Saturday, March 17, 2018


          From the director of Pan's Labyrinth comes this Oscar-winning film about the Creature From the Black Lagoon in a love story.
          We've already seen a similar character in Guillermo del Toro's excellent Hellboy (2004): Abe Sapiens is a gill-man residing in a secret underground facility and capable of eloquent speech. This story, set in 1962, features a less-refined amphibian man freshly plucked from the Amazon (where the natives worshiped him like a god) and now contained at an Area 51-like base.
          The strangest thing about this secret place is the ebb and flow of cleaning ladies. One of them, Elisa (Hawkins), who happens to be mute, identifies with the shy, speechless captive. She alone is able to appreciate his humanity, as he in turn sees her. When Elisa learns of the fate in store for the amphibian man, she resolves to save him.
          In key respects The Shape of Water resembles Pan's Labyrinth (2006). The fantastic character (in both cases played by Doug Jones) communicates with an ingenue plagued by a militaristic antagonist. Problem is, Pan's Labyrinth is the better film. 
          Chief among this movie's detractions are certain impossibilities which simply distract, and the annoyance of watching characters make hate-worthy mistakes. Remaining vague to preserve the experience, suffice to say that tap water can't possibly fill a bathroom in the manner here shown. No way, no how. And the water wouldn't just disappear. The damage to the structure would be insurmountable. 
          We're happy to accept the idea of an amphibian man, but verisimilitude must be maintained within that framework. At one point, the commander of the secret base, Strickland (Shannon, terrifically cast), bursts into a house and starts yelling at a man's wife while the man sits helplessly and watches TV. All this does is inspire anger toward the filmmaking for such startling impossibility. 
          Slightly worse: forcing words into the mouth of a character. Stickland's explanation for the cheap green candies he eats comes out of nowhere purely to equate the candy with the 1954 B-movie favorite. 
          In another overcooked bit of fishiness, Strickland suffers a gangrenous wound after trying to torture the creature, and even though people can see and smell the life-threatening health issue, the commander is allowed to just walk around while rotting in order for us to see he's not only metaphorically but also literally rotten. This idea works with hillbillies and lepers, not base commanders. 
          In spite of the downsides it's a fun movie, well worth watching. Yet whereas Pan's Labyrinth feels legitimately artful and inventive, The Shape of Water seems more commercially-driven.

Starring Sally Hawkins,
Michael Shannon,
Richard Jenkins,
Octavia Spencer,
Doug Jones,
Michael Stuhlbarg
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Runtime 123 minutes
Rated R

Stewart Kirby writes for

Saturday, March 10, 2018


Strong performances and excellent photography highlight this interesting Western.
Set in 1892, Hostiles is the story of Captain Joe Blocker (Bale) tasked with escorting Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Studi), now riddled with cancer after seven years behind bars, from incarceration in New Mexico to his sacred homeland in Montana. 
Like the John Wayne character in John Ford's The Searchers (1956) whom Martin Scorsese calls a "poet of hate," Blocker blindly hates Indians. His mind seems unable to comprehend the bigger picture. He sees European invaders as victims of the indigenous invaded. To illustrate this comparison, the filmmakers include a shot of Blocker framed by a cabin doorway just as Ford does with Wayne.
To put us in the narrow mindset of the lead character, who would probably be entirely unlikable if he weren't played by the great actor Christian Bale, the filmmakers begin the story with dastardly Indians doing mean, terrible things. To preserve the experience, suffice to say a blonde woman is endangered. NO! But yes.
Meanwhile, back at the fort, Blocker resists his orders. Tries to, anyway. But Stephen Lang (the ripped gung-ho dude with the silver crew cut in Avatar) is just the actor with the proper mental attitude to put Blocker in his place and see that Chief Yellow Hawk plus a few family members get safely escorted back to the Valley of the Bears.
What detracts from the film is its slow pace and the scant attention given to the Indian point of view.
Lots of whispery, emotional dialogue between Blocker and a couple buddies isn't by itself much of a movie. It's hard to like Blocker because it seems like half the time he's about ready to cry wistfully recalling something corny, and then the rest of the time hating Indians. But a few skirmishes here and there help maintain interest. 
Along the way Blocker meets the aforementioned blonde woman (Pike). The filmmakers take a page from The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and have her act all crazied-out with shock at first. Her trauma is mirrored by one of Blocker's buddies who's killed many men and feels bad about feeling nothing.
Also along the way Blocker takes a shady guy in chains he's required to escort--played by Ben Foster, who starred with Bale in the Western re-make 3:10 to Yuma (2007). So between him on the inside of the escorted group and various other belligerents--including pointy-headed fur trappers--on the outside, in theory at least there's plenty of conflict. 
As Yellow Hawk, Wes Studi exudes noble stoicism and the camera loves the lines of his face, but the comparatively few lines he's given are not in keeping with the promise of the poster wherein he is prominently figured. 
Shortcomings aside, Hostiles showcases yet another incredible performance by Bale. He's certainly the Robert De Niro of his generation, always investing himself in every role to an astounding degree. Like Wes Studi's Magua in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Blocker is obsessed with hate. But unlike Magua, he doesn't have a real reason.

