Friday, April 28, 2023


Opening this weekend:

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret--It begins with a shot of an adolescent girl, yelling with joy. She's literally a happy camper; we're seeing the summer before our heroine Margaret turns 12, and her life changes, inside and out. She comes home from camp to learn that her family--except for her adored and adoring grandmother--is moving from New York to small town New Jersey.

She quickly falls in with a new circle of friends, all of whom are anxiously but eagerly awaiting their first periods. The child of a mixed, non-practicing Jewish-Christian marriage, Margaret is so anxious about this milestone that she nonetheless starts talking to God, politely pleading with the Almighty to let her start puberty and "be normal."

For half a century now, Judy Blume's classic, sometimes (absurdly) controversial 1970 coming-of-age novel has been almost as much a rite of passage for American girls as the social and biological shifts it dramatizes. But it's never been a movie before; reportedly Blume never liked a script until the adaptation by Kelly Fremon Craig of The Edge of Seventeen, who also directed.

Apparently Blume's instincts are good. The resulting film is a home run, sweet and low-key yet cumulatively emotional. Abby Ryder Fortson is marvelously un-histrionic and endearing as Margaret; her spot-on line readings suggest the budding phase of a wary but observant and empathetic person. Craig's script slightly fleshes out the character of Margaret's frustrated-painter Mom, and Rachel McAdams gives the character her own hints of uncertainty; Benny Safdie works well as Margaret's good-natured Dad. Kathy Bates is showcased as the jolly Grandma, a fiercely pro-Margaret partisan who is overjoyed when her granddaughter asks to be taken to Temple.

Margaret's friends are a fine ensemble, led by the amusingly impudent Elle Graham as Nancy. Frizz-haloed Aidan Wojtak-Hissong makes an impression as the lawn-mowing Moose Freed; so does Isol Young as the towering Laura Danker, who has gained a reputation on the basis of nothing more than having bloomed early. Echo Kellum seems to have stepped directly out of the '70s as the earnest newbie teacher Mr. Benedict.

This is an example of Craig's best decision: to not update the material. The movie is set in the year of the book's publication, and the production design and soundtrack invoke 1970 so vividly that it may feel like a flashback to those of us who remember it. The legion of grown-up fans of the book will likely be delighted by this fidelity.

The question, of course, is what the film will mean to audiences Margaret's age. I recently asked a mom of two daughters if girls are still embarrassed about their periods; she assured me that they are. But it's hard to say if the novel's candor on that subject is as unusual as it was in 1970.

It should be noted, of course, that menstruation, or even the issues around adolescent crushes and friendships, are far from the only themes here. A family move that you don't want but are helpless to stop, for instance, is a relatable strife for kids regardless of gender, and when Margaret looks out her bedroom window at her bustling New York neighborhood, Craig makes us feel what a loss this will be.

The story also transcends mere health class manual utility in its treatment of Margaret's religious explorations. Her gentle, personal, terror-free, open-hearted conversations with God--as in Whoever is Listening--are in healthy contrast to the stress and guilt and family conflict she experiences in connection with organized religion. The movie makes a case for a secular upbringing, even for theists.

Monday, April 24, 2023

R.I.P., R.P.

In the late '70s, when I was in high school, I saw a production of Kennedy's Children at the Penn State/Behrend theatre. After the show the playwright, a hippie longhair type in bib overalls named Robert Patrick...

...gave a Q&A about life in New York's Off-Off-Broadway Theatre scene, of which he was a co-founder; he wrote prolifically for Caffe Cino and LaMama and other celebrated venues of the period. Kennedy's Children was his most famous play, premiering in London before opening on Broadway in 1975, where it won a Tony for star Shirley Knight.

I was already something of a theatre geek, but Patrick's talk made a big impression on me about the possibilities for doing theatre outside the mainstream, even though I didn't have the nerve to ask him a single question. A few years later, in the '80s, I was assistant director of another production of Kennedy's Children, and also appeared in it.

Decades after that, in mid-2021, I connected with Robert over Facebook. He was in his '80s and lived in L.A., in poverty, I think, but also in seemingly immense good cheer, still socializing, still walking and photographing his neighborhood, still performing with underground groups...

