Friday, March 31, 2023


Opening this weekend:

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves--This movie includes more than one dungeon, and more than one dragon. Thus the title is truthful, at any rate.

Once or twice back in college--twice, if memory serves--I played Dungeons & Dragons with some of my fellow theater students. It was sort of fun, as I recall. The first time, an obnoxious kid we didn't know named Dan--not a theatre major--had somehow been invited, who seemed to think himself a great ladies' man. He named his warrior character "Dahn" and spent most of the evening drinking a lot and hitting on the young women there. When we played again a week or so later, Dan was not invited, and the Dungeon Master mildly informed us that "Dahn disagreed with something that ate him."

This was in the early '80s.  I recount this story only to make it clear how limited my familiarity is with the classic role-playing fantasy game developed in the mid-'70s and now owned by Wizards of the Coast (a subsidiary of Hasbro). I've never played D&D or any similar game since, though I have friends and family who are enthusiasts. Even at the time, I didn't really grasp how the dice rolls and "damage points" and other such jargon determined the flow of the game; I just enjoyed the socializing and improvisational creativity.

So for all I know, this new movie version, directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley from a script they concocted with Michael Gilio and Chris McKay, is a rich and faithful fleshing-out of tropes from the game. Or, for all I know, it's just a sword-and-sorcery fantasy with the franchise's name hung on it. I can't say, nor need any general audience member care; either way, it's highly entertaining.

Chris Pine is a lute-strumming troubadour living in a Ren-Faire-ish realm of racial and gender diversity. A washed-up member of a heroic order, he leads a band of thieves including a warrior (Michelle Rodriguez); a sorcerer (Justice Smith) of low self-esteem and questionable prowess, and a horned and tailed elfin person (Sophia Lillis) who can shape-shift into various other creatures, including a brawny monster owl.

They're on a quest to obtain some sort of magical thingy that will allow them to enter a magic vault from which they want to steal some other magical thingy. This will allow the troubadour to resurrect his murdered wife. Along the way the band is helped by a noble but humorlessly literal paladin (Regé-Jean Page from Bridgerton).

This synopsis does the movie little justice, however. D&DHAT isn't heavy. Despite all the thundering hordes and clanking armor and clashing steel and roiling brimstone and mystical spells and hideous ogres and such, the flavor is less like a Tolkien epic than like a Hope-Crosby Road comedy. The guiding joke is that the characters, notwithstanding their fairy tale attire, speak and interact in a contemporary American idiom, like people on a sitcom. There's an extended schtick, involving questioning of the dead, that's almost worthy of the Marx Brothers.

Your own tastes will determine if this approach makes the movie a blast or an outrage. For me, it not only made it less ponderous, but more emotionally satisfying. The actors generate an ensemble playfulness and a sense of affection. Pine retains his raffish agreeability, and he and Rodriguez are particularly convincing as longtime, patiently enduring friends.

But once again, the best reason to see the film, even if this sort of fantasy isn't your usual tankard of mead, is Hugh Grant. He plays the rotten mountebank who betrayed Pine and friends back in the day. Since then, with the alliance of a sinister sorceress (Daisy Head), this fraud has ascended to the throne of the kingdom; it's his vault the gang wants to loot, and he's also, intolerably, been serving as the surrogate father to Pine's daughter (Chloe Coleman).

Between this movie, the recent Operation Fortune and 2017's Paddington 2, Grant has quite a line these days in cheery, good-natured comic villains. The scenes he steals here are the most honorable theft in the movie.

Friday, March 24, 2023


Opening today:

A Good Person--In the opening scenes, Allison is smart, funny, talented, beautiful and on the verge of marrying an adoring guy. A year later, in the aftermath of a horrible car accident, she's bereaved, single and deeply in denial about her addiction to painkillers. She scoots around her New Jersey town on a bicycle, understandably unable to drive or ride in a car, trying to score pills and using her caustic wit to evade the truth about her situation.

The story focuses on the improbable bond that develops between Allison, played by Florence Pugh, and Morgan Freeman as Daniel, the widower who was going to be her father-in-law. A retired cop, Daniel is a distant man with a troubling family history of his own; he's now raising his sweet and smart but angry and rebellious teenage granddaughter Ryan.

