Tuesday, September 27, 2022


Out this week on digital...

Fall--There's an old quote on the art of dramatic writing, attributed to everybody from George Abbott to George M. Cohan to Vladimir Nabokov to Stephen Spielberg: "Get your hero up a tree; throw stones at him; then get him down." The formula has rarely been followed with such dogged literalism as in this grueling but annoying thriller by the Brit Scott Mann, from a script he wrote with Jonathan Frank. 

After suffering a horrible loss in a mountain climbing tragedy, Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) retreats into alcohol and isolation; her friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner) takes to performing daredevil risks and posting the videos online. A year after the disaster, in hopes of getting Becky out of her funk, Hunter talks her into joining her in climbing an insanely high old radio tower in the California desert. They don't take any food with them, because, of course, they'll be back down the rusty rickety ladder in time for lunch.

It need hardly be said that Becky and Hunter get stranded on the small platform at the top. They have no cell phone service; nobody is expecting them, and every effort they make to signal for help gets foiled. They're up there for days, getting hungrier and more desperate, and interpersonal secrets begin to emerge. Also, vultures start to strafe them, which I think is ornithologically libelous.

Heights are high on my regrettably long list of phobias, so this one was hardship duty for me. It's in that genre of "trapped in an inescapable situation" movies like 2010's Buried, or 2013's All is Lost, or Hitchcock's 1944 Lifeboat. But Fall strained both plausibility and patience for me. Really? No food? Not even a granola bar or a Slim Jim? I realize these are supposed to be reckless Gen-Z adrenalin junkies, but would they truly not tell anyone what they were doing or how long they planned to be gone?

Even if you accept this, though, the arrogance and emptiness of the project itself left me out of sympathy with our heroines. In 2018, I felt a similar exasperation with the (Oscar-winning) documentary Free Solo, about Alex Hannold's efforts to free-climb El Capitan in Yosemite. Of Hannold's almost superhuman physical prowess and mental discipline there could be no doubt, but the "because it is there" achievement seemed to me unworthy of the risk he was taking. I just kept thinking "who's going to tell his Mom?" Various of my friends and family members have looked at me with barely-concealed pitying scorn for this view and the puniness of my spirit it undoubtedly reveals.

Nonetheless, I felt doubly that way about the freakin' radio tower. Currey and Gardner are both lively and bright--too bright for how imbecilic the script makes them--so I couldn't help but hope that they would get down safe; my aggravation was with the movie itself and its contrivances. Watching it didn't feel like getting sucked into a thriller; it felt like being imposed upon, deliberately inconvenienced.

Monday, September 19, 2022


That the game we call soccer in America, and the rest of the world calls football, is a great sport is beyond serious doubt.

Too much of the rest of the world loves it fervently for us to believe that this country's traditional indifference to it means anything but cultural myopia. Securus judicat orbis terrarum. And even here in the U.S. soccer's popularity has greatly increased in recent years as a couple of generations of suburban kids have grown up playing it, and as Latino culture's influence has broadened here.

But I confess it's not my game. The few times I've watched a minute or two of "futbol" while channel-surfing, the vantage point has seemed to be from a hovering blimp, and the players looked like insects scurrying around. 

It's weird how that works. To the meager extent that I'm a sports fan at all, I'm a baseball fan. I can happily sit and watch pudgy guys throw, bat and catch for hours on the diamond. One friend of mine compares it, as entertainment, to watching paint dry. But somehow to me a baseball game has a narrative; characters, suspense, plot twists.

This is far less true, for me, of football and basketball. But even those games hold more drama and tension than televised soccer. On the other hand, last month I had the opportunity to see the "beautiful game" up close, and...it still isn't my game, I'm afraid.

Last week, for a work function, I had occasion to attend a game of the Phoenix Rising FC, at the new open-air facility at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler.

For the first half I was manning a booth outside the stadium, but was able to follow the game on the enormous TV screen that gazes down on the lawn. I enjoyed the friendly fans that braved the appalling heat; many of them were themselves kicking balls around on the grass, while others relaxed at the picnic tables with treats from the various food vendors. I myself enjoyed a tripas taco and a delectable mulita from a food truck there, and from another vendor, the most wonderful, refreshing shaved ice I've ever tasted, lime flavored. I wish I had one right now.

During the second half, after packing up the booth, I decided to go in and watch a bit of the game in person, eyeballs on the action. All through the first half, I had heard thunderous, repetitive drumming and chanting coming from inside the park, so constantly that I had wondered if it was a recording.

It wasn't. When I wandered inside, I found a seat behind the goal of the visiting team, the Rio Grande Valley Toros based in Edinburg, Texas. This area was full of a corps of admirably passionate fans, some shirtless and tatted-up, many carrying drums: snares, bass drums, the works. Many who weren't drumming were chanting. It was pretty hypnotic.

The heat was terrible, which may be why the rest of the bleachers were relatively sparsely populated. But it was a pleasant after-dark setting nonetheless, with a nice view of the casino in the distance. The stadium is more spare then many of the slick sports venues around the Valley, but I found it a nice place to be.

But as to the action on the "pitch?" I'm afraid it stubbornly refused to become exciting to me, philistine that I am. It was just two sets of guys, in different colored outfits, running around. Magnificent athletes, no doubt, but still just guys running around.

This was clearly not how it was for the fans around me. They hung on every second of the action, and said things like "Beautiful pass!" and "Hey, ref, what about it?" There were older guys sitting in the rear bleachers, watching quietly and judiciously.

Toward the end of the game, I started to try to get pictures on my cell phone. The results are not likely to make Sports Illustrated; I could barely keep up with the ball.

Then suddenly, in one of those strange moments when life downshifts into slow motion, I noticed the ball getting large on my cell phone screen, and then it banged into the bleachers, less than three feet to my left. It woke me up fast.

