Friday, February 25, 2022


Opening in theaters this weekend:

Cyrano--There really was a Cyrano de Bergerac in the 1600s; he fought in the Thirty Years War and wrote plays and satires and pioneering works of science fiction. He was a remarkable person, to be sure, but Edmond Rostand's eponymous 1897 play spun his exploits into the realm of the romantic tall tale.

Rostand's legendary version of Cyrano is a lion-hearted man of action with the soul of a poet, hampered from winning the heart of his true love Roxanne only because he can't bring himself to believe that she could accept his grotesquely oversized nose. Instead, he wins her by proxy, hiding in the shadows and feeding his silver-tongued professions of love to the handsome but inarticulate Christian de Neuvillette, then having to endure it as Roxanne falls in love with his front.

It's one of the prototypical masochistic male romantic fantasies, up there with Fitzgerald's Gatsby (strange to think the two works were written less than thirty years apart). Like Gatsby, the premise has a timeless dramatic appeal and is also, when you think about it, exasperatingly adolescent.

For this new version, based on a 2018 stage musical by Erica Schmidt and set in a sun-dappled fairy-tale past (it was shot in Sicily), the title role has been reimagined as a vehicle for the great Peter Dinklage; diminutive stature replaces nasal enormity here. With his reserved, drolly morose line readings and his hangdog handsomeness, Dinklage gives a riveting star turn, registering an intense depth of agony in his eyes without even slightly milking the pathos. The actor's dignified stoicism matches the character's. And he textures the performance by getting across Cyrano's pained, bleak pride at the success of his wooing.

The picture is worth seeing for Dinklage alone, but his isn't the only good work. Joe Wright's direction is deft, Haley Bennett makes a lovely, mirthful Roxanne, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. a serviceable Christian.

Unfortunately, all of this fine, even classic work is in service of a mostly banal and pedestrian script and rambling, rhyme-challenged, deeply unexciting musical numbers. In a story about the power of eloquence to ravish, this droning music and thuddingly flat, colloquial style of language--Roxanne says "okay" at one point--is particularly ruinous.

There's a scene in which Christian recklessly decides to meet Roxanne, unsupported by Cyrano's prompting. Her face quickly clouds over at the guy's imbecilic impromptu attempts at verbal lovemaking, and she launches into a song called "I Need More." I had the same sentiment about the movie.

Monday, February 21, 2022


Available online from Laemmle Virtual Cinema...

A Peloton of One--The title of this documentary doesn't refer to the beleaguered exercise bike company, but rather to the word's meaning in competitive cycling: it's a grouping of cyclists in a race, riding together for their mutual protection. The "one" here is a man named Dave Ohlmuller, who in 2018 rode his bike, mostly by himself, from Chicago to New York to raise awareness of childhood sexual abuse and to encourage other survivors to break their silence. As a 12-year-old in New Jersey, Ohlmuller had been abused by the family Catholic priest.

The film, directed by Steven E. Mallorca, Joe Capozzi and John C. Bernardo, follows Ohlmuller on his odyssey through the rust belt and Midwest, as he tries to pedal away some of his shame and rage. Along the way, he meets other survivors who greet him warmly, sometimes ride a few miles with him, and show him that he's very far from alone.

We get their stories as well, and we also hear from legal advocates and activists working to bring the problem to light; there's a particular emphasis on extending, or even eliminating, the statute of limitations deadlines for these crimes, behind which so many of these offenders escape justice. This infuriating material has been covered powerfully in other films, notably Tom McCarthy's superb 2015 Spotlight, but it has a special directness and immediacy here.

The movie's manner is uplifting, but it has a tragic tone as well. Ohlmuller comes across like he's just barely holding it together, and more than once someone else expresses concern about his psychological state. On a human level, this is worrisome; on a dramatic level, it only deepens the movie and makes his struggle all the more compelling and heroic.

Friday, February 18, 2022


Opening this week...

Dog--Although the title character has a name, Lulu, for most of this movie's length star Channing Tatum just refers to her by the titular monosyllable. She's a Belgian Malinois and a traumatized U.S. Army combat veteran. Briggs (Tatum) a similarly damaged former Army Ranger, agrees to drive the dog from the northwest to Nogales, Arizona to be present at the funeral of her former partner. After that, she's slated to be put down.

