Pop culture docs that pop

A pair of new documentaries — one about a famous disco club, one about an infamous/classic comic book flick — caught my eye and my fancy. They’re both worth checking out.

  •  “Studio 54″

In Matt Tyrnaue’s sparkly “Studio 54,” the supreme disco saturnalia of ‘70s New York is enshrined as a Felliniesque funhouse of fame, freaks and fortune, a shaken snow-globe of gilded sin and glittered celebrity: Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Michael Jackson, Liza Minnelli, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Cher, to name-drop a few pampered regulars.

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Though notorious for its ruthless, velvet-rope exclusivity, the cavernous club was a haven for LGBTs where sex, drugs and romp ’n’ roll played out among gyrating bodies and unrepentant theatrics: fog, snow and wind machines; glitter, confetti and balloon drops. For 33 publicity-pumped months, 54 was the hottest ticket in town, perhaps the world.

With input from club patrons and associates, and miles of bracing archival footage, Tyrnaue first makes a case for 54’s throbbing fabulousness — well-trod glitzstory — and how it sprang from disco’s post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, let’s-party zeitgeist.

Attention then pivots to 54’s founders, best friends from Brooklyn, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, regular guys who wanted to “change the universe, invent the world,” recalls Schrager. (Though Rubell died at 45 from complications of AIDS, in 1989, the doc is rife with vintage footage of the impish, devil-may-care co-founder.)

In this parable of excess, hubris and the perils of having a ball, antiheroes Schrager and Rubell play hard and fall hard, taking their precious property with them. “They thought they were so important that they could do anything,” says author Steven Gaines.

An arrest for selling alcohol without a liquor license leads to raids on the club, uncovering drug possession and skimmed cash. With legendary pit bull Roy Cohn as their lawyer, the duo pleads guilty to a gasping $2.5 million in tax evasion. They each get three and a half years in prison. They sell Studio 54 from the pen and, by aiding feds with other tax-evasion cases, reduce their sentences. 

Anatomizing the implosion of an empire, “Studio 54” lends enlightening texture to an oft-sensationalized cultural moment. “When I look back on it now, it was so preposterous,” says Schrager, today a successful hotelier. “What were we thinking?” 

Streaming on Netflix. Trailer here.

  • “Life After Flash”

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It’s hard to recall that before he was a fair-haired galactic god the character Flash Gordon, in 1980’s kitschy cult movie of the same name, was a star quarterback for the New York Jets. And that was the quasi-superhero’s so-called superpower that would save the world — his football-chucking athleticism. Odd, yet so righteously all-American. 

Exalted in Lisa Downs’ adoring doc “Life After Flash,” Flash (played by young, ripped ex-Marine Sam J. Jones) finds himself accidentally rocketed into space to a cornea-curdling cuckoo land of soaring hawkmen, green-faced midgets and the estimable Max von Sydow bedecked in flummoxing Fu Manchu facial hair and a flowing red silk cloak.

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This is the planet Mongo and von Sydow, clinging to his dignity, is nefarious, wizardly Emperor Ming the Merciless. You either accept this or stroll over to “The Goonies” booth.

A film-nerd’s dream, the doc embraces, nay, bearhugs, Flash and his jut-jawed mythology, enlisting a galaxy of voices — Stan Lee, director Robert Rodriguez and a passel of genre performers — to lionize the film in a richly informative orgy of nostalgia. (Natch, most of the interviews happen at Comic Con and similar geekoid jamborees.) The movie’s actors and director Mike Hodges delightfully chime in.

Bluff but affable, blocky and bulked-out as if made of Legos, Jones, 64, is the cynosure of the doc, except when he’s not. His life is mildly interesting: Hollywood, surprise, proved a rocky road, and his personal travails are par for the course.

