Tuesday, March 29, 2022


The 18th edition of Phoenix Film Festival...

...and the simultaneous International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival...

...kick off Thursday. Check out my preview, online at Phoenix Magazine.

Friday, March 25, 2022


Opening in theaters this weekend:

The Lost City--In old movies, lost cities and worlds and civilizations were often destroyed by a volcano at the end, as the explorers just barely escaped. It was as if, in the tradition of such storytelling, once westerners had laid eyes on an exotic unknown place, its destiny was fulfilled and it had no need to carry on existing.

This new adventure comedy, starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum, is so old-school that it employs the venerable volcano device. Here, at least, it doesn't come out of left field, but is integrated into the plot; Bullock plays Loretta, a romance novelist who has been kidnapped and taken to a tropical island by a rich nutcase (Daniel Radcliffe) who believes she has the archeological translation skills to help him locate a treasure in a lost city he's unearthed. A nearby volcano, about to erupt, provides the urgency.

Tatum plays Loretta's cover model Alan, who engages a cool ex-Navy Seal mercenary (Brad Pitt) to rescue her, and tags along. Soon enough it's just Loretta and Alan, bumbling through the jungle on their own, struggling to elude the rich guy's goons. And, of course, bickering.

Directed by the brothers Aaron and Adam Yee from a script by a gaggle including Seth Gordon, Oren Uziel and Dana Fox, this film's pilferage goes beyond the volcano bit; it draws, directly or indirectly, on everything from Romancing the Stone to the Hope-Crosby Road pictures. It isn't necessarily all that much dumber than any of those movies; nonetheless it's pretty dumb.

Even so, it sort of works. Bits of the dialogue show flashes of wit, and Brad Pitt, employed to send up the sort of hypercompetent man of action that only exists in the movies, probably constitutes the flick's best joke, although the filmmakers can't resist spoiling it at the very end.

Above all, Bullock never sucks. She's been a movie star for three decades now, and she knows what she's doing; she can be silly without going shrill or cartoonish, and can modulate seamlessly from broad schtick to sweet, delicate moments. Even when a movie serves her poorly, she's consistently good company, and Tatum, with his amiable, logy-minded delivery, pairs well with her. It's also refreshing that, for a change, the leading lady is more than a decade and a half older than her love interest.

Friday, March 18, 2022


Opening this weekend:

The Outfit--This gangster thriller takes place almost entirely inside a small, classy shop in '50s-era Chicago run by an English tailor or, as he prefers, a "cutter." The Savile Row veteran makes elegant suits, largely for Chicago gangsters. He also has allowed a slotted box to be installed in his back room, from which the mobsters pick up messages. Some of the envelopes are marked with a symbol indicating that they are from "The Outfit," which causes the recipients to look at each other significantly and hurry off to who knows what intrigues.

The Cutter, whose name is listed in the credits as Leonard but to whom the gangsters affectionately refer only as "English," is played by Mark Rylance, close to the flawlessly made vest as usual. The great actor's bland, unhurried, maddeningly unperturbed line readings potently generate the sense that he's got secrets, potentially dark. He's quietly, politely paternal toward his lovely receptionist Mable (Zoey Deutch), and though she's a bit prickly at his fretting she seems to love him back. Otherwise he appears to have no life but his work. Rylance plays the role with such authority that while we watch him confidently cut and stitch and smooth fabric, we never doubt what we're seeing for second; it feels like watching a documentary.

Trouble starts when two of the hoods, who are looking for a "rat" who has been feeding information to the FBI, show up one night after a gunfight, one of them wounded, looking to English for a hideout and some impromptu field surgery. The twists and turns and bloody violence keep piling up from there, and eventually the boss (Simon Russell Beale in a fine, cliche-free turn) shows up to this messy scene and everybody starts trying to deceive and outmaneuver everybody else.

The director, Graham Moore, who co-wrote the film with Jonathan McClain, plays a lot of this for grim comedy. The style is theatrical, not just because of the single set and small cast but because of the heightened dialogue. With guns pointed at them and all manner of mayhem happening around them, the characters nonetheless launch into heartfelt, reflective monologues about their pasts. If you can accept this conceit, you're likely to find The Outfit is gripping, funny and moving.

Perhaps Moore and McClain push their luck a bit; the film has a twist or two too many. Speaking of his craft at one point in the narration, English observes that perfection, though necessary as an aspirational ideal, is never truly attainable. This movie's last ten minutes or so illustrates this perfectly, but as with one of English's suits, no one is likely to feel skimped.

Sunday, March 13, 2022


Ever heard of "SOV Horror?" Until quite recently, I had not. It stands for "Shot-on-video horror," and refers to the gruesome, tawdry, very low-budget shockers that tended to clutter the shelves of video rental stores back in the '80s and '90s.

I was unaware that fandom of this mostly disreputable class of flicks was a thing, despite the fact that I appear (very briefly) in such a movie, one that I'm told is now well-regarded as a classic of the kind, and that I also made a (very minor) contribution to its script. The opus in question is Writer's Block: Truth or Dare 2; Playing for Keeps.

It isn't really a sequel. The convoluted title comes from the movie's vague relationship to Tim Ritter's Truth or Dare, a popular SOV gorefest made in Florida in 1986. Ritter's opus is watched obsessively by Elliot (Jeffrey C. Hawkins), the psycho killer in Writer's Block, but otherwise the movie, directed and co-written by my friend Chris LaMont, is free-standing.