...and most certainly still writing. He seemed to devote himself mostly to pouring out poetry--witty, urbane, sophisticated, classically learned, allusive, ruefully romantic, gloriously rhymed poetry, posting large amounts of it almost every day. Sometimes he would post five or six poems at once, under the heading "Who Left the Poet On?"

The best of this stuff was, to me, stirringly beautiful, but as far as I know he never submitted it for publication, though I doubt I was the only person who urged him to. He was probably right that his style was too out of fashion for most bigtime rags these days, but I hoped that maybe his illustrious status as both a New York icon and a gay icon might persuade some of the big mags to make an exception and publish some poetry that was actually, you know, good.

In any case, I regularly commented and messaged Robert in the most effusive manner--quite sincerely, mind you; he may have been my favorite living American poet. And then, alas, yesterday I was jolted to learn that he was no longer a living American poet. He had a date for coffee with a friend, and when he didn't show the friend had the police do a welfare check on his apartment. They found that he had died in his sleep, at 85.

I'm more rattled by this passing than I would have expected. I realized that I had, for the last couple of years, nursed the daydream that I would stage Kennedy's Children or one of his other plays here in the Valley somewhere, and bring him out here to soak up some well-earned adulation. Like so many projects I think of, I wish I'd jumped on it a little sooner.

I can't claim that I really knew him, of course, but I spent a long time last night going through the many lengthy online chats I was lucky enough to have with him, discussing everything from the poetry of Catullus to the Oscars. I sent him a few of my own poems, about which he invariably gushed and even kindly posted a couple of them on his own page.

The Thursday before Easter I sent him a poem of mine called "A Prayer for Maundy Thursday," and on April 12 he wrote back to say that he read it ten times and found it "...more frightening with each reading. What a brave poem." I'm choosing to take that as praise; in any case the idea that Robert Patrick saw fit to read anything by me once, let alone ten times, is quite an If My 18 Year Old Self Could See Me Now sort of moment.

He then asked me if I had ever heard the story that Dante's neighbors called him "the man who's been to Hell." I replied that I hadn't heard that, and he asked "Do you think Milton's neighbors whispered about his trip to Eden?" This was his last message to me; I messaged that maybe Milton's neighbors thought that's why he was blind, but he never replied.

R.I.P., and peace and joy eternal on your own travels sir. Thank you for the encouragement, the example and all that abundant, exquisite verse.

Friday, April 21, 2023


Opening this weekend...

Evil Dead Rise--This fifth feature in the beloved horror series that began in 1981 moves most of the action out of the woods and into the city. An earthquake uncovers a copy of the "Book of the Dead" in the bowels of a decaying L.A. apartment building. Near the tome are a couple of vinyl records on which a priest has recorded the incantations necessary to invoke the evil spirits that re-animate dead bodies to torment the living. The kid who finds all this is an aspiring DJ, so he has turntables, so...

Through this laborious set-up, the lissome tattoo-artist single mother (Alyssa Sutherland) ends up possessed by a malevolent force. It's up to her guitar-tech sister (Lily Sullivan) to defend her nephew and two nieces. Gruesome mayhem ensues, hitting on the obligatory tropes of the series--grinning, leering, levitating corpses, oceanic amounts of gore, hurtling demonic POV, the repeated phrase "dead by dawn!"--as well as nods to Kubrick's The Shining and to Fargo.

I'm afraid I've run out of patience with this style of horror flick. Watching a woman's corpse terrorize and murder her children probably wouldn't be my idea of entertainment in any case, but here it's not only unpleasant but tedious. I've grown weary of films in which characters stand transfixed as something ghastly happens in front of them. After a while one begins to suspect that all the interminable gasping and whimpering and slowly backing away may not even really be about generating terror or heightening suspense, but rather about padding a thin script out to feature length.