Despite my general confusion interrupted by this moment of terror, I was glad I had the experience first-hand, and I was pleased that the Phoenix Rising were victorious over the Toros, 2-1. Tickets start at $22, and the season continues through mid-October, when the weather should be a lot more agreeable. It could be a fun and fairly affordable family night out. Go to phxrisingfc.com for details.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022


Another Fathom Events presentation; starting tonight, Tuesday, September 13 and continuing through Sunday, September 18 at select theaters...

Clerks III--28 years after their day was chronicled in Kevin Smith's 1994 indie debut feature, Dante and Randal are still working at New Jersey convenience store Quick Stop Groceries, still playing hockey on the roof, and still bickering like an old married couple. In this sequel to 2006's Clerks II, Randal (Jeff Anderson) is stricken with a heart attack. In the face of this scrape with mortality, he decides to write and direct a movie, with Dante (Brian O'Halloran) as his reluctant producer.

The subject, it need hardly be said, is his life at the counter of a New Jersey convenience store, and his encounters with the various oddballs that frequent the place, among them Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), Christian Crypto-Currency enthusiast and clerk Elias (Trevor Fehrman) and Dante's ex-girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti).

The wacky escapades, and the drama, that arise from financing and shooting the movie-within-the-movie make up the balance of the story. Smith freely mixes lowbrow schtick, pop culture chatter and celebrity cameos with religious debate and heartfelt sentiment. Some of it falls flat; some of it is delightful. The old running gags and catchphrases--"I'm not even supposed to be here today," "thirty-seven?" etc--are deployed to good effect, Rosario Dawson has a couple of sweet scenes as Dante's beloved Becky, and when Jay and Silent Bob do their little dance in front of the store, it has a certain silent-clown magic.

But the real sting in Clerks III has do with seeing these characters still going through the same '90s-style slacker paces with soulfully dissipated middle-aged faces. Despite their arrested-adolescent poses, both Anderson and (especially) O'Halloran get across a sense of having emotionally matured; they show a warmth that deepens this silly fan-service movie.

Sunday, September 4, 2022


Check out Your Humble Narrator's short article, online at Phoenix Magazine, about the upcoming TCM/Fathom Events revival of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan at select AMC Theatres on Sunday, September 4, Monday September 5 and Thursday September 8...

...and also of the showing of Nosferatu at the Orpheum Theatre here in Phoenix next Tuesday.

It's bad enough that Nosferatu is marking its centennial this year, but it's really irksome that Wrath of Khan is being shown in observance of its fortieth anniversary. Wrath of Khan is forty freakin' years old.

I have a bit of personal history with this film. My review of Wrath of Khan was the first movie review of mine ever to appear in a daily newspaper, the Erie Times-News. I was twenty years old, and had been submitting my work to the editors there for a while without success. My break came because the regular reviewer disliked sci-fi, and horror, and action pictures, and pretty much any kind of movie in which, as he liked to put it, "the dialogue appears in word balloons over the characters' heads."

Needless to say, I was more than happy to relieve him of this beat, and Wrath of Khan was my first opportunity to do so. I dragged my then-girlfriend to it at the Strand on 10th Street in Erie. I think she was a little taken aback at how much I responded to it. She knew I was a nerd; she didn't know I was that much of a nerd.

Forty years later, it's still a favorite of mine. All these years, however, I've had a complaint about the movie, and I doubt there will be a better occasion than now to air it. But it involves a moment at the very climatic moment of the film, so if you've never seen it, and want to discover it for yourself, consider this a MAJOR SPOILER warning.

Okay, for those still reading: Near the end of Wrath of Khan, Kirk's titular nemesis, grandly played by Ricardo Montalban, is dying aboard the starship Reliant, scarred by radiation burns, but still lashing out at Kirk by trying to detonate the Genesis Device, spewing Ahab's invective toward Moby-Dick all the while. Meanwhile Kirk, aboard the Enterprise, and his crew are frantically trying to regain warp speed so that they can escape the blast zone. The director, Nicholas Meyer, cuts between the two vessels, with Khan's crazed, disfigured face gleefully watching the Enterprise on his viewscreen.

At the last second, of course, warp speed is attained, and the Enterprise zips away to safety as the Reliant explodes behind her. Yay, the good guys win; all is well, except...Meyer doesn't cut to a reaction shot so that we can see Khan register, in that final second, that Kirk has defeated him once and for all.

I've never understood this omission. Everything about the way the scene is shot and edited up to that point seems to set up such a reaction shot, maybe even a final "NOOOOO!" from Montalban. It would have been the perfect payoff to Kirk's much-parodied roar of "KHAAAAAN!" earlier in the film.

I'm well aware that the reason for the dissatisfaction I feel at the lack of this shot has to do with my persistent, spiteful feelings about revenge in melodramas. Khan himself, in this movie, quotes a "Klingon proverb" that "revenge is a dish best served cold," but the innumerable action pictures that end with the bad guy simply being killed leave me cold; they're entirely unsatisfying. Far better that they should live long to wallow in their defeat; at a minimum, they should die knowing that they've lost. There are a few movies that have grasped this: the original Cape Fear, also The Princess Bride among them. But few movies have ever left me hanging in this regard as badly as Wrath of Khan, wonderful as it is.

Was such a shot planned, but never filmed? Was it filmed, but cut for some deliberate reason, or just for time? Did Montalban have to leave early that day? Or was it truly never considered? If I ever get the chance to interview Meyer (no matter what the subject of the interview is supposed to be), these are likely to be the first questions I ask him. Or, by some chance, does the shot exist after all, and is it at last included in the "Director's Cut" being shown at the TCM/Fathom Events revival?

In the meantime, I'll ask you: Am I the only one that ever noticed this or felt this way?