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.