Friday, September 22, 2023


Opening in Phoenix today; wide on October 6:

Dumb Money--As with 2015's The Big Short, there were plenty of twists and turns in this movie that my finance-challenged brain had to struggle to keep up with. Also like The Big Short, this chronicle of the weird January 2021 boom in GameStop stock is waggish fun. But it's easier to root for the heroes here, because, as least as this movie tells it, they're ordinary people sticking it to rich hedge fund jerks rather than rich hedge fund jerks sticking it to all of us.

GameStop, a Texas-based video game retailer that had been a mall mainstay since the '80s under one name or another, had been in decline since the rise of online game purchasing. The COVID pandemic seemed like the death knell for the company, and hedge fund short sellers were moving in.

Dumb Money's focus is on Keith Gill (Paul Dano), a small-potatoes analyst and broker from Brockton, Massachusetts. Gill had a day gig at MassMutual but spent his evenings in his basement making funny YouTube videos on investing, and posting on other social platforms that I don't understand. He believed that GameStop stock was undervalued, and his enthusiasm helped to cause an explosion in its price that made the short sellers sweat.

But the "dumb money"--apparently that's what hedge fund folk call individual small investors--was sweating too, of course. The movie, directed by Cruella's Craig Gillispie from a script by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo (based on Ben Mezrich's's book The Antisocial Network), jumps around among a variety of GameStop investors who were riding the wave with Gill, and resisting the temptation to sell as a matter of economic principle, to the horror and bafflement of their families and friends. These include America Ferrera as a struggling Pittsburgh hospital worker and single mom; Talia Ryder and Myha'la Herrold as Texas college students besotted both with the investment and with each other, and Anthony Ramos as a GameStop employee who buys in.

I presume that some or all of these people are fictional "composites" representing the online rabble who collaborated on the short squeeze. They're nicely played and sympathetic. The millionaire and billionaire vultures are based on real players: Seth Rogen as Gabe Plotkin and Nick Offerman as Ken Griffin and Sebastian Shaw as Robinhood's Vlad Tenev and Vincent D'Onofrio, extra-creepy, as Steve Cohen. A scurvier bunch of parasitical cruds you'd have a hard time finding. Shailene Woodley is touching as Keith's supportive wife, Kate Burton and Clancy Brown are believable as his parents, and Pete Davidson is a perfect fit as the idiot brother.

Driven forward by a lot of stately, foul-mouthed hip-hop on the soundtrack and tricked out with split-screens and montages, Dumb Money cruises along absorbingly and, despite copious comedy, with an ambiguous tension--I wanted to see the hedge fund guys squirm, but I was anxious for the everyday people when they didn't sell. They, after all, need the money. The incidental backdrop of COVID adds to the unnerving atmosphere; the masks and empty malls and streets create an almost sci-fi flavor at times. It may be the first pandemic period piece.

Although the GameStop boom had fans as diverse as Elon Musk and AOC, I was never sure, watching this movie, that I wasn't falling for a simplistic interpretation of the events--the little guys banding together to take the big boys, who have rigged the system so only they can win, down a few notches. Is there another side here? I mean, no doubt GameStop was undervalued, but was it really that undervalued? Did this amount to a whimsical, sentiment-based pyramid scheme, even if it was motivated altruistically rather than as a con job?

One of the posters for the film reads "THE TOP 1% THINKS YOU'RE DUMB." No doubt they do, and as far as finance is concerned, in my case they aren't wrong. So if there's another, more negative, legitimately dumb side to this story, I'm not smart enough to see it.

In any case, I'm not prepared to shed a tear for the hedge funds. Despite the hit some of them took, in the end, the well-connected big investors appear to have pulled strings and avoided ruination; the film resigns itself to the game being rigged. But it also suggests that the big boys will think twice before they ignore the dumb money again, and it claims this as a triumph. As the movie presents the story, it's all but impossible not to invest in it--invest emotionally, that is.

Friday, September 15, 2023


Opening today:

A Haunting in Venice--Kenneth Branagh returns as Hercule Poirot in this gothic, which he also directed. It's 1947 here, and the vain, dapper sleuth with the elaborate mustache has retired from detective work in gradually reviving postwar Venice. He's pulled back into the game by his old acquaintance, mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), who asks him to debunk, if he can, a supposed clairvoyant (Michelle Yeoh) at a seance after a Halloween party in a beautiful but decaying palazzo.

The seance is intended to conjure the ghost of the daughter of the opera singer hostess (Kelly Reilly), drowned the previous year, but the palazzo has a sinister history beyond this; it's supposedly cursed and haunted. The nonbelieving Poirot naturally is buying none of it, but his skepticism is rattled by the unsettling events of the evening, which include an attempt on his own life.

This is Branagh's third lavish outing as Agatha Christie's elegant gumshoe, after Murder on the Orient Express in 2017 and Death on the Nile in 2022, all three of them scripted by Michael Green. Though Green borrows a few memorable elements from Christie's unusually nasty 1969 novel Hallowe'en Party, Haunting is essentially an original tale; in his amusing preface to the tie-in paperback re-issue of Hallowe'en Party (published under the movie's title), Green preemptively braces himself for the lambasting he's expecting from the hardcore Christie faithful for the movie's liberties.

I've been a Christie reader since high school, and can only say that much as I enjoy her work, I certainly don't regard it as sacred and inviolate. So Green and Branagh's alterations--made with the blessing of the Christie estate--bothered me not in the least. These include changing Ariadne Oliver, Christie's apple-addicted semi-autobiographical alter ego, into an American as a showcase role for Fey, who's a nervy, mischievous hoot and a fine foil for Branagh's sober Poirot. At one point she lets out a scream that could make Fay Wray proud, too.

The rest of the cast--including Reilly, Jamie Dornan,  Riccardo Scamarcio, Camille Cottin, Emma Laird, Ali Khan and Jude Hill, the kid from Branagh's Belfast--all commit to their skulking and lurking and exchanging of pregnant glances, and Yeoh really lets it rip as the medium. The sumptuous, shadowy palazzo setting, designed by John Paul Kelley and shot by Haris Zambarloukos, is properly both gorgeous and claustrophobically oppressive.

I'm generally very dense at whodunits, but about three-quarters of the way through A Haunting in Venice, I correctly guessed who the culprit was. Still, there were plenty of cunning revelations in the story that I didn't see coming. I don't think the mystery is as central to this picture, anyway, as the woozy, nightmarish atmosphere. In many ways this film seems to owe less to Christie than to Don't Look Now, Nicolas Roeg's great Venetian fever dream of 1973.

Despite the sly, enjoyable old dark house trappings, Branagh and Green decline to tip the material into overt camp. Green's literate dialogue--there's even a quick throwaway cribbing from Love's Labor's Lost--allows Branagh to deepen Poirot's response to the situation into a faith-versus-reason internal conflict, without letting the movie slide the other way into pretentiousness. I found Branagh's performance moving; he presents a convincing long dark night of the soul.

Sunday, September 10, 2023


Now in theaters:

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3--This chapter of the jovial family comedy has the distinction of being the first to contain an actual Greek wedding. That is, it has a wedding that happens in Greece, not just among Greek-Americans in Chicago.