But it’s the backstage drama of making “Flash Gordon” that grips. From legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis’ run-ins with Jones and the pre-CGI effects out of an Atari game gone berserk; to Queen’s gloriously operatic theme song, which co-star Topol calls “the best thing in the movie,” and the running squabble about the film as a straight-faced epic or comic-book send-up.

In this classic pop-culture resurrection narrative — as middle-aged fans crave a nostalgia fix, Jones is cool again — there is good news. Jones lands a self-parodying role in the hit Seth McFarland comedies “Ted” and “Ted 2” and revels in signing autographs and posing for selfies — no Flash in the pan. “Did I ever want to step away from being the image of Flash Gordon?” Jones asks. This rollicking portrait provides the answer: not in a million light years.

On iTunes, Google Play and Hulu; on Blu-ray and DVD on March 26. Trailer here.

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Sam J. Jones — Flash himself — today at a nerd convention with a hirsute hawkman.

Defending the unsung thrill of ‘Miami Vice’

It came on TV, caught my eye, and had me entranced all over again. 

Michael Mann’s virtuoso 2006 crime drama “Miami Vice,” streaming on Netflix, will hook you hard — that is, if you connect with the under-appreciated film. I do — I gave it four stars in my original review in a large daily newspaper — and I stand by it, despite a host of haters who can’t see masterly filmmaking for Colin Farrell’s facial stubble.

So I come to defend “Miami Vice.” Major publications — Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, The Boston Globe, Variety — praised the film, with New York Times critic Manohla Dargis calling it “glorious entertainment” and extolling its cutting-edge digital camerawork. Still, unaccountably, the movie holds only a 45% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Insanity.

At the end of 2009, the critics of Time Out New York chose “Miami Vice” as #35 of the 50 best films of the decade. That’s great, but I would place it higher than that. 

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It’s now something of a cult film, especially among younger critics and filmmakers. Harmony Korine notes how much it influenced his riotously outré “Spring Breakers.” One critic wisely said the film is a visual meditation on “failure and futility” and — I love this — “one of the most expensive art films ever made.”

Another critic, perhaps more to the point, wrote that the movie “has just laid the foundations for a new order of action films.” Indeed. 

This is my rave review from July 2006, a rebuke to the benighted:

Awash in the blacks and blues of a fresh bruise, Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” plays hard and mean to thrilling, often harrowing effect. Mann, who was an executive producer of the influential 1980s television series on which the movie is ever-so-loosely based, obliterates the glib sunshine and pastel glamour of the show to forge a dark, frighteningly real universe of undercover law enforcement and globalized crime. 

It delivers what no other movie this summer has or likely will: the pure pleasure of watching an intricate, perfectly calibrated machine kick, shoot and crank with dazzling power and efficiency.

That might sound heady for a movie called “Miami Vice,” a title that instantly evokes Reagan-era gilt and South Beach deco. Don Johnson in a white linen blazer/pink T-shirt ensemble and an equally suave Philip Michael Thomas amid a backdrop of neon, glass bricks and palm trees — those soft-rock memories should be dispensed with. Instead, brace for an unflinching contemporary crime drama that makes no concessions to pop nostalgia or mocking remakes such as the no-brow “Starsky and Hutch.”

People forget that TV’s “Miami Vice” was more than its stylish, trend-making veneer, but a crack cop drama presenting sophisticated criminal situations through intelligent, movie-worthy writing that delved deep into character and emotion. Mann takes that as his springboard for a surprisingly emotional character-driven thriller that takes itself so seriously, there’s hardly a smile in the two-hour-plus epic.

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While the plot is as rudimentary as a “Miami Vice” TV episode — vice cops Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) go undercover for the FBI to unravel a multi-tentacled, international drug ring — Mann laces it with the themes and macho philosophy he’s so obsessively explored in similarly expert crime pictures “Manhunter,” “Thief,” “Heat” and “Collateral.” 

His heroes are really antiheroes who dwell in the shadows of film noir, be it James Caan’s riven criminal in “Thief,” Tom Cruise’s solitary hitman in “Collateral” or a superb Farrell as an undercover agent who drifts dangerously over the line.