Sam Raimi's original Evil Dead trilogy was not inconsequential cinema. The "shaky cam" techniques that Raimi and his cronies developed on those indies, out of economic necessity, were highly influential on the Coen Brothers and Barry Sonnenfeld and others. But beyond the realm of technical innovation, Raimi's movies, especially the marvelous Evil Dead II of 1987, had a low-tech vigor, a whimsical sense of macabre comedy and a guileless campfire-story gusto that, combined with the one-of-kind slapstick acting of star Bruce Campbell, made them classics.

Raimi and Campbell are listed as executive producers on Evil Dead Rise, but almost none of the twisted magic of their early work can be felt here. There's some elegance to the production design, and leading ladies Sutherland and Sullivan are stunning, Bukowski-style L.A. goddesses. There's a sweet line in which the youngest niece tells her aunt why she thinks she'll be a good mom someday. And the Hieronymus Bosch-like horror into which the demon's victims conglomerate themselves is a decent Raimi-ish idea, though the CGI renders it soulless.

I'm told that this film, directed by the Irish Lee Cronin, was originally slated to open on cable TV but got a theatrical release after test audiences took to it. So it may be that I've just aged out of this sort of thing, and the movie will truly please audiences. If so, even though it's not for me, I nonetheless find it cheering that people still want to scream in company.

Somewhere in Queens--Less than a month after opening the Phoenix Film Festival, Ray Romano's feature directorial debut opens theatrically here in the Valley. Romano, who co-wrote the script, also stars as Leo Russo, a bedraggled hangdog sad sack who works for his family's contracting business in the title borough. Leo isn't the favorite son, however. His father (Tony LoBianco) shows more respect to Leo's slick brother Frank (Sebastian Maniscalco). Maybe everybody loves Raymond, but nobody loves Leo.

Well, that's not true. His siblings and his wife Angela (Laurie Metcalf) love him well enough, but they don't take him seriously, or listen to him. A sultry widow (Jennifer Esposito) on a jobsite seems to take a shine to him, but he's not the adulterous type.  Leo does have a source of pride, however: his quiet son "Sticks" (Jacob Ward) is a high school basketball star. One night at a big game, Leo and Angela are surprised to learn that Sticks has a girlfriend (Sadie Stanley) they didn't know about. The same night, they learn that he may be good enough for a college scholarship.

Though it's often funny, a forlorn atmosphere hangs over the early scenes of this movie that had me bracing for some sort of wretched tragedy that would leave the characters standing around emergency rooms or something like that. But the story, though it stings, doesn't drag us through the mud; it takes off in unexpected and painful yet believable and sometimes exhilarating directions.

The feel for the setting is convincing, and so is the large cast. The ensemble scenes are well-executed, especially the girlfriend's debut at a big family dinner, where she both irks and impresses the relations with her nerviness. Romano plays Leo as a toned-down version of his stage and sitcom persona, cowed and slow-witted, and his tentative, apologetic boyishness is poignant, even when you can see how his family could find it irritating.

For a while it seems like the film is underutilizing the mighty Metcalf, but finally Angela gets her big moment. Romano lets her articulate the theme of the movie, admitting probably the most frequent emotion of the parenting experience: Fear.

Also opening this weekend, at Harkins Chandler Fashion 20 and Harkins Arrowhead, is Tom Huang's fine comedy-drama Dealing with Dad; it's slated to play at Harkins Shea and at the Mary D. Fisher Theatre in Sedona starting April 28. I reviewed it last year, after it made the rounds of several festivals including Phoenix Film Festival. It's very much worth checking out.

Monday, April 17, 2023


This past Saturday my pal Dave invited me to join him for my favorite play, Shakespeare's dreaded ["Scottish Play"]. I've acted in it twice, and seen many productions of it over the years, from scrappy regional theatre versions to a Broadway-bound tour with Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson at the Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore in 1988 (Cherry Jones played Lady MacDuff in that production, though I didn't know who she was then).

But I never saw a ["Scottish Play"] quite like the one Dave and I saw Saturday, at Spotlight Youth Theatre...