Starring Christian Bale,
Wes Studi,
Rosamund Pike,
Bill Camp,
Adam Beach,
Tanaya Beatty,
Q'orianka Kilcher,
Ben Foster,
Stephen Lang
Written and directed by Scott Cooper
Runtime 134 minutes
Rated R

Stewart Kirby writes for

Monday, March 5, 2018


The best Bond wasn't first. Before Sean Connery--indeed, a decade prior to Goldfinger--the manager of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980), American actor Barry Nelson, played the world's most famous secret agent in a 1954 episode of the titillatingly titled Climax Mystery Theater.
It went nowhere.
Then, eight years later, there appeared unto humanity the first James Bond feature film, Dr. No (1962), starring the guy from Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959). That, also, went nowhere.
Even so, the producers, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, remained undaunted. They improved on the first excellent spy action adventure eighteen months later with From Russia, With Love (1964). Later that same year, the filmmakers poured the budget of the first two movies combined into the seminal Agent 007 classic.
Like Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan, James Bond is an instantly recognizable and totally fictitious literary character known around the world. Yet whereas the creator of Holmes literally believed in magical fairies and the creator of Tarzan spent precious little time traipsing around African jungles, Ian Fleming did serve in WWII as an actual British Naval Intelligence spy.
Goldfinger is the first movie to show a laser, also the first Bond movie to show the spy gadget testing facility--featuring memorable exchanges between 007 and Q, who takes ejector seats very seriously and never jokes about his work. A box office first as well, it set records around the world.
Originally Orson Welles was considered for the role of the title character, but the part went instead to German actor Gert Frobe--who risked his life to save Jews during WWII, incidentally. (Welles did eventually play a Bond baddie in the 1967 parody film Casino Royale, with David Niven as Bond and Woody Allen as his nephew.) Because Frobe barely spoke English, the voice we hear for almost every line is dubbed by actor Michael Collins.
Whereas the first two films were directed by Terrence Young, Guy Hamilton's approach differs in several respects, not least of which being deft touches of humor. A fake seagull mounted on a helmet with a snorkel attached gets a laugh and is quickly discarded, but it sets the stage for outrageousness to follow, including peeling off a ninja-like full-body swimsuit to reveal suave evening attire.
Hamilton went on to direct three more Bond features: Diamonds are Forever (1971), with Connery, and Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) with Roger Moore.
Wrestler Harold Sakata plays Auric Goldfinger's unforgettable bodyguard, a squat mute called Oddjob who throws his steel-rimmed bowler hat with deadly accuracy and merely smiles when a bar of gold chucked at his chest bounces off.
Goldfinger's insidious plan is to take over the gold supply of Fort Knox, and do it with Pussy Galore. Unequaled in film's annals as a name, Pussy Galore may seem a stretch, but this didn't stop Honor Blackman from getting into her character.
Featuring an Aston Martin with spikes emerging from the wheels inspired by the bad guy's chariot in Ben-Hur (1959), moments of noir-ish mystery, and a soundtrack that outsold the Beatles, Goldfinger isn't just the iconic Bond film, it's one of the greatest movies ever made.