Considering how great Morgan Freeman is, it's odd how rarely we see him in a role worthy of him. Daniel isn't such a role either, really, but compared to what he gets to do, probably much more lucratively, in stuff like Dolphin Tale and Angel Has Fallen and The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard this seems like Eugene O'Neill.

He appears to barely need to bestir himself to bring the role his unerring authority. He's given some passages of voiceover at the beginning and the end, delivering them in those beautiful, measured tones that call to mind his narration in The Shawshank Redemption. This is perhaps a duty he should avoid in the future; it threatens to tame him into a sage old duffer when much of his power, going all the way back to his early days, lay in his coiled potential for righteous wrath.

Still, in A Good Person, when we see Freeman's face register bad news in the presence of someone from whom he wants to hide it, it's hard to imagine a current actor who could manage the same level of emotion without telegraphing. Similarly, Daniel's anger and guilt and sadness are tempered by age and hard-won perspective, but they haven't left him by a long shot, and Freeman makes them palpable, which in turn makes Daniel's compassion all the more touching.

Florence Pugh is a marvel. She stole 2019's Little Women and 2021's Black Widow; here she's the leading lady and nobody steals the movie from her. Her sly wit keeps Allison from being a drag to watch even when actually spending time with her certainly would be. Her scenes opposite Molly Shannon as her browbeating, wine-sipping, desperately loving mother have a ring of long history to them, and above all she and Freeman together generate an atmosphere of hushed, mutually grateful shared grief. 

Braff, a blessedly and fearlessly silly comic actor, is less assured when it comes to creating serious drama; there are cluttered scenes here where he overplays his hand. But his dialogue is robust and speakable, and he's helped by a unifying theme: the ubiquity of addiction in modern life. From the first minutes of the film on, we're reminded of the central role in our lives of everything from pot to pills to booze to tobacco, but Braff makes a point of emphasizing one more: smartphones. They're treated as one more pill, one more pipe, one more flask from which we take multiple hits every day.

Thursday, March 23, 2023


The Phoenix Film Festival opens tonight; check out my short article, online at Phoenix Magazine...

...previewing the festival.

Thursday, March 16, 2023


At the VNSA book sale this year I found this...

...1968 paperback edition of William Styron's second novel, The Long March, from 1952. It's a good quick read, tense and vividly drawn. But I especially love how the back cover...

...tries to link the story, about a grueling forced march of Marine reservists and the psychological battle it provokes between two officers, to the allegorical anti-war protest song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," then topical because it had been censored by CBS from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967. The cover misattributes the song to Woody Guthrie; it was of course by Pete Seeger. CBS eventually relented and Seeger did the song on the show in early 1968.

Around the same time, my peacenik sister used to sing me that song when I was little; I can still sing it word for word.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023


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

...about the upcoming Arizona Architectural Film Showcase. It's the latest from Steve Weiss and his "No Festival Required" film series.

Friday, March 10, 2023


Opening this weekend:

Champions--Just like Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, Woody Harrelson is a hotheaded basketball coach who loses jobs over violent outbursts on the court. Just like Keanu Reeves in Hardball, he has a coaching gig forced on him, in this case as community service in lieu of jail time. In short, Champions follows the standard sports movie playbook plot point for plot point. The variation, this time, is that Harrelson is assigned to a Special Olympics team made up of players with intellectual disabilities.

Thus the obvious worry, going in, is that these characters will be either ridiculed or patronized, or both. The director is Bobby Farrelly, half of the Farrelly Brothers, who in earlier films have indeed derived broad comedy from intellectually disabled characters; his brother Peter Farrelly, who we saw advising the filmmakers with Down syndrome in the documentary Sam and Mattie Make a Zombie Movie, insists that they "revere" such people but refuse to sentimentalize or condescend in their depictions of them.

How does this approach work out in Champions? Well, certainly the quirks and limitations of Harrelson's ballers are played for laughs, but I think no more insultingly than in, say, The Mighty Ducks or Dodgeball or, for that matter, Major League, or any other formula sports flick about the triumph of a ragtag bunch of misfit underdogs.

It helps, too, that the coach is generally the butt of the jokes. More importantly, the actors who play the team members are spirited, ebullient, confident performers with vivid personalities. They also bring out the best in Harrelson, who responds to them with what appears to be genuine warmth and delight.