The complicated loner wavering between right and wrong — the blurring of human duality — fascinates Mann and has always been his subject. These men (Mann’s is a fiercely male-centric universe) are vessels for ideas and themes about choosing a way of life and pursuing it with as much iron-willed integrity the world will allow.

This is the loner’s existential struggle, which he carries out with a heavy heart and pensive mind. Working in either crime or law, he’s acutely aware of his mortality and life’s cruel vagaries. “Time is luck,” Farrell tells the woman (Gong Li) he falls in love with, as her life skids out. The same line is said in “Manhunter” — “Time is luck. I know the value of our days” — as well as “Heat,” when Robert De Niro’s career thief muses, “I know life is short, whatever time you get is luck.” (Sharp-eared Mann fans might also notice the reuse in “Vice” of the nicknames “sport,” from “Manhunter,” and “slick,” from “Heat.”)

Helicopters slash the skyline and power boats knife the ocean. High-tech surveillance gadgets crackle and heavy artillery blasts. Within the dizzying action and disorienting nation-hopping, a whip-fast Foxx and a brooding Farrell, who smolders with long, Johnsonesque hair and unchecked stubble, stand sturdy.

The actors’ chemistry is sufficient and both men cut intense, sympathetic figures, whether they are taking down scum — the movie crawls with furry creeps and bald thugs — or making passionate love to their women. Mann’s lingering depictions of sex are the epitome of adult intimacy rarely seen in a Hollywood film.

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There’s not a dud in the superlative cast: Li’s flinty fatale, Naomie Harris as Foxx’s cop girlfriend, John Ortiz as the drug middleman and Luis Tosar as the drug kingpin. Mann’s dialogue, funny and profane, has a hard, urban pop, and the soundtrack ripples with interesting choices, from spare electric guitar and moody synthesizers to songs by Moby and Audioslave.

How “Miami Vice” is put together is as compelling as the story and characters. A notorious perfectionist, Mann demands technical verisimilitude, nailing the intricacies of how criminals and cops think and operate, down to their clothes, words and twitches.

He and cinematographer Dion Beebe return to the handheld high-definition video they used in “Collateral,” bringing a grainy, documentary vibe to the action that’s unnerving. It’s non-style taken to high style, soaked in ocean blues and inky nocturnal blacks. There’s not a wasted shot.

Since 1995’s “Heat,” Mann has been our greatest living action-crime director, edging ahead of past giants Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin and John Frankenheimer. The technical bravura and artistic depth Mann brings to his films staggers. He respects his craft and his audience. “I ain’t playin’!” blurts a character in “Vice.” Neither is Mann.

A few things revving me up

I’m having a tricky time getting jazzed about too much lately — only Socrates rivals my sage discernment and penetrating taste — yet I am alive, blood sluices through my veins. Some things I’m digging:

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Richard Serra sculptures at Dia: Beacon, New York

Caustically hilarious British TV series “Fleabag”; Sigrid Nunez’s quietly affecting novel “The Friend”; the reliably stirring Dia: Beacon museum, so serenely cluttered with minimalist and sculptural masterworks; poetic Polish romance (and Oscar nominee) “Cold War”; and Weezer’s “Teal Album,” featuring frighteningly faithful covers of Toto’s “Africa” to Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” It’s a gas.

Mostly this entry is a sequel to my December year-end inventory of now-time enthusiasms, stuff getting my juices flowing. These are the current tops:

  • Jade Bird

Strumming an acoustic guitar, her long hair swinging, she sings in a hushed girlish voice before belting like a banshee, loosing a squall of blazing catharsis. She has pipes that purr, then roar, then come back. You sway to twangy folk, then rock with giddy fury. 

Intimate and Velcro-sticky, Bird’s music, performed acoustically or with a small band, circles Americana, punk and soulful indie pop. Country fans are drawn by her evocations of rocky, star-crossed relationships, and there’s country crunch in those folk-rock vocals. Her galloping cover of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” is a jam-session joy.

