Friday, August 12, 2022


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


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.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022


The passing of the glorious Nichelle Nichols, my first crush...

...brought me back to a slightly embarrassing truth: Star Trek, as in the original Star Trek, has been my favorite TV show for more than fifty years now. I have vivid early memories from a couple episodes in the original run ("Arena" and "The Savage Curtain," stayed with me, no doubt because of their monster content). But it was when the series went into syndication in the early '70s that I became a full-on addict.

I saw every episode dozens, probably hundreds of times. I played with the action figures and (ineptly) built the plastic model kits. I had coloring books and jigsaw puzzles and View-Master slides and calendars and posters, including a poster of Ms. Nichols in her "Mirror, Mirror" costume that hung in my bedroom as adolescence approached. I made my parents take me (along with a like-minded nerdy cousin) to Warren, Ohio, to see William Shatner in Arsenic and Old Lace with the Kenley Players, and later to Fredonia, New York, to hear Gene Roddenberry give a lecture at SUNY.

The franchise was also a big reason why I became an avid reader: I read the James Blish Star Trek anthologies, and Blish's Spock Must Die! was, I think, the first full-length novel I ever bought for myself. I read Mission to Horatius by Mack Reynolds and the Gold Key Star Trek comics, not to mention the non-fiction books; Stephen E. Whitfield's The Making of Star Trek and David Gerrold's The Trouble With Tribbles and The World of Star Trek were sacred texts for me.

As I got older, while adding countless other obsessive pop culture enthusiasms, I never quite grew out of Star Trek. I even monetized it, a little; over the course of my writing and radio career I had the opportunity to meet and/or interview Walter Koenig, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan and Grace Lee Whitney.

Of course I realize that what I'm describing is a very routine level of fandom by Star Trek standards. I've never cosplayed, or learned Klingon, and only once, in reaction to the death of Leonard Nimoy, did I ever write a piece of parody fanfic (which I managed to get published). I never became a serious fan of any of the sequel shows (though I've enjoyed Star Trek: Discovery very much). But I still own a couple of Star Trek t-shirts, and I have a Gorn bobblehead on my desk, and I regularly watch the original series reruns; they're an ongoing source of amusement and comfort to me.

Which makes it peculiar whenever I discover that there are areas of Star Trek ephemera with which I am completely unfamiliar. Like for instance, The Mystery of Black Sulu and White Uhura.

No, really.

A couple of weeks ago The Wife was browsing in the vinyl section of a junkshop, and scored for me a piece of Trek merch I had never encountered: one of the albums in the Star Trek series from Peter Pan Records.

It was from 1979--it has a still from Star Trek: The Motion Picture on the cover--at which time I would have been unlikely to notice an album for kids.

On each side is an original story, performed radio-theater style (by uncredited actors who don't sound like the original cast members). And inside the sleeve is a read-along comic illustrating the tales. And in this rather nicely-drawn comic...Sulu appears, quite unmistakably, to be African-American, and Uhura appears to be white, indeed blond. Their roles are otherwise exactly as they were on the show, but their pigmentation is altered.

I was baffled at this. Certainly Star Trek has long been admired as, for its time, a pioneer in racial diversity on TV, but this didn't seem to make sense as part of that tradition, nor does there seem to be any other reason for the change. I looked online for guidance, to find that the oddity had, indeed, been noted on various fansites, though none I saw offered any explanation for it.

I did learn, however, that most of the audio dramas on the Peter Pan Trek records were written by Alan Dean Foster, the prolific sci-fi author who also wrote the Star Trek Log books, paperback adaptations of the cartoon series from the '70s (not to mention the original Star Wars novelization). I messaged Foster to ask if he knew anything about it.

His reply: "As to the miscoloring, I believe some of it was done overseas and no instructions were given to the artists."

As good an explanation as any, I guess, although the likenesses of Kirk, Spock and McCoy look impressively accurate. So do those of the uniforms, the sets and the Enterprise herself. Maybe whatever pictures were given to the overseas artists for reference didn't include Sulu and Uhura; a serious omission if so.

Anybody else ever heard of any other reason?

In any case, it's a testament to how iconic even the supporting characters in Star Trek are that this innocent, probably even well-intentioned variation seems so shockingly weird. On the other hand, maybe smoldering encounters of Black Sulu and White Uhura could be the basis for a whole new genre of fanfic.