Stewart Kirby writes for
The Independent
Two Rivers Tribune

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


          Celebrating 45 years of horror's compelling box-office blockbuster.
          Adapted by William Peter Blatty from his 1971 novel, The Exorcist (which Blatty also produced) is a tale of demonic possession loosely based on the supposedly true story of a boy possessed in 1949.
          Ellen Burstyn plays Chris MacNeil, a famous actress renting a Federalist-style house in Georgetown while making a film. Her daughter Regan (Blair), is a perfectly normal, healthy 12 year-old girl--until gradually, inexplicably, she behaves increasingly strangely. So strangely, Chris takes Regan to a doctor.
          Meanwhile, a Jesuit priest named Damien Karras (Miller) is suffering a crisis of faith. The guilt-ridden son of an ailing mother, Father Karras is continually confronted by the dark side of humanity. Eventually, when the medical world can't do anything to help Regan, Chris asks Father Karras for help.
          In a special feature of the Extended Director's Cut of The Exorcist, William Friedkin reveals that the opening scene set in Northern Iraq was filmed in Mosul at an actual archeological dig. The scene is important because it establishes the mythology behind the film. "Out of this ancient land," says Friedkin, "a priest/archeologist gets a premonition."
          As Father Merrin, Max von Sydow (the knight who plays chess with Death in The Seventh Seal) seems venerable and vulnerable, frail with a heart condition, but incredibly the actor was only 43 or 44 when filming.
          The demon which possesses Regan is called Pazuzu. A Mesopotamian deity, Pazuzu was the king of the demons of the wind and brother of Humbaba. The voice of Pazuzu comes from Mercedes McCambridge, whom Orson Welles praised as radio's greatest actress.
          Boasting a Ouija board, green slime, and an invisible buddy named Captain Howdy, The Exorcist excels at planting subtle cinematic seeds which reach full fruition in a confrontation between good and evil.
          Little-known fact: Before penning the novel, Blatty--who died just last year--co-wrote with Blake Edwards the screenplay for the first Inspector Clouseau movie, A Shot in the Dark (1964).
          Following in the steps of Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Exorcist features Old-Time devilry in a modern urban setting, yet differs in that it focuses also on the special effects required to demonstrate the murderous demon possessing the innocent child.
          One of the highest-grossing films ever, it is the first horror movie to get nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
          The film spawned four sequels and a TV series currently in its third season.

Starring Ellen Burstyn,
Linda Blair,
Max von Sydow,
Jason Miller,
Lee J. Cobb,
Jack MacGowran
Directed by William Friedkin
Written by William Peter Blatty
Runtime 122 minutes
Rated R


          Because we like to see the under-represented and the never-repesented finally get represented, Black Panther scores yet another big Marvel success.
          Chadwick Boseman stars as T'Challa, King of Wakanda. See now, in the Marvel Universe, Wakanda is an African country where thousands of years ago a meteor landed containing the mightiest of all metals, Vibranium. So powerful, so rare, so weird, it's the all-purpose explanation for anything superhero-ish Marvel wants--including Captain America's shield.
          With Vibranium, Wakanda became high-tech long ago. So high-tech, Wakanda looks like Metropolis hidden by an invisibility cloak. Magnetic monorails zip around underground and talking holograms pop up in one's palm.
          To protect all this, T'Challa assumes the duty of all Wakandan kings by ingesting a special herbal medicine which gives him superpowers, and by wearing a Vibranium-threaded suit which gives him even more superpowers.
          The suit absorbs kinetic energy...then releases it back like a karma cardigan!
          When a wrongdoer named Ulysses Klaue (Serkis) does the wrong of stealing a quarter-ton of Vibranium, for the Black Panther, this time it's personal. And increasingly personal when T'Challa learns the identity of Klaue's associate, Erik (Jordan--whom Black Panther director Ryan Coogler directed in the Sylvester Stallone film Creed).
          High-tech tribal being an easier sell in stories set long ago in faraway galaxies, Black Panther entertains sometimes in spite of shiny special effects. There is visual appeal in seeing women win big fights onscreen because we still see it fairly rarely. Also appealing is Boseman's nobility as king. Ditto Andy Serkis (hard to believe he plays Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) as a bad guy without CG. And Letitia Wright, as T'Challa's sister, Shuri, steals every scene she's in.
          Less to the good, depending on one's aesthetic, Black Panther is neither as hip nor as funny as Guardians of the Galaxy or Deadpool. Like with a lot of other superheroes, we don't really know the character. Whereas Stephen Strange undergoes a dramatic character change, and Peter Parker has relatable problems, T'Challa is more one-dimensional.
          But hey, trained rhinos.

