Friday, December 30, 2022


Now streaming...

White Noise--Noah Baumbach's adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel begins on the quaint campus of College-On-the-Hill, where mortality-haunted "Hitler Studies" prof Adam Driver lives with his wife Greta Gerwig and their talkative but deadpan blended brood. His wife's pill usage and other academic-life worries are intruded upon when the collision of a train with a tanker truck and the resulting "Airborne Toxic Event" requires the family and their neighbors to flee and take refuge in summer camps, Chinese restaurants and other makeshift shelters. Baumbach's style here seems to pay homage to other directors; the early college scenes suggest the twee formality of Wes Anderson, there's a big dose of the Close Encounters-era Spielberg later on, a hint of Jason Reitman's Juno here or of David Byrne's True Stories there. 

The movie feels large and consequential; there are many funny and fascinating passages, and the '80s period look is colorful. But while the story's elusive ambiguities are intriguing for a while, they gradually start to get irritating, particularly when it moves from the epic-scale first half to the more personal and anticlimactic second half. Still, the cast is strong, Driver is paradoxically both commanding and neurotic in the lead, and Gerwig is a doleful, troublingly erotic presence--at one point Driver's colleague Don Cheadle observes, accurately, that she has "important hair." 

The Banshees of Inisherin--Colm and Padraic live on a bleak island off the coast of Ireland in the 1920s. Artillery fire from the Irish Civil War can be heard from the mainland, but the islanders pay it less attention than they do the trouble that arises when Colm, a fiddler played by Brendan Gleeson, abruptly stops speaking to and socializing with his lifelong companion Padraic, a dairyman played by Colin Farrell. Colm admits, bluntly but without rancor, that he simply finds Padraic intolerably dull, and doesn't want to waste any more time drinking and talking with him when he could be working on his music. He'll still chat amiably with the other islanders, but something about the very presence of the dear, baffled Padraic seems symbolic to Colm of his life being squandered on triviality, and he'll go to extremes to reject it.

The great Martin McDonagh was really on to something here; it starts out as one of the most original, grimly funny and painful takes on friendship in some time. But as the conflict escalates, it's as if the writer-director remembers he's the Martin McDonagh of films like In Bruges and plays like A Behanding in Spokane, and feels obligated to take the story in a gruesome, Grand Guignol direction. It throws the balance off here as it didn't with In Bruges; it sours the movie's comic side and feels psychologically reductive to its tragic side.

Even so, Gleeson and (especially) Farrell are both sublime, as are Kerry Condon as Padraic's sensible sister and Barry Keoghan as his hapless backup friend. McDonagh narrowly missed making a masterpiece here, but these performances are not to be missed.

Friday, December 23, 2022


Merry Christmas Eve Eve everybody! The Phoenix Film Critics Society...

...of which Your Humble Narrator is proud to be a founding member, recently announced our 2022 Award winners. As always, some of the winners--like Best Actor--reflect my voting, others don't, but there are a lot of movies worth seeing on the list.

A few other odds and ends...

Cash on Demand--Last week I was shown this 1961 gem I had never caught up with, a no-kidding Christmas movie from Hammer Films! It's available on DVD; I highly recommend. Peter Cushing plays a joyless bank manager, cold and critical toward his employees, who gets his Christmas Eve ruined when a suave bounder (Andre Morell) tells him that his cohorts are holding Cushing's wife and son hostage while he plunders the vault at the provincial branch. Cushing, unsurprisingly, is great--despicable at first, gradually shading into sympathy as his desperation rises--and Morell is sensational, in maybe the best role he ever had, as the sinister yet curiously charismatic thief.

Richard Vernon nicely leads the small ensemble that plays the branch employees. It's a gripping, imaginative caper, though of course it's just one more variation on the Scrooge story, with the robber serving as a felonious Ghost of Christmas Present.

Something From Tiffany's--Two guys, played by Ray Nicholson (Jack's kid) and Kendrick Sampson, buy jewelry at the title shop as Christmas presents for their respective lady friends (Zoey Deutsch and Shay Mitchell). One's a pair of earrings; the other's an engagement ring. A mishap mixes up the gift bags, and wackiness ensues. I was recently pointed toward this romcom, streaming on Prime. It's very undemanding, but it's inventive, Zoey Deutsch makes a sweet heroine and her costars, including the great Rose Abdoo as the Tiffany's clerk, are pleasant company. And it seems like it's a cut above most of the Hallmark Christmas movies.

