Friday, April 29, 2022


Interesting imports this weekend:

Opening at the Laemmle in Glendale, CA:

Bronco Bullfrog--Barney Platts-Mills directed this 1969 indie, shot in gorgeous newsprint shades of pale-gray monochrome by Adam Barker-Mill in London's East End, with a cast of nonprofessionals and music by Audience. The story follows Del (Del Walker) and his pals, a bunch of budding if rather half-hearted teenage delinquents.

They commit heinous crimes like sneaking each other into movie theaters and robbing pinball machines to get enough money for "cakes." In one strand of the plot, they reconnect with an old friend, Borstal veteran Bronco Bullfrog (Sam Shepherd), who reproves them for the childishness of their capers and draws them into robbing a freight train.

In another strand, Del meets the lissome Irene (Anne Gooding), two years his junior, and they fall for each other, probably in no small measure because Irene's Mum and Del's Dad so disapprove of the relationship. Their search, together on Del's motorbike, for a bit of privacy becomes the central struggle of the film.

The charm in this blast from the past, now getting a half-century belated stateside re-release, is the undemonstrative affectlessness that these characters display, and which extends to the quiet, doggedly undramatic filmmaking style. When the lads are unloading the freight car and carrying off the boxes, they might be helping Bronco move into a new flat. Del and Irene get cross with each other, part, and then make up with fewer histrionics then most couples show deciding what to watch on TV. Even the movie's few brief eruptions into violence have a curious lack of brutality.

The result is that these inexpressive ne'er-do-wells, softly murmuring their (subtitled) cockney lines, come across as singularly funny and endearing. Somehow their lack of operatics, and the movie's refusal to conform to a cautionary crime movie template--or any kind of template, really--gives these young people a comic dignity.

Opening in the Valley at Harkins Shea:

Charlotte--This animated feature, directed by Eric Warin and Tahir Rana, tells the story of Charlotte Salomon. The gifted artist's brief life was plagued with everything from horrific dysfunction in her depressed, suicide-prone family to unhappy love affairs to, you know, being a member of a high-profile Jewish family in the '30s and '40s in Berlin and later in the south of France during the Occupation. She is now remembered for creating Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?) a narrative cycle of hundreds of paintings, overlaid with autobiographical text, a dazzling and innovative work which survived both her and her Nazi persecutors.

Keira Knightley provides Charlotte's voice (in the English-language version; she's Marion Cotillard in the French version). The story is appallingly, almost unrelentingly sad, but it's also inspiring, and the animation is beautiful.

Opening in the Valley at Harkins Fashion Square:

The Duke--The great Jim Broadbent, who provides the voice of Charlotte's wretched "Grosspapa" in Charlotte, plays the lead in this period yarn, a posthumous work by director Roger Michell. It's a lot more fun than Charlotte. Like Bronco Bullfrog, it's a '60s-era heist movie, with a generous and wryly comedic spirit. But that's pretty much where the similarities end. Michell's direction, employing split screens and jazzy George Fenton music, has a '60s throwback flavor.

It tells the true story of Kempton Bunton, a taxi driver and factory worker from Newcastle who was also a self-educated aspiring playwright, as well as a political crank who campaigned to abolish television license fees for elderly people (he was briefly imprisoned himself for defying the requirement). Bunton turned out to be maybe the most improbable, and least offensive, master criminal in history. In 1961, Goya's Portrait of The Duke of Wellington (ca. 1812) was stolen from London's National Gallery, and authorities deemed it the work of a seasoned professional art thief (the theft is referenced in a throwaway gag in Dr. No).

But as it happened the masterpiece was actually residing, the whole time, in the back of a wardrobe in Bunton's house, and before long the authorities began to get letters demanding a ransom, to be paid not to the thief but to charity. To give away much more of the story would be to spoil some of the fun; suffice to say that Broadbent is flawless and lovable, and has the good sense to act as straight man when Helen Mirren, as his beyond fed-up wife Dorothy, hilariously lets rip at him. The whole cast is fine, but a particular word should be said for Matthew Goode's delicately funny work as Bunton's barrister, who develops a sly affection for his brash, obtusely moral client.