Toula (Nia Vardalos) and her WASPy husband Ian (John Corbett), hitched in the original 21 years ago, here lead their rowdy clan on a trip back to the old country. They've been invited to a reunion in the tiny hometown of Toula's beloved late father Gus (Michael Constantine), up a series of switchbacks on a mountainside overlooking the sea.

There they meet variously dour and/or wacky relatives and locals in the gloriously beautiful but depressed and underpopulated village. Much food and booze is consumed, and family secrets are revealed. Among these is the love between a handsome young cousin and the radiant Syrian immigrant he wants to marry.

None of these conflicts feel terribly stressful. Written and directed by Vardalos, Big Fat Greek 3 moves forward in long montages of travelogue footage interrupted at times by short, disjointed bursts of dialogue. It's not suspenseful and it's only occasionally funny, but I enjoyed it anyway; it's about familial and generational issues that connect with most of us, especially as we get older. And it's a relaxing hour and a half vicarious vacation in scenery that looks (onscreen) like paradise, in the company of an agreeable cast, and driven along by a soundtrack full of irresistable Greek songs.

Along with Vardalos and the good sport Corbett, the returning players include Louis Mandylor, Joey Fatone, Gia Carides, Maria Vacratsis and, very briefly, Lainie Kazan, all sweetly and amusingly disappated since the first film, along with the apparently indestructible Andrea Martin as the unshakeably self-impressed Aunt Voula. Elena Kampouris returns from Big Fat Greek 2 as Paris, Toula and Ian's unfathomably college-age daughter.

The wild card character is Victory, the town's ebullient self-proclaimed mayor and booster, puckishly played by the Greek theater actress Maria Kotselou. She's quite a find.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023


Now in theaters:

Jules--Ben Kingsley plays Milton, a widower pushing 80. A mild-mannered guy, he putters around his small Pennsylvania hometown, making inane proposals at city council meetings, tending the flowers in the backyard of his beautiful home, and resisting the efforts of his fretful daughter (Zoë Winters) to make him get a checkup.

Then one day Milton finds that a flying saucer has crash-landed in his backyard, wiping out his azaleas and shattering his birdbath. Soon the craft's silent alien occupant, dubbed Jules, is staying in the house, watching TV and eating apple slices between shifts repairing the saucer.

Initially, Milton doesn't make a secret of any of this. He calls 9-1-1; they think it's a prank. He mentions it to the guy at the supermarket (while buying apples) and it gets back to the daughter, who assumes it's a sign of early onset dementia.

That's the best joke in this wistful, extremely low-key sci-fi comedy--the idea that elderly people are so ignored in our society that an alien visitation could go unnoticed if it happened among seniors. Eventually two ladies (Harriet Sansom Harris and Jane Curtin) from the council meetings learn about and befriend Jules, and advise Milton to secrecy, but there's little urgency to the situation.

Kingsley starts out very deadpan and reserved; it may be that Milton is being careful to hide a cognitive decline. But the performance opens up as the story progresses, and both Jules and the two ladies draw out Milton's perceptive, hospitable warmth.

Harris and Curtin are both lovable as lonely, bored women who know they are, just by virtue of longevity and experience, a resource that's being wasted. Curtin even gets to sing "Free Bird." Under the prosthetics, stuntwoman Jade Quon brings a stoic gravity and woebegone sweetness to the bluish-white, earless, hairless, black-eyed Jules. Standing next to the saucer, wearing an old Spuds Mackenzie t-shirt, this visitor is an absurdly endearing figure.

Director Marc Turtletaub and screenwriter Gavin Steckler seem to have a little trouble figuring out how to end the movie; the last few scenes have a fitful, uncertain quality. But overall, this is a small gem--sort of an E.T. for the other end of the life span.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023


 Now streaming:

Summoning the Spirit--A young couple living in a beautiful, isolated house in the forest find themselves neighbors to a hippie commune led by an obsequious creep.  Emotionally vulnerable after a recent heartbreak, the couple (Krystal Millie Valdes and Ernesto Reyes) are increasingly drawn in by the insufferable cultists. Meanwhile, off in the distance, a glowering Bigfoot keeps an eye on things from the woods.

Bigfoot has had a long if largely low-rent history in movies, from 1972's redoubtable The Legend of Boggy Creek to the amusing 1976 Creature from Black Lake to the big-studio Harry and the Hendersons in 1987, and on TV from Bigfoot and Wildboy on '70s Saturday mornings to the "Messin' With Sasquatch" commercials for Jack Link's jerky. The best Bigfoot movie may have been a startling, too-little-known 2007 chiller by David Blair and Adam Pitman called Paper Dolls, later re-released as The Sighting. But the micro-budgeted Summoning the Spirit, directed by Jon Garcia from a script he wrote with Zach Carter, can probably lay claim to being the weirdest Bigfoot flick yet.

It has an undeniable atmosphere of unease, however, deriving more from the human than from the cryptid element. The movie is hampered by a sluggish pace--pauses between the actors' lines big enough for the creature's foot to fit through--and a frustrating vagueness, but the growing sense of unsavory menace generated in the group scenes within the repellent yet somehow plausible cult is quite distressing. 

Jesse Tayeh is effectively loathsome as the leader, and Isabelle Muthiah makes an impression as an intense, seductive flower child. When you watch their overtures to the hapless couple, you're likely to think that you wouldn't tolerate these people for ten seconds, but of course, in life, politeness and group compliance really might overrule wisdom.

Toward the end, after the cult's connection to Bigfoot is explained--sort of--the movie finally downshifts all the way into horror and some rather half-hearted gore, and much of its eerie mood is dissipated. But the final reveal is sort of sweet.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023


It was a bucket list moment for Your Humble Narrator this past week; I was given a ride on the Oscar Mayer Frankmobile!

The vehicle was formerly known, of course, as the Wienermobile; it's been redubbed to showcase the company's All-Beef Franks. Predictably, I found considerable squealing online that the name change is somehow "woke," calls to stop buying Oscar Mayer products, etc.

Anyway, Frankmobile pilots extraordinaire Ann and Allie were most congenial, telling tales of Ridin' the Dog from Madison, Wisconsin to Jacksonville, Florida to San Juan, Puerto Rico! From here in Phoenix, they were off to new adventures in Huntington Beach, California.

They even presented me with my very own whistle!

I think these two should be the stars of a Gen-Z-era anthology TV road series, a la Martin Milner and George Maharis in Route 66. Maybe it could be called 'Kraut 66?

Friday, August 11, 2023


Opening this weekend:

The Last Voyage of the Demeter--Just when you might think that there wasn't another drop of cinematic blood to be squeezed out of Bram Stoker's great vampire novel, we get this travel saga of the neckbiter's cruise from Transylvania to England. Smooth sailing it isn't.

From a script credited to Bragi Schut, Jr. and Zak Olkewicz, this is based on a single, brilliant chapter from Stoker, the log of the increasingly desperate Captain of the Demeter, which carries mysterious coffin-like boxes of Carpathian soil in her hold, bound for someplace called Carfax Abbey in England. The Captain's frightened crewmen claim someone else is aboard, and they also keep disappearing.

