Friday, December 30, 2022

TOXIC CLOUD; TOXIC FRIENDSHIP

Now streaming...

White Noise--Noah Baumbach's adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel begins on the quaint campus of College-On-the-Hill, where mortality-haunted "Hitler Studies" prof Adam Driver lives with his wife Greta Gerwig and their talkative but deadpan blended brood. His wife's pill usage and other academic-life worries are intruded upon when the collision of a train with a tanker truck and the resulting "Airborne Toxic Event" requires the family and their neighbors to flee and take refuge in summer camps, Chinese restaurants and other makeshift shelters. Baumbach's style here seems to pay homage to other directors; the early college scenes suggest the twee formality of Wes Anderson, there's a big dose of the Close Encounters-era Spielberg later on, a hint of Jason Reitman's Juno here or of David Byrne's True Stories there. 

The movie feels large and consequential; there are many funny and fascinating passages, and the '80s period look is colorful. But while the story's elusive ambiguities are intriguing for a while, they gradually start to get irritating, particularly when it moves from the epic-scale first half to the more personal and anticlimactic second half. Still, the cast is strong, Driver is paradoxically both commanding and neurotic in the lead, and Gerwig is a doleful, troublingly erotic presence--at one point Driver's colleague Don Cheadle observes, accurately, that she has "important hair." 

The Banshees of Inisherin--Colm and Padraic live on a bleak island off the coast of Ireland in the 1920s. Artillery fire from the Irish Civil War can be heard from the mainland, but the islanders pay it less attention than they do the trouble that arises when Colm, a fiddler played by Brendan Gleeson, abruptly stops speaking to and socializing with his lifelong companion Padraic, a dairyman played by Colin Farrell. Colm admits, bluntly but without rancor, that he simply finds Padraic intolerably dull, and doesn't want to waste any more time drinking and talking with him when he could be working on his music. He'll still chat amiably with the other islanders, but something about the very presence of the dear, baffled Padraic seems symbolic to Colm of his life being squandered on triviality, and he'll go to extremes to reject it.

The great Martin McDonagh was really on to something here; it starts out as one of the most original, grimly funny and painful takes on friendship in some time. But as the conflict escalates, it's as if the writer-director remembers he's the Martin McDonagh of films like In Bruges and plays like A Behanding in Spokane, and feels obligated to take the story in a gruesome, Grand Guignol direction. It throws the balance off here as it didn't with In Bruges; it sours the movie's comic side and feels psychologically reductive to its tragic side.

Even so, Gleeson and (especially) Farrell are both sublime, as are Kerry Condon as Padraic's sensible sister and Barry Keoghan as his hapless backup friend. McDonagh narrowly missed making a masterpiece here, but these performances are not to be missed.

Friday, December 23, 2022

WHILE STREAMERS WATCHED THEIR FLICKS BY NIGHT...

Merry Christmas Eve Eve everybody! The Phoenix Film Critics Society...


...of which Your Humble Narrator is proud to be a founding member, recently announced our 2022 Award winners. As always, some of the winners--like Best Actor--reflect my voting, others don't, but there are a lot of movies worth seeing on the list.

A few other odds and ends...

Cash on Demand--Last week I was shown this 1961 gem I had never caught up with, a no-kidding Christmas movie from Hammer Films! It's available on DVD; I highly recommend. Peter Cushing plays a joyless bank manager, cold and critical toward his employees, who gets his Christmas Eve ruined when a suave bounder (Andre Morell) tells him that his cohorts are holding Cushing's wife and son hostage while he plunders the vault at the provincial branch. Cushing, unsurprisingly, is great--despicable at first, gradually shading into sympathy as his desperation rises--and Morell is sensational, in maybe the best role he ever had, as the sinister yet curiously charismatic thief.

Richard Vernon nicely leads the small ensemble that plays the branch employees. It's a gripping, imaginative caper, though of course it's just one more variation on the Scrooge story, with the robber serving as a felonious Ghost of Christmas Present.

Something From Tiffany's--Two guys, played by Ray Nicholson (Jack's kid) and Kendrick Sampson, buy jewelry at the title shop as Christmas presents for their respective lady friends (Zoey Deutsch and Shay Mitchell). One's a pair of earrings; the other's an engagement ring. A mishap mixes up the gift bags, and wackiness ensues. I was recently pointed toward this romcom, streaming on Prime. It's very undemanding, but it's inventive, Zoey Deutsch makes a sweet heroine and her costars, including the great Rose Abdoo as the Tiffany's clerk, are pleasant company. And it seems like it's a cut above most of the Hallmark Christmas movies.

American Murderer--A stalwart FBI man played by Ryan Phillippe searches for fugitive Jason David Brown, who was on the Ten Most Wanted List at the same time as Osama bin Laden and Whitey Bulger for killing an armored car guard here in Phoenix in November of 2004. As Phillippe talks to Brown's family and acquaintances we get his story in flashback (it's often different from what they're telling the agent). I'm late to the party on this true-crime drama released earlier this year, written and directed by Matthew Gentile and available on various streaming platforms. Don't let the poster fool you into dismissing this as a routine action flick; it's an absorbing feature debut for Gentile, a tense, believable piece of work, full of disturbing scenes that feel like something you'd witness as a passerby. Soap actor Tom Pelphrey plays Brown as a tightly-wound obsequious hustler, sort of a coked-up Eddie Haskell. Though he worms his way into the house and bed of his single-mom neighbor (Idina Menzel) and plays video games with her son, and though he can still get over on his own siblings, his Mom (Jacki Weaver) has long since recognized him for the callous creep he is. But even he isn't prepared for the psychic weight of murder, and Gentile gets across this internal horror impressively. It's worth checking out, maybe after Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

SIZE DOES MATTER

Now playing:

The Whale--Charlie is an English professor, passionately teaching online courses in essay writing, but his center square on the Zoom grid is always blacked out. He claims the camera on his computer doesn't work, but his students, inevitably, are intrigued. Ever self-deprecating, Charlie assures them that they're not missing much.

This isn't really true. Charlie, played by Brendan Fraser, is morbidly obese, weighing in at 600 pounds. He lives alone in, and works from, a shabby apartment, visited by his sole friend Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who tries to warn him about the imminent danger of death he's in. At the same time, she serves as his pained enabler, supplying him with fried chicken and candy bars. The two share a link to the tragedy which led to Charlie's self-destructive eating habits.

In the course of the story, Charlie bribes his furious estranged teenage daughter (Sadie Sink) to spend time with him; he's also pestered by a young missionary kid (Ty Simpkins). Eventually we get to meet Charlie's ex (Samantha Morton) as well. Almost everything takes place in or just outside the apartment; director Darren Aronofsky wisely hasn't bothered to "open out" Samuel D. Hunter's play (Hunter wrote the adaptation). This concentrated setting only adds to the claustrophobia of Charlie's situation.

It's hard to miss the story's parallel to that of Aronofsky's 2008 The Wrestler--a guy at the end of his physical rope tries for an eleventh-hour reconciliation with his daughter. And as Mickey Rourke, in a comeback role, was the story with The Wrestler, the story here is Brendan Fraser, likewise in a comeback role.