Aside from the charming engagement between these actors and the star, the movie, set in Des Moines but mostly filmed in Canada, is pretty by-the-numbers, though it's pleasant and watchable (it's a knockoff, by the way, of a 2018 Spanish film called Campeones, a hit in that country). Ernie Hudson and Cheech Marin turn up in supporting roles but have little to do. Harrelson's love interest is Kaitlin Olson as a small-potatoes Shakespearean actor and the protective sister of one of the players, and the bantering dialogue Mark Rizzo provides for them isn't a disgrace. And I'm predisposed to like any movie in which the climax of The Winter's Tale is used to teach the pick-and-roll.

Friday, March 3, 2023


Opening this weekend...

Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre--Bad guys have stolen some horrible world-threatening thingy from a laboratory, and initially British Intelligence isn't even sure what it is. Not to worry, though--luxury-loving man of action Orson Fortune, played by Jason Statham, is placed on the case, with a high-tech team assisting him.

The McGuffin, when we finally learn what it is, turns out to be disappointingly vague and prosaic. The ride to retrieve it, however, directed by Guy Ritchie from a script by Ivan Atkinson, Marn Davies and the director, is pretty enjoyable, in the usual headlong Ritchie manner. We're zipped from one exotic location to another, Morocco and Madrid and Turkey and more, via private planes and yachts and villas, and there are shootouts and car chases and helicopter duels. It's swanky, with an edge of irony and plenty of violence to distance us from the shallow glamour.

All of  which is to say, Operation Fortune is essentially an off-brand Bond flick, and a sufficiently skilled one to offer an amusing, relaxing couple of hours free of substance and ethics. Despite Ritchie's assured technique, the real appeal is the cast. Statham shrewdly keeps it low-key and lets his costars shine: Cary Elwes as Orson's nettled boss, Eddie Marsan as the boss's boss and Bugzy Malone as Orson's stalwart sidekick.

Josh Hartnett, whose existence I had largely forgotten, has a nice turn as a Hollywood star pressed into service on the mission, and Aubrey Plaza is appealingly insouciant as a slinky computer whiz, complete with closeups of her lips as she purrs directions into a mic. She reminded me of Adrienne Barbeau as the deejay in The Fog.

The standout in the company, however, is Hugh Grant as the cockney billionaire arms dealer that Fortune's team targets. It's surprising how flexible Grant's diffident persona has proven; what's even more striking is that, even as this callous, corruption-encrusted vulgarian, he still manages to be likable.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023


From time to time Your Humble Narrator likes to sort through the stacks of old comic books of which he has far too many. A recent such rummage led me to reflect, on the last day of Black History Month, that I learned a fair amount of what little I know about black history not at school but from comics.

Although Adalifu Nama's Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (2011) is a lively and accessible study, its focus is deliberately narrow. As far as I can find, a comprehensive history of the black presence in comic books, both as characters and as artists, writers and publishers, is yet to be written. Reading up to review Marvel's Black Panther a few years ago, I came across a reprint of All-Negro Comics from 1947...

...which contained probably the earliest black superhero, Lion Man; even though the title was run out of business after only one issue, it left me wondering if it could have influenced the creation of T'Challa years later over at Marvel.

But in my collection, amongst the superhero, scary and funny titles, I found a number of civic-minded, non-fiction comics devoted to black history, most notably...

...the 169th issue of Classics Illustrated, Negro Americans: The Early Years, from 1969.

Classics Illustrated were highly abridged and expurgated adaptations of literary classics intended to interest kids in reading, and I was their success story: the dorky kid who actually became a bookworm at least partly because of the hours I spent poring over these mostly lame version of Wells and Verne and Hugo and Melville and even Homer and Shakespeare.

Negro Americans was different than the other Classics Illustrated titles, however, in that it wasn't based on a classic book; no author is credited. On the table of contents page it says "...we try to give accurate accounts of some of those black men and women who gave their talents and lives to their country during its formative years. Space allows us to show only a few of these black heroes...The efforts and triumphs of these black men and women live as their legacy to American heritage."

I bought this comic off the stands sometime in the early '70s, and learned from it--not from school--that Crispus Attucks was arguably the first man to die in the American revolution when he fell in the Boston Massacre...

...or about the advances in heart surgery by Daniel Hale Williams...