Schut and Olkewicz embellish the brief material considerably, especially in the addition of a philosophical-minded ship's doctor (Corey Hawkins), an unwilling stowaway (Aisling Franciosi) and a little boy (Woody Norman), the grandson of the Captain (Liam Cunningham). The dialogue is unabashedly melodramatic--"We have found where the Devil sleeps!"--and director André Øvredal, the Norwegian behind the terrific Trollhunter and the occasionally macabre Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, gleefully churns up old-school atmosphere too.

There's something to be said for these sorts of hokey theatrics, and the movie has its merits, including handsome production design by Edward Thomas and cinematography by Tom Stern, and a strong, bombastic score by Bear McCreary. But it isn't as much fun as it should have been.

For one thing, it tips its hand early, revealing its source in the prologue. Admittedly, many people who would go to this movie probably know, going in, the secret of the cargo's identity. But for anyone who doesn't, there's one layer of mystery gone; we also know the crew won't be successful in stopping the menace.

Eventually we get a look--maybe too good a look--at the unwelcome passenger (impressively mimed by Javier Botet), here depicted as a very spectral, bald, pointy-eared, pointy-toothed Nosferatu-style goblin with wings. In himself, he's a pretty cool monster, but he doesn't really fit the context of the legendary story; it's hard to imagine him charming the ladies in black tie and cape.

Worse yet, when it becomes clear that few if any of those aboard will survive the trip, our interest wanes. Even though Hawkins is a sympathetic everyman hero, after certain characters (and animals) met grisly fates, I admit my emotional investment in the story's outcome was mostly scuttled.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023


Opening in theaters today:

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem--This new animated feature version of the adolescent DNA-altered martial-arts-practicing chelonians is about mayhem that arises due to mutants. In case the title doesn't make it clear.

The quartet, all named for some reason after Italian Old Masters, dwell in the sewers of New York under the strict protective care of their teacher and adoptive parent, the mutant rat Splinter (voiced by Jackie Chan), but long to go to high school, maybe have girlfriends. On one of their sorties into the city, they meet high schooler April O'Niel (Ayo Edebiri), who's an aspiring journalist. They also run afoul of an evil scientist (Maya Rudolph) as well as a gang of other mutant animals led by the monstrous Superfly (Ice Cube).

It's a striking movie to look at. The visuals have a garish, roughed-out, graffiti-esque look, and the animation has a stylized hint of stop-motion in the Rankin-Bass manner. Among the writers are Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen; Rogen also provides the voice of the mutant warthog Bebop. The trailer and poster say the movie is "FROM PERMANENT TEENAGER SETH ROGEN."

The jabbery, overlapping dialogue is ticklingly funny, and I appreciated the characterization of the young April, who in the earlier movies has seemingly served as eye candy for the dads in the audience, as a smart and brave but unconfident kid with a typical body shape. As with earlier entries in the series, the film is packed with product placement, to the point that it becomes part of the comedy.

The Turtles made their debut in 1983, too late to be part of my childhood; my nephews were fans. I remember finding the '90s-era live-action TMNT movies annoying, but I found the live-action features of 2014 and 2016 surprisingly fun, even without a nostalgic attachment. Mutant Mayhem, however, may be the best-looking and funniest of them all.

As is so often the case in movies for kids, the ultimate goal that our heroes are seeking is, of course, acceptance, popularity, or simply "to be normal." This persistent theme can be tiresome, but undoubtedly it does reflect a common wish among this film's target audience. Permanent Teenager Rogen and his collaborators know their business.

Monday, July 31, 2023


Now playing:

The Baker--The Substitute. The Limey. The Accountant. The Commuter. Here's another entry in that category of action film in which a mature guy with an ineffectual-sounding moniker turns out to be a secret badass. They're profitable fantasy fulfillment for us frustrated old guys.

The badass in question this time is Ron Perlman, a PTSD sufferer who runs a bakery in a gorgeous coastal area (the movie was shot in the Cayman Islands). When his son (Joel David Moore) runs afoul of gangsters, led by conscience-tortured Elias Koteas, led in turn by not-so-tortured Harvey Keitel, The Baker ends up with custody of his beautiful, unicorn-loving 8-year-old granddaughter (Emma Ho), who is also traumatized and doesn't speak. He also finds himself, reluctantly, in possession of a valuable drug stash which the thugs want back. 

With its laboriously contrived set-up, it takes a long time for this movie, directed by Jonathan Sobol from a script by Paolo Mancini and Thomas Michael, to get going, and the violent story is told so elliptically that exactly what's going on is a bit unclear at times. But at the center of it is Perlman, who started his movie career in 1981 as a caveman in Quest for Fire and whose lantern-jawed, soulful face has been enlivening movies and TV shows ever since in roles large and small. He played Hellboy, of course, but even so leading man roles in movies have been rare in Perlman's career, and it's cool to see how effectively he brings this one more gravitas, and more warmth, than it really deserves.

His gruff rapport with his granddaughter is endearing, even though the kid is glamorized almost to the point of Natalie Portman in The Professional. Indeed, the whole film has a vaguely Gallic feel, like an abandoned Luc Besson project. At one point The Baker even reminisces about taking his son mushroom hunting! Perlman underplays this short monologue simply and touchingly.

Also to the movie's credit: It prominently features Iggy Pop's "The Passenger." And, in case you were wondering: yes, at one point a rolling pin does come into play.

Friday, July 28, 2023


Opening this weekend:

Haunted Mansion--Bereaved, bitter and a staunch nonbeliever in ghosts: These are perhaps not the optimum character traits for a tour guide of supposedly haunted houses in New Orleans. But before Ben (LaKeith Stanfield) unhappily landed in that job, he was a scientist who invented a camera intended to detect ghostly presences.

Thus Ben is drawn into a team of paranormal misfits, along with shady exorcist Father Kent (Owen Wilson), shady medium Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) and Bruce (Danny DeVito), a rumpled history professor, to help a young single mother (Rosario Dawson) and her son (Chase W. Dillon) who have moved into the title Louisiana domicile. The place isn't just a little bit haunted; this mansion is teeming with nearly a thousand unquiet spirits, tyrannically presided over by the "Hatbox Ghost" (Jared Leto).

After my visit in 1972, if you had asked my ten-year-old self which was my favorite ride at Disney World in Florida, I would probably have told you that it was the Nautilus submarine ride from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (long since retired). But the close second place would have gone to The Haunted Mansion, on which this extravagant Disney feature is based. I vividly remember riding past the mirrors and seeing a greenish spectral figure sitting between me and my sister in the car. The movie brought back other flourishes from the ride: the talking busts, the stretching portraits, the dueling ghosts.

There was an earlier film based on the ride in 2003, The Haunted Mansion (the new version's title dispenses with the definite article), starring Eddie Murphy. The current movie, directed by Justin Simien from a script by Katie Dippold, seems better to me than that forgettable effort, but unfortunately only a little better. Simien and Dippold and the actors try for a little depth of feeling along with the comedy, but the film feels poky and unfocused, and doesn't pick up much momentum until the reasonably exciting last twenty minutes or so.

Still, it's a good-hearted movie, with an engaging cast. Stanfield, chillingly haunted in Get Out, makes a sympathetic leading man here. Haddish's hoarse, hammy inflections as the soothsayer are funny, as are DeVito's blunt line readings as the prof; Dawson and young Dillon are pleasant as the hapless householders. As Madame Leota, the disembodied head in the crystal ball, Jamie Lee Curtis proves, if you'll pardon me saying so, spirited.