I've always found Fraser enviable--hunky looks plus an unpretentious likability. Thus even the many terrible movies he's starred in come across like they were fun to do, and that in itself made stuff like George of the Jungle and Journey to the Center of the Earth less dreary, at least a little (maybe not Furry Vengeance).

But in The Whale, Aronofsky has put Fraser's soulful sweetness to use beyond merely ingratiating himself with the audience. Working inside harrowingly convincing prosthetic makeup by Adrien Morot, Fraser is an angelic presence as Charlie, radiant with compassion and love, yet also with reflective intelligence, and depths of unexpressed sorrow and anger and desperation.

There may not really be a lot to the film beyond Fraser's performance, and the crisp, controlled mix of anger and adoration in Hong Chau's Liz. Some scenes here verge on the overwrought, I suppose, and there are revelations that would probably play better on the stage. But nothing seems campy or patronizing. The Whale is a vehicle, perhaps, but it's a vehicle for an unforgettable, maybe even classic star turn.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

PUP RALLY

Now streaming:


Free Puppies!--The directors of this documentary, Samantha Wishman and Christina Thomas, are yankees, from New York and Philadelphia respectively, chronicling a little-reported story from the American rural South: A lack of resources for animal welfare. The filmmakers seem struck by the degree to which dogs in Dixie are neglected and allowed to breed, and the frequency with which their offspring are abandoned, often on a roadside in a box marked "FREE PUPPIES!"

But Wishman and Thomas also find heroes: The focus is on a few women in Dade County in northern Georgia who work quixotically to rescue, spay, neuter, foster and find adoptive homes for these strays. They do this work seemingly at their own expense, with very little help from the local government--no funds for a shelter, veterinary care, etc. This problem is hardly confined below the Mason-Dixon line, of course, but conditions there seem particularly bad.

The most vividly presented of these women is the voluble and energetic Monda Wooten, who runs a discount flooring business in the town of Trenton when she can squeeze it in between looking after strays and browbeating her snickering colleagues on the City Commission to prioritize building a shelter. She and her friends Ann Brown and Ruth Smith, among others, seem to live in a constant, self-imposed on-call state, taking calls about strays or other imperiled animals as they drive around, shlepping dogs to low-cost spay and neuter clinics, negotiating with dog hoarders, helping facilitate a huge diaspora of strays to adopters in the North, and more.

I was braced for a miserable time going into this one, but while the movie's implications, both cultural and logistical, are certainly sad, it's not depressing to watch. In part this is because it's full of adorable dogs; we, of course, mostly get to see the luckier ones. But it's also because the women's unhesitating dedication and courage are inspirational, and their characters are funny and fascinating.

Though it isn't stated explicitly, Monda comes across like a Trumper (I found a picture of her and other local politicians in the Dade County Sentinel posing with Marjorie Taylor Greene, in whose congressional district Trenton is located). At one point Monda mentions that their shared passion for dogs is just about all that she and Ann--who wears a peace sign on her shirt--have in common. The fact that, in our supposedly hopelessly polarized society, they're able to put aside their differences for the sake of this work is immensely cheering, both for dogs and for our nation.

That said, there's also a striking moment in which Monda explains, rather defensively, that when she takes a pregnant dog to a vet, she'll have the vet abort the puppies, on the grounds that it's better than bringing more mouths to feed into a world that won't care for them. She doesn't say whether she would extend this option to pregnant humans.

Two other documentaries, both short subjects about the plight of arctic animals, are available for free from The New Yorker; both are tough but worth your time...


Nuisance Bear--This wordless wonder, directed by Jack Weisman and Gabriela Osio Vanden and running just under 14 minutes, shows a polar bear wandering around the outskirts of Churchill, Manitoba--famous as a stop for tourists to watch the creatures on their migratory route. Local officials, faceless in pickups and vans, chase the harried, unassuming beast away from town, while nearby kids in costume trick-or-treat, under police escort, in the icy streets. The soulful title bear is the only real character, and is entirely sympathetic.



Haulout--This one, directed by Evegnia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev and running less than a half-hour, has a human protagonist, Russian scientist Maxim Chakilev, keeping vigil in a cabin on a desolate stretch of Siberian beach. He's waiting for a "haulout," a mass beaching of sea mammals to rest during migration. Sure enough, one morning he wakes up and opens the cabin door to find himself surrounded...


...by tens of thousands of walruses. As a surreal image, this is worthy of Bunuel, and initially there's something whimsically appealing, almost cozy, about the idea of spending a day hemmed indoors by a sea of these lolling, snorting pinnipeds. But it's soon clear that this is not a healthy phenomenon; the animals have bunched on land in such numbers because of a lack of sea ice on which to rest, and the density is dangerous to them. What Chakilev finds after the walruses depart is appallingly sad and ominous, and the film is beautiful, haunting and heartbreaking.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

SHOWERS AND BLADES

Happy Psycho Day everybody!

That's right, December 11 (at two-forty-three p.m.) is the day when, according to the opening titles, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho begins, right here in Phoenix, Arizona...

Saturday before last was, by Phoenix standards, pretty rainy. Your Humble Narrator was driving home up I-17 and listening to Reel Music, the movie music show on KBAQ...

...which was devoted that evening to scores from Hitchcock flicks. So there I was, listening to Bernard Herrmann's great theme from Psycho, with my windshield wipers keeping time, and it occurred to me that this was likely as close as I would ever get to knowing what it felt like to be Janet Leigh...

Thursday, November 24, 2022

A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG BOYCHIK

In theaters for Thanksgiving (a safe and Happy Thanksgiving, by the way!):


The Fabelmans--It begins with little Sammy Fabelman being taken to his first movie in New Jersey in 1952. A cautious, slightly fretful 7-year-old, Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) is not sure if he's up for the experience; he's heard the people onscreen are gigantic, and the idea worries him. So his adoring parents attempt to reassure him, from opposite sides: his practical-minded, scientific dad Burt (Paul Dano) explains how film works technically, while his whimsical pixie of a mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) says that movies are beautiful dreams.

The dream in question turns out to be DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth, and the big train wreck scene hits Sammy's psyche like...well, like a speeding train. He tries to re-create it with the Lionel train set he gets for Hannukah, and later he films his re-creations with a home movie camera.

As you probably know, this is Steven Spielberg's autobiographical coming-of-age movie, scripted by Tony Kushner from a synopsis they worked up together, and made by the usual gang: filmed by Janusz Kaminski with a score by John Williams. The episodes that follow depict the family's life as Burt, a computer genius, chases work in the budding industry from New Jersey to Arizona, where Sammy makes war epics, to northern California, where he encounters anti-Semitic bullies.

Mitzi, who gave up a career as a concert pianist to be a wife and mom, shows signs of restlessness and depression, except when she's interacting with Burt's best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), or when she impulsively buys a monkey, who she names Bennie. All of these strands are filtered through the growth of the relationship between Sam (Gabriel LaBelle as an older kid) and the art and craft of moviemaking.