...among many other extraordinary accounts.

I also have the Classics Illustrated version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, from 1944...

..with better-than-average art for the series.

A while back I acquired (for a dollar an issue!) a full run of the Golden Legacy comics, a series of 16 books on black history published from 1966 to 1976. Most of them concern African-American history--Crispus Attucks, Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker, Martin Luther King, Jr., arctic explorer Matthew Henson, Amistad mutineer Joseph Cinqué, and two volumes on Frederick Douglass, among others. But there are also issues on ancient African civilizations, on Toussaint L'Ouverture and the founding of Haiti, and on the ancestry of Dumas and Pushkin. Again, they didn't teach most of this stuff at my school.

The art was pretty cool, too.

My stacks yielded a couple of '70s-era comics featuring Quincy, the everykid from Ted Shearer's newspaper strip...

They were published by King Comics, the periodical arm of King Features Syndicate. Along with Quincy's adventures with his white pal Nickels and others, the books featured educational content, teaching readers proper grammar, etc...

Moving away from educational comics, I found several issues of Midnight Tales, a creepy Charlton Comic that ran from 1972 to 1976. It's noteworthy not because of any specifically black content, but because the artist, the marvelous Wayne Howard (1949-2007), was probably the first African-American comic book artist to get a "Created by" credit on his title. Indeed, he was one of the first artists of any race to do so; comic books were usually uncredited in earlier decades.

In Midnight Tales Howard, in collaboration with writer Nicola Cuti, dreamed up Dr. Cyrus Coffin, aka "The Midnight Philosopher," who collected strange yarns with his beautiful raven-haired neice Arachne. I still think it would make a wonderful TV series on, say, the CW Network.

I love the macabre wit in Howard's artwork...

Or my favorite of his covers, from the first issue...

How much had Dr. Frankenstein been drinking when he made that mistake?

Finally, I came across a striking 1984 issue of All-Star Squadron,  DC's superhero team-up title set in the 1940s. This particular story... set against the real-life backdrop of the white mob violence against residents of the Sojourner Truth housing project in Detroit in 1942. More strikingly, it features black superhero Will Everett, aka Amazing Man, facing off against a hooded supervillain wonderfully called "Real American," who has the hypnotic power not only to turn the white citizens into mindless, violent racist rioters, but to have the same effect on some of Amazing Man's superhero allies.

Hard to imagine that some Republicans in congress wouldn't love to get their hands on that technology...

Friday, February 24, 2023


Opening in theaters this weekend...

Cocaine Bear--This shocker has at least as much right to claim "true story" status for itself as Fargo or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There really was a Cocaine Bear: back in 1985, an American black bear was found dead in the Chattahoochee National Forest in northern Georgia, just south of the Tennessee line. The poor creature had OD'd, having ingested more than 30 kilos of cocaine, valued at tens of millions of dollars.

The stuff had been dropped from an airplane by a smuggler who then died himself in a parachuting mishap. The unfortunate ursine, dubbed "Pablo Eskobear," was stuffed by a taxidermist and ended up on display in a shopping mall in Kentucky, where it reportedly still stands.

The movie, directed by Elizabeth Banks from a script by Jimmy Warden, is set in 1985 and uses some real place names and at least one real person's name (the smuggler's). But it's still a load of gleeful b.s., a highly entertaining sick joke. Unlike the real animal, the movie's bear--arguably the newest addition to the stable of Universal Monsters--turns into a drug-crazed spree killer, mauling and dismembering hikers and park personnel, as well as the drug traffickers that enter the forest in search of the lost product.

Cocaine Bear is as violent and gory as any big-studio movie you're likely to see. But it isn't scary, and isn't meant to be; the splatter is played entirely for gruesomely slapstick laughs. Indeed, the exuberance with which the blood and brains and guts fly is the central recurring and escalating gag.

Except for a single mom (Keri Russell), searching the woods for her daughter and the daughter's friend, most of the major characters are scoundrels or cretins or both, though not necessarily unlikable scoundrels and cretins. All of them are broadly played caricatures, so Banks invites us to leave our empathy at the door, take a cathartic break from compassion and hoot at the horrors which befall them. I indulged, and so did the audience with which I saw the film.