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In this 21-year-old Brit, the Dixie Chicks are at their fiercest, alongside a banging Liz Phair, Courtney Barnett, PJ Harvey and other steely indie royalty. Bird’s lyrics pop and sear. In the unreasonably rousing “I Get No Joy,” Bird sings with such speedy agility, she’s almost rapping:

“Psychotic, hypnotic, erotic, which box is your thing?/How many days a week, do you feel/Electric, connected, unexpectedly/Affected, what do you need?”

It’s a kind of sublime whiplash.

(Watch her HERE.)


  • “Capernaum”

His hair is a fluffy fiasco, a brown brushfire, his splotched face the seasoned mug of a gang member. He’s filthy and swears like a sailor. He’s homeless. He’s 12. 

In Nadine Labaki’s Beirut-set stunner, a nominee for the best foreign language Oscar, the boy, Zain, is a resourceful renegade in the scrappy mold of Huck Finn and Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows.” Fed up with his struggling parents and their feckless care of their many children, Zain takes them to court, accusing them of the crime of giving him life. It’s a preposterous idea, a satirical glance at the Lebanese judicial system.

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Zain (the extraordinary Zain al Rafeea) fast becomes a tough street urchin who finds a gig babysitting the gurgling infant of an illegal Ethiopian refugee, played by Yordanos Shiferaw. (The film’s devastating cast of non-professionals play versions of themselves.) When the young mother is arrested, Zain is stuck taking care of the baby on his own. In this harrowing situation — the movie is a tart indictment of Beirut’s corrupt state of child welfare — the fathomless despair can be unbearable to watch.

“Capernaum” — the title means “chaos” — owes much to the children-centric neorealism of ‘80s and ‘90s Iranian cinema, from “The White Balloon” to “The Color of Paradise” — heart-renders told in raw, wrenching lyricism that aren’t without political undercurrents. It’s a street tale alive with miscreants and thieves and few kind gestures. It’s so gritty and grubby the camera lens almost seems smudged. Redemption, however, is in the air.

(Trailer HERE.)


  •  “Asymmetry”

Beautifully written, radiantly spun and shot through with smashing intelligence, Lisa Halliday’s first novel “Asymmetry” bristles with humanity as it mingles conventional and unorthodox structures. It’s a literary feat kneading the fictional form like Play-Doh.

I’m only a third of the way through its brisk 271 pages, but I’m sold. (Being part-way in a book you’re relishing is where you want to be; there’s more on the way to savor.)

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The novel is chopped into three sections. I finished the first section, “Folly,” which traces the May-December romance between Alice, a 25-year-old aspiring writer, and Ezra Blazer, a famous author 40 years her senior. (If he rather resembles Philip Roth, it’s not chance: Halliday had a relationship with Roth while in her twenties.)

And so we get an old-fashioned affair of unpushy comedy and sweet asides set amidst Upper West Side means, with tender banter and the not uncomplicated theme of apprenticeship, much like a Woody Allen movie, without the deep-dish neuroses.

Alice has career issues, Ezra has health issues, and brewing in the background is the launch of the Iraq War. (The war plays a prominent role in the next section, “Madness.”) In this, one of The New York Times’ 10 best books of 2018 (and a favorite of Barack Obama), Halliday doesn’t flinch from the vagaries of love, including the sort, like Woody’s, peppered with literary chatter and throbbing with aching uncertainty.

The dialogue is unfailingly smart, wry, just right. Alice and Ezra conduct short, gem-cut conversations that bring a knowing grin:

“Is this relationship a little bit heartbreaking?” he said.

The glare off the harbor hurt her eyes. “I don’t think so. Maybe around the edges.”