Even though he's one of the most commercially successful popular artists in the world, I think that Spielberg has, in a sense, been critically underappreciated for decades. After the initial, unprecedented splash he made with Jaws Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark, he went through a slump in the late '80s and early '90s and cranked out some real bummers; cloying, heavy-handed, trying-too-hard stuff like Hook and Always that made him seem like a phony.

I'm not sure that many critics noticed the way he rediscovered and deepened and sharpened his style with the films he's made in recent years, even when their scripts have sometimes been uneven. Works that range with seemingly equal ease from crisp yet almost invisible technique like The Post to Hitchcockian panache like Bridge of Spies to flashy showmanship like West Side Story suggest an artist who has matured, and who might have something interesting to say about his own life.

And so he does, by turning his gaze outward. Sammy is likable enough, but he's not a rich or idiosyncratic protagonist. What's important is his point of view on Burt and Mitzi. Spielberg here dramatizes the anger and terror, the sense of betrayal, that can result when you begin to see your parents--as Sammy does through his footage of them, while editing home movies--not as stock figures in your story but as complex characters in their own.

And Dano and Williams create vivid, warm portraits of imperfect but unconditionally loving people. So does Rogen, and so does Judd Hirsch in a showcase role as a crazy visionary uncle who tells Sammy hard prophetic truths. So do Jeannie Berlin and Robin Bartlett as the Grandmas, and so do the excellent kids who play the younger sisters. So for that matter, does the monkey.

Not everything in The Fabelmans comes off. There's maybe a scene or two more than is needed of Williams sadly playing sad piano, and the stuff with the bullies, who look like they stepped out of Nazi poster art, feels psychologically confused and uneasy. A scene in which Sammy has a fraught confrontation with a bully he's tried to flatter through moviemaking is potentially interesting for what it hints at about the director's willingness to use his art calculatingly, but it thrashes around and fails, somehow, to come into dramatic focus.

On the other hand, the scenes involving Sammy's early romantic encounters are livened up by the hilarious Chloe East as Monica, his both religiously ecstatic and sexually avid girlfriend, who sees Jesus as one more teen heartthrob. While chaste in the typical Spielbergian manner, they offer a peek at the character's, and the director's, bemused reaction to Christianity.

The movie closes with a depiction of Spielberg's familiar anecdote about his first brush with Hollywood greatness. It allows him to end the film with a self-deprecating "meta" joke that also slyly reminds us that what we've just seen, however honestly intended, is nonetheless a carefully curated official story.

Friday, November 4, 2022

OPPY DAYS

Opening in theaters this weekend; on Prime Video November 23...

Robots have been a mainstay in movies for most of the past century, and one of the recurrent themes of such tales is the question of whether they are conscious entities, with personality and agency. Good Night Oppy is the first film I know of on this subject that isn't science fiction.

This documentary chronicles the careers of Opportunity and Spirit, two robotic Mars Rovers launched by NASA in 2003 to explore the Martian surface in search of evidence that there was once water, and thus possibly life, on the Red Planet. The project followed a couple of embarrassing and expensive NASA failures, the Mars Polar Lander and the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1998, both of which were ignominiously lost, in one mortifying case through human error caused by confusion between American measurement and the metric system.

Spirit and Opportunity, by contrast, were overachievers. Brilliantly designed and engineered, both remained operational for many years longer than their projected mission duration of 90 "sols" (Martian days) and added greatly to human understanding of Martian geology and natural history.

But impressive and interesting as their discoveries were, this isn't really what Good Night Oppy is about. The dramatic core of the film is about the degree to which the scientists and engineers who built the robots, and who supervised their activities from the Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, anthropomorphized their creations, attributed personalities to them, worried and fretted about them and ultimately mourned them.

Directed by Ryan White and gravely narrated by Angela Bassett, the film alternates convincing simulations of the endearing robots on the Martian surface, created at Industrial Light & Magic, with actual footage of their controllers monitoring and guiding them back at JPL. We watch the beautiful nerds age with them, frowning at their struggles and grinning at their triumphs like soccer moms.

One of the designers notes that the robot he worked on was "just a box of wires" but admits that she took on a human persona for him. Another notes that the supposedly identical rovers had distinct personalities; that Spirit was "troublesome" while Opportunity was "Little Miss Perfect." One of the project leaders says that to compare their relationship to parenting would be to "trivialize parenthood," but there's no doubt that the relationship these people feel toward Spirit and "Oppy" is parental.

There was something highly satisfying about watching a bunch of top-flight scientific minds enter matter-of-factly into thoroughly sentimental projection. After a while it's hard not to wonder if it is projection, or perhaps a sensitivity to the beginnings of a rudimentary sentience; to wonder if, at some level, human beings are not ourselves just boxes of wires that somehow attained self-awareness.

It should be noted that the filmmakers do nothing to discourage this idea; they don't explain, for instance, that the rather Harold-Pinter-ish plainsong sentences from the rovers were human translations of transmitted data, not verbatim statements. Even so, the effect of the film was, for me, not only thought-provoking but deeply emotional.

The soundtrack is also worth mentioning; it draws on the wake-up songs that were played at Mission Control at the beginning of the robot's shifts. Selections range from "Roam" by the B-52s to "S.O.S." by ABBA, and they all seem to take on deeper meanings in context. It would make a pretty good mix-tape album.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

MY LOVE IS BLUE

If you haven't already, this is my official ask: Vote Blue. Vote Blue. Vote Blue. Vote Blue. Vote Blue.

By which I mean, Vote Democratic. In case I wasn't clear enough. Even if you aren't a Democrat. Even if you are a Democrat, but are disgusted by your party. Vote Blue. Even if you're sick of high prices.

I keep hearing that the economy, especially inflation, is the big obstacle that the Democrats are facing in this election. I don't know if that's really the case--I think reactionary ideology and ginned-up social resentments and bigotry and xenophobia and angry self-pity may have more to do with it--but if your wallet is any part of what's keeping you from casting a Democratic vote, then I want you to understand that I get being sick of inflation. I totally get it.

While I have much for which to be grateful, I'm not a rich or even a very well-to-do person. I'm 60 years old; I still work full-time plus a couple of side hustles, and even so money is often very tight for me and my family, even when times are good. My weekday commute to my Day Gig is slightly over 40 miles, round-trip. $5 a gallon for gas is no minor expense for me.

If you're in the same boat, or worse, then first of all, my sympathies, and second of all, here's why I want you to Vote Blue anyway: To begin with, I don't think that Democratic policies are especially to blame for the current inflation. And I certainly see no evidence that the Republicans can or would improve the economy...for people like us, that is.

For themselves and their rich buddies and corporations, sure, things will stay nice and comfortable, at least in the short term. But the last 40-plus years have shown us that fluffing up the pillows of the affluent, which is all that classic Republicans since Reagan have been interested in doing, does little to improve the lives of the poor, working and middle classes. We've been taught that if we decline to play along with making wealthy people's lives easier, somehow we'll be unable to ascend ourselves. We'll miss our chance to sit at the cool kids' table.