The hero of Writer's Block is Jack (Joey Michitsch), a young horror novelist suffering from the title affliction. Under the opening titles, you can see Your Humble Narrator as "The Woodcutter," the title character in the movie-within-the-movie based on one of Jack's books, plodding along with an axe, in not very frightening pursuit of three lovely young ladies in bikini tops and jean shorts, out for a "midnight skinny dip." This may arguably give me the distinction of being the most obscure (and least scary) masked, axe-wielding maniac in horror movie history.

When "cut" is called on the set of the movie-within-the-movie, my pal Dave Gofstein also appears, as the assistant director who offers the cast and crew pizza. As I recall, Dave's line was more important than mine, as it was a product placement for Peter Piper. Despite the woodsy setting, these scenes were shot in central Phoenix, at Whitfill Nurseries on Glendale Avenue near 8th Street.

LaMont had also asked me, along with several other local writers, to do some work on the script. A few lines of my dialogue may be heard in the very last scene of the movie.

I had hardly thought about Writer's Block in the 27 years or so since it was made. I certainly had no idea that it had a following on VHS. But apparently it does, and now it's been released, for the first time, on DVD from SOVHorror. It was fun to hear LaMont's amusing, self-deprecating audio commentary, reminding me, for instance, that the crew blew out the power at the nursery the night we shot there. Also among the "Special Features" is a "Director's Cut," presenting the flick entirely in black and white. This was how I watched it, and it truly did look better that way.

Along with Dave, it was a jolt to see other old friends from the Phoenix-area theatre, like Jeff Hawkins, John King, Kevin Cleere and the dear, late Tim Reader, turn up in the crowded cast. It's a cliche, but I can't help it: Were we ever really that young? Somebody seems to have taken a blade to The Woodcutter's head of hair.

Friday, March 4, 2022


Opening this weekend...

The Batman--Time for yet another retelling of the tale of the poor little rich boy, orphaned by criminals, who dresses up as a bat and deploys gadgetry to fight crime. This version, we're assured, is "dark." Not colorful and campy, like the '60s-era TV show; not whimsical, like the Tim Burton series of the '80s and '90s; not epic and Wagnerian, like the more recent series featuring the laryngitic Christian Bale. Strange how durable and flexible this silly myth has proven.

This one is indeed dark, both literally and thematically; dim and shadowy and focused on hidden corruption. Directed by Matt Reeves from a script he wrote with Peter Craig, The Batman is set early in the career of Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) as the Caped Crusader. His costume, gizmos and vehicles seem like works in progress, and his Gotham police ally James Gordon (Jeffery Wright) is a Lieutenant, not yet the Commissioner.

Gordon and The Batman are looking for The Riddler (Paul Dano), who is bumping off prominent members of Gotham's law enforcement community, and whose cryptic messages to our hero suggest that he's trying to drag some of the city's slimy secrets into the light. Gotham underworld figures like Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and The Penguin (Colin Farrell, buried in makeup) are involved, as is young Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), who's investigating the disappearance of her girlfriend. The lithe, acrobatic Selina dresses in cat-like gear and has an apartment full of cats; she is, you might say, a cat woman.

There's a lot to like about the movie. Grieg Fraser's cinematography has a dank and gloomy beauty, and seeing The Batman recoil in fear when he comes to the edge of a tall building or miscalculate a descent and clip himself painfully against an overpass is a highly agreeable counter to the parkour-style effortlessness of so many contemporary action heroes.

The actors are strong, too. Pattinson is low-key, but he has the same sallow, Byronic glamour he's shown in other roles, and he's sympathetic, as is Wright, and Andy Serkis as a fretful Alfred. Turturro and Farrell bring a realistic feel to their mobster parts, and Peter Sarsgaard makes his shady D.A. squirmy and weaselly but also pitiable.

The standouts are Dano and Kravitz; Dano's rather squalid take on the Riddler turns truly scary when he starts stretching his words out into deep, indignant bellows. He seems far less like a movie supervillain and more like the pathetic, yet more terrifying, attempts of real-life crazies to emulate a supervillain (as in Aurora, Colorado). Kravitz brings the movie a much-needed breeze of brisk but breathable fresh air. She's the audience surrogate in the film; despite her feats of derring-do she comes across as more sensible and relatable than anyone else.

Against all of these merits, The Batman is too long. It's way too freakin' long. It's nearly three hours of above-average moviemaking of its kind, but three hours is a heavy dose of shadows and fog. The brooding atmosphere suggests that we're in for devastating, morally challenging revelations, but what we get, while coherent, isn't especially surprising. And then, just as we seem to have gotten to the bottom of the case, the movie tacks on a blowed-up-real-good disaster finale that feels jarringly out of tune with the more intimate crime-story flavor of what has gone before.

I thought that superhero pictures were starting to cure themselves of their straining need to pile on climax after climax, seemingly in frantic fear that audiences will feel that they haven't been given enough for their money. The Batman is a step backward in this regard.

It occurred to me that The Batman feels, in atmosphere and pretensions, exactly like what was so sublimely spoofed by 2017's The Lego Batman Movie. It isn't every day that the target of a parody shows up five years after the parody itself.