  • “United Skates” 

In urban roller rinks across the country thousands of African-American roller-skaters are lacing up and getting down. Beneath rays of twirling disco balls an underground roller renaissance thrives among a force of skate buffs who throw after-dark rink parties and commit kinetic art on waxed wood floors: backflips and break-dances, tag-team acrobatics, backwards trains and other daredevilry. Many revelers simply trace ovoid loops in a kind of roller-boogie bliss.

With new and archival footage, much of it contagiously groovy, “United Skates” directors Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown chronicle the hip-hop-fueled scene with at once bracing and brooding electricity. They hopscotch the nation — Los Angeles to Baltimore — and capture the community-building soul of skating as well as the heartrending gentrification that’s swiftly shutting down classic rinks, dinosaurs of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Few will survive.

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Next to dwindling skate spaces, the film locates other troubles: the apparent profiling of black skaters at certain rinks that ban rap and the skinny wheels many black skaters prefer. When skaters organize “adult nights” — “Code for ‘black night,’” says one — police fill the parking lots and security is thick. No such hysterics are apparent on a typical “white” night. It’s a familiar microcosm of current race relations.

Yet the party rolls on. The subculture retains a die-hard exuberance not easily snuffed. The film’s final scenes are far from elegiac; against all odds they are tonically celebratory.

(Starting Feb. 18 on HBOTrailer HERE.)

She’s depraved, debauched, despicable — and so lovable

One of the piquant pleasures of the British TV comedy series “Fleabag” is how its protagonist, played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, insistently pokes through the fourth wall with the impish gall and smug impetuosity of a naughty little girl. She winks, crinkles her nose, smirks, grimaces, makes snide comments, all of it right at the camera, meaning right at us.  

She wants us to be a part of her latest escapade, her latest squirmy moment, lest this young woman has to go it alone in her flailing, full-frontally narcissistic existence. As she says in the first episode, she has “a horrible feeling” she’s “a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”

Well. Now. Really. She’s not that bad. How could we love her so much, empathize with her so fully, if she was such a steaming heap of debasement? Even her self-anointed sobriquet, Fleabag, is more fitting for a scuzzy homeless tramp than the bitingly charming London cafe owner she is.

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Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), breaking the fourth wall with an uneasy reaction to the audience

Season one of Fleabag,” which premiered in 2016, is streaming on Amazon, with season two on the way. From online posts, viewers either adore or abhor Waller-Bridge’s character, which she created from her play of the same name. (Waller-Bridge stars in and writes all of the TV episodes.) “Hate the protagonist … She has no redeeming qualities and is totally unlikeable,” someone groused, and that’s enough of that.

So she’s divisive. Aren’t some of the most interesting women multifaceted? Don’t they chafe while they charm, pepper smarm with snark, own a bit of Mother Teresa mixed with, say, Sarah Silverman? “Fleabag may seem oversexed, emotionally unfiltered and self-obsessed, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” say notes from the “Fleabag” play.

With her floppy pageboy fit for a ’30s Hollywood starlet, natty outfits and Skittles-red lipstick, our anti-heroine exudes a glamor incongruous to her unsavory descriptives. Though she’s too surly to be screwball, she often recalls the great comedians of yore with kaleidoscopic facial expressions that match her shifting moods. Waller-Bridge plays light and dark with equal dexterity. She is a scintillating performer.

Fleabag has been called “an angry, confused young woman attempting to navigate life in London,” which is about right. Yet you can’t ignore her Olympian sex life, a tragicomic pastime that ends as these things do, with a droplet of satisfaction and a river of rue. 

With a rich, unsmiling sister, a fun, like-minded bestie and a mostly off-again boyfriend, Fleabag, who’s on the cusp of 30, is still working things out. She’s painted as a classic self-absorbed millennial, playing the field and playing out with scant regard for the collateral damage. Ever-so slowly we watch her crumble, perhaps implode. The show slyly builds to a dramatic pitch that’s truly poignant and confirms that there is little superficial about it.