Democrats, of course, have little enough to boast of during the same period. For decades, our representatives have continuously shied away from or compromised even the most basic social reforms, and played along with GOP and corporate economic policy, out of fear of offending that same donor class and that part of the base that has been duped into thinking that it's weakness to make the government work for you. But even with a timid, hampered, foot-dragging congress, Biden has managed to make some remarkable progress in the last couple of years. It would be a shame to see his administration's measures hamstrung before we see the full benefit of them. Give Joe a Chance.

But here's the thing: Even if I was convinced that the Republicans could and would fix the economy, I'd still ask you to vote against the current version of that party. The current crop are not the old-school Reagan-style Chamber of Commerce Republicans. Reagan, ruinous as I think he was to our national character, was a paragon compared to 45 and his followers.

The Gipper, I think, would now be seen as a weak-sister "RINO" compared to the current iteration of the GOP, who actually seem to be infatuated with, and serious about attempting, a strongman type authoritarian regime. I want a prosperous economy as much as the next guy. But I don't want it anywhere near as much as I want our democracy to survive in this country. And the Republicans have tried to overthrow our democracy, both violently and by nakedly attempting to rig elections, all the while obsessively and baselessly accusing their opponents of doing the same. And the Christian nationalism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism and other bigotries that have so long seemed to be part of the subtext of the Republican Party have recently become a lot less subtextual.

No consideration of my wallet could extenuate that, even if I thought that Republicans cared about my wallet (they don't) or could help my wallet if they did (they couldn't). Republicans should be denied power, both to protect our form of government and also, well...to punish them. At some point, Republican leaders must learn to reject the toxic, non-conservative form of right-wing neo-fascism that has infected them, strip their party down to the studs, and start to rebuild it into the dull but honorable loyal opposition it ought to be. But until they are denied the power they crave, this won't happen.

I have long believed, and I still want to believe, my rank-and-file political opponents are people of good faith, that they want democracy even if it means that sometimes their side won't prevail. It saddens me enormously, therefore, but it's very evident that some on the Republican side simply don't care if they win fair and square or not; they're tired of people they think aren't worthy of a vote having a say in how this country is run, and they're willing to bully and cheat and promulgate fictions to prevent that. And even those who wouldn't resort to such measures themselves are willing to tolerate it in their more extreme allies, if it means a win.

However badly you want your side to win this election, I want the Democrats to win just as badly. I'll be devastated, and very frightened, if they don't. The Republican slogan since 45 has been to Make America Great Again. I don't think America stopped being great until we elected 45, and when he got his ass beat in the next election we started the process of regaining some of our greatness. Democracy, that wildly imperfect system, famously the worst system except for all the other systems, is the core of what makes America great. Despite the bitter pain that comes with losing, democracy is who we are, at our best.

Thus I want your vote to count even if it's in opposition to mine, and I fear this could be one of the last elections, at least for a while, in which everybody's vote will count. So if you can't bring yourself to Vote Blue, then I'm asking: Don't Vote. Vote by sitting it out. For everybody else, I guess I'll end where I started: Vote Blue. Vote Blue. Vote Blue. Vote Blue. Vote Blue!

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

RETALIATE IS ENOUGH

Now on VOD...

The Retaliators--Two young women in a van get a flat on a lonely forested road. If you're guessing they don't just get to fix it and be on their way, you're right.

Thus begins this horror tale, like a standard ghouls-in-the-woods nightmare, but the real theme, a la Last House on the Left, is Revenge. When the teenage daughter (Katie Kelly) of a young New Jersey pastor (Michael Lombardi) is murdered, he investigates, and eventually finds himself in a position where he must confront his own commitment to the Christian principle that vengeance is not his.

Co-directed by Samuel Gonzalez, Jr., Bridget Smith and Lombardi from a script by Darren Geare and Jeff Allen Geare, it's an extremely violent and gory shocker. But speaking as an easily frightened wimp, I must say that somehow I didn't find it very scary. It feels like it's trying too hard to be over-the-top gruesome; I couldn't take it seriously. The splatter is icky but never quite horrific on any deeper level.

The only member of the hardworking cast that I recognized was Brian O'Halloran (Dante from the Clerks movies) in a small role near the beginning, as a jerk who takes a Christmas tree away from a little girl. The hardcore killers and sickos in this movie have so little reality that I had a more visceral response to this guy's minor outrage than to their atrocities.

All that said, it must be admitted that this movie isn't predictable. Maybe because of the multiple hands behind the camera, The Retaliators takes a strange and circuitous route to its Jacobean bloodbaths. Whether it's a trip worth taking is a matter of taste, but at least it isn't a trip we've taken before.

Friday, October 21, 2022

GIVE PEZ A CHANCE

Opening on VOD this weekend and at the Alice Gill-Sheldon Theatre in Sedona on Friday, October 28...


The PEZ Outlaw--The title character of this international thriller is a man named Steve Glew. A Gandalf-bearded former machine-shop rat from Michigan who shares a small horse farm with his soft-spoken wife Kathy, Glew was also a bit of an OCD eccentric who collected oddball cereal boxes. Bored silly with his  job, he got interested in PEZ in the '80s and '90s when he was clued in, at a collector's show, that there were a great many of the candy-pushing dispensers that weren't distributed in the USA.

Beard dyed dark, Glew plays his younger self in flashback re-enactments, as he and his son travel, first, to Slovenia, and come back with duffel bags crammed with contraband PEZ and, owing to a hiccup in PEZ USA's standing with U.S. Customs, are able to import them. Soon he's making regular trips to Europe, from Hungary to PEZ headquarters in Austria, and PEZ peddling is his full-time job.

If the McGuffin being smuggled here was drugs or guns or uranium, the story wouldn't be that different from any globetrotting caper thriller. But it's PEZ, so it's freaking hilarious. Directors Amy Storkel and Brian Storkel cut between Glew and other, uhm, talking heads as they narrate the re-enactments, which are overtly facetious in tone; several scenes are done noir-style, and the plant in Slovenia is presented like Willy Wonka's factory inside. This is funny, but it's possible that a more deadpan, Errol Morris-like approach might have given the film a sharper edge.

Even so, it's wonderful, because of the visual charm of PEZ and the oddity of the collecting fanatics and the implausibility of the story, which is what makes it believable. But above all The PEZ Outlaw is wonderful because Glew seems like a fully, fearlessly self-revealed character onscreen, exasperating and lovable; when the movie takes a poignant turn in its final quarter, the emotion comes naturally.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

HEADS OF HEADS OF STATE

As far back as Your Humble Narrator can remember, I've loved PEZ. What's not to love, after all? It's a delicious candy--you may recall that Vern, in Stand By Me, had no doubt that he could subsist on nothing but cherry flavored PEZ for the rest of his life--and it's a toy. It's a toy that gives you candy.

Invented in Austria in the 1920s and originally marketed to adults as a substitute for tobacco, PEZ--the word is a compression of the German pfefferminz, or peppermint--began to sell dispensers with character heads for children in the 1950s and became an international brand. Of the many PEZ dispensers I had as a kid, I particularly prized the Halloweeny skulls and ogres, so I was delighted when The Wife found these Halloween mini-dispensers...

...to hand out for trick-or-treat this year.