American Murderer--A stalwart FBI man played by Ryan Phillippe searches for fugitive Jason David Brown, who was on the Ten Most Wanted List at the same time as Osama bin Laden and Whitey Bulger for killing an armored car guard here in Phoenix in November of 2004. As Phillippe talks to Brown's family and acquaintances we get his story in flashback (it's often different from what they're telling the agent). I'm late to the party on this true-crime drama released earlier this year, written and directed by Matthew Gentile and available on various streaming platforms. Don't let the poster fool you into dismissing this as a routine action flick; it's an absorbing feature debut for Gentile, a tense, believable piece of work, full of disturbing scenes that feel like something you'd witness as a passerby. Soap actor Tom Pelphrey plays Brown as a tightly-wound obsequious hustler, sort of a coked-up Eddie Haskell. Though he worms his way into the house and bed of his single-mom neighbor (Idina Menzel) and plays video games with her son, and though he can still get over on his own siblings, his Mom (Jacki Weaver) has long since recognized him for the callous creep he is. But even he isn't prepared for the psychic weight of murder, and Gentile gets across this internal horror impressively. It's worth checking out, maybe after Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022


Now playing:

The Whale--Charlie is an English professor, passionately teaching online courses in essay writing, but his center square on the Zoom grid is always blacked out. He claims the camera on his computer doesn't work, but his students, inevitably, are intrigued. Ever self-deprecating, Charlie assures them that they're not missing much.

This isn't really true. Charlie, played by Brendan Fraser, is morbidly obese, weighing in at 600 pounds. He lives alone in, and works from, a shabby apartment, visited by his sole friend Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who tries to warn him about the imminent danger of death he's in. At the same time, she serves as his pained enabler, supplying him with fried chicken and candy bars. The two share a link to the tragedy which led to Charlie's self-destructive eating habits.

In the course of the story, Charlie bribes his furious estranged teenage daughter (Sadie Sink) to spend time with him; he's also pestered by a young missionary kid (Ty Simpkins). Eventually we get to meet Charlie's ex (Samantha Morton) as well. Almost everything takes place in or just outside the apartment; director Darren Aronofsky wisely hasn't bothered to "open out" Samuel D. Hunter's play (Hunter wrote the adaptation). This concentrated setting only adds to the claustrophobia of Charlie's situation.

It's hard to miss the story's parallel to that of Aronofsky's 2008 The Wrestler--a guy at the end of his physical rope tries for an eleventh-hour reconciliation with his daughter. And as Mickey Rourke, in a comeback role, was the story with The Wrestler, the story here is Brendan Fraser, likewise in a comeback role.

I've always found Fraser enviable--hunky looks plus an unpretentious likability. Thus even the many terrible movies he's starred in come across like they were fun to do, and that in itself made stuff like George of the Jungle and Journey to the Center of the Earth less dreary, at least a little (maybe not Furry Vengeance).

But in The Whale, Aronofsky has put Fraser's soulful sweetness to use beyond merely ingratiating himself with the audience. Working inside harrowingly convincing prosthetic makeup by Adrien Morot, Fraser is an angelic presence as Charlie, radiant with compassion and love, yet also with reflective intelligence, and depths of unexpressed sorrow and anger and desperation.

There may not really be a lot to the film beyond Fraser's performance, and the crisp, controlled mix of anger and adoration in Hong Chau's Liz. Some scenes here verge on the overwrought, I suppose, and there are revelations that would probably play better on the stage. But nothing seems campy or patronizing. The Whale is a vehicle, perhaps, but it's a vehicle for an unforgettable, maybe even classic star turn.

Sunday, December 18, 2022


Now streaming:

Free Puppies!--The directors of this documentary, Samantha Wishman and Christina Thomas, are yankees, from New York and Philadelphia respectively, chronicling a little-reported story from the American rural South: A lack of resources for animal welfare. The filmmakers seem struck by the degree to which dogs in Dixie are neglected and allowed to breed, and the frequency with which their offspring are abandoned, often on a roadside in a box marked "FREE PUPPIES!"