I highly recommend this one. Be forewarned, though: Unlike Bronco Bullfrog, The Duke isn't subtitled, and some of us Yanks might wish it was.

Monday, April 25, 2022


The Viking melodrama The Northman, now in theaters, dramatizes the Nordic legend that was the root of Shakespeare's Hamlet. It's to the credit of Harkins Theatres that, as the "Tuesday Night Classic" for this week, they're showing another, rather more lighthearted version of Hamlet: 1983's Strange Brew, the big-screen outing of the SCTV "hosers" Bob and Doug McKenzie, played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas respectively.

No, really. The toque-wearing, beer, donut and back-bacon loving Canadian brothers from the second-greatest sketch comedy show of all time (second only to Monty Python's Flying Circus, that is) serve as a sort of two-man Horatio in the yarn, in which Pam Elsinore (Lynne Griffin) finds, after the death of her father, that her Uncle Claude (Paul Dooley) has taken over the family business, Elsinore Brewery. A video game assumes the role of The Ghost. Best of all is the great Max Von Sydow, who plays an evil brewmeister completely straight, as if he was the villain in a Bond picture.

Directed by Thomas and Moranis from a script they wrote with Steve De Jarnatt, this very silly but sweet-natured and sometimes hilarious '80s curio deserves a bigger cult. I defy anyone to deny the ring of Shakespearean poetry in a line like "Gee, you're real nice. If I didn't have puke breath, I'd kiss you."

Strange Brew plays at 7 p.m. Tuesday at numerous Harkins locations, as part of the chain's "Tuesday Night Classics" series. Tickets are just $5; go to for details.

Friday, April 22, 2022


Opening this weekend...

The Northman--The hero of this historical epic is Amleth, a 9th-Century Nordic prince whose father is murdered by his brother, who then marries Amleth's mother. Amleth flees, vowing revenge. When he's all grown up into the strapping Alexander Skarsgård and enjoying a nice career as a raiding, ravaging berserker, he travels to Iceland, poses as a slave on the estate of his Uncle (Claes Bang)--who's still married to Amleth's seemingly contented Mom (Nicole Kidman)--and waits for the chance to avenge his Dad.

Wait, haven't we heard this story somewhere?

Yeah, sort of. The Amleth legend, as recorded in the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus in the 12th Century, is the root that, greatly refined by time and civilization, ultimately grew into Shakespeare's Hamlet. But director Robert Eggers, who wrote the script with the Icelandic poet and novelist known as Sjön, prefers to take the story of fratricide punished back to the raw source material.

This is, on the whole, a serious attempt at a historically and mythically accurate depiction of the Middle Ages. That's not to say that it's always an accurate depiction of daily reality in those times, but the movie tries to be true to the era's imaginative and moral sensibilities. As such, it's a seriously harsh, bloody, gory, nasty tale. It offers us almost no quarter, and asks none of us.

For that, it has to be respected. Not many big-budget period movies are this unwilling to throw a sop to modern attitudes. These characters aren't just 21st-century people dressed in Viking drag; when, say, helpless peasants (including children) are locked in a hall that's set on fire after a battle, Amleth isn't the perpetrator, but he doesn't stop it, or object to it, or even seem to notice it. It's just another day at the barbarian office.

The acting is strong. Skarsgård is capable and appealing as Amleth, Anya Taylor-Joy feels period-authentic as the enslaved woman he comes to love, Kidman has an impressive, almost Shakespearean bearing as the Mom. Ethan Hawke as Amleth's Dad and Willem Dafoe as a lippy jester are both effective, and Björk has a creepy scene as a prophet. Best of all is Claes Bang, who wisely plays the murdering brother as a sensible, reflective man.

Despite all this creditable work, what with mutilated servants, and the horses with severed heads, and plenty of other atrocities, the list of people who will prefer to take a pass on The Northman is likely to be long. Even on it's own terms, it's a little slow, and a little heavy, although it gathers steam as it goes, and by the time we get to the final showdown--in the midst of a volcanic eruption!--it's entirely engrossing.

