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.