Mild as this Haunted Mansion is--I can't imagine it being truly scary to any but the littlest moviegoers--I was a bit startled, and amused, by its subtext. When we finally get some backstory on the Hatbox Ghost, there are striking paralells to another power-hungry figure who stubbornly refuses to depart from the contemporary American psyche. It could be that our nation's most perniciously haunted mansion these days is Mar-A-Lago.

Friday, July 21, 2023


Opening in theaters this weekend:

Oppenheimer--This biopic splits time the way its hero splits the atom. Narrative is fissionable to writer-director Christopher Nolan; he skips back and forth between episodes of Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) as a bumbling student, then as a philandering rising star in the new field of quantum physics, then as the determined yet haunted lord of Los Alamos, then as a post-bomb martyr to '50s era red-baiting. It glides along smoothly through its fractured scheme, beautifully shot by Hoyt van Hoytema in black and white and varyingly muted shades of color depending on period and point of view, and pushed along by a solemn Philip Glass-esque score by Ludwig Göransson.

Often crowned by a horizontal wide-brimmed preacher-style hat that makes him look like Brad Dourif in Wise Blood, Murphy uncannily captures the bursting, wide-eyed, near-ecstatic face that we see in photos of Oppenheimer. But he manages to give the performance a human dimension, with everyday foibles and touches of humor. He's not a pageant figure.

Murphy carries a star presence. But he's very ably supported by a huge, colorful gallery of star character players: Robert Downey Jr. as AEC Chairmen Lewis Strauss and Josh Hartnett as Ernest Lawrence and Benny Safdie as Edward Teller and Tom Conti as Albert Einstein and David Krumholtz as Isidore Rabi, Oppenheimer's menschy colleague who makes sure he eats and nudges his conscience, and Matthew Modine and Casey Affleck and Kenneth Branagh and Rami Malek and Alden Ehrenreich, to name only a few.

They're all entertaining, but two in particular jolt the movie to life: Florence Pugh as Oppenheimer's joyless lover Jean Tatlock and Matt Damon as the practical-minded, professionally unimpressed Leslie Groves, representing us laypeople in his deadpan, flummoxed scenes with Murphy. For a while it seems like Emily Blunt is underserved as Kitty Oppenheimer, but near the end she gets a juicy, angry scene opposite AEC lawyer Roger Robb (Jason Clarke), who has underestimated her. 

Other than maybe a few too many scenes of the young "Oppie" having visions that look like the psychedelic mindtrip at the end of 2001, there was no point where I found Oppenheimer less than absorbing. Few would suggest that this ambitious, superbly acted, superbly crafted film isn't a major, compelling work, a vast expansion on Roland Joffé's watchable but modest Fat Man and Little Boy from 1989. If Nolan's film isn't quite completely satisfying, there could be two reasons.

One is that trying to arrive at a moral conclusion about this movie's hero seems impossible. Put (too) simply: on the one hand, Oppenheimer won World War II for the good guys and checked fascism (not checkmated it, alas) for more than half a century. On the other hand, his invention killed hundreds of thousands of people, and still has the potential to ruin the world for everybody. Both can be true, and the ambiguity is unresolvable.

Another problem with the film, however, is a matter of simple showmanship. Back in 1994, James Cameron brought his silly action picture True Lies to a point where Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis kiss while, far in the distance, we see a mushroom cloud erupt on the horizon. Triumphant, but then Cameron pushed his luck, piling on one last struggle with the villain in a Harrier jet. I remember thinking (and writing) at the time that when your hero and heroine kiss in front of a mushroom cloud, the movie is over.

Oppenheimer, obviously a very different movie, is uneasily structured in the same way. The scenes leading up to the Trinity Test at White Sands in 1945 are riveting, pulse pounding. The explosion and the immediate aftermath, ending the war in Japan, is a stunning dramatic climax.

But then the movie keeps going, for another hour or so, detailing the war of spite and will between Strauss and Oppenheimer, and the revocation of Oppenheimer's security clearance. It's interesting, provocative material in itself, but it seems a little petty and trivial after the "I am become death; destroyer of worlds" stuff. Given Nolan's supposed consummate skill at scrambling sequence, couldn't he have somehow structured the movie to end with a bang and not a whimper?

Barbie--Something is rotten in the state of Barbieland. As this, her first live-action feature begins, our titular heroine finds herself haunted, right in the middle of raging dance parties at her Dreamhouse, by thoughts of death. Still more alarming, when she steps out of her pumps, her feet go flat to the ground.

To be clear, the Barbie in question, played by Margot Robbie, is "Stereotypical Barbie," the blond, inhumanly thin and leggy iconic version of the Mattel doll. She shares the relentlessly cheery pink-plastic realm of Barbieland with countless other Barbies of every race and body shape and profession, all happy and accomplished and untroubled and mutually supportive. They're dimly aware of us in the "Real World"; they believe that their own harmony has created an example that has led to female empowerment and civil rights over here.

The Barbies also share Barbieland with Ken (Ryan Gosling) and countless variant Kens, as well as Ken's featureless friend Allan (a perfectly cast Michael Cera). But the guys exist entirely as accessories to the relatively uninterested Barbies. Ken's unrequited fascination with Barbie makes him subject, unlike the Barbies, to dissatisfaction.

Barbie goes for advice to "Weird Barbie" (Kate McKinnon), whose hair is frizzy and patchy and who's stuck in a permanent split. She's told that her troubles come from the dark feelings of somebody who's playing with her in our reality, so she sets out on a quest to the Real World, emerging in Venice Beach. Barbie connects with a mom and teenage daughter (America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt) whose relationship is strained; she's also pursued by the all-male board of Mattel, led by Will Ferrell. Ken, meanwhile, learns about our patriarchy, likes what he hears, and heads back to Barbieland alone to institute it, with himself at the top.

Mattel was founded in 1945, the same year as the Trinity Test, and there are probably feminist social critics who would argue that Barbie, invented in 1959 by Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler (well played by Rhea Perlman in the film), has wreaked only a little less havoc on the modern psyche than Oppenheimer's gadget. Even though I'm in exactly the right generational wheelhouse (I was born in 1962), my own childhood experience with Barbie was very limited, and thus so were my nostalgic associations with her.

Even so, this nutty fantasy, directed by Greta Gerwig from a brilliant script she wrote with Noah Baumbach, made me laugh from its inspired first scene to its Wings of Desire finish. Narrated in the droll, arch tones of Helen Mirren, it manages to come across as both an ingenious pop-culture lampoon/celebration and an unpretentious but surprisingly heartfelt deep dive into the implications of the Barbie archetype. I wasn't a big fan of Gerwig's 2019 version of Little Women, but here she builds her world with the freedom of, well, a kid playing with dolls, but also with the confidence and adult perspective of an artist.

Not everything in the movie works; in the second half the narrative gets a little lost at times in some very strange musical numbers/battle scenes, and the whole thing comes close to going on a bit too long. And it's hard to say just who this movie is for. It hardly seems intended for little girls; however smart, they're too young for the commentary about female identity to mean much to them yet. It seems more like it's meant for adult women with both a fondness for and an ambivalence toward Barbie.

No doubt there are those who would also complain that, however witty and self-effacing, the movie amounts to a feature-length commercial for the brand. But in the age of Marvel and other such franchises, it seems a little late to object to this.

