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?

Wednesday, May 17, 2023


Playing through Thursday, May 18 at Harkins Shea in Scottsdale:

Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting--Only once, in the nearly four years I lived in Washington, D.C., did I go to an NFL game. I was mostly indifferent to sports in general and to football in particular, but my girlfriend at the time was a rabid lifelong fan of the team there. It was the hardest ticket in town to get, so she was thrilled when she landed a pair somehow, during the 1991 season when they went on to win the Super Bowl.

What I remember is that when we walked in to the game on that very cold and cloudy November afternoon, a good-sized group of Native American protestors were drumming and chanting outside RFK Stadium. They were there, of course, in opposition to the team name and mascot.

I wish I could say that I had an epiphany that day, that it occurred to me that, whatever one might think about the use of native imagery by sports teams in general, this particular term was a shocking, bald-faced racial epithet on the level of, for the most obvious example, the N-word, and that its use was outrageous. I wish I could say that this led me to further consider whether the use of any such imagery and terminology, even when less obviously insulting, was appropriate for a sports team.

But I didn't. I accepted a flyer from one of the protestors, read it, and dismissed it (to myself) as an oversensitive reaction to an unimportant issue. I've since heard other people make the same argument: With all the problems facing Native American communities, sports mascots seemed like a trivial focus. This now strikes me as an evasion even if it was true, but this blunt, fed-up documentary makes the case that the matter may not be so trivial after all.

Directed by Aviva Kempner and Ben West, the film summarizes the history of the depiction of indigenous Americans in media. It's a potently painful and embarrassing spectacle of film and television clips and cartoons, including the nadir of the great Bugs Bunny, from 1960's "Horse Hare," when Bugs chillingly sings "One little, two little, three little..." as he shoots at Indians from a fort.

After providing this ugly material for context, Imagining the Indian settles into a discussion of the thousands of American sports teams, from pro to high school, that use stereotypical native names and logos and mascots. We see footage of aggrieved fans wailing at protestors that the intent is to honor, not to insult. We even see footage of the 45th President and his wife doing the tomahawk chop. And we're given a glimpse of the struggle, by native advocates, to persuade these organizations that they ought to change this imagery. There's particular focus on the tireless activism of Suzan Shown Harjo on this issue.

This activism has born fruit: After years of resistance, the Washington team retired its name in 2020, and redubbed itself the Washington Commanders in 2022. Cleveland's MLB team rebranded itself the Cleveland Guardians in 2022. Even some franchises that have not yet relented, like Kansas City's football team, have prohibited the wearing of face paint and feathered headdresses by fans at the games.

As with many documentaries of this sort, Imagining the Indian was preaching to the choir with me. Years ago, albeit too many years after my NFL game in D.C., I finally got it through my skull that it wasn't up to me to decide what other people find hurtful, and that a nostalgic attachment to a logo or a mascot, however genuinely non-racist and affectionate that attachment may be, wasn't worth callously ignoring other people's carefully and consistently and politely expressed offense.

But then, the day after I saw Imagining the Indian, I found myself watching on TV, for roughly the zillionth time, my favorite baseball movie, 1988's Major League, about Cleveland's team, and filled with references to "the Tribe" and the "Happy Hunting Ground" and balls flying "off the reservation" and many appearances by the grinning Sambo mug of Chief Wahoo. I realize that it's my own racial privilege that allows me to watch this stuff without pain, and I fully support the team's name change and the retirement of the Chief. But I'm afraid I can't give up Major League.

At least, right now I don't think I can. Check back with me in thirty years or so.

Friday, May 12, 2023


 Opening in theaters this weekend:

Book Club: The Next Chapter--"Best friend tough love."

Several times throughout this sequel to the 2018 comedy, one of the characters uses this phrase before offering a critique, usually not terribly tough, of one of the other three. In that spirit, I'm tempted to offer the returning quartet of leading ladies--Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton and Mary Steenburgen--some unsolicited movie critic tough love: cranking out this sort of girls-night-out fluff shouldn't be all they do in the valedictory stretch of their careers.

But I can't do it. These four women are all great stars, first-rate actors and classic screen beauties. In some cases they won their chops gradually--Bergen had a pretty rough start, for instance, but eventually developed killer comic timing--while others, like Keaton, seemed to find a one-of-a-kind persona early on. Each of them, however, has a splendid body of work to be proud of, and if now they want to make money doing relatively harmless, undemanding fare like this, they've earned the right.