The movie also comes across--unintentionally, I think--as a little, well, Aryan. If you aren't in the mood to watch a lot of stripped-down white guys screaming into the camera as they psych themselves up for battle, this may not be the flick for you. This behavior is historically accurate, of course, and again, I don't think for a moment that it was what Eggers and Sjön had in mind, but it's too easy to imagine a bunch of skinheads or Proud Boys watching this movie over and over, and nodding along with the rage.

Friday, April 15, 2022


Actor, producer and devout Catholic Mark Wahlberg...

...was in the Valley recently to promote Father Stu, which he executive produced, and in which he plays the title role. The movie is based on the life of Stuart Long, a failed boxer turned failed actor turned Catholic convert turned seminarian. Here’s some of what Wahlberg said about the getting the tale on film (answers have been edited for length and clarity):

Where did you first hear Father Stu’s story?

From Father Ed Benioff, who was a fellow seminarian of Stu’s, and one of Stu’s buddies…Whatever was going on at the time, I got a wife, four kids, tons of things going on, but for whatever reason, [the story] registered and I said start from the top. And that was when I realized oh my gosh, this is something that I’ve been looking for. The movie chose and found me. That was the beginning of the journey.

How did Rosalind Ross come to be the screenwriter and director?

I started with David O. Russell. Because we talked about what movie we would compare it to tonally, and we all kind of thought it was The Fighter, because there was just a similar journey of Stu, the dysfunction within the family unit, the complexities there, all that. So we had settled on a writer that we thought could deliver, and she handed in a screenplay that I wasn’t interested in making. It didn’t have the bones, it wasn’t even a good first pass. I felt like I needed to step away from that situation and figure out a different way to get the movie going. And I had been talking to Mel [Gibson], just to kind of pick his brain about Passion of the Christ and why he decided to finance it himself, and what that looked like and all the pros and cons of doing that. And Rosie [Rosalind Ross; Gibson’s girlfriend] had written something else that I really liked. So we started talking about it, and she felt she had an entry point into the story as a writer, about this guy, just really in search of his calling and his purpose. So I told her the story, I connected her with Bill [Stu’s father] and Father Ed and everybody else, all the people I knew would be helpful in giving her all the colors and all the information about Stu. And three months later she handed me a screenplay that I wanted to make. I really thought that in itself was a miracle. It was good enough to make right now, I mean tonally, the balance of humor, the heart, the edge, all that stuff. And I was like, well, if she can put on the page, she can put it on the screen. I thought it would be so much more interesting to have the story told from her point of view. And she just did a phenomenal job.

What is the movie’s relationship to the true story? For instance, what was Stu’s real acting career like?

He only had like one or two extra credits. Then when he fell in love with Theresa’s character, that kind of changed everything. He was willing to get baptized on the spot. We had to figure out how to take a story that spanned a couple decades and condense it into two hours.

Have you shown the film to Father Stu’s family and friends? Were any of them advisers on the film?

They all were very helpful throughout the process, but at the same time, with COVID and everything, they weren’t able to be there on the set, and kind of give us input and notes during shooting. They kind of just told us a story, and trusted that we would go off and make it. And then, of course, the most important thing was showing it to those people, and for them to really appreciate the job we did and love the movie meant the world to us.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022


Opening in theaters today:

Father Stu--Stuart Long was a failed boxer in Montana who became a failed actor in L.A. who became a Catholic convert and then a seminarian and ultimately a priest. Mark Wahlberg has turned Long's odd career trajectory into a Hollywood tale, and a juicy star vehicle, with this biopic.

After hearing the story from a priest who was friends with Long, Wahlberg developed it as a film project, but the writer-director is Rosalind Ross, better known as Mel Gibson's longtime girlfriend and the father of one of his children. Early on, Ross endows the film almost with the flavor of a '70s-era friends-in-low-places comedy; it wouldn't seem out of character if Stu had Clyde the Orangutan as a sidekick.