The revelation in the film is Margot Robbie. It seems ridiculous that she's able, in the role of freaking Barbie, to give a performance of such subtlety and nuance and shading and quiet, unforced wistfulness, but she does. And she gets to deliver the best last line of the year.

Theater Camp--Joan, the founder of "AndirondACTS," a slightly gone-to-seed theater camp in upstate New York, has fallen into a coma. The job of keeping the struggling camp afloat falls to her decidedly non-theatrical "crypto bro" son Troy. Meanwhile the devoted instructors work with the exuberantly happy campers to mount the shows, including an original musical about the life of poor comatose Joan (Amy Sedaris). Needless to say, all does not go smoothly.

The creators of this Waiting for Guffman-esque "mockumentary" comedy, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, Ben Platt and Noah Galvin, know the world they're depicting very well; all of them have been doing theater since they were small children. Gordon and Lieberman co-directed, from a script by all four; Platt and Gordon play Amos and Rebecca-Diane, the utterly enmeshed, co-dependent acting instructors and Galvin plays the low-profile tech director.

They capture the camaraderie and the sense of belonging that theater can give kids, and their affection for that world is unmistakable, but they're careful not to get too sentimental. The envies and resentments and passive-aggressive denigrations among theater folk, especially at this often professionally frustrated level, are vividly represented.

Getting laughs from the self-important vanities of theater people is pretty low-hanging fruit, I suppose, but Theater Camp is nonetheless often hilarious. The film also manages to get a little deeper at times, touching on the irony that while theater can create a haven and a community for misfit kids, this can generate its own clannishness and exclusionary snobbery, as in Amos and Rebecca-Diane's coldness toward the imbecilic but well-intentioned Troy, charmingly played by a sort of poor-man's Channing Tatum named Jimmy Tatro.

The real joy in Theater Camp, of course, is the acting: Platt, Gordon, Tatro, plus a few vets like Sedaris, Caroline Aaron and David Rasche bring the material to life. But as Glenn, the long-suffering backstage drudge who really ought to be onstage, Noah Galvin, who replaced Platt on Broadway in Dear Evan Hansen, is the revelation among the adults in the cast. He's a knockout.

The revelation among the kids playing the campers is, well, pretty much all of the kids playing the campers. There are some real singing, dancing and acting prodigies in this company. If there was a real theater camp somewhere with this kind of talent, their shows would sell out.

Monday, July 17, 2023


Now in theaters:

The Miracle Club--After many decades in Boston, Chrissie has returned to her working class neighborhood in Dublin in 1967, following the death of her long-estranged mother. She gets a cold reception from her old friend Eileen (Kathy Bates) and from Lily (Maggie Smith), the mother of her teenage lover who later died by drowning.

Lily and Eileen are about to leave on a trip to Lourdes; somehow Chrissie (Laura Linney) ends up on the bus too. Also on the trip is Dolly (lovely Agnes O'Casey; a descendant of Sean, no less!), a young mother hoping the waters at Lourdes will heal her little son Daniel, who hasn't started speaking yet.

This comedy-drama, directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan from a script by Jimmy Smallhorne, Timothy Prager and Joshua D. Maurer, doesn't push too deep into the psychology and theology of pilgrimages to holy places and the search for authentic supernatural miracles. About as far as the exploration goes is the pronouncement of the priest (Mark O'Halloran): "You don't go to Lourdes for a miracle; you go for the strength to go on when there is no miracle." Well, okay, many questions.

Mostly the pilgrimage is used here as a device to gradually tease out the poignant backstory of the characters, and to give them a symbolic redemption. There's also a good deal of comedy derived from the bumbling husbands, including Stephen Rea as Eileen's not-much-better half, cluelessly trying to manage back home without their wives. 

So the movie is slight, despite being adjacent to some intriguing themes. But if you appreciate fine acting, can you really afford to miss this ensemble? Between the quietly intent Linney, the bitter and frightened Bates and the chastened, open-hearted Smith, trying to decide who carries the most grandeur is not a critical task I find myself up to. Their talent is, you know, miraculous.

Friday, July 14, 2023


Happy July everybody! The July/August issue of Phoenix Magazine, now on the stands...

...features the 2023 edition of "Best of the Valley." Your Humble Narrator is proud to be one of the authors/arbiters; see if you can guess which of the dozen or so entries I composed.

One entry I wrote was devoted to China Village, a venerable restaurant on East Indian School where I loved to get lunch, often meeting my pal Steve Weiss (of the long-running Valley film series "No Festival Required"). It does not appear in the magazine because, alas, China Village permanently closed its doors between the time I wrote it and the time the issue went to press. So as a fond posthumous tribute, here it is:


China Village Restaurant

A quick lunch or dinner at this long-standing wok-ery gives you more than just good eats. The blessedly un-updated décor and atmosphere, and the old-school entrees, can give you the uncanny sense that you’ve stepped into 1973. The prices feel like a welcome throwback, too.

2710 E. Indian School Rd., Phoenix

Wednesday, July 5, 2023


Now streaming:

Makeup--Sacha is a quiet young French chef who has moved from Paris to London to start work as an online food critic. We see that his hand is afflicted at times with cramps and tremors from some neurological problem; presumably this is what necessitated the career shift. He's rented a room from Pete, a friendly if somewhat aggressively brusque young stockbroker.

Director Hugo André plays Sacha; he co-wrote the script with Will Masheter, who plays Pete. The story doesn't go any direction you're very likely to guess. It seems, initially, as if Sacha will be the focus, but instead he's mostly the observer of the drama.

The superficially "manly" Pete, it turns out, is an aspiring drag burlesque performer, unbeknownst to his toxically masculine work circle. He senses a sympathetic ear in his new housemate, inviting Sacha to see him perform in cabaret, and sharing the motivations and secret identity with the bemused fellow that he hides from his coworkers. The reserved Sacha is initially taken aback, unsure how to respond to Pete's bluff overtures and startling, unsolicited candor. Very gradually, however, the friendship deepens.

That's pretty much all there is to this low-budget festival fave, but it's well-acted, and it has a certain authenticity and unembarrassed sensitivity that can't be dismissed. It insists we take Pete's emotional courage seriously; you've never seen a drag movie this free of camp.

And this is probably necessary because, alas, it's politically timely. Back in 1995, I remember a friend of mine rolling his eyes elaborately at a poster for To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, a routine comedy distinguished (aside from its peculiar title) only because it featured Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo as drag queens traveling cross-country. My friend wondered aloud if anybody still thought drag was scandalous.

Back then, I might have thought he had a point. 1978's La Cage aux Folles and its American version The Birdcage (released the year after To Wong Foo) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert as well the rise of RuPaul all seemed to suggest that drag had attained relatively mainstream status. But nearly three decades later, reactionaries in parts of this country have picked drag, of all freaking things, as a target for ginned-up phony social and political outrage, and it appears that we'll all have to stick up for drag queens after all.

Similarly, back in the '90s I might have wondered if the sneering mockery and professional injustice that we see Pete subjected to in Makeup when his avocation is revealed was exaggerated and melodramatic. In these retrograde times, it seems all too plausible.