That said, this one is really fluffy. But so what? There's a sense in which movies like this are critic-proof. As with 80 for Brady, another emeritus chick flick from earlier this year (also featuring Fonda), the stars here are such good company that the feeble plotting and rambling dialogue and platitudes about pursuing your dreams at any age become a shared smirk between them and the audience.

You may recall the line up, lifelong friends who stay in touch through a book club: Keaton's character, conveniently named Diane, is a reserved widow who defaults to finding reasons not to have adventures and has never scattered her husband's ashes. Fonda plays Vivian, a successful hotel magnate who has never married. Part One linked Vivian up with Arthur (Don Johnson) and Diane up with Mitchell (Andy Garcia).

Steenburgen plays Carol, a married chef; here her husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) has had a heart attack and she's policing his bacon intake. Bergen rounds out the quartet as Sharon, the long-divorced and still single retired federal judge.

Last time around the ladies were reading Fifty Shades of Grey, which rather embarrassingly stirred them up erotically. This time, after a long COVID lockdown, their selection is Paulo Coehlo's The Alchemist, which helps inspire them to go on a trip, a bachelorette party for Vivian, who has at last agreed to marry Arthur. So the four of them tour Italy; first Rome, then Venice, then Tuscany.

You can imagine the results, again directed by Bill Holderman from a script he co-wrote, again, with Erin Simms. The ladies cavort, from montage to montage, making low-hanging-fruit lewd jokes about classical sculptures, or trying on wedding dresses. They get robbed, and the case is handled without much urgency by a venerable and impressively unformed officer of the polizia (played by Seven Beauties himself, Giancarlo Giannini). They flirt with guys, although Sharon being the only fully unattached one, she's the only one that gets to fully cut loose in this way. And through it all, they drink wine. Lots and lots of wine.

Like many other directors, Holderman leans hard on the Italian locations, and the movie looks great. It sounds great, too; the soundtrack has Bette Midler singing "Mambo Italiano" and Italian-language versions of pop hits from The Monkees to Hall and Oates. And it's hard to completely dismiss any movie that features Hugh Quarshie singing "Gloria," in Italian, accompanied by Mary Steenburgen on the accordion.

Monday, May 8, 2023


Yesterday The Wife and I betook ourselves to Chase Field to see the Arizona Diamondbacks play the Washington Nationals. It was "Bark at the Park" day, so we saw many fabulous dogs...

...but it was also "Paint at the Park" day, so in our section, an area of tables and chairs beyond the outfield...

...each seat was supplied with an apron, a paper plate loaded with several blobs of acrylic paint, brushes and a small blank canvas...

So for the first time I can remember since finger-painting at the Church of the Covenant preschool when I was four, I tried to paint a picture.

This is what it was supposed to look like...

The moon as a baseball, sailing through the sky of a peaceful nighttime desertscape.

I love to look at paintings, and I'm a chronic doodler with pen or pencil--I can still knock out the frog from Ed Emberly's Drawing Book of Animals--but I was pretty sure that painting wouldn't be my medium. Still, I gave it the old college try, watching and listening carefully to the instructor a couple rows down as she did it right.

The Wife's finished product looks sharp and capable...

It's Louvre-worthy compared to my baseball/moon...

...which came out looking like a powdered jelly donut with two centipedes crawling over it.

Well at least I tried. And it was kind of fun. Truthfully, as bad as it is, it probably came out a smidge better than I thought it would.

Oh yeah, the game: The Diamondbacks led the Washington Nationals most of the afternoon, but some sloppy defensive play resulted in them blowing their lead, the game, and their chance at the first series sweep of the season. The final was 9-8; boo.

Thursday, May 4, 2023


Again and again I find myself sheepishly admitting that Star Trek, as in the original series, is my all-time favorite TV show. It's a little embarrassing to acknowledge that, north of sixty years old, I keep going back for comfort and refreshment to the corny sci-fi show that I loved as a kid.

Worse yet, for all the show's sophomoric heavy-handedness and cultural chauvinism and ludicrous science and inconsistently applied social values, I keep finding relevance, even prescience in it.

For instance, this past weekend I watched the third-season episode, scripted by the redoubtable Jerome Bixby (also author of the story that became the Twilight Zone favorite "It's a Good Life"), called "Day of the Dove..."

