends.

Streaming on YouTube:

Hamlet/Horatio--Director Paul Warner and screenwriter David Vando had the intriguing idea to build an adaptation of Shakespeare's masterpiece based on the intimacy between the Dane and his school friend and confidant Horatio. At times Horatio seems almost like an imaginary friend or longed-for absent lover here; the "To be or not be" speech, for instance, is a duet between the two men.

Horatio is, unquestionably, a fascinating, ambiguous character. But this stripped-down version, played in a mix of modern dress and Ren Faire costumes with a "meta" device--a baleful, chalky-skinned cameraman observing the action, played by writer Vando, who also plays the Gravedigger--suffers from uneven acting and a somber, glacial pace.

More painfully, most of Shakespeare's language has been translated into very prosaic, CliffNotes-style modern English that lands with a thud (in 1965 Rouben Mamoulian published a modern-English version of Hamlet as well, and it too has somehow failed to replace the original). Trying to improve the text of Hamlet is, I'm afraid, more madness than method.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021


Playing at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 5 and 8 p.m. Sunday, June 6 only at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Chandler; streams starting June 8 on Shudder

The Amusement Park--Scary movie buffs around the world revere the name of George A. Romero, the Pittsburgh-based auteur who directed the original 1968 Night of the Living Dead and its 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead, two of the more influential horror pictures ever. So the release of a "lost" movie by Romero is no little thing. But moviegoers will have their chance to see just that at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Chandler this weekend: Romero's 53-minute opus The Amusement Park, made in 1973 but shelved and thought lost until a print was discovered and restored a few years ago.

Romero's widow has been quoted as calling it his "most terrifying film." Having seen it, I'm not sure she's wrong, although it's not, in the usual sense of the term, a horror movie. It's an "industrial" that Romero made for hire for the Lutheran Society, a social service agency for the aged, about a terrifying subject: Aging and ageism. But it is atmospheric and haunting, even shocking at times, to the extent that the Lutheran Society declined to use it.

The star is Lincoln Maazel, who later played the elderly vampire killer in Romero's 1978 chiller Martin (and was also the real-life father of conductor Lorin Maazel). Here he's a sweet old guy in a white suit wandering around a rather seedy-looking old-school amusement park. But this is an allegorical amusement park: The rides and other attractions depict the economic, racial, medical and other abuses and humiliations suffered by the elderly.

The quality of The Amusement Park is bleakly dreamlike. There are some touches that have an unfortunate student-film quality, but they don't lessen the overall emotional impact. As the poor man's miseries and torments increase, culminating in a scene involving him trying to read The Three Little Pigs to a child, Maazel's performance becomes heartbreaking.

Maazel also appears, out of character, in a prologue in which he notes that the other elderly people in the film were from area homes, and their time at the park, working on the film, was the first fun outing that some of them had had in years. He addresses us again in an epilogue, asking us to consider volunteering for services helping seniors.

The setting, by the way, was West View Park, near Pittsburgh; Romero's film is also a vivid time capsule for the attraction. I grew up in western Pennsylvania, and while I don't remember ever visiting this particular park, the movie quickly brought back the nostalgic sense memories of parks of that sort, and that period. It was founded in 1906, and closed in 1977, just four years after the film was made. Turns out it was a victim of aging, too.