Friday, June 30, 2023


Opening this weekend:

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny--The first sound we hear is the ticking of a clock. Thus the fifth and valedictory entry in the series about Harrison Ford's globetrotting, whip-cracking archaeologist establishes Time, and its persistent shadow, Mortality, as the theme.

The movie starts with a lengthy and rather splendid act set in France in 1944, with Ford made young via some impressive CGI alchemy. Indy and a brilliant sidekick (Toby Jones) are snooping around a mountain stronghold, trying to filch back some artifacts from the plunder of retreating Nazis, among them a coldly businesslike SS Colonel (Thomas Kretschman) and a reptilian physicist (Mads Mikkelsen) who identifies the title gadget, a clockwork contraption built by Archimedes himself that supposedly can be used for time travel.

From here we fast forward to New York in the late '60s, where Indy is a grumpy and bereaved old man on the verge of retirement from teaching, separated from his beloved Marion, annoyed by the Beatles blasting from the hippie pad neighboring his cluttered apartment. His goddaughter Helena (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who he affectionately refers to as "Wombat," pulls him into one more adventure, chasing the Dial from Tangiers to the floor of the Mediterranean to Sicily. The unrepentant Nazi prof, who went on to help NASA get to the moon, is looking for the Dial too, with his murderous goons.

The first Indy flick, 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark, is a favorite of mine; tight and witty and curiously modest, it genuinely felt like a Republic serial of the '40s, maybe directed by William Witney. It was also built around a terrific Jewish joke, with its Nazis arrogantly supposing they could co-opt cosmic Jewish power unscathed. The lavish, overstuffed sequels were enjoyable enough, but all of them fell far short, for me, of that snappy, surefooted original.

Dial of Destiny falls short of the original too, but even so it may be the best of the sequels. It's the first that Steven Spielberg didn't direct; the duties here went to the always proficient James Mangold, who was also among the many screenwriters. And for the first half--the 1944 scenes, and the stuff in '60s-era New York, with Indy on the run against the backdrop of war protestors and astronaut ticker-tape parades--it's sensational.

The trouble is that, like so many contemporary blockbusters, it's outrageously overlong, at least thirty or forty minutes longer than it really needs to be. As MacGuffins go, the Dial doesn't have the same stirring imaginative power and poetry as the Ark, and its implications get the narrative in a little over its head in the later acts. For a story that starts with urgent ticking, the movie manages time very poorly.

Still, there's a lot to like here. Ford is wonderfully on point. He seems to have grown into the curmudgeonly manner that's always been part of his persona, but he's also emotionally present to a surprising degree, truly connecting with the other characters. Mikkelsen is a top-notch, quietly megalomaniacal villain, and Toby Jones, Antonio Banderas and John Rhys-Davies could all have warranted more screen time as Indy's allies, as could Shaunette Renée Wilson as an exasperated U.S. intelligence agent. Ethann Isidore is likable as Helena's street urchin pal.

Maybe best of all is Waller-Bridge's Helena--headlong, fearless, smiling, eyes full of self-delighted mischief. She even shows a hint or two of lewdness, welcome in this largely asexual series. It would be okay with me if they gave her more movies.

Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken--At the very least, one must admit that this is a take on teen angst we haven't seen before. Ruby and her family are Krakens, the fearsome tentacled sea creatures of Nordic lore, but they're passing themselves off as humans; Ruby's Mom has a good career as a realtor in a seaside town. Ruby is under orders never to get wet in the ocean, lest her giant Kraken-ness be revealed to her classmates. This means she's forbidden to go to prom, as it's being held on a boat.

Soon enough Ruby (voiced by Lana Condor) learns that her Mom (Toni Collette) and her Grandma (Jane Fonda) are giant Kraken as well, and their backstory includes a feud with the mermaids. Indeed, the story is sort of The Little Mermaid in reverse, with many of the same psychological and sexual subtexts at work. And like an earlier DreamWorks Animation effort, Shrek, the snarky shots at Disney are amusing, in an inside-baseball way.

This movie has a glitzy, primary-color sensibility, like a fever dream after bingeing on My Little Pony and Powerpuff Girls and eating too much cioppino. And it feels about that ephemeral. But it's a sweet-natured fish tale, and undeniably original.

Friday, June 23, 2023


Opening in theaters today:

Asteroid City--In Golden Age of Television black and white, a stentorian TV host (Bryan Cranston) tells us that we're about to see a documentary about the writing and staging of a new play. The drama in question is titled Asteroid City, and it's set in a tiny desert community near the impact crater from an ancient meteorite. It's the Cold War mid-'50s in this, Wes Anderson's latest; mushroom clouds blossom in the distance from the occasional nuclear bomb test.

Soon we shift to color, and to a stylized milieu that looks like Midcentury travel-poster art of the southwest. A large roster of characters assembles in Asteroid City, many of them for the convention of the Junior Stargazers, an organization of youthful science prodigies and inventors.

At the center of this ensemble, insofar as it has a center, is a bereaved young photographer (Jason Schwartzman) who hasn't yet broken the news to his kids that their mother has passed on; he's one cabin over from a movie star (Scarlett Johansson) with whom he bonds, as do his son and her daughter. Along with these familial tensions, the gathering sees military intrigues, scientific experiments, quarantine and even alien close encounters.

I really wish I liked this movie better than I did. Anderson is a one-of-a-kind comedic artist, and his 1998 Rushmore is one of my favorite films of the last thirty years. His debut feature Bottle Rocket is a gem as well. Most of his subsequent films have been brilliant but uneven; the best of them, like The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, have been flawed near-masterpieces, dazzlingly imagined and acted but marred by heavy-handed touches of sour violence and labored narrative conceits.

All of this is regrettably at work in Asteroid City. It has a beautiful look, the title setting is beguiling, there are patches of funny dialogue (by Anderson and Roman Coppola) and strong visual gags. The cast is without peer for current Hollywood prestige, glamour and chops. The star power is almost too abundant to name; check the poster above for the listing. It's the sort of bunch that only Woody Allen used to be able to command. But all of this, alas, falls short of overcoming Anderson's misguided habits.

Most ruinous is the frame story, about the play. It looks great, but it distances us from the main story while adding no perspective on it that I could see, is of minimal amusement in itself, and diffuses the later part of the picture into hazy anticlimax. But even within the Asteroid City story, Anderson strikes a curiously flat tone. Deadpan is a wonderful comic technique, unless everybody's deadpan, and then it just becomes monotonous.

A couple of the actors, like Liev Schreiber, Tilda Swinton, Hope Davis and Steve Carrell, manage to escape the Jack Webb Sound-Alike Contest and texture their performances a bit. And Tom Hanks, as Schwartzman's dour father-in-law, somehow finds a tone that's fully in keeping with the movie's style but also seems entirely naturalistic. Hanks seems to be indestructible.

Saturday, June 17, 2023


A couple of weeks ago Your Humble Narrator enjoyed chatting with Mark Brodie of The Show on KJZZ...

...about summer blockbuster season, and the future of the blockbuster at the multiplexes. It aired yesterday; give a listen.

Friday, June 16, 2023


In theaters this weekend:

The Blackening--Eight attractive African-American college friends gather at a fancy cabin in the woods for a Juneteenth reunion. After a short stretch of playing spades and drinking over-sugared vodka Kool-Aid, they quickly find themselves at the mercy of a maniac, forced to play a twisted board game called "The Blackening" with their lives as the stakes. The game is focused on black identity; the questions involve black history and culture, and the group is forced to single out a victim on the basis of which of them is "the blackest."

