Friday, May 27, 2022


Opening today:

Top Gun: Maverick--When the original Top Gun was released in 1986, I quickly came to regard it as an embodiment of everything that was wrong with American pop culture, and maybe of American culture in general. Setting aside whatever annoyance we can assign to it for turning Tom Cruise into a superstar, Top Gun's mindless, swaggering triumphalism and fetishizing of empty recklessness struck me as a symptom, maybe even a partial cause, of a generational toxicity from which we're still suffering.

Three and a half decades later, on the occasion of this very belated sequel, I'm not sure I see any rational basis for revising the opinion of my pompous 24-year-old self, or of attributing a healthier mentality to the new film. But I will say this: Top Gun: Maverick is much more enjoyable than the original.

The '86 film has become one of the seminal movie texts of our time, but in case there are a few fortunate souls who remain benighted: It's the story of Navy fighter pilot Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (Cruise) and his time at the Fighter Weapons School at Miramar near San Diego, known as TOPGUN. Maverick--all the pilots have cute nicknames--is a brilliant flyer but is given to ignoring authority and making his own rules.

In the new film, Maverick is still a Captain after all these years because he's just too darn rebellious to advance. He's still ruffling the feathers of authority figures (huffily played by the likes of Ed Harris and Jon Hamm). He gets called back to the TOPGUN school at the insistence of its commander, his old rival Ice (Val Kilmer, who has one touching scene).

Maverick's job this time is to instruct a batch of young officers with cute nicknames--except for one simply called Bob (the endearing Lewis Pullman)--in preparation for a secret bombing run against a uranium-enrichment facility in a judiciously unidentified hostile country. Among his pupils is Rooster (Miles Teller), son of Maverick's beloved co-pilot Goose (Anthony Edwards), killed during the first film. Rooster bears Maverick a longstanding grudge. There's a bit of love interest, too; Maverick re-meets barkeep Penny (Jennifer Connelly); his previous leading lady Kelly McGillis, though briefly glimpsed in a flashback, goes unmentioned.

Now, let me be clear: Top Gun: Maverick is every bit as insipid and predictable as Top Gun the first, and Tom Cruise seems like just as much of pipsqueak. Cruise can be good, even very good, when he's playing manic and out-of-his-depth, as in Rain Man, A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire and Magnolia, but when he's in hypercompetent man-of-action mode I've never been able to take him seriously. Even at nearly 60, he still comes across like a boy dressed up in his dad's clothes.

But that doesn't much matter here. Two factors combined to pull the stick out of my butt and allow me to enjoy this movie. One is that technical filmmaking has advanced exponentially since 1986, and the flight scenes have greater clarity and flamboyance than the original's. It's useless to try to claim that the last 30 or 40 minutes of this movie isn't exciting. It's propulsive and spellbinding, even as you see every plot point coming at you as plainly as if it was on a radar screen.

The other factor, especially for those of us who were regular moviegoers when the original came out, is simple nostalgia. The director, Joseph Kosinski, really captures the '80s-movie montage-to-montage vibe, starting right at the beginning with brooding synthesizer tones leading into the most irksome (albeit catchy) song of the estimable Kenny Loggins, "Danger Zone," all of it backing up a full opening credit sequence, not just a quick flash of the title. In this way, Top Gun: Maverick can be like that odd and common phenomenon of encountering somebody you disliked back in the day, and feeling an unaccountable surge of affection.

The Bob's Burgers Movie--Bravely facing off against Tom Cruise's fighter squadron this weekend is the story of a family struggling to keep their burger joint going when a huge sinkhole opens in the sidewalk and completely blocks access to their storefront. It's the feature version of an animated Fox TV series.

Bob is Bob Belcher (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin), the depressive dad; his wife Linda (John Roberts) is more upbeat. They live in the apartment above the restaurant with their kids, boy-crazy oldest daughter Tina (Dan Mintz); nebbishy, well-intentioned rock star wannabe middle son Gene (Eugene Mirman) and rabbit-ear-wearing, aspirational youngest Louise (Kristen Schaal). Louise is deeply offended when a girl at school calls her a "baby"; to prove this untrue she descends into the sinkhole.

This leads to a mystery involving everyone from the burger joint's rich landlords to carnies from the nearby amusement park. Other characters enter the story, some performed by name actors: Kevin Kline and Zach Galifianakis as the landlords; Gary Cole as a police detective with an inferiority complex. There are some very peculiar musical numbers, and it all culminates in a suspenseful and action-packed finale. 

This movie is funny even if you've never seen the show. I can attest to this, because I've never seen the show, and I thought this movie was funny. The comedy derives from the Belcher family's flat, affectless manner, contrasted with the convoluted gothic plot and wild action. But there's also a humane warmth to the Belchers that keeps the joke from going sour. If I lived in that town, I'd eat at that place.

Saturday, May 21, 2022


Playing at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 22, at the New Parkway Theater in Oakland, California as part of the Center for Asian American Media Film Festival:

Dealing With Dad--Three grown children in a Taiwanese-American family reunite at their childhood home in Milpitas, California when their father shows signs of depression. He lies in bed all day watching TV and won't engage with anybody, except to absently offer his kids money.