The title character, generated through some reasonably seamless combination of virtual and practical effects, has a guileless personality that contrasts with the bloody mayhem. Indeed, you're more likely to feel for the blameless beast than for most of the humans.

The cast is nonetheless excellent, even if most of them are not employing ten percent of their talent. I've long thought that Russell is one of the more underrated and underutilized lead actresses now in movies. I also don't understand why Alden Ehrenreich hasn't become a bigger deal; he's comically muddled yet sympathetic as an elaborately bereaved drug operative. So is O'Shea Jackson as his weary partner, Aaron Holliday as a dimwit would-be mugger they encounter, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. as a cranky detective.

The film was one of the last in which the late Ray Liotta appeared. He's in his usual strong form as Ehrenreich's father, the heartless local boss of the drug dealers. It's not a rich enough role to be a worthy swansong, but it's a good performance, and the film is dedicated to him. The great Margo Martindale nails every line and facial expression as a hard-up park ranger trying to get the attention of a naturalist (Jesse Tyler Ferguson). Maybe the best of all are Brooklyn Prince and Christian Convery as the two kids, who get across a genuine affection behind their mild, familiar ragging and posing and their dares of each other. They, along with Russell, offer us somebody to unambiguously root for.

Banks has a lot of fun evoking '80s-movie atmosphere, not only with the costumes and cars and posters and overheard pop songs but with her direction. From the full opening credit sequence to the leisurely camera movement to the driving synthesizer score by Mark Mothersbaugh, the film is as much a throwback to the decade in which it's set as last year's Top Gun: Maverick, and the response to both of those films suggests that maybe today's audiences wouldn't object to a return to that style.

Friday, February 17, 2023


Opening this weekend:

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania--Paul Rudd, aka Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man, is taking a little hiatus from front line superhero duty. On inactive status with The Avengers, he's written a book, so he's giving readings, and hanging out with family, and smugly basking in celebrity. That's the set-up, in a few quick scenes in San Francisco, for this third eponymous Ant-Man feature.

Then, thanks to science experiments by his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton) gone wrong, Scott and Hope Van Dyne, aka The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) get swept into the "Quantum Realm," along with Cassie, Hope's Mom Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) and dad Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). The Quantum Realm is a subatomic micro-verse teeming with life in which Janet was stranded for decades.

Thus Janet knows the turf, and she knows that the people there are ruled over by the tyrannical Kang (Jonathan Majors), a dimensional conqueror who she marooned in QR before she escaped. Kang would like very much to be reunited with Janet. Far-out fantasy adventures ensue.

Director Peyton Reed seems to pays heavy homage to the original 1977 Star Wars; the Quantum Realm is full of cousins of Tusken Raiders and Jawas. There are also strong echoes of the Avatar flicks, of Zardoz, and of Dr. Who, and maybe a thematic hint of Horton Hears a Who.

This is yet another Marvel entry featuring alternate universes; it has a somewhat similar look to Sam Raimi's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness from last year. As with that film, I went in with the feeling that the This-That-Or-The-Other-verse conceit that the Marvels have leaned on so hard in recent years is of limited sustainability, as it has a tendency to dilute the dramatic stakes.

On the other hand, also as with Multiverse of Madness, taken on its own terms Quantumania is perfectly enjoyable. The visuals, however derivative, are elegant, witty and well-executed, and the glamorous cast is in pleasant form. Rudd's sly, subtle clowning is always good company, and he carries the movie effortlessly.

The best performance, however, is by Jonathan Majors, from The Last Black Man in San Francisco. His Kang is quiet, subdued, even sad, as if haunted by the joyless drive to conquer and rule. As with Christian Bale's Gorr in last year's Thor: Love and Thunder, Majors brings a needed edge of serious, almost tragic menace that helps to ground this silly sci-fi spoof.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023


 This is Billy the Beetle:

And this is how I came to meet Billy and some of his exoskeletoned pals last week:

One Sunday afternoon last November I was driving through Phoenix with my cell phone in my hand. I doubt I'll get much sympathy when I tell you that I suddenly noticed a police officer on a motorcycle with his lights flashing in my rearview mirrors. I spit out an expletive and pulled over.

"Important call?" the cop asked drily, when he walked up to the car.

"Not important enough, I'm guessing," I said with a sigh.