As an adult, the first item I ever bid on and won on eBay was an old-school PEZ Easter Bunny with a curiously grave and sober expression; I've always referred to him as "Frowny Bunny," and he still lives on my desk...

This coming Friday, October 21, a documentary called The PEZ Outlaw, chronicling a particularly strange episode in the history of PEZ collecting, debuts on VOD; it's also slated to play at the Alice Gill-Sheldon Theatre in Sedona starting Friday, October 28.

More on that remarkable film in a later post, but with all this PEZ-iness on my mind, the time has come to discuss my monument.

That's right, my monument.

A few years ago, in the depths of the previous Presidential administration, I hit upon an inspiration one day for a piece of public art. Not little piece, a big piece. An epic piece. A monument, carved into the side of a mountain. I'm not saying it would have needed to be on the scale of South Dakota's Mount Rushmore, but maybe one third the size, or one fifth. Maybe poor North Dakota could find a hillside somewhere, and offer an alternative to tourists.

Then one day, haunting a junkshop, I found something that made me revise my grandiose plans. Why allow a modern-day Gutzon Borglum to vandalize another perfectly lovely natural rockface, after all, and spend millions of public dollars and many years, when I could realize my idea on my own, for a few lousy bucks worth of PEZ?

What I had come across, you see, were a few random PEZ dispensers that I didn't know existed, depicting the Presidents of the United States. They were from a "PEZ Education Series" launched about a decade ago, issued in sets of five POTUS Dispensers at a time, starting with Washington and culminating with Obama (Obama's successor, mercifully, has not been officially PEZzed at this writing). So between that original haul and a bit of eBaying, over a few months I was able to obtain:

Franklin Pierce (served 1853-1857); who opposed the Abolitionist movement, signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, enforced the Fugitive Slave Act, made a failed attempt to annex Cuba; the first and to date the only elected incumbent President not re-nominated by his own party...

James Buchanan (1857-1861); who continued Pierce's bungling and opposition to Abolition (despite claiming he was personally opposed to slavery), leading to the Secession of the southern states and making the Civil War inevitable...

Warren Gamaliel Harding (1921-1923); who filled his administration with crooked cronies that were implicated in multiple scandals, most famously the Teapot Dome oil lease affair which resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall...

...and our own era's George W. Bush (2001-2009); who ignored security warnings about terrorist attacks before 9/11 and lied us into interminable wasteful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in that tragedy's wake...

My fellow Americans, I give you...

MOUNT RUSHMORE COMPARED TO 45!

Dismal as they were, any of these four men, and any number of other Presidential hacks and bums and paranoids, would have been preferable to President 45. Decidedly preferable. Harding's offenses, most of them possibly unwitting on his part and only revealed after his untimely death in office, seem particularly quaint by 45's standards.

Thus my MRCT45 Monument stands tall--albeit only about 5 inches tall, and only on my desk--in symbolic tribute to all those who, though they may be inept clowns or moral cowards or shady creeps, still have some consideration, some tiny modicum of regard, some vague sense of responsibility, for their country, for the world, or for any human being other than themselves. It's a (dimly) shining memorial to the barest minimum in human decency.

Just so there's no misunderstanding, I should hasten to note that when I say these guys would be preferable, I mean that they would be preferable, as men. I'm not remotely suggesting, of course, that the social conditions and norms of the times in which they served would be preferable to the social conditions and norms of our times.

The toughest of these dispensers to find, by the way, was W. Bush; perhaps because he was part of the same set as Obama, and I wasn't willing to pay the upwards of $100 that this set goes for online. Finally I hunted him up, along with the other two non-Obama members of that set, presumably from a split-up set on eBay (the fifth dispenser in that box is of the Presidential Seal).

While scrounging to complete my grand vision, I did also accumulate a good bench of other Presidential mediocrities and rascals. I'd still like a Nixon, in case anybody wants to know what to get me for Christmas. But I have scored William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Herbert Hoover (a close also-ran for Harding's spot), Bill Clinton and W. Bush's Dad H. W. Bush...

Compared to 45, I need hardly say, they all seem monument-worthy...

Thursday, October 13, 2022

FEST TO THE WEST

There are some pretty intriguing selections on the program at the 4th edition of the Peoria Film Festival...


...slated for this weekend at Harkins Arrowhead; check out my short column, online at Phoenix Magazine, for details.

Friday, October 7, 2022

HEY JUDY

Saddened to hear that Judy Tenuta has passed on.

Oddly enough Your Humble Narrator spent a couple of days with Judy around 2002, when I was a publicist for the Tempe Improv. When I was told that I would be in charge of taking her around to interviews, etc, quite candidly I braced myself for a long couple of days, but she turned out to be a delight, probably the sweetest celebrity I’ve ever met. She was, make no mistake, a handful; manic and chatty, but in an endearing, childlike way, and she was an intelligent conversationalist.

When I picked her up she asked to be taken to a supermarket, so I took her to that venerable old Bashas (now closed) on 7th Avenue and Osborn, and followed her around as she tugged at my sleeve and asked what I thought of her purchases. We had Krispy Kreme donuts together at Arizona Mills, and on the weekend when the Dodge Theatre was opening downtown, I managed to get a live shot of Judy with Brad Perry on Channel 3, promoting her Improv gig by vigorously playing her accordion and singing her immortal song “Party in Your Pants,” from the freakin’ balcony of the Dodge, which I considered the zenith of my achievement as a publicist, but in retrospect Judy’s charismatic appeal may have had a lot to do with it. Anyway, those two days are a very fond memory for me. RIP Love Goddess.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

GOIN' TO THE CANDIDATES' NON-DEBATE

Earlier this week the candidates for Governor of Arizona appeared onstage at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix. But they didn't appear together.

Arizona Secretary of State and Democratic candidate Katie Hobbs and former Fox 10 anchor and 45-endorsed Republican candidate Kari Lake were both presented at a "Town Hall" event, connected to the National Conference of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Hobbs has declined to publicly debate or engage with Lake, which kept the main body of the event dull, but led to a bit of striking political theatre in its opening minutes.

Sitting in one of two armchairs, the moderator, Univision's Leรณn Krauze, announced that he would interview the candidates separately, and that the format, which both sides had agreed to, would not include questions from the audience. Not exactly a town hall, but whatever (I wasn't recording and had no way to take notes, by the way, so I'm relying on memory for these quotes). He cautioned the audience to be respectful of both candidates on pain of expulsion, and then, after some remarks from USHCC bigwigs... there was an uncomfortable pause. Krauze turned to a corner of the front row and said "Ms. Lake, will you go to your agreed-upon area backstage?"

Lake rose from a seat, resplendent in purple, saying that she would like a chance to be onstage with Hobbs. Krauze gently but firmly reminded her that she had agreed to the terms of the event, and would she please go. All wounded innocence, she kept up the resistance for a while. Krauze even offered to let her go first, but of course she wasn't about to let herself be the opening act; she departed, to applause, with an entourage in her wake. The stunt was effective--she painted Hobbs as chicken.