The director is Tim Story, who helmed the Ride Along movies. Here he's working with a really well-crafted, intricately funny script by Tracy Oliver and Dewayne Perkins (based on a short by the sketch-comedy group 3Peat) that teases the long and intense love-hate relationship between black audiences and horror movies. It does this less subtly, perhaps, than Jordan Peele's films do, but with a solidly higher ratio of out-loud laughs.

Story generates a fine ensemble buzz with his excellent cast, all of them unknown to me except for SNL veteran Jay Pharoah, and Diedrich Bader as the token "Ranger White." The comedy outweighs the terror here, although the masked, crossbow-wielding killer is a creepy presence. Overall, this movie is the meta-slasher send-up that Scream only thought it was--truly witty, and truly about something.

The Flash--This feature vehicle for the venerable DC superhero has a terrific opening. It involves [spoiler!] a collapsing hospital building, and our harried hero's efforts to corral a maternity ward's worth of newborns plummeting from a window. There's an inventive panache to the multi-tasking gags here that Buster Keaton himself might have appreciated. But the exhilaration of this set piece isn't reflected in what follows.

Launched in 1940 as Jay Garrick with a Mercury-like helmet and rebooted, with the winged cowl, as Barry Allen in the '50s, The Flash can move so fast that he can not only dodge bullets or cross a continent in seconds, he can literally do what Cher only wishes she could do: turn back time. In this story, Barry (a charmingly callow Ezra Miller) decides to go back and prevent the murder of his mother (Maribel Verdú) which of course screws up the space-time continuum. As a result he must team up with a slacker version of himself from a different time-stream to undo the mess he's made, and deal with multiple versions of iconic characters, including Michael Keaton enjoyably returning to the role of a rather Howard Hughes-like Bruce Wayne/Batman.

If all this sounds to you a lot like the "Multiverse" from over at Marvel, I can only tell you that it seemed that way to me too, and not to this movie's benefit. Despite some playful uses, the Multiverse's bottomless stockpile of do-overs and variant replacement characters was already getting on my nerves in the Marvel flicks, and this DC spin on it has the same effect: a dilution of the dramatic stakes.

There's some amusement, I suppose, in the many cameos by various versions of the characters, but it's a dorky, narratively inert amusement, more like a Renaissance masque or pageant than an epic. It feels like fan service, of a particularly OCD kind; like Charles V winding and re-winding his clocks, it's a futile effort to synchronize different versions of pop myths that should simply be enjoyed in their wonderfully irreconcilable diversity.

Friday, June 9, 2023


Opening today in limited release in theaters in New York, L.A. and several other cities (not Phoenix); also streaming on demand...

The Secret Kingdom--A troubled family moves into a beautiful old manse. The early scenes here have an unsteady feel; the period detail (it's supposedly the early '60s) is somehow unconvincing, and the atmosphere almost seems closer to that of a '70s scary-house movie, like Burnt Offerings or The Amityville Horror.

But then the two kids (Sam Everingham and Alyla Browne) drop through the bedroom floor into a fantasy world called the Below. A tribe of armored talking pangolins immediately sends them on a quest across this land of chatty animals and Maxfield Parrish ruins to acquire parts of some magical thingy or other that will save the realm from some sort of shapeless evil. Something like that.

After that unpromising real-world beginning, this Australian family film, written and directed by Matthew Drummond, starts to take hold, with images of considerable fanciful splendor. Along with the pangolins, who have an endearing habit of dropping to their sides and curling up when they feel threatened, Drummond gives us a clockwork oracle operated by a tarsier-like creature, a mechanical lightning bug, a freaky army of clockwork-doll soldiers, a bickering two-headed pack rat turtle, a lair of giant talking gauntlets and an impressive dragon with a T-Rex-like body, among other striking, whimsical imaginings.

It's reminiscent of 1984's The NeverEnding Story and of the Narnia flicks, but The Secret Kingdom nonetheless has its own invigorating flavor. The kids--Everingham as the fretful brother; Browne as the carefree sister--are agreeable, and the film rings a touching twist on the tiresome "Chosen One" prophecy trope from stories of this sort; I appreciated that the ultimate criteria for a Chosen One here was simply friendship.

Saturday, June 3, 2023


Yesterday I had the opportunity to interview the extraordinary Jane Goodall, about the new IMAX movie in which she stars, Jane Goodall: Reasons for Hope...

Check out my short article about it, online at Phoenix Magazine.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023


Last night I finished watching the HBO limited series White House Plumbers...

...about the Watergate break-in, with Woody Harrelson as E. Howard Hunt and Justin Theroux as G. Gordon Liddy, presenting them both as buffoonish boneheads. Lena Headey is quite sexy as Hunt's ill-fated wife Dorothy, clearly much the smarter half of the marriage.

The Wife mostly lost interest in the show after the first of the five episodes, finding the tone too farcical for the subject matter. But I have a feeling that most of the absurd incidents it shows us are based on fact, or at least on stuff those assholes claimed actually happened.

It is broadly played, but I feel like the best, albeit posthumous, revenge against those traitorous twits is to depict them as stooges, self-impressed, amateurish wannabes. Playing them as steely-eyed villains is probably exactly what they'd get off on.

Anyway, it's mentioned several times in the course of the series that Hunt was a hack novelist on the side; it reminded me that I'd had one of his books on my shelf for years and had never gotten around to it. It was a 1972 hard-boiled noir/horror hybrid called The Coven...

...written under the pseudonym "David St. John" (the names of both his sons) and set in D.C. neighborhoods where I used to live and work. It's full of borderline-parody prose like this:

"From there I drove through a city well-lighted for the most part, but largely deserted, for honest people tended to stay indoors after dark in recent years. Out Rhode Island Avenue to a part of the District tourists seldom saw. Hell's Bottom it had been called in the early days. Murder Bay. Old, rundown, and shabby. Condemned windowless buildings, vandalized by gangs of homeless boys. By day a rude, brawling area where liquor stores cashed more relief checks than the few remaining banks. By night a furtive, shadowy zone whose sounds were the crash of liquor bottles, the bang of overturing trash cans, and strangled cries in dark allies. Where love and heroin were traded over barroom tables and stolen cars screamed around the nearby corner...A sprawling raucous quarter slated for demolition when the City Fathers could get around to it. A dying, decaying area where hope was as rare as a starched white shirt."

So you're saying...not a great neighborhood?

There are also loathing caricatures of hippies, Beltway insiders, political staffers, etc. And the hard-drinking lawyer hero is the perfect projection of the cynical badass that Hunt so clearly wanted to be. As an expression of the mindset out of which the abuses of that administration grew, it's a simultaneously fun and depressing read.

Friday, May 26, 2023


Opening this weekend...

The Little Mermaid--It may be hard for younger people to understand what a big deal the original Little Mermaid was back in 1989. Disney is now so monolithic that it may be difficult to grasp the degree to which the firm, while still tops in the theme-park world, had become something of a lazy backwater in movie terms in the '80s. Animated features like The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company were profitable enough, but they weren't pop-culture landmarks that characterized childhood for a couple of generations.