It's ["The Scottish Play"] performed by teenagers, so it's safe to say that it's uneven. The vaguely 20th-Century dress works well enough, although the use of guns instead of swords in the battle scenes is a poor choice. But overall the direction, by Jack Taylor, is straightforward and coherent; most admirably, Taylor resists the temptation, so common in modern productions, to overuse the Witches (though they're excellent).

In any case, for me, at some level, it seems like this show's dark, awful power always takes hold in the end. It's the all-time greatest dramatization of the terrifying truth that some wrongs can't be made right, and placing the weight of such crimes on the shoulders of performers this young and callow somehow adds to the horror.

The cast is full of spirited players, but the standout is Wardeh Hanna as Lady M. It wouldn't astound me to see her in, say, ten years, accepting an Emmy or something.

The show runs through Sunday, April 23.

Friday, April 14, 2023


Opening in theaters this weekend:

Renfield--The wild-eyed, insect-gobbling toady to the Vampire Prince became a horror icon in his own right more than ninety years ago, when the great Dwight Frye unleashed his unforgettable giggle in Universal's original Dracula. It's a little surprising that he hasn't been given his own movie vehicle sooner.

But while Nicholas Hoult, who plays the title role in this horror spoof from Universal, briefly gets to do a respectable imitation of Frye's deranged laugh (hrrrr, hrrrr, hrrrrrrr....), he otherwise plays R. M. Renfield without mania, as a modest, mild-mannered, good-hearted fellow. He's also an action hero; munching bugs gives him superhuman strength and martial arts skills and recuperative powers.

His decades of servitude have made him reflective as well; he's come to entertain the possibility that he might just be in a toxic relationship with his boss. He's started attending a support group for people in a similar boat, both to explore his own emotional needs and to scout for victims--the abusers that people at the meetings describe--to serve as food to his convalescing sanguinary master.

The film is set in modern-day New Orleans, where Renfield has brought the charred remains of Dracula after the duo's last tangle with fearless vampire killers. The Count isn't looking well, but he's still able to bully and shame his poor lackey into submission, and he's a little more menacingly intact every time we see him. Then when Renfield comes to the attention of both a local crime family and of a New Orleans cop (Awkwafina) with an angry grudge against the gangsters, he must decide whose priorities he will focus on, Drac's or his own.

Directed by Chris McKay from a script by Ryan Ridley and a story by Robert Kirkman, Renfield is very silly and often heavy-handed. It's extremely gory, but like this February's Cocaine Bear, the gore is played strictly for laughs and lacks any true shock; it's too insubstantial to pack much punch even as a gross-out. The satirical points about modern self-help culture and pop psychology are trenchant enough, but they've pretty much exhausted themselves before the film is half over.

That said, Renfield is colorful, fast-moving and full of comedic invention, and Hoult is charming and easy to root for. Awkwafina pushes pretty hard, as she has in almost all her movies except The Farewell, but she also gets across an honest fury and grief, and when she lets herself connect with Hoult she lightens up agreeably. Shohreh Agdashloo has a gleefully sinister glint in her eyes as the queen of the crime family, Ben Schwartz is properly loath-able as her imbecilic son, and the support group offers some fine character players.

The movie would carry a lot less weight, however, without its other Nick. Growling through a mouth full of pointy teeth, seething with grievance at his reduced circumstances and unable to maintain the air of grand menace he's trying for, Nicholas Cage offers probably the goofiest parody version of Drac since George Hamilton in Love at First Bite back in 1979. Unlike Hamilton's, however, Cage's Count isn't meant to be lovable. Cage sinks his fangs into the role, and taps a rich vein of malignant narcissism.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023


Opening today:

Air--Sneakers are no minor matter. The comfy footwear of choice for many of us--even those of us whose idea of exercise is a good brisk walk to the refrigerator--they seem like they should be apolitical. But almost nothing in the modern, mass-produced world is apolitical. The subject of sneakers is, alas, fraught with difficult social and economic and ethical issues, ranging from the circumstances of their production, to their pricing and the crimes to which it can give rise, to the environmental impact of their disposal.

So it was probably inevitable that sooner or later a movie would be devoted to the origin story of a famous brand of sneaker. It was less clear what director Ben Affleck and the other makers of Air, a chronicle of the beginnings of Nike's Air Jordan line, would want us to take away from their account.