Krauze then left the stage, came back, and repeated his opening speech almost word for word. This time Hobbs came out from the opposite wing, took the seat opposite him and started answering his questions. It was the first time I had ever heard her speak outside of her campaign commercials, and I felt bad for her. She gave sensible mainstream answers about immigration, education, water conservation and abortion rights, but in a diffident, almost apologetic manner. She seemed less like a candidate and more like a nervous staffer pressed into service in a spin room.

Toward the end of her time, Hobbs was asked if her lifetime in Arizona had given her an appreciation of any particular aspect of Hispanic culture here. She seemed caught off guard by the question, and haltingly talked about how much she enjoys spending time with the family of a Hispanic in-law. Listening to her ramble, I was whispering to myself "hard work...strong family...hard work...strong family..." Finally she got there, noting that she admired the community's "family values and hard work," but it was the kind of softball question that an Arizona candidate ought to be able to riff on endlessly (and sincerely) without effort.

After Hobbs was excused to polite applause, Lake was invited out, and swept onstage like she owned the place, while three or four people in the row in front of me gave her a standing ovation. She responded smoothly and confidently to the questions, making frequent direct eye contact with the audience. She was every inch a broadcast veteran, with an impressive command of the rhetorical skills at which Hobbs was at best adequate.

She complained again about Hobbs refusing to debate her, calling her "a coward" and saying that she had also taken a pass on debating her Democratic primary opponent, former Nogales mayor and Obama staffer Marco Lopez, who Lake conceded is a "smart guy"; she said that if Hobbs had debated him he'd be onstage instead of Hobbs, and she fretted that Hobbs had "denied the people of Arizona" this. It didn't seem to occur to Lake that if she was right on this point, Hobbs had clearly chosen the better strategy in her run against Lopez, since she did win the primary.

As to the issues, Lake spoke in a folksy, easygoing way about the usual incendiary Fox News talking points, claiming that she would, for instance, declare an "invasion" at the southern border in "the first hour" of her administration, not only mobilizing the Arizona National Guard but bringing in troops from Texas and Florida. Asked if Joe Biden was the legitimate President of the United States, she shrugged and said "he's sitting in the White House"; Krauze was having none of this attempt to punt and pressed her, so she said that "the election was corrupt" and that no, in her opinion his presidency was illegitimate.

On to the main course: When Krauze asked her, as a "hypothetical which sadly isn't so hypothetical" case, whether a 12-year-old who was raped by a family member should be able to get an abortion, she tried briefly to dodge the question, but when pressed admitted that she thought such a victim should be able to get an abortion "if she wants one." She quickly added that such cases were extremely rare, and went on to say that her opponent believes in late-term abortion up to the point of birth "and after." She did not cite any information as to whether late-term abortions are more or less common than pregnancies caused by rape of the underaged, or suggest how the exceptions she apparently believes in to the abortion ban would be provided for legally.

In terms of presentational polish, there can be no denying that Lake is much the more capable and media-savvy candidate. It's very probable this is indeed the reason that Hobbs prefers not to spar with her face-to-face. But listening to Lake talk, it overwhelmingly seemed to me--and there were clearly many people in that audience who felt differently--that she was both condescendingly phony and, well...guano-esquely unbalanced (politically and socially speaking, that is).

Hobbs may feel that she's no match for Lake in a public forum, and if so she's probably right, and it unfortunately hands Lake a stick with which to beat her. But Hobbs is also quite justified, I think, in feeling that "debating" this person, allowing herself to be heckled and interrupted by a slick, experienced media professional who's also a political nutjob, is unworthy of her time.

At one point, Lake noted that pro-abortion activists all had "the luxury of being born." Listening to Lake for twenty minutes, I admit that I was less certain that being born was a luxury.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

HIGH TIMES

Out this week on digital...

Fall--There's an old quote on the art of dramatic writing, attributed to everybody from George Abbott to George M. Cohan to Vladimir Nabokov to Stephen Spielberg: "Get your hero up a tree; throw stones at him; then get him down." The formula has rarely been followed with such dogged literalism as in this grueling but annoying thriller by the Brit Scott Mann, from a script he wrote with Jonathan Frank. 

After suffering a horrible loss in a mountain climbing tragedy, Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) retreats into alcohol and isolation; her friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner) takes to performing daredevil risks and posting the videos online. A year after the disaster, in hopes of getting Becky out of her funk, Hunter talks her into joining her in climbing an insanely high old radio tower in the California desert. They don't take any food with them, because, of course, they'll be back down the rusty rickety ladder in time for lunch.

It need hardly be said that Becky and Hunter get stranded on the small platform at the top. They have no cell phone service; nobody is expecting them, and every effort they make to signal for help gets foiled. They're up there for days, getting hungrier and more desperate, and interpersonal secrets begin to emerge. Also, vultures start to strafe them, which I think is ornithologically libelous.

Heights are high on my regrettably long list of phobias, so this one was hardship duty for me. It's in that genre of "trapped in an inescapable situation" movies like 2010's Buried, or 2013's All is Lost, or Hitchcock's 1944 Lifeboat. But Fall strained both plausibility and patience for me. Really? No food? Not even a granola bar or a Slim Jim? I realize these are supposed to be reckless Gen-Z adrenalin junkies, but would they truly not tell anyone what they were doing or how long they planned to be gone?

Even if you accept this, though, the arrogance and emptiness of the project itself left me out of sympathy with our heroines. In 2018, I felt a similar exasperation with the (Oscar-winning) documentary Free Solo, about Alex Hannold's efforts to free-climb El Capitan in Yosemite. Of Hannold's almost superhuman physical prowess and mental discipline there could be no doubt, but the "because it is there" achievement seemed to me unworthy of the risk he was taking. I just kept thinking "who's going to tell his Mom?" Various of my friends and family members have looked at me with barely-concealed pitying scorn for this view and the puniness of my spirit it undoubtedly reveals.

Nonetheless, I felt doubly that way about the freakin' radio tower. Currey and Gardner are both lively and bright--too bright for how imbecilic the script makes them--so I couldn't help but hope that they would get down safe; my aggravation was with the movie itself and its contrivances. Watching it didn't feel like getting sucked into a thriller; it felt like being imposed upon, deliberately inconvenienced.

Monday, September 19, 2022

FOOT NOTES

That the game we call soccer in America, and the rest of the world calls football, is a great sport is beyond serious doubt.

Too much of the rest of the world loves it fervently for us to believe that this country's traditional indifference to it means anything but cultural myopia. Securus judicat orbis terrarum. And even here in the U.S. soccer's popularity has greatly increased in recent years as a couple of generations of suburban kids have grown up playing it, and as Latino culture's influence has broadened here.

But I confess it's not my game. The few times I've watched a minute or two of "futbol" while channel-surfing, the vantage point has seemed to be from a hovering blimp, and the players looked like insects scurrying around. 

It's weird how that works. To the meager extent that I'm a sports fan at all, I'm a baseball fan. I can happily sit and watch pudgy guys throw, bat and catch for hours on the diamond. One friend of mine compares it, as entertainment, to watching paint dry. But somehow to me a baseball game has a narrative; characters, suspense, plot twists.

This is far less true, for me, of football and basketball. But even those games hold more drama and tension than televised soccer. On the other hand, last month I had the opportunity to see the "beautiful game" up close, and...it still isn't my game, I'm afraid.