While working the meat counter in a supermarket, like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Stu beholds Carmen (Teresa Ruiz), a soulful local beauty, falls hard for her at first sight, and traces her to her church, where he learns she's a devout Catholic. A nonbeliever himself, he nonetheless hangs around and even converts to be near her, much to the shock of his fretful mother Kathleen (Jacki Weaver) and bitter, distant father Bill (Mel Gibson). Gradually, Stu wears Carmen down; she responds to the intensity and seriousness of his passion for her.

She's prepared to marry him when, after recovering from a hideous accident, he announces that he's decided to become a priest instead. But his sufferings don't end when he gets to the seminary; quite the opposite. The Church leadership resists his priestly ambitions, first because of his rowdy background and later, disgustingly, because they fear that the muscular illness with which he's been afflicted makes him unworthy to perform the sacraments.

Although I'm not Catholic, like the real Stu Long I went to a Catholic college. Perhaps because I didn't grow up in the church, but received the benefit of an excellent Catholic liberal education, it's possible I'm in a position to be more appreciative of the institution than my many pissed-off lapsed Catholic friends. Besides, I've read too much Flannery O'Connor and Graham Greene not to respond to this story.

But Stu winning the glorious Carmen's heart seemed like miracle enough to me; it seemed outrageous that he would then break it off with her to go to seminary. Still, my annoyance with his choice didn't make the sanctimony and hypocrisy he faced from the Church any less infuriating. In the end, I invested emotionally in his struggle; it's enough that it's what Stu wants.

There's reason, however, to suspect that the movie commits its own sins of omission. Ross's script pares down the real Stu's life to its most turbulent aspects, seemingly to make him look less accomplished, more of a desperate screw-up. It leaves out, among other things, the fact that he was a college grad before he went to seminary and spent years as the manager of the Norton Simon Art Museum before his calling. Wahlberg's portrait of him as a slovenly, drawly, dangling-cigarette barfly doesn't suggest this background.

All the same, it's an endearing characterization. Wahlberg blurts out his newfound spiritual insights with the cocksure authority of an eternally passionate novice; he's like an acquaintance that makes you roll your eyes and smile at the same time when you see him coming. Ruiz is lovely as Carmen, and Malcolm McDowell embraces his straight man role as a stuffy monsignor unable to discourage Stu. Taken on its own terms, as a peculiar, sweet yarn spun from truth, the movie is absorbing and engaging.

As for Gibson, he's rarely seemed happier; this movie puts him back in the world of masochistic hardcore fringe-Catholic body horror he so loves. His performance as Bill is potently baleful, and there's a startling moment in which he quips that Stu wanting to become a priest is like "Hitler wanting to join the ADL." That's a nervy and heavy-handed "meta" joke to put in that guy's mouth. After all, it works almost as well to say that it's like Mel Gibson wanting to join the ADL.

Friday, April 8, 2022


Opening this weekend:

Sonic the Hedgehog 2--This is the sequel to the 2020 screen treatment of the hero from the popular '90s-era video game from Sega. He's a determined-looking little goober with blue fur and quills who can run at supersonic speeds. He doesn't look all that much like a hedgehog to me, but whatever.

I never played the game and had no familiarity with the character, but I did review the first film, which I saw at a drive-in in Glendale in April of 2020; it was the last movie I actually saw at a theatre before the big shut-down began in earnest. If memory serves--the first film didn't exactly tattoo itself on my mind--this new film is better than its predecessor.

By which I mean, it's a little better. Starting with a prologue sequence set on "The Mushroom Planet" (a nod, possibly, to Eleanor Cameron's delightful "Mushroom Planet" books of the '50s and '60s?) to which the rotten Dr. Robotnik (Jim Carrey) has been exiled, Sonic 2 is noticeably more visually rich and imaginative than the first film. Settings range from Siberia to Hawaii to oceanic temples, and the action ranges from aerial chases to avalanches to battles with giant robots to dance-offs.

Robotnik escapes his "Portobello purgatory" and returns to Earth in cahoots with Knuckles (voiced by Idris Elba), a giant extraterrestrial echidna, to pester Sonic (voiced, as before, by Ben Schwartz) about a magical green emerald. Knuckles doesn't look all that much like an echidna to me, but whatever. Our hero's principal ally, this time, is Tails (voiced by Colleen O'Shaughnessey), a fox with two bushy tails that allow him to fly, helicopter style. Tails does, at least, sort of look like a fox.