As you can guess, the trip does not go smoothly. Briggs and the muzzled, restrained, snarling Lulu stumble into episodic wacky adventures down the coast. They encounter woke tantric types in Portland and paranoid weed-growing hippies in northern California; Briggs even poses as a blind man, with Lulu as his service animal, to get a good hotel room in San Francisco. Through it all, of course, this boy and his dog gradually bond.

Co-directed by Tatum and co-screenwriter Reid Carolin, this movie, the release of which was delayed for more than a year, is being marketed as a comedy, and there are broad, heavy-handed scenes in which Briggs is the slapstick butt of the dog's mayhem. In general, though, the film is more poignant and compassionate than might be expected; its concern with the plight of PTSD-afflicted veterans, both two- and four-legged, is at the core of the film.

Tatum is also at the core. I've always liked him; his dim, sweet manner suggests a deep decency. But he's pretty much the whole show here. The supporting characters, like the hippies and Portlanders, are stereotypical--though not mean-spiritedly so--and also fleeting. A large percentage of the film is just Tatum, nattering away to the dog, like one does. He makes Briggs a surprisingly layered characterization, and he shows that he can carry a movie all by himself.

Well, not all by himself. Part of what makes the film so touching are the reaction shots of Lulu's soulful face. Tatum is never likely to have a more beautiful leading lady.

Friday, February 11, 2022


Opening only (and worth seeing in) the multiplexes this weekend...

Death on the Nile--The prologue to Kenneth Branagh's sumptuous new adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1937 novel offers us some backstory on an iconic element of Hercule Poirot's image. It's very much like an origin story in a superhero movie.

It's hard to say how much this episode will be to the liking of hardcore Christie purists, just as it was hard to say how such enthusiasts would feel about Branagh's previous outing as the vain, dapper, extravagantly mustachioed Belgian super-sleuth with the OCD tendencies and the potent "little gray cells"; in 2017 he directed and starred in a flashy Murder on the Orient Express. Now Poirot is cruising down the title river in a palatial paddleboat full of shifty frenemies of a rich beauty (Gal Gadot) and her rakish new husband (Armie Hammer). There are cryptic clues and overheard motives and skulkings around Abu Simbel. It all culminates in murder, and among the suspects are Annette Bening, Letitia Wright, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Tom Bateman, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo and others.

The script, as with Orient Express, is by Michael Green, and once again there's a sense that he and Branagh are gleefully shaking up Christie's staid and bigoted worldview, trying to get to her to roll in her grave (the film has, anyway, the blessing of her great-grandson, Executive Producer James Prichard, who runs Agatha Christie Limited). While the plot, in outline, and the solution to the mystery are essentially the same as in the novel and the enjoyable all-star movie version of 1978 with Peter Ustinov as Poirot, this is still a very free adaptation, with characters added, subtracted and altered for the sake of greater diversity in race and sexuality.

The period sets and costumes are luxurious, as is the cinematography of Haris Zambarloukos, who brought a very different look to Branagh's Belfast. The direction also has plenty of Branagh's characteristic flamboyance and old-school theatrics. Christie was fascinated by the setting (in addition to this book she also set a novel, 1944's Death Comes as the End, in ancient Egypt), so whatever she thought of the characterizations, she might well have liked this movie's lush Egyptian atmosphere; the camera takes in the sights on the riverbanks, and even snoops around below the surface at times.

It may be that contemporary audiences (and critics) will find this a laborious throwback, but I found it not only an opulent, sometimes sexy treat, but also surprisingly emotional; far more so than the 1978 version. This element comes, mostly, from Branagh's heartfelt performance. At key points his Poirot rises to the level of the tragic, like his Shakespeare did in that one great speech about the penknife in 2018's otherwise badly uneven All Is True. In both cases, it's the kind of masterly acting that likely won't get award nominations, but will richly reward attentive viewers. Provided, of course, that we use our little gray cells.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022


For the first time since the national tour of Hamilton hit Gammage Auditorium in October, and for the first time besides that since an early 2020 production of Carrie: The Musical at Glendale's Brelby Theatre Company before COVID, last weekend Your Humble Narrator betook himself to some live theatre. Arizona Actors Academy's Solo Theatre Festival...