Last week, for a work function, I had occasion to attend a game of the Phoenix Rising FC, at the new open-air facility at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler.

For the first half I was manning a booth outside the stadium, but was able to follow the game on the enormous TV screen that gazes down on the lawn. I enjoyed the friendly fans that braved the appalling heat; many of them were themselves kicking balls around on the grass, while others relaxed at the picnic tables with treats from the various food vendors. I myself enjoyed a tripas taco and a delectable mulita from a food truck there, and from another vendor, the most wonderful, refreshing shaved ice I've ever tasted, lime flavored. I wish I had one right now.

During the second half, after packing up the booth, I decided to go in and watch a bit of the game in person, eyeballs on the action. All through the first half, I had heard thunderous, repetitive drumming and chanting coming from inside the park, so constantly that I had wondered if it was a recording.

It wasn't. When I wandered inside, I found a seat behind the goal of the visiting team, the Rio Grande Valley Toros based in Edinburg, Texas. This area was full of a corps of admirably passionate fans, some shirtless and tatted-up, many carrying drums: snares, bass drums, the works. Many who weren't drumming were chanting. It was pretty hypnotic.

The heat was terrible, which may be why the rest of the bleachers were relatively sparsely populated. But it was a pleasant after-dark setting nonetheless, with a nice view of the casino in the distance. The stadium is more spare then many of the slick sports venues around the Valley, but I found it a nice place to be.

But as to the action on the "pitch?" I'm afraid it stubbornly refused to become exciting to me, philistine that I am. It was just two sets of guys, in different colored outfits, running around. Magnificent athletes, no doubt, but still just guys running around.

This was clearly not how it was for the fans around me. They hung on every second of the action, and said things like "Beautiful pass!" and "Hey, ref, what about it?" There were older guys sitting in the rear bleachers, watching quietly and judiciously.

Toward the end of the game, I started to try to get pictures on my cell phone. The results are not likely to make Sports Illustrated; I could barely keep up with the ball.

Then suddenly, in one of those strange moments when life downshifts into slow motion, I noticed the ball getting large on my cell phone screen, and then it banged into the bleachers, less than three feet to my left. It woke me up fast.

Despite my general confusion interrupted by this moment of terror, I was glad I had the experience first-hand, and I was pleased that the Phoenix Rising were victorious over the Toros, 2-1. Tickets start at $22, and the season continues through mid-October, when the weather should be a lot more agreeable. It could be a fun and fairly affordable family night out. Go to phxrisingfc.com for details.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

COUNTER CULTURE

Another Fathom Events presentation; starting tonight, Tuesday, September 13 and continuing through Sunday, September 18 at select theaters...


Clerks III--28 years after their day was chronicled in Kevin Smith's 1994 indie debut feature, Dante and Randal are still working at New Jersey convenience store Quick Stop Groceries, still playing hockey on the roof, and still bickering like an old married couple. In this sequel to 2006's Clerks II, Randal (Jeff Anderson) is stricken with a heart attack. In the face of this scrape with mortality, he decides to write and direct a movie, with Dante (Brian O'Halloran) as his reluctant producer.

The subject, it need hardly be said, is his life at the counter of a New Jersey convenience store, and his encounters with the various oddballs that frequent the place, among them Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), Christian Crypto-Currency enthusiast and clerk Elias (Trevor Fehrman) and Dante's ex-girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti).

The wacky escapades, and the drama, that arise from financing and shooting the movie-within-the-movie make up the balance of the story. Smith freely mixes lowbrow schtick, pop culture chatter and celebrity cameos with religious debate and heartfelt sentiment. Some of it falls flat; some of it is delightful. The old running gags and catchphrases--"I'm not even supposed to be here today," "thirty-seven?" etc--are deployed to good effect, Rosario Dawson has a couple of sweet scenes as Dante's beloved Becky, and when Jay and Silent Bob do their little dance in front of the store, it has a certain silent-clown magic.

But the real sting in Clerks III has do with seeing these characters still going through the same '90s-style slacker paces with soulfully dissipated middle-aged faces. Despite their arrested-adolescent poses, both Anderson and (especially) O'Halloran get across a sense of having emotionally matured; they show a warmth that deepens this silly fan-service movie.

Sunday, September 4, 2022

A LITTLE LESS CONVERSATION, A LITTLE MORE REACTION

Check out Your Humble Narrator's short article, online at Phoenix Magazine, about the upcoming TCM/Fathom Events revival of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan at select AMC Theatres on Sunday, September 4, Monday September 5 and Thursday September 8...


...and also of the showing of Nosferatu at the Orpheum Theatre here in Phoenix next Tuesday.

It's bad enough that Nosferatu is marking its centennial this year, but it's really irksome that Wrath of Khan is being shown in observance of its fortieth anniversary. Wrath of Khan is forty freakin' years old.

I have a bit of personal history with this film. My review of Wrath of Khan was the first movie review of mine ever to appear in a daily newspaper, the Erie Times-News. I was twenty years old, and had been submitting my work to the editors there for a while without success. My break came because the regular reviewer disliked sci-fi, and horror, and action pictures, and pretty much any kind of movie in which, as he liked to put it, "the dialogue appears in word balloons over the characters' heads."

Needless to say, I was more than happy to relieve him of this beat, and Wrath of Khan was my first opportunity to do so. I dragged my then-girlfriend to it at the Strand on 10th Street in Erie. I think she was a little taken aback at how much I responded to it. She knew I was a nerd; she didn't know I was that much of a nerd.

Forty years later, it's still a favorite of mine. All these years, however, I've had a complaint about the movie, and I doubt there will be a better occasion than now to air it. But it involves a moment at the very climatic moment of the film, so if you've never seen it, and want to discover it for yourself, consider this a MAJOR SPOILER warning.

Okay, for those still reading: Near the end of Wrath of Khan, Kirk's titular nemesis, grandly played by Ricardo Montalban, is dying aboard the starship Reliant, scarred by radiation burns, but still lashing out at Kirk by trying to detonate the Genesis Device, spewing Ahab's invective toward Moby-Dick all the while. Meanwhile Kirk, aboard the Enterprise, and his crew are frantically trying to regain warp speed so that they can escape the blast zone. The director, Nicholas Meyer, cuts between the two vessels, with Khan's crazed, disfigured face gleefully watching the Enterprise on his viewscreen.

At the last second, of course, warp speed is attained, and the Enterprise zips away to safety as the Reliant explodes behind her. Yay, the good guys win; all is well, except...Meyer doesn't cut to a reaction shot so that we can see Khan register, in that final second, that Kirk has defeated him once and for all.

I've never understood this omission. Everything about the way the scene is shot and edited up to that point seems to set up such a reaction shot, maybe even a final "NOOOOO!" from Montalban. It would have been the perfect payoff to Kirk's much-parodied roar of "KHAAAAAN!" earlier in the film.