He explained to me that it's now illegal to have a cell phone in your hand, on or off, while you're driving, unless you're calling 9-1-1. There was no such urgency to my call; embarrassingly, I was taking the opportunity of a boring drive home to catch up with a friend back east. I was sufficiently chastened that I hoped the cop might let me go with a warning, but it was not to be; he wrote me a ticket and encouraged me to get a hands-free device.

What can I say? As the Brits put it, "It's a fair cop." I was totally guilty. If my kid was doing it, I'd be furious, so I could hardly make excuses for doing it myself. I resolved then and there to put my cell phone down while I'm driving, and to pull over if I had to make a call, and I've stuck to it. So I guess it's a just and effective law.

This didn't mean, of course, that I wanted to pay the fine of over two hundred bucks, so I looked into taking an online traffic class. Trying to enroll in the CHEAP EASY FAST Arizona Defensive Driving video course, I soon found that all three of the titular adjectives were questionable. Between the tuition and various other fees, the course came to an amount remarkably close to the amount of the fine. Not so cheap, then. But I didn't want a conviction, even a no-points conviction, on my record, so I signed up anyway.

Turns out that by law, the course has to be at least four hours long. So the claim that it's "fast" is based on the fact that it's as fast as is legally allowed. And easy? Well, the multiple-choice quiz questions are easy enough as long as you listen carefully to the video segments, but if you fail to catch a tidbit of information that's asked and guess wrong, you have to watch the whole segment over again from the beginning, and some of the segments are more than ten minutes long. So for me, the class, which after weeks of procrastination I finally took a week or so ago, lasted well over four hours, alas.

What I didn't expect in all this, is that the course would be hosted by bugs.

Not Bugs Bunny; bugs. As in insects. Billy, who appears to be a purple stag beetle with mandibles rising over his head like Viking horns, is the courteous, slightly stuffy host. His cohosts are Larry the Locust, a sensualist who thinks mainly of his stomach...

...and Beatrice, or possibly Bee-Atrice, the Honeybee...

As they explain, who better to teach us about driving safety then the hapless creatures who regularly splat into our windshields? And teach they do, in comprehensive, sometimes repetitive detail and at a leisurely pace; it led me to the suspicion at times that they were vamping to fill up the four hours. There's a surprisingly philosophical deep dive into the psychology of driving, as when they note that road rage can result when our "belief system is challenged," as well as of the physical impacts of poor driving, as when they note that anger management reduces the chance of a heart attack by 44%.

This unhurried atmosphere also allows for rich character development and interpersonal dynamics between the bugs. For instance, when Billy reproves Larry for his tardiness and self-indulgence, Beatrice challenges him for unfair self-pity. Maybe it's just me, but I thought I detected a hint of sexual tension between Billy and Beatrice.

Even with all of this, however, Billy, Larry and Beatrice are not sufficient to fill the time requirement all by themselves. Much of their role is introducing video segments on safe driving sourced from all over the place, especially YouTube. At least one came from England; a likable young Brit calculates the kinetic energy of two vehicles at different speeds.

There's candor, too, as when Scottsdale-based lawyer Robert Gruler of the R&R law firm discusses how commonly Arizona police officers hand out the charge of Criminal Speeding: "It's ridiculous, but they do it." The effect of this jumble of information offered in a jumble of formats and presided over by arthropods was deeply weird. It was also, I must sheepishly admit, informative and thought-provoking.

At one point Billy and his pals note that as we age, our senses and reaction times lose their sharpness. When I looked up the life spans of the stag beetle (1-2 years) the locust and the honeybee (both under a year) it gave this lesson an extra poignancy, especially considering that you have to have your learner's permit for at least six months.

Friday, February 3, 2023


In theaters this weekend:

80 for Brady--It's a testament to the star power of the four leading ladies in this movie that I didn't resent that their characters were Tom Brady fans. Not that much, anyway. I didn't even resent that the film amounts to a feature-length commercial for the NFL; it's being released the weekend before Super Bowl Sunday, almost as if the league is trying to offer its own counterprogramming.

Who cares? At this point in their careers, Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Sally Field and Rita Moreno could pretty much read grocery lists and it would carry a certain pop-culture gravitas. The script, by Sarah Haskins and Emily Halpern and inspired by a real-life circle of elderly Boston-based fans of Tommy Boy and the Patriots, doesn't really offer them much more to work with than a grocery list would, and they still come off all right.