The trouble is that this makes him a far more agreeable person than he was before he got sick. Dad (Dana Lee) was an angry, distant, unloving man whose ferocious criticism of his children amounted to verbal abuse. His hyper-organized daughter Margaret (Ally Maki), now married and with a biracial son, self-describes as a "neurotic OCD hypochondriac"; she's haunted by dreams of being overcome by a deluge. His banker son Roy (Peter S. Kim) is overweight from stress eating over his impending divorce. His other son Larry (Hayden Szeto) is a comic book nerd and toy collector who still lives at home in his early thirties, and whose only income is the little he can make from selling off his action figures. 

Their unfiltered, unflappable Mom (Page Leong) shows no special concern at Dad's condition, and Larry certainly finds it easier to share a house with him this way. But Margaret takes charge as best she can, trying to get him diagnosed and medicated. Dad doesn't take her efforts lying down, however--or, rather, he refuses to take them any other way.

After playing at Phoenix Film Festival and Tucson's Arizona International Film Festival in April, writer-director Tom Huang's briskly directed feature makes its Bay Area debut Sunday at the CAAM Festival. Despite some sitcom-like schtick, the movie is a small triumph, a sweet but firmly unsentimental, believable family comedy that's no less genuinely funny for its edge of poignancy. Huang focuses on ensemble acting with impressive results; every member of the cast is top-notch but the core, the siblings, reflexively teasing and bickering with a palpable undercurrent of love and support for each other, come across like people it would be fun to hang out with.

And in any case, it's the certainly best movie to come out of Milpitas since The Milpitas Monster (1976).

Friday, May 20, 2022


Opening today:

Downton Abbey: A New Era--The saga of the lives of Brit nobility and their servants at the titular fictitious pile of bricks was an ITV series from 2010 to 2015, then a feature in 2019, and now this sequel. I never watched the show, and while I had seen the earlier film I could barely remember a thing about it, just the impression that it was pleasantly sedate. So it was with no special excitement that I settled in for the sequel.

Thus this New Era, directed by Simon Curtis, was a nice surprise. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes has concocted twin storylines, both of which have a fairy-tale charm and both of which pay off with a gratifying sense of wish-fulfillment. Most of us could do with a happy ending right now, and this movie serves up a couple of elegant ones.

In the first strand, Crawley family matriarch Violet (Maggie Smith) informs her astounded relations that she's been given a villa in the south of France by a passionate admirer from her youth who has passed on, and that she wishes to give the place to her great-granddaughter Sybil. Violet is past traveling, but the Frenchman's highly civil son (Jonathan Zaccai) invites the family to visit the place and get acquainted, much to the disgust of his mother (Nathalie Baye).

The other, livelier plotline has a film crew arriving to shoot a movie at Downton Abbey; the family reluctantly agrees to this indignity to finance a new roof for the house. It starts as a silent picture, but The Jazz Singer has just come out, so it becomes a talkie mid-shoot. What ensues is surprisingly similar to the plot of Singin' in the Rain, right down to a beautiful blonde silent star with an incongruously grating voice.

The regulars from the series, like Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Robert James-Collier, Samantha Bond, Phyllis Logan, Jim Carter, Penelope Wilton and the beguiling Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, who keeps an eye on the film folks while her family is in France, are in solid form. One of the veterans from the series, Kevin Doyle as butler turned schoolteacher Mr. Molesley, gets a particularly marvelous payoff here; a cinephile, Molesley's rapture at being in proximity to moviemaking is funny, but it borders on moving as well.

The fun this time, however, is mostly from the new characters. As the film producer who understandably falls for Lady Mary, Hugh Dancy hits just the right quietly lovestruck note. Just as good are Dominic West as the jovial leading man of the movie and Laura Haddock as his breathtaking, covertly cockney leading lady.

Fellowes, who also triumphed this year with The Gilded Age on HBO, has so long been a skillful--and seemingly admiring--chronicler of the obscenely rich and those who derive their living from pampering them that it may be hard, watching Downton Abbey, to stifle your class outrage at times. At one point Violet, watching the film people at work, remarks "I'd rather earn my living down the mine!"

Drawing on a lifetime's experience as a hard-working actress, Maggie Smith delivers the line peerlessly. But even as she makes you laugh, you may not be able to suppress the thought, of the Dowager: yeah, spoken like some mega-rich jerk who never had to earn a living at all. Try ten minutes "down the mine" sometime and see if you still feel that way.

But the idyllic tone of A New Era wore me down; I couldn't maintain any indignation. Of course, the social system depicted here is grotesque and, not to put too fine a point on it, wrong. But so are the social systems approvingly depicted in, say, Twelfth Night or Much Ado About Nothing, and that doesn't stop us from entering into and enjoying them. I'm not (remotely) putting Fellowes, brilliant though he is, in the same class as Shakespeare. But this movie does have the structure, and some of the pastoral flavor, of a Shakespearean comedy, with all the storylines resolving in joy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022


Your Humble Narrator is back in the Valley after a quick trip to the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, California, where I caught up with this 1948 artifact:

The Argyle Secrets--William Gargan, as a wisecracking reporter, is beset by a variety of sinister types, from a femme fatale to a southern dandy with a swordcane to a politely murderous continental gent with a towering henchman. The McGuffin they're all after is an album containing a list of corporate bigwigs willing to play either side of the Allied or Axis fence, depending on who won World War II.