I'm well aware that the reason for the dissatisfaction I feel at the lack of this shot has to do with my persistent, spiteful feelings about revenge in melodramas. Khan himself, in this movie, quotes a "Klingon proverb" that "revenge is a dish best served cold," but the innumerable action pictures that end with the bad guy simply being killed leave me cold; they're entirely unsatisfying. Far better that they should live long to wallow in their defeat; at a minimum, they should die knowing that they've lost. There are a few movies that have grasped this: the original Cape Fear, also The Princess Bride among them. But few movies have ever left me hanging in this regard as badly as Wrath of Khan, wonderful as it is.

Was such a shot planned, but never filmed? Was it filmed, but cut for some deliberate reason, or just for time? Did Montalban have to leave early that day? Or was it truly never considered? If I ever get the chance to interview Meyer (no matter what the subject of the interview is supposed to be), these are likely to be the first questions I ask him. Or, by some chance, does the shot exist after all, and is it at last included in the "Director's Cut" being shown at the TCM/Fathom Events revival?

In the meantime, I'll ask you: Am I the only one that ever noticed this or felt this way?

Friday, August 12, 2022

GRAY FOX

Opening in theaters this weekend:

Mack & Rita--L.A. writer Mack (Elizabeth Lail) is 30, but has always been a 70-year-old lady at heart. She's faking it when she tries to act like a rowdy young party animal. In Palm Springs for the weekend with her girlfriends, she gazes longingly, from the line waiting to get into a club, at the relaxed older ladies enjoying themselves at the tables in front of the restaurant across the street.

Mostly because it gives her the opportunity to lie down (in what looks like a tanning bed), she tries an age regression therapy session offered in a tent alongside the road. When she emerges, she finds that it's had the opposite effect: age progression, albeit to about the most elegant version of a woman in her seventies you can find: Diane Keaton.

This version of Mack adopts the persona of "Aunt Rita" and goes about trying to reverse the process; she also notices an attraction between herself and her cute young dog-sitter (Justin Milligan) and falls in with a "wine club" of fun-loving saucy ladies around her age (Loretta Devine, Wendie Malick, Lois Smith and Amy Hill, all having fun). Wacky hijinks ensue.

Directed by Katie Aselton from a script by Paul Welsh and Madeline Walter, this is a variation on the seemingly inexhaustible genre of fantasies about people changing their age. Often such tales are about kids wanting to be adults; sometimes they're about adults recapturing childhood or youth. But I can't remember another story about a young adult wanting to be old, even if they get to be Diane Keaton old. As a sixty-year-old who seems a lot less youthful than the 76-year-old Keaton, I could warn Mack not to be in such a hurry. 

This movie is fluffy to the point of insipidity, most of the dialogue is feeble, and the idea is thin at feature length, padded out with montage sequences. But though it takes almost twenty minutes to get to her entrance, right in the middle of the picture is Diane Keaton; funny, sexy and stunning as ever. Nattering Annie Hall-style and gamely pratfalling, she single-handedly gives the movie a charge that almost justifies it.

But only almost. Keaton is one of our best movie stars, and she's been skillfully (and no doubt lucratively) elevating otherwise routine chick-flicks like this for a long time. But she's also a top-notch actress, and it's been a while since she's shown what she can do in really good material. No one can begrudge her the payoff from this sort of thing, but it would be nice to see her squeeze in something a bit more substantive.

One more note, for the dog lovers: Mack has a wonderful little dog called "Cheese" (voiced, in a mushroom-trip sequence, by Martin Short). In the first scene in which Cheese sees "Rita," he stares at her quizzically, for all the world as if he recognizes her but is baffled by her new appearance. It's the closest Keaton comes to being upstaged.

Friday, August 5, 2022

TRACK STAR

Opening this weekend:

Bullet Train--Brad Pitt plays one of several professional assassins riding the title vehicle on an overnight zip from Tokyo to Kyoto. Dubbed "Ladybug" by his dispatcher (Sandra Bullock), he's a lethal fellow with mad fighting and weapons skills, but he regards himself as a magnet for bad luck, and he's weary of his career and wants more positivity in his life.

This is Pitt in frumpy, glamor-debunking mode, decked out in a bucket hat, drab jacket and sneakers, with horn-rimmed nerd glasses. His manner is pleasant and unassuming; a central joke of the movie is that Ladybug clearly has no wish to hurt anyone. Pitt is very good company here, in the way that only a veteran movie star can be, and as a model for action movie heroes to come I heartily approve.

There are other strong actors here--Aaron Taylor-Young and Brian Tyree Henry as a team of bickering Brit killers, Hiroyuki Sanada and Andrew Koji as father-and-son assassins, Benito A Martinez Ocasio as a vengeful Mexican hit man, Zazie Beetz as a deadly concessions peddler, Joey King as a schoolgirl type with secrets, all chasing a briefcase McGuffin and trying to avoid the wrath of a shadowy Russian gangster known as "The White Death," not mention a pesky (if rather sweet-faced) boomslang snake on the loose. A few big names turn up in amusing cameos.

Yet all of this creditable work doesn't quite add up to a satisfying movie. Directed by David Leitch from a script by Zak Olkewicz adapted from a Japanese novel by Kotaro Isaka, Bullet Train feels like an exercise in nostalgia; it's like one of the innumerable '90s-era knockoffs of Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez or (especially) Guy Ritchie, full of savage yet "ironic" facetious violence and whip pans and cute but bloody flashbacks and characters engaging in detailed discussions of pop culture (Thomas the Tank Engine in this case).

It's well-crafted and perfectly watchable, as long as you aren't too squeamish. But for me, it lacked any real emotional stakes, and the homestretch grows overblown and tediously overextended. Compare it to 2018's underrated Bad Times at the El Royale, another faux-Tarantino throwback that had the same tongue in cheek, but a bit of heart in its chest as well.

Now on Prime  Video:

Thirteen Lives--It's the story of a rescue mission with the number thirteen in the title, and it's directed by Ron Howard. That's a pretty solid recipe for success.

In June of 2018 twelve members of a youth soccer team and their coach went on an outing into a cave in a provincial mountain park in northern Thailand. An unexpected early monsoon hit after they went in, the paths quickly filled up with water, and the boys were trapped, more than two miles into the narrow, twisty passages. The rescue efforts that followed over the next three weeks included participants ranging from Thai Navy Seals to U.S. Military to Brit rescue divers to a Bangkok-based engineer who figured out how to divert rainwater from sinkholes on the mountain, into the agricultural fields below. The movie asserts that more than 5,000 people from 17 countries pitched in.

Howard focuses on the Brits, nicely underplayed played by Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen and Tom Bateman, and an Australian diver, played by Joel Edgerton, who was called in because of the specifics of his medical background. Like Howard's best film, Apollo 13, this is a fairly deep dive (sorry about that) into the technical difficulties of the operation, and this attention to detail adds to the suspense rather than dragging on the pace.

The movie's a bit of a harrowing ordeal at times, especially for those of us with a claustrophobic streak, but it's just about impossible not to invest in it emotionally. And while it's inspiring, it may also leave you a little exasperated with our seeming inability to work together for the common good when it's not such an obviously urgent crisis. What a pity it's so hard for us to remember that, in the end, all humankind is one big Thai soccer team, hoping to get out of our respective caves.