You may remember it: Both the Enterprise and a crew of Klingons arrive at a planet, lured there under false pretenses by a powerful incorporeal alien Entity. Through a variety of mind tricks and matter transmutation, the Entity gets the Federation crew and the Klingons trapped together aboard the Enterprise, which is hurtling out of control on course to leave the galaxy.

Onboard, the factions are allowed their own turf, armed with swords--Scotty admires "a Claymore..."

...and psychically aroused to furious hatred toward their adversaries and even toward each other. They soon discover that the conflict between them is self-renewing; their wounds heal miraculously and the Entity allows neither side complete victory.

As a kid, I always thought it was a pretty cool episode. It had plenty of action, including swordfights, and the coolest and most badass of all the original series Klingons, Kang, played by the rumbly-voiced Michael Ansara...

...towering over Shatner...

It was also the only glimpse we ever got, in the original series, of Klingon women, notably Susan Howard as Kang's wife and science officer Mara...

In the course of the show Chekov, under the Entity's evil influence, attempts to violate Mara, although it looks like she could smack his little ass across the corridor with one hand.

Along with Chekov, Kirk, McCoy, Scotty and Uhura all get to work themselves up into highly entertaining angry lathers in this one. Shatner's in particularly hilarious, wound-up form here: "Look at me...Look. At. Me." And there's the great moment when the hysterical Scotty, responding to Spock's attempt to calm him, says "Keep your Vulcan hands off me," but it sounds like he said "Keep your f**kin' hands off me."

But watching it the other night, it occurred to me that this episode seems unusually relevant these days. I noticed this a few years ago about the second-season episode "The Omega Glory" as well. The theme, about the dangers of fetishizing and theocratizing America's foundational documents and other objects of patriotic regard like the flag, seems like a pedestrian, basic civics lesson. But it turns out that our society needs to be reminded of it regularly.

Similarly, with "Day of the Dove," the message might seem, at a glance, like the usual honorable but ineffectual Star Trek platitudes about the horrors of war and the bondage of bigotry and the liberating virtue of tolerance. But now, in light of the revelations from the Dominion lawsuit, it has a strikingly specific subtext. Because, of course, the reason the invading Entity is attempting to create this hellish eternal conflict on the Enterprise is that it feeds on violent hatreds, turning from yellowish-white to a happy shade of red...

...when it sucks up some delicious fury.

It creates false narratives in people's minds to stir up their bloodlust--Chekov claims his brother was killed by the Klingons; Sulu later explains that the brother is imaginary, as Chekov is an only child--and feeds both sides with propaganda to gin up enmity. Essentially, the Entity is a farmer, planting outrage so that it can harvest rage. 

In other words, the Entity is Fox News, and the "news" media machine of which Fox News is the most successful and egregious example. I mean, isn't it, kind of?

In this context, some of Bixby's lines take on an extra resonance, as when Kirk speculates "Has a war been staged for us, complete with weapons and ideology and patriotic drum beating? Even...Spock...even race hatred?"

Or, when Kirk says "It exists on the hate of others," and Spock replies "To put it simply. And it has acted as a catalyst, creating this situation in order to satisfy that need."

Or, again, Kirk's desperate appeal to Kang, in the climactic minutes: "...and it goes on, the good old game of war, pawn against pawn! Stopping the bad guys. While somewhere, something sits back, and laughs, and starts it all over again."

In the end, Kang is persuaded, a truce is ordered, and the weakened Entity is chased off the Enterprise to hearty laughter from both sides...

Kang slaps Kirk on the back and for a second it looks like Kirk is going to pass out. A lovely moment; I would highly recommend it for our nation right now. But as the Entity goes flittering off the ship into space, it's all too easy to imagine it scurrying down to some TV "News" Network on some unsuspecting planet.

Monday, May 1, 2023


This past Friday Your Humble Narrator had the pleasure to moderate a Q&A with writer-director Tom Huang...

...after a Phoenix Film Festival-sponsored showing of his film Dealing with Dad at Harkins Shea in Scottsdale. It was a small crowd, but they were attentive, and asked intelligent questions. The film plays through May 4 at Shea and from May 12 to May 17 at the Mary D. Fisher Theatre in Sedona. Recommended.

We also tried to take a picture in front of the poster for his flick, but all we got was poster.