...continues (with different performers) this coming weekend; check out my article on it, online at Phoenix Magazine.

Friday, February 4, 2022


Some February flotsam washes up in theaters this weekend...

Moonfall--In the 1987 classic Moonstruck, sweet Uncle Raymond recalls being awakened, as a young man, by the light of a huge and brilliant Moon outside his window, summoned by the power of love. "I was almost scared," he says, "like it was going to crush the house."

This story is made literal in Moonfall, Roland Emmerich's extravagant new sci-fi disaster epic. But there's more dramatic weight in Uncle Raymond's little monologue than there is in all of Emmerich's picture.

The Moon comes loose from its orbit and starts spiraling toward Earth. A young amateur scientist (John Bradley), regarded as a fringe-y nutjob, knows why: It's not a natural satellite; it's an alien construct and is hollow, and NASA has known it all along and hushed it up. He's finally able to convince a wrongfully disgraced astronaut (Patrick Wilson) and a NASA honcho (Halle Berry) that he's on to something, and the three of them end up on a desperate shuttle mission to confront an alien nanotechnology cloud that looks like a giant space moray, and put the Moon back in its place, marking months and menstrual cycles.

This isn't the first time in pop culture that the Moon has been knocked out of orbit; back in the '70s the Brit TV show Space: 1999 sent the satellite careening away from the Earth, carrying its colonists across the galaxy like an interstellar Flying Dutchman. But preposterous as that show was, it seems like hard sci-fi compared to Moonfall. This U.S.-American co-production is really, really silly. It's silly even by Roland Emmerich standards, even though he keeps recycling ludicrous ideas from his earlier films, like 2012 and Independence Day. And it's queasy at times, too, as with a couple of ass-kissy references to Elon Musk.

That said, the movie doesn't skimp; said to be among the most expensive "independent" movies ever made, it seems to get most of that money onscreen in the form of elaborate special effects and other production values. And I can't say it's boring, either. There's plenty to be said against Emmerich, but letting things drag isn't among them, even though the characters, with the moon bearing down over their heads like a Goodyear blimp, still take the time to fret about their personal problems. Emmerich just makes them fret in motion.

There is one stock figure that Emmerich should maybe consider retiring: The crackpot who knows the truth. Bradley charmingly plays the obsessed moon-watcher here (he owns a cat named "Fuzz Aldrin"). But Emmerich, who made a film a few years ago about how the Earl of Oxford was the true author of Shakespeare's plays, has used variations on the role before, like Woody Harrelson's Art Bell-style radio ranter in 2012 and Randy Quaid's cropdusting UFO abductee in Independence Day, and they've also turned up in movies by other filmmakers, like Brian Tyree Henry's character in last year's Godzilla vs. Kong.  It's an admittedly seductive stereotype, but perhaps this isn't the most auspicious moment to romanticize conspiracy theorists.

The Wolf and the Lion
In the opening of this Canadian-French family picture, we see a mother lion nursing her babies. Then we cut to a hunter loading his rifle. That's about as subtle as the direction of Gilles de Maistre, who wrote the film with his wife Prune de Maistre, gets. We are, at least, spared a graphic view of what follows.

One of the orphaned cubs gets stranded in the forest on a private island in Canada, where he's adopted by a beautiful young musical prodigy who has inherited the gorgeous place from her late grandfather. His adopted brother is a wolf pup, likewise motherless. Their foster mom names the lion "Dreamer" and the wolf, appropriately enough, "Mozart," and they bond.

Eventually the pair are separated; Dreamer to a circus and Mozart to a research facility. But our heroine's efforts to reunite them are tireless. There's some peril that smaller kids might find upsetting, but nothing that rises to the level of those opening shots.

The movie has that polished but unshakably ersatz feel that so many Canadian productions do, and the dialogue sometimes sounds like the product of Google Translate. But hey, you get to see a baby lion and baby wolf tussle and romp and smooch. Maybe that's enough for you; for long stretches of this movie, it was enough for me.