Tomlin, a cancer survivor, is the outspoken instigator who insists that she and her friends must go watch Brady play in the 2017 Big Game. Fonda is a flirt given to romantically leaping before she looks; she's also successful writer of erotic fiction about Rob Gronkowski. Field is an academic weary of her dependent, literally absent-minded professor husband (Bob Balaban) and Moreno yearns to break free of assisted living despite a fellow resident (Glynn Turman) who likes her.

The quartet ends up in Houston having wacky adventures at the Super Bowl Experience and at parties and poker games and chicken wing eating contests and such. All does not, it need hardly be said, go smoothly. They're befriended by the choreographer of the half-time show (Billy Porter) and if you think they don't end up dancing to get past security, think again.

With her blunt, urgent delivery, Tomlin somehow emerges as the team captain of the ensemble. But all four are infectiously energetic and seem to enjoy goofing around with the supporting players shoved in their paths, like Porter, or Harry Hamlin as a love interest for Fonda, or Sara Gilbert as Tomlin's daughter, or Andy Richter as a high roller in a skybox, or Alex Moffat and Rob Corrddry as a dyspeptic sports-talk team, and of course Brady and Gronk and Guy Fieri and others as themselves. Even the bit players include the likes of Patton Oswalt and Sally Kirkland.

80 for Brady starts slow, but it should be said that as it progresses, and gets broader and sillier, it also gets better; both livelier and more heartfelt. By the end these women had me absurdly emotionally invested. This is, possibly, the lamest and most ridiculous film that has ever brought tears to my eyes.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023


The cover story in the January/February issue of Phoenix Magazine, now on the stands... "Eatin' in the USA," in which you learn where you can get a signature dish from all fifty states without leaving the Valley. Your Humble Narrator is proud to have been one of the authors; see if you can guess the ten states I covered. Hint: I wasn't assigned my beloved home state of Pennsylvania, but I did get to do one of its neighbors, with a dish also relished in my home town of Erie.

Friday, January 20, 2023


2022 is unlikely, it seems to me, to go down in history as a banner year for popular movies. But even in less auspicious years, there are always some good flicks, and some good or even great scenes or performances in movies that aren't so great overall.

Out of what I saw, here are ten movies that stood out as best for me this past year:

Nope--Jordan Peele's latest is probably the best UFO movie since Close Encounters, though it has a more sinister edge. It's wildly original, funny and creepy sci-fi/horror, yet it also carries the heroic charge of a good western.

Good Night Oppy--This documentary about the Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit has interesting information about the Red Planet, but it's really about the way the NASA nerds anthropomorphized the robots and fretted over them and cheered them on and ultimately grieved over them. In an entirely unpretentious way, the movie hints at the question of where sentience comes from. 

The Duke--This pandemic-delayed release was, I thought, perhaps the most overlooked and delightful movie of the year. Jim Broadbent is splendid as Kempton Bunton, a cab driver, factory worker and anti-television fee protestor who in 1965 confessed to stealing Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London; Helen Mirren is his fed-up wife. The direction, by the late Roger Michell, is warm, graphically lively and period-rich.

Everything Everywhere All At Once--Family drama, immigrant saga, sly comedy, martial arts actioner, Matrix-style sci-fi adventure and more are mashed-up in this freaky yarn from writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert that tries to live up to its title. It's epic, intimate, silly and profound. All at once.

Thirteen Lives--Dramatizing a technically complicated rescue mission in detail, Ron Howard is in his element in this moving account of the rescue of twelve Thai kids and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in 2018. A little tough if you're claustrophobic, but a true feel-good movie.

The Whale--Brendan Fraser gives a luminous, possibly generational performance as Charlie, a morbidly obese English teacher trying to reconnect with his furious estranged daughter. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, the movie is a little heavy and one-note aside from the star, but Fraser's radiance shines through the prosthetics.

Gabby Giffords Won't Back Down--Infuriating because of what Giffords lost when she was shot in 2011; inspirational because of how much she got back, and how courageously she refused to give in to despair. Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West build the movie around how central music was to Giffords' recovery.