But Wishman and Thomas also find heroes: The focus is on a few women in Dade County in northern Georgia who work quixotically to rescue, spay, neuter, foster and find adoptive homes for these strays. They do this work seemingly at their own expense, with very little help from the local government--no funds for a shelter, veterinary care, etc. This problem is hardly confined below the Mason-Dixon line, of course, but conditions there seem particularly bad.

The most vividly presented of these women is the voluble and energetic Monda Wooten, who runs a discount flooring business in the town of Trenton when she can squeeze it in between looking after strays and browbeating her snickering colleagues on the City Commission to prioritize building a shelter. She and her friends Ann Brown and Ruth Smith, among others, seem to live in a constant, self-imposed on-call state, taking calls about strays or other imperiled animals as they drive around, shlepping dogs to low-cost spay and neuter clinics, negotiating with dog hoarders, helping facilitate a huge diaspora of strays to adopters in the North, and more.

I was braced for a miserable time going into this one, but while the movie's implications, both cultural and logistical, are certainly sad, it's not depressing to watch. In part this is because it's full of adorable dogs; we, of course, mostly get to see the luckier ones. But it's also because the women's unhesitating dedication and courage are inspirational, and their characters are funny and fascinating.

Though it isn't stated explicitly, Monda comes across like a Trumper (I found a picture of her and other local politicians in the Dade County Sentinel posing with Marjorie Taylor Greene, in whose congressional district Trenton is located). At one point Monda mentions that their shared passion for dogs is just about all that she and Ann--who wears a peace sign on her shirt--have in common. The fact that, in our supposedly hopelessly polarized society, they're able to put aside their differences for the sake of this work is immensely cheering, both for dogs and for our nation.

That said, there's also a striking moment in which Monda explains, rather defensively, that when she takes a pregnant dog to a vet, she'll have the vet abort the puppies, on the grounds that it's better than bringing more mouths to feed into a world that won't care for them. She doesn't say whether she would extend this option to pregnant humans.

Two other documentaries, both short subjects about the plight of arctic animals, are available for free from The New Yorker; both are tough but worth your time...

Nuisance Bear--This wordless wonder, directed by Jack Weisman and Gabriela Osio Vanden and running just under 14 minutes, shows a polar bear wandering around the outskirts of Churchill, Manitoba--famous as a stop for tourists to watch the creatures on their migratory route. Local officials, faceless in pickups and vans, chase the harried, unassuming beast away from town, while nearby kids in costume trick-or-treat, under police escort, in the icy streets. The soulful title bear is the only real character, and is entirely sympathetic.

Haulout--This one, directed by Evegnia Arbugaeva and Maxim Arbugaev and running less than a half-hour, has a human protagonist, Russian scientist Maxim Chakilev, keeping vigil in a cabin on a desolate stretch of Siberian beach. He's waiting for a "haulout," a mass beaching of sea mammals to rest during migration. Sure enough, one morning he wakes up and opens the cabin door to find himself surrounded... tens of thousands of walruses. As a surreal image, this is worthy of Bunuel, and initially there's something whimsically appealing, almost cozy, about the idea of spending a day hemmed indoors by a sea of these lolling, snorting pinnipeds. But it's soon clear that this is not a healthy phenomenon; the animals have bunched on land in such numbers because of a lack of sea ice on which to rest, and the density is dangerous to them. What Chakilev finds after the walruses depart is appallingly sad and ominous, and the film is beautiful, haunting and heartbreaking.

Sunday, December 11, 2022


Happy Psycho Day everybody!

That's right, December 11 (at two-forty-three p.m.) is the day when, according to the opening titles, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho begins, right here in Phoenix, Arizona...

Saturday before last was, by Phoenix standards, pretty rainy. Your Humble Narrator was driving home up I-17 and listening to Reel Music, the movie music show on KBAQ...

...which was devoted that evening to scores from Hitchcock flicks. So there I was, listening to Bernard Herrmann's great theme from Psycho, with my windshield wipers keeping time, and it occurred to me that this was likely as close as I would ever get to knowing what it felt like to be Janet Leigh...