“Fleabag” is TV’s best comedy, better than my other tops: the cinematic if shrilly hyperactive “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” the near-perfect “Catastrophe,” the wry, wondrous “SMILF” and madly inventive “Atlanta.” (“High Maintenance” — you’ve slipped.) 

Super news: Waller-Bridge is bringing the stage version of “Fleabag” to the SoHo Playhouse in New York City for five weeks, Feb. 28 through April 7. Waller-Bridge wrote and stars, and I have a ticket.

As a one-woman show, she’ll be addressing the audience face-to-face, the fourth wall totally disassembled, the rubble kicked to the side. It should be tartly hilarious, cheeky and racy, and fantastically uncomfortable — just like the staggering series. 

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McConaughey, the mensch

Meeting celebrities is easy. Interviewing them is a breeze. They are generally polished to a professional sheen. They know how to play the game, which is patently transactional. Some are harder than others (I’m squinting at you, Paul Thomas Anderson). Matthew McConaughey? He’s a cinch.

A good ol’ boy from East Texas, with a boingy twang, squinchy blue eyes, and bounding with bonhomie, McConaughey is much like what he seems: a smart, friendly dude you might want to shoot a shot with. He’s a charismatic lava lamp, alive and aglow.

To a journalist like me in 1998 — young, a smidge green — he was the most caring, amicable guy around. I was having a face-to-face interview with the actor in a Beverly Hills hotel room during a junket for “The Newton Boys,” Richard Linkater’s ill-fated western-comedy. A Texas guy, McConaughey was fascinated that I’d recently relocated from California to Austin for a newspaper job as a film critic. 

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He seemed genuinely interested, and we talked all things Austin and Texas, acting and movies. And from the room balcony he pointed out the groovy ‘70s-style van in the parking lot that he was driving cross-country for the hell of it. He was 27. We bonded enough that he’d remember me for years afterward. 

Like when he was walking the red carpet at the premiere of his 1999 comedy “Edtv” and he spotted me, grabbed my hand, pulled me aside and asked me how I was enjoying my new Texas hometown. He was sincere and serious, with laser eye-contact, shutting out the bustle around him. Then he smiled wide, cheeks caving into dimples, before moving on down the line. 

He didn’t have to do that. He could have said hi, answered my softball questions and walked on. But he was cool, concerned, a gentleman. He had class. 

Months later, when I ran into him at a Wendy’s on the University of Texas campus before a rare screening of Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 “Some Came Running,” McConaughey seemed a little out of his element, a tad awkward, though he still made a point of making me feel welcome and an equal. He spoke in a hushed drawl. He barely smiled. He kept things low-key. I introduced him to my girlfriend. He bought a large Coke. He sat in the middle row, we sat in the back.

The relationship between journalist and subject/source is a dicey one. They are rarely seamless. There’s a give and take, a perilous reciprocity that often leaves one party feeling burned. And so there’s this:

McConaughey was working the red carpet for the local premiere of Kevin Costner’s 1999 baseball melodrama “For the Love of the Game” at UT. He was beaming, strutting out of a black limo, in all white and all alone.  

He isn’t in the movie, he was just a celeb guest at the gala. And he was chomping a hunk of gum like cud. He approached me affably, answered two questions, then sauntered into the auditorium, chased by hearty cheers. 

I report details. I like what’s called “color” in my stories. So in my piece about the screening I prefaced McConaughey’s quotes with: “He was conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum.” Readers want to know each iota of their beloved celebrities’ behavior. This, I thought, was a telling detail — innocuous but revealing. Or so I thought.

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Matthew, gum, chew.

In 2003, four years after this gum-chewing reportage, the Austin Film Society threw a 10-year anniversary bash for the release of Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age masterwork “Dazed and Confused,” which was made in Austin and co-starred a cocky, hilarious young newcomer named Matthew McConaughey. 