The Fabelmans--In Steven Spielberg's loosely autobiographical coming-of-age yarn, scripted by Tony Kushner, the focus is largely on the parents, beautifully played by Paul Dano and Michelle Williams. The movie isn't a grand slam, but it's fascinating, and it has the best final shot of the year.

Marcel the Shell With Shoes On--This feature expansion of the 2010 viral short by Dean Fleischer-Camp, with Jenny Slate voicing the tiny title character, is sunny and hilarious, but with improbably dramatic and poignant undertones. Isabella Rossellini is exquisite as the voice of Marcel's "Nan."

The Banshees of Inisherin--Martin McDonagh's black comedy about the agonies of friendship goes so sour in its later acts that I almost didn't put it on the list. But the brilliance of the initial conception and, especially, the magnificent acting of Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon demand its inclusion.

One more list, while I'm at it; for anyone who might unfathomably be interested, here is the embarrassingly short list of books I read this year (as always, it doesn't include short stories, poems, comic books, essays, articles, reviews, automotive manuals, skywriting, menus, fortune cookie fortunes, etc etc)...

The Silent Gondoliers by William Nolan

Sucker's Portfolio by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

The Spread by Barry Malzberg

Ben by Gilbert A. Ralston

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

The Investigation by Stanislaw Lem

The Werewolf Principle by Clifford D. Simak

Destry Rides Again by Max Brand

Friday, January 6, 2023


In theaters today:

Women Talking--In a hardcore religious farming colony, a group of men have been arrested for repeatedly tranquilizing and sexually violating women of all ages, including young children. The attacks have been attributed to ghosts or the Devil, or to "wild female imagination." With the farm to themselves for a couple of days before the men make bail, the minimally educated women sit around the barn and debate whether to forgive the men and carry on as before, to "stay and fight," or to leave the only home they've ever known. They've been told that if they leave, they will forfeit their place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Written and directed by Sarah Polley from the novel by Miriam Toews--inspired by a real-life 2011 case at a Mennonite community of Canadian origin in Bolivia--this drama opens by calling itself, in subtitle, an act of female imagination. It certainly feels convincing. Superb actresses of all ages, ranging from Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy and a particularly forbidding Frances McDormand among the elders to Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley and Claire Foy among the younger adults to some fine, lively women among the youth, embody the various responses, from seething, vengeful fury to sad acceptance.

Though the tone is inevitably somber, Polley's direction is deft, and she leavens the gloom with some high-spirited moments. Looking in from outside their world, many of us in the audience are likely to feel the most sympathy with the viewpoint of the enraged women who favor a violent response; the idea of a mass exodus from the scene of these atrocities sounds like a solid idea too. Forgiveness and a return to the status quo feels, in this instance, like a very distant third.

The movie also includes a token adult male, a gentle schoolteacher (Ben Wishaw, excellent as usual) not implicated in the attacks, who is allowed to take the minutes of their discussions because he can write. He's been to university outside the colony, and when a census-taker drives by in a car, blaring "Daydream Believer" by the Monkees, he softly sings along. The moment makes a pretty strong case for secular pop culture.

Now streaming:

She Said--This chronicle of the struggle of New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey to break the Harvey Weinstein case could be seen as a sort of companion piece to Women Talking (Brad Pitt was among the Executive Producers on both). At one point in the investigation Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Twohey (Carey Mulligan) wonder if anyone will care about the story if it runs. People did--the story, which ran in October of 2017, was not only one of the factors that led to Weinstein's arrest and conviction, it also helped get the #MeToo movement rolling.

The initial response to the movie, directed by Maria Schrader from a script by Rebecca Lenkiewicz (based on Kantor and Twohey's book), was less explosive, however; it bombed in the multiplexes in November. It's worth a watch, though. While it lacks the precision and tension of the greatest of investigative-journalist buddy pictures, All the President's Men, it's still an absorbing account, focusing on the extreme reluctance of the targets of Weinstein's savagery to be first to go on the record by name.

Schrader's direction generates a palpable atmosphere of the gloomy anxiety that life in the 45 era had for many of us, but probably more intensely for women, but we're spared graphic violence. While we hear a skin-crawling audio tape of Weinstein with one of the women, the actual assaults are kept offscreen. Much of the dramatic potency in the film derives from the stunned faces of Kazan and Mulligan as they interview the women; the horror that quietly registers in their eyes effectively takes the place of seeing what they're hearing.