With The Little Mermaid, one could immediately sense a sea change (sorry). Later animated Disney flicks like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King became more beloved, perhaps, but that adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen tale set the trend, and the template. When title character Ariel looked toward the surface, opened her mouth and warbled, in the voice of Jodi Benson, that she wanted to be where the people were, she redefined what the word "princess" meant in our culture, and reshaped children's entertainment.

The key, of course, was the musical form. Earlier Disney flicks had songs, some of them classics, but The Little Mermaid was a true musical comedy. The tunes, by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, were charmingly playful, but they also channeled adolescent longing into their fantasy situations. Ashman, who died in 1991 before the release of Beauty and the Beast, didn't know what he started.

The songs are the best thing about the new Little Mermaid too. I hadn't heard Ashman and Menken's tunes in decades, but they shake the movie to life at once, and a couple of new numbers by Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda, including a rap for Awkwafina as the seabird, are strong as well. Halle Bailey sings "Part of Your World" with an expressive warmth that deepens the lyrics, and she brings a lovely, openhearted wonder to the role that's hard to resist.

The calypso number "Under the Sea," performed here by Daveed Diggs, is a crowd-pleaser again, and Jonah Hauer-King, in the comparatively thankless role of the Prince, rousingly handles his solo tune "Wild Uncharted Waters" (by Menken and Miranda). Melissa McCarthy brings sly humor--but not too much camp--to Ursula the Sea Witch in "Poor Unfortunate Souls."

The film could have used more music, and less filler. This Little Mermaid's director is Rob Marshall of Chicago and Dreamgirls, and he shapes the numbers excitingly--with the help of the Alvin Ailey Foundation, in the case of "Under the Sea"--but he can't do much with the in-between stuff. And there's a lot of in-between stuff; the new movie runs well over two hours, while the '89 original clocked in at well under an hour and a half.

Most of the non-musical sequences are poky, even interminable. This is especially true of the dry-land scenes, shot on a beautiful Sardinian coastline and set in a Caribbean-tinged storybook alternate past that feels much more like an overpriced, ersatz resort. The underwater scenes, with their immersive fanciful glitz, play better, but even they dawdle.

I've avoided most of the "live-action" (though heavily CGI-enhanced) remakes of Disney animated films in recent years. I did see Jon Favreau's 2016 Jungle Book, which was okay, mostly because it didn't stick too slavishly to the '67 film. But the idea of re-doing Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King in slick but unconvincing live action seemed, beyond the obvious profit potential, gratuitous. Fine as the performers are, this Little Mermaid seems that way too.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023


Even though I'm pretty old, I can't remember a time when Tina Turner wasn't part of the landscape.

I remember watching her flail through "Proud Mary" with Ike on The Midnight Special, or listening, wide-eyed, to her wail out "Acid Queen" on my brother's Tommy LP. I remember her post-Ike comeback in the '80s--arguably the most triumphant comeback in American showbiz history--and the string of hits it produced.

Slick as this Top 40 Private Dancer-era stuff was, even '80s-pop production couldn't squelch the soul in that voice, that one-of-a-kind instrument; somehow simultaneously feverish yet melodic, taunting yet beseeching, untamed as the shriek of a wildcat, yet nuanced. A woman I know who had gone to see Turner in concert during that period came back with a welt on the palm of her hand.

"That's from applauding," she said.

I have an odd specific first-hand memory of Tina Turner, too. In December of 2000, when I was working at Phoenix New Times, I was given tickets to her show at what was then America West Arena. My friend James and I went, and while we were walking the few blocks from the New Times building to the Arena, I got a call informing me that one of my nieces had given birth to my first grand-niece in Virginia, which put me in a good mood.

My other vivid memory of that night involves the Mighty Turner herself: The show was spectacular, with dancers and hydraulic stage machinery and clouds of mist and pillars of fire billowing up during "We Don't Need Another Hero" and so on, and I remember thinking how strange it might feel for a kid from Nutbush, Tennessee to reflect that all this extravagant theatricality was built around her. Or, maybe not; maybe by that time in her career it felt routine and appropriate.

But the seats that James and I had were nosebleeders, far forward, that gave us a peculiar view backstage. At one point during an instrumental break in one of the numbers, Turner left the stage, and from our vantage we could see, plain as day, as she sat down on a bench against the back wall for a rest. And for that minute or two, she became human; she just looked like a nice lady around sixty, waiting for a bus or sitting on her patio. Then she got up and headed for the stage, transforming again into the primal goddess. Back to work.

Rest in Peace and Joy, Queen of Rock n' Roll. We truly will not see your like again.

Sunday, May 21, 2023


Check out my column, online at Phoenix Magazine, on two cool flicks...

John Carpenter's They Live played already Saturday in Scottsdale, but you can still catch the Mel Brooks masterpiece Blazing Saddles this Tuesday night, May 23; it's the "Tuesday Night Classic" this week at Harkins Theatres...

Friday, May 19, 2023


Opening in the multiplexes this weekend...

Fast X--It has car chases. Just in case you were wondering.

In this, the tenth(ish) feature entry in the seemingly endless Fast and the Furious series about L.A. street racers turned freelance government agents, Vin Diesel and his pals are hassled through the streets of Rome, Rio, London, L.A., Portugal, etc. by a cheerful sociopath (Jason Momoa) with a vengeful grudge. It's lavishly and extravagantly produced, with a high-ticket cast, mostly playing characters from the earlier films.

The beauty and glamour and diversity of these people, including but not limited to Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez and Tyrese Gibson and Jason Statham and Nathalie Emmanuel and Daniela Melchior and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges and Jon Cena and Brie Larson and Sung Kang and Charlize Theron and, no kidding, Helen Mirren and Rita Moreno, if you please, is undeniable. Momoa is droll as the chatty villain. And even though the movie is overlong, the settings are sun-drenched and sumptuous, and I found it surprisingly less tedious than I expected to sit through.

But it's not cool. The many extended set-piece action sequences here are so preposterous that they make the James Bond flicks look like kitchen-sink realism. This silliness is not, in itself, what's pernicious about it, however. Even by action movie standards, Fast X is simply cavalier toward human life.

As with the earlier films, the message of this movie seems to be that it's nearly impossible to be seriously injured, or to injure a pedestrian, in a high-speed car chase through a densely-populated urban area. It suggests that cars can almost fly, and that people can almost fly between cars in midair, with surgical accuracy. It suggests that you have leisurely amounts of time to plan your maneuvers in a hurtling vehicle. It suggests that if you're thrown from a hurtling vehicle and land on pavement, you can get up and shake it off as if you'd tripped on a porch step. What this movie suggests that cars, and human bodies, can do and withstand is recklessly delusional, and to assume that it has no effect on the behavior of real-life drivers raised on movies like this seems naïve.

I don't want to be a killjoy. I've enjoyed many movie car chases over the years, and I enjoyed, albeit with a little guilt, some of this movie. But the Fast & Furious flicks take the seductive fantasy of invincible car action to a level that seems irresponsible to me. We hear a lot of complaints, from all quarters, about the negative influence of movies on, say, sexual morality, or racial perceptions, or the objectification of women, or toxic masculinity. Why can't the impact of movies on basic public safety be considered a moral issue?