The focus is on Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), who scouts endorsement talent for Nike's basketball division. This being the early '80s, Adidas is king in the basketball shoe world, and Nike is a distant, unhip third to Converse, so Sonny struggles to attract big name players, especially with the anemic budget that Nike founder Phil Knight (Affleck) has allotted him.

Thus Air becomes a sort of corporate-level Horatio Alger story. Sonny's battle is on two fronts: first to convince Knight and his colleagues to let him put all of his money on the 17-year-old Michael Jordan, who hasn't even played his first NBA game, and second to convince Jordan's magisterial mother Deloris (Viola Davis) that Nike is the best place for her Adidas-loving son.

Affleck has demonstrated several times over now that he is a director of skill and panache, but also of emotional maturity. I've always suspected that if it wasn't for the elaborate fashionable contempt in which Affleck is held by many for his celebrity, his films would be hailed as the work of an important, probably Oscar-winning, American director. The fact that Nike allowed the use of their logos and products onscreen, and that Michael Jordan himself reportedly approved of the project, suggested that Air was unlikely to be deeply critical, but I went in hoping that Affleck and screenwriter Alex Convery would bring some complexity and uncertainty to the subject.

Well, at one point a character observes that most of Nike's shoes are made in Asian factories; he admits that he should feel ambivalent about this, but doesn't. It may be that Convery and Affleck are using the candor in this line to speak for the movie. Air prefers to allude to the long-term benefits to young athletes to which Jordan's deal led. Similarly, while Affleck largely plays Knight for laughs as a frustrated gnomic buffoon, a would-be sage hilariously beset with anxieties, the movie is nonetheless at pains to point out Knight's massive philanthropy. Any human toll that put him in a position to be so generous is carefully steered around.

And by that point, as an audience member I had pretty much set aside my ambivalence too, because Air is irresistible, the most entertaining movie I've seen this year. Like Moneyball, it's a sports story about the triumphs of middle-aged guys working in offices--the only kind of sports success to which most of us can remotely relate. And while it isn't as good as Moneyball, it's still gripping, funny and unaccountably compelling.

As with Elizabeth Banks in the recent Cocaine Bear, Affleck leans hard into the '80s period, both in the gleefully deployed fashions and music and cultural references and in the style of the filmmaking itself. The cinematography of the great Robert Richardson captures something of the dirty-newsprint look of an '80s flick. But the real key to the film is Convery's juicy dialogue, and the lustiness with which these actors attack it.

Having revived Ford's image in Ford v Ferrari and blown the whistle on ADM in The Informant!, Damon gets to redeem yet another corporation here as the pudgy, surly, keen-minded Sonny Vaccaro; it's his best role in a long time. Chris Tucker brings an extra sweetness to his usual fast-talking routine as Sonny's glad-handing ally Howard White, Chris Messina amusingly spews his Mamet-esque invective as Jordan's agent David Falk, and Matthew Maher has a quiet eccentric charm as shoe designer Peter Moore. As Nike Marketing Director Rob Strasser, Jason Bateman hits his laugh lines well but also brings the role an unexpected melancholy.

Except in some video footage, Michael Jordan himself is a barely-glimpsed extra here; his presence is treated rather like that of Jesus in Ben-Hur. But his camp is represented by Viola Davis, whose commanding presence settles a hush over the movie's antic tone every time she speaks. She's magnificent.

Marlon Wayans also turns up as Glenn Levering, long enough to tell Sonny the story of his attendance at a particular historical event. It seems to have been included here mainly because it's such a great story, but when it renews Sonny's resolve in his campaign, the movie is in danger of reminding us that all this is about the freaking marketing of an expensive sneaker. Several times the movie notes that a shoe is just a shoe until somebody steps into it. But in some contexts, a shoe is just a shoe no matter who is wearing it.

Monday, April 3, 2023


Check out my review, online at Phoenix Magazine...

...of Arizona Theatre Company's current production of Steven Drukman's Pru Payne, at the Herberger Theater Center through April 16.