A red carpet press-line was formed. Here comes McConaughey, who I haven’t seen in four years. He is arm-in-arm with two young women, and chewing gum. I hurl him a question. He stops on a dime before me, and says, pointing to his mouth, “Tell them that I was ‘conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum,’ you got that?” Dimples flashed, this time with a shit-eating grin, and he brusquely walked away with an up-yours swagger. 

Perhaps, just maybe, I had pissed him off.

Forward five years, to 2008. I hadn’t seen People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive (2005) since the “Dazed and Confused” screening and I was a little nervous as I was scheduled to interview him for the micro-indie comedy “Surfer, Dude” in Austin.  

He was there, in shorts and sandals, hair mussed and shaggy, mood ebullient. He greeted me with glowing teeth and cavernous dimples. He was almost ecstatic. He loved this movie. He was back. 

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McConaughey during our “Surfer, Dude” interview

At the end of a very friendly chat, I screwed up the nerve to ask him about that day when he repeated back to me, “Tell them that I was ‘conspicuously chewing a huge wad of gum,’ you got that?”

He laughed heartily. “I didn’t like the use of the adverb ‘conspicuously,’” he told me, practically slapping my knee. “If you hadn’t used that word I wouldn’t have cared!” He was over it. We cracked up.

The intricate dance of writer and subject is a fragile one. Like that, it can topple in misunderstanding. It can snap on the perceived power of one simple word. But people, even movie stars with eggshell egos, are resilient, forgiving and, sometimes, like McConaughey, true mensches.

The 5 most overrated movies of the year (so far)

Critics and crowds made big stinks over these movies this year. I didn’t.

1. “Roma” — Topping many “bests of” lists, Alfonso Cuarón’s meandering memory drama, based on his early-‘70s childhood in Mexico City, was the biggest disappointment of the year. Flaccid and unfocused, this pretty black and white picture is about Cuarón’s middle-class family just as their father leaves it. Fatally, the film’s nominal main character is the live-in housekeeper, who, perplexingly, is a narcotized, non-verbal cipher. Her reaction when she discovers she is pregnant rivals Buster Keaton’s stone face matched with Harpo Marx. Some critics have tried to pass off “Roma’s” absence of structure as a “meditation.” It is not. Rather it’s a story-free stream-of-consciousness that leaves little to grab onto and be affected by. Dog poop, believe it or not, plays one of the liveliest roles. For all of Cuarón’s lush, gliding camerawork, swooshing this way and that, capturing rambling life as it happens, the affair is implacably inert.  

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2.“Leave No Trace” — A film that leaves no trace, emotionally or otherwise, this achingly static homeless drama about a father (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie — both shine) living off the grid in an Oregon forest suffocates on its own aridity. Scant happens when they’re hauled into social services, or when they attempt a run for the wild. For so much heart, little resonates.

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3. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” — In this six-chapter Western anthology, the Coen brothers hew tightly to time-honored oater conventions while spinning them on their dusty Stetsons for typical tonal whiplash. Zigging from bloody to farcical at the speed of a bullet, with a game all-star cast, it’s handsome, violent, intriguing, and tediously quirky. (Earmark the episode with Zoe Kazan. She’s fantastic, and she’ll shatter your heart.)

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4. “Shoplifters” — This sometimes playful Japanese social drama by the accomplished Hirokazu Kore-eda sporadically springs to life with small jolts that only make you hunger for more. The award-sprinkled film is about a family that relies on shoplifting to ease its poverty. Naturalistic and deeply humanistic, it suffers from a lack of movement, and the modest emotional punch comes too late. 

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5. “Private Life” — A hackneyed bourgeois dramedy about, sigh, a middle-aged couple that can’t have children in the traditional fashion, so try all manner of misadventure to conceive. The couple, played by Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, great comic actors brought down by middling material, are New York writers (really?) surrounded by brainy friends (really?) who try and help. Marital friction erupts (really?) until a secret weapon appears. Hope abounds. This is slushy, sitcomy stuff that writer-director Tamara Jenkins (“The Savages”) is above.