Along with James Marsden and Tika Sumpter, back from the first film as Sonic's surrogate parents, Shemar Moore, Natasha Rothwell and Adam Pally also pad out the cast. Carrey is at his snarkiest and wackiest, and seems to be having a good time, although he's reportedly announced his retirement.

On its own terms, all that's really wrong with Sonic 2 is that, at 2 hours 2 minutes, it's too long. It didn't seem to me that this was a movie that particularly needed to be three minutes longer than Citizen Kane.

Now streaming...

Lost Angel--This micro-budget indie debut feature by Simon Drake is set in a fictitious south England island community. As it opens, we see our heroine Lisa taking a ferry home. Her sister has died, apparently by suicide, but as Lisa investigates, she finds reason to doubt the official story.

As the plot progresses, it takes a low-key, matter-of-fact turn into the supernatural. After a slow start, weighed down by lachrymose music, the film gradually picks up a nice head of mystery-thriller steam. Drake uses the settings to generate atmosphere without it feeling forced, and the performances take hold, particularly that of the plaintive, quietly focused Sascha Harman as Lisa. By the end, Lost Angel is both gripping and highly touching.

Friday, April 1, 2022


Opening this weekend...

Morbius--Jared Leto certainly has the physique and facial bones to play the title character in this Marvel flick. His performance as the hapless vampiric hematologist is good, too; quiet and haunted yet not oppressive, tinged with grim humor. The movie, however, could use a transfusion of originality platelets.

Michael Morbius, the cadaverous "Living Vampire," was introduced in comics in the early '70s as a nemesis to Spider-Man...

...and eventually headlined Marvel titles of his own. Like Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows, he was a reluctant and tormented blood-drinker. Michael had brought on his condition, which includes superhuman strength and batlike gliding and echolocation ability, through a serum intended to cure the rare blood disease that was killing him. He craved blood but didn't want to hurt anyone, and, as with The Lizard (with whom Morbius notably clashed), Spidey empathized with him and tried not to harm him.

There are other strong performances in the film, directed by Daniel Espinosa from a script by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (the team behind 2014's Dracula Untold). Matt Smith slyly plays Milo, Michael's mega-rich pal and research patron, who suffers from the same disease and soon notices the same side effects from Michael's serum, but feels less guilt over his bloodlust. Adria Arjona has a lovely sober quality as Martine, Michael's partner and romantic interest; her gravity seems to bring out a hint of playfulness in Leto.

I really wanted to like this one; I'm fond of the comic character. And for the first half or so it cruises along enjoyably enough, though there's nothing really new to it, just standard spooky gothic flourishes. The corn is as high as a vampire's eye, too; repeatedly, when they're in bloodsucker mode, both Michael and Milo strike a scary pose and go "RAAAAAH!" like the bully kid in A Christmas Story, and after a while they seem like the performers in a Halloween haunted house.

Then, as the movie progresses, the questionable logic increases. Why, for instance, would a boat on which secret medical experiments were being conducted require a large team of heavily armed mercenaries? Why would Michael want to commandeer a counterfeiting workshop's equipment to adapt into scientific equipment?

In the later scenes, as Michael and Milo battle in the shadowy streets of New York--The Batman has nothing on this movie for gloominess--Morbius descends into an unexciting muddle. It has a truncated, cut-down feel to it, a suspicion supported by the presence of scenes in the trailer that didn't show up in the finished film.

The most disappointing of these is the paucity of Michael Keaton, as Adrian Toomes aka The Vulture; he's shown in the trailer and I figured that if nothing else worked in the movie, Keaton would at least goose a little life into it. But [spoiler alert!] he only appears very briefly at the very end, and adds almost nothing to the picture (unless I nodded off when he said it, even the line he speaks in the trailer was cut). In the sequel, if there is a sequel, I certainly hope Keaton gets a much bigger role.