Starring Chadwick Boseman,
Michael B. Jordan,
Letitia Wright,
Lupita Nyong'o,
Danai Gurira,
Forest Whitaker,
Angela Bassett,
Andy Serkis,
Martin Freeman,
Florence Kasumba
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Written by Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Based on the Marvel Comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby
Runtime 134 minutes
Rated PG-13

Thursday, February 15, 2018


Celebrating twenty years of two Indians on a pilgrimage to Phoenix.
Born of fire and ash, Thomas (Adams) and Victor (Beach) are unlikely friends with differing views of Victor's dad, Arnold Joseph (Farmer). To Thomas he is the hero who saved him from a fire, but to Victor he is the drunk who abandoned the family. When the young men learn that the bigger-than-life figure has died, they scrape together enough money for a bus ride from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, to Arizona.
And in this framework, laughs galore!
Equal parts comedy and drama, Smoke Signals is a largely non-linear story where the past is always present. It's funny, wise, packed with interesting characters, and loaded with quotable lines: "I think there's something wrong when you don't see a guy's teeth," Victor observes to Thomas on the subject of John Wayne.
Based on Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Smoke Signals is a journey to understanding on multiple levels, mixing fact and fiction into a greater truth.
Victor and Thomas meet Suzie Song (Bedard), who had been Arnold Joseph's girlfriend, and from her we learn how proud Arnold was of his son--even more than she knew. As Victor says to Thomas, "You can't trust anybody." But sometimes in a good way.
The characters are as believable as they are eccentric. For example, Thomas in his nerdy glasses, hair in pigtails, looking like his mother's twin. And two women in a Chevy that runs only backwards who warn the young men to be careful because they're heading off the rez into a foreign country.
"But it's the United States."
"Damn right it is--that's as foreign as it gets!"
Gary Farmer stands out as the bear-like amateur magician who performs coin tricks for his boy, and good-naturedly muses on the trick of making white people vanish. In one scene, Arnold asks eleven year-old Victor who's his favorite Indian, and the boy replies, "Nobody"--a clear meta-reference to Nobody, Farmer's character in the 1995 film Dead Man.
Subsequent to Smoke Signals, Adam Beach starred in the Clint Eastwood movie Flags of Our Fathers (2006) as Ira Hayes, and appeared as Slipknot in Suicide Squad (2016). Dr. Evan Adams became a physician, and starred in a film written and directed by Sherman Alexie, The Business of Fancydancing (2002).
The 1998 Sundance Film Festival winner directed by Chris Eyre has the distinction of being the first one made by Native Canadians and Native Americans. Like the KREZ radio man says, "It's a great day to be indigenous."

Starring Adam Beach,
Evan Adams,
Gary Farmer,
Irene Bedard,
Tantoo Cardinal,
Elaine Miles,
Michael Greyeyes
Directed by Chris Eyre
Written by Sherman Alexie
Runtime 89 minutes
Rated PG-13

Stewart Kirby writes for

Wednesday, February 7, 2018


          Reflections on the disturbing Netflix series now in its fourth season.
          Featuring dystopian near-future stories emphasizing tech-dependence, "Black Mirror" at first blush plays like a contemporary version of "The Twilight Zone." 
          Created for British TV, the first episode aired Dec. 4, 2011, and the show continued on into 2014. In 2016, Netflix picked up the series. 
          As with "The Twilight Zone," some episodes are lighter in tone than the majority. However, "Black Mirror" is its own show, and differs from Rod Serling's creation significantly. For example, "The Twilight Zone" was the brainchild of a well-respected, much-honored writer looking to outsmart the censors with the protections afforded by speaking in the language of sci-fi and fantasy, whereas "Black Mirror" boasts no such background and faces no such censorship scrutiny. 
          In the first two episodes of the show, there is nothing of the TV classic's old school character or charm. "The Twilight Zone" is a just universe where bad things happen to bad people and the good are treated accordingly. The first episode of "Black Mirror," however, while well-written and excellently presented, seems specifically intended to anger and disgust. 
          Remaining deliberately vague to preserve the experience, suffice to say the Prime Minister of UK is terrorized with the execution of the nation's very popular princess unless he does something terrible--although it could have been really worse--on live TV. The second episode is also quite well done, even though the story seems, again, intended to disappoint. It is as though the dehumanizing problems of the 21st-century are too severe for stories concerning them to make folks feel great.
          So it comes down to an aesthetic. But certainly the writing for the anthology series is top-notch, as is the production value of the Netflix show which Netflix gives its highest rating. 
          From ETA Hoffmann's early sci-fi story "Automata" and Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, to the horrors in HG Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau and Stephen King's Cell, potential problems with technology prove great grist for the writerly mill, and often prophetically so. 
          The show has no clench-jawed, chain-smoking host with a penchant for alliterative lead-ins, nor the unforgettable theme music of Hollywood's greatest composer, but audiences will relate to the problems presented. Paying particular attention to detail and therefore verisimilitude, "Black Mirror" pulls the viewer into entertaining, thought-provoking tales reflecting our dark world.

Stewart Kirby writes for