The writer-director is the great Cyril "Cy" Endfield, adapting his own 1945 radio play The Argyle Album from Suspense on CBS. The film version feels, indeed, like little more than an illustrated radio play, with narration and energetic rapid-fire dialogue powering its 65-minute running time. The characters spew detailed exposition at each other even while they're trying to kill each other.

Even with his face bruised and his hair mussed from the various beatings he endures, Gargan is jolly company in the lead, and the supporting cast is a joy: Jack Reitzen as the southern fop, Marjorie Lord as the mendacious beauty, Ralph Byrd as the disapproving police detective, Peter Brocco as one of the shady cronies, and Sgt. Schultz himself, John Banner, here trim and dapper, as the principal bad guy. In a supporting role is a young Barbara Billingsley, and if you've ever wanted see Mrs. Cleaver take a punch right to her adorable kisser, this is the picture that will fulfill your wish.

As with El Vampiro Negro at last year's festival, the restored print of this movie shown at Palm Springs is another collaboration between UCLA Film and Television Archive and The Noir Foundation, and like the Argentine film, The Argyle Secrets looks like a million bucks onscreen. Catch it if you get the chance.

While in Palm Springs, I enjoyed lunch at Sherman's Deli, egg salad and chopped liver on rye...

...dinner at Kalura Trattoria, tortellini panna rosa...

...then back to Sherman's for breakfast, eggs benedict with nova lox...


I also made a pilgrimage to my beloved roadside dinosaurs at Cabazon. When I was there in October they were painted Flintstones-style, with T-Rex as Fred and "Dinny" the sauropod as Dino. This week they were painted to extoll love and peace...

Hard to argue with that. But I'd like to see the Cabazon Dinos painted blue and yellow, maybe with a sunflower on T-Rex's chest...

Friday, May 6, 2022


Opening this weekend:

Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness--On the one hand, I'm a little over the Marvel "Multiverse." On the other hand, this newest adventure of Marvel's mystical mage is a lot of fun.

For those who may be unacquainted with this conceit in the "Marvel Cinematic Universe," I'll summarize as best I understand it: The Multiverse is the premise that our reality exists alongside countless concurrent realities in other dimensions, complete with other versions of ourselves and the people we know, including our favorite superheroes, and that many of these alternate realities are similar, but none are quite identical. When we dream, according to this movie, we're really experiencing a taste of the lives of other versions of ourselves.

The Multiverse has already played a major role in two previous entries, 2018's dazzling animated flick Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, where it was wittily used to explore racial, gender and other variations on comic book themes, and last year's Spider-Man: No Way Home, where it was used as an amusing excuse to mingle the actors and situations from various "reboots" of the franchise. In both cases, it was also a spoof (and a servicing) of the familiar, OCD nerd need to make every "canonical" version of a pop culture franchise at least technically consistent with every other version (Star Wars and Star Trek fans sometimes demand this too).

Enjoyable as both of those earlier movies were, I'm afraid that the Multiverse has the effect, for me, of diluting the dramatic stakes. Death has always been negotiable in superhero stories, of course, but in Multiverse-heavy yarns, major characters--iconic characters--are killed off, or lose their heroic status, and it doesn't feel like it matters that much, because there's an apparently endless and easily accessible supply of replacements from other Universes.

Thus I don't know how sustainable the Multiverse gimmick is for me; even though I greatly enjoyed the original 2016 version of Dr. Strange, I went to this sequel a little grumpily. It turned out to be a non-stop, vigorously imaginative blast.

This time the surgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is called away from the wistful experience of attending the wedding of his ex (Rachel McAdams) to come to the defense of America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenage girl who has innate magical powers she can't control. She's pursued by Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who for some reason needs the kid to obtain a book that will allow her to steal the life, including two little boys, of a suburban-mom version of herself in another Universe. (All of this is related, I understand, to a Marvel TV show called WandaVision that I haven't seen.) Strange and his allies attempt to prevent this; tentacled Lovecraftian abominations interfere with his efforts.

Or something like that. Big-name Marvel characters from other franchises turn up, sometimes in new versions, sometimes in versions we've seen. Epic surreal action scenes leap giddily from Universe to Universe. And if you sense more than a nod or two to the Evil Dead flicks, it probably won't surprise you that the director is Sam Raimi, back after a hiatus from directing features. His wild headlong style is as exhilarating as ever, as is his flair for macabre slapstick, and both are splendidly abetted by a driving score from Danny Elfman.

Cumberbatch plays Strange with his usual old-school movie star suavity and aplomb, and Gomez is charming as America. The standout in the cast, however, is Olsen, who keeps her voice down and makes Scarlet Witch intimidating, but also poised and glamorous, with a strong undercurrent of the sorrowful.