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6 more: an honor-roll of the overpraised, in no order

“Isle of Dogs” — Wes Anderson, that leaping leprechaun of willed whimsy, presents a fun, funny premise about stray animated dogs sloughed off to a trash-heap island in Japan, until he, reliably, clutters things up with over-plotting and mirthless mayhem.

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“You Were Never Really Here” — I wish someone could’ve said that to me after watching this turgid hitman character study, starring a grody Joaquin Phoenix and directed by the grit-addicted Lynne Ramsay (“Ratcatcher,” “Morvern Callar”).  

“Hereditary” — Toni Collette’s lashing performance as a beleaguered mother can’t salvage this confused supernatural horror tale that careers from realistic, upsetting family drama to near-laughable nonsense replete with séances, demons and covens.

 “Mandy” — A full-on bonkers genre goulash of volcanic incoherence that, despite the presence of a teeth-gritting, eye-popping Nic Cage caked in baddies’ blood — just the way we like him — isn’t half as fun as it thinks it is.

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“Black Panther” — As I wrote in June, I found this mega-hit a “slick, savvy vehicle that gets predictably bogged down in mythical mumbo-jumbo, comic-book convolutions and contrivances that I haven’t the energy to follow or care about.”

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“Happy as Lazzaro” — Watching this coy Italian flirtation with magical-realism, I felt I was dying a slow, awkward death.

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A tediously timely ‘Network’

In Ivo van Hove’s new Broadway production of “Network,” frantic stagecraft whirls with clamoring bodies in a dance of hectoring topicality. 

Multiple technicians wield video cameras, roving the stage, filling television screens small and large around the theater. Actors coax “live-studio-audience” applause from the crowd and demand that we bellow, not once but several times, that brimstone incantation: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Led by Bryan Cranston’s bristling performance, there’s a lot to take in visually, if not intellectually. It’s all very slick, stylish and duly explosive. It’s a bombastic mediocrity. 

Unlike Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film, written with literary panache by Paddy Chayefsky, this “Network” — adapted both too faithfully and too diffusely by Lee Hall — lacks the  prescience about corporate greed and TV’s noxious influence. We know all that now. We’re living it. It makes this adamant version too on the nose. It brays to the choir.  

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But there is Cranston. As Howard Beale — crusty anchorman-turned frothing oracular madman-turned vitriolic TV commentator — the actor is a one-man brush fire. His fed-up Beale, who declares he’s going to kill himself on air, becomes, in the words of one of his venal bosses, “a latter-day prophet, a magnificent messianic figure, inveighing against the hypocrisies of our times.”

In one blazing scene, Cranston cracks. Sara Holdren at vulture.com describes it with zest: 

“Cranston’s disintegration is a hell of a thing to watch, especially in the excruciating moments of silence before Beale launches into his first famous tirade. With a camera up in his face and that face looming, distorted with pain, up on the set’s back wall, Cranston stumbles and sways, squinting through tears and groping to pull the scattering fragments of his brain back together.”

All well and good, and Cranston veers to greatness. The rest of the cast — chiefly Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) and Tony Goldwyn (“Scandal”) — is serviceable. No one stands out, meaning Cranston carries the lurching show, which never stops groping for to-the-minute provocation.

What really hobbles things, though, is a story diluted with redundancies and non-essential scenes. Goldwyn’s moments of midlife melodrama await merciful amputations.

Yet it might be argued that this “Network” is a raucous, rousing, gimmicky divertissement by master showman van Hove (2016’s knockout “A View from the Bridge”). He pulls many effective flourishes from his bag of tricks.

But van Hove underscores the text’s topicality with a crowd-pleasing urgency. The show is timely, perhaps too timely. By the end, this Beale reaches a point of clanging didacticism and facile relevance that’s tiresome for all its exertion. You yawn instead of wince.

Playing Broadway’s Belasco Theater. Details here

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