A fantasy fan, but no fanboy

My niece and nephew, both teens, are watching Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” for the first time. They are in the basement, I am upstairs, web-surfing all things Tokyo. (Godzilla vs. Smaug? I’m in.)

All I hear are dragon shrieks and thunderous fire-belching that rumbles the floor and walls and surely rattles the television, making it shimmy and shake on its spindly base. (Wait. I am later told that Smaug the dragon is not in this “LOT” installment. What then was I hearing? Gollum’s hissy, phlegmy rasp? A bombardment of unbridled Tolkien imagination? Hobbit flatulence?) 

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Smaug

I was well into adulthood when this first film in the “LOT” trilogy was released 18 years ago, and by then I wasn’t much for elves and wizards and hobbits. It’s all very childlike to me, which is also why I didn’t do backflips for “Game of Thrones,” though I mostly enjoyed that rollicking, bloody, gleefully nakedy, defiantly impenetrable series.

I grapple with most fantasy archetypes. I can barely do swords. Harry Potter, which arrived awfully late to the tournament of genre clichés, is a baffling bore, an embarrassing ecosystem of such contrived, feebly derivative Halloween, D&D and Renaissance Fair poppycock that my aversion to it is nigh boundless. 

Wizards, wands, witchcraft, trolls, potions, flying broomsticks, spells, sorcerers, centaurs — such are the tropes of an impoverished imagination. Such is the desperation of a starved (and benighted) readership and viewership. It is expressly for innocents, naifs, children, the like.

My niece, bless her roving, fecund mind, rabidly adored Harry Potter a few years ago. We don’t speak of it, lest one of us goes bald from mutual hair pulling. I don’t know what she thinks of the Christlike Chosen One now, and I don’t want that information. The kids watch “Lord of the Rings” as I type, and I do not know what they think of it, as they’re in the middle of Middle-earth and all. 

I hope they like it. It’s rather good; it’s just, at this late date, not my bag. Gandalf, “my Precious,” the hirsute feet, the Shire, Orcs — I’ve moved on. Yet I endorse it. And I’m not one quick to sanction fantasy flicks.

A few exceptions: “A Trip to the Moon” (1902); “King Kong” (1933); “The Wizard of Oz” (1939); “Beauty and the Beast” (1946); “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971); “Legend” (1985); “Babe” (1995); “Spirited Away” (2001); “Coraline” (2009). (Please don’t ask where “Avatar” fits into this list. It doesn’t. It is banished, with prejudice.)

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The wondrously weird “Trip to the Moon” (1902)
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Tim Curry in Ridley Scott’s underrated “Legend” (1985)

I think I need more fantasy in my life, despite my allergy to it and most things science fiction. (Exceptions: “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968); “Solaris” (1972); “Star Wars” (1977); “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977); “Alien” (1979); “Blade Runner” (1982); “The Fly” (1986); “Serenity” (2005); “District 9” (2009); “Moon” (2009); “Ex Machina” (2014).)

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“Ex Machina” (2014) — Ex-ceptional

Nowadays dystopian scenarios are hijacking the fantasy and sci-fi worlds — from fashionable post-apocalyptica to ever-tedious zombies — with mixed results. Film-wise, dystopian zeniths are the visionary, crazily exhilarating “Mad Max” epics. (Other highlights off the top of my head: “A Clockwork Orange” (1971); “Brazil” (1985); “RoboCop” (1987); “Children of Men” (2006).)

In fiction, fine contemporary classics — “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Road,” “Never Let Me Go” — chafe against new mediocrities like Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” which at its best reveals genre fatigue. 

I’ll take dragons over such drags. A trio of trainable dragons lit up “Game of Thrones” with awe and grandeur and strange, scaly pathos. Smaug is a juggernaut, a fearsome, fiery Middle-earth monster considered to be the last great dragon of the realm. (Yeah, I had to look that up.)

I may be the sole fan of the crunchy 2002 dragon drama “Reign of Fire,” in which Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale combat a futuristic (totally dystopian) infestation of those winged, fire-spraying dinosaurs. The sheer force of its perverse and pummeling premise — not to mention top-drawer dragon action — dragooned me to full appreciation of this fantasy tale.

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“Reign of Fire” — more underrated film fantasy (2002)

And what about comic-book superheroes? “The Dark Knight” (2008) remains an adult-geared masterpiece of mayhem and menace. One or two of the early Spider-Man movies are efficient. I like “Iron Man” (2008) and the profanely spoofy “Kick-Ass” (2010) — both are fast and funny — and, more so, the bleak, ruminative Wolverine installment “Logan” (2017). I have very little use for the rest of it.

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From the basement, I hear Howard Shore’s strident, overbearing score, more earth-rattling noise, stadium-fuls of yelling, screaming and bellowing. Drama is happening in “The Lord of the Rings.”

And then: hush. The niece and nephew emerge from Lower-earth to the living room. The spectacle is over. We inquire.

Her: “It was good. I’m excited for the next part. I’m looking forward to the hobbit movies, too. This one is just really long.” 

Him: “It’s exciting and there’s tons of fighting. but it’s more than three hours. Still, you don’t get bored.”

Length, damn length. This “LOT” runs a savage three hours and 48 minutes. Fantasy always seems to run interminably long (“Avatar”: two hours, 42 minutes), even when it doesn’t (“Legend”: one hour, 34 minutes). To binge all 73 episodes of “Game of Thrones” would take three days and 16 minutes, enough time for a weekend getaway to Bermuda.

But fantasy and sci-fi are all about girth and sprawl. Poundage of detail and characters, world-building and mythologizing is their very DNA, their showoffy M.O. Glimpse any fantasy novel worth its weight in gibberish; just don’t try and lift it.

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Epic, capital E, is the primary aspiration. It’s all about blowing the mind, overwhelming the senses. For this skeptic, this mostly invites chronic eye-glazing. Fantasy does not stir fanaticism. This fanboy might have just become a fan-man.

Quick culture picks (and nitpicks)

I’m having a tricky time containing how much I dislike “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s almost laughably feckless evocation of L.A. showbiz in the 1960s that’s by turns sledgehammer subtle, cringingly unfunny, self-enamored and offensively and childishly sadistic. 

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Tripe.

It’s a moronic movie, a blinding misfire, that its critical supporters should be ashamed of liking. Tarantino is 56. He’s still making movies for snickering 15-year-old boys. He’s like Benjamin Button, aging backwards. It’d be cute if it wasn’t so appalling. He’s declared he will make only 10 films. This is his ninth. We grin.

That said, this inveterate malcontent has a crush on a pair of brand-new documentaries — rock docs, if you will:

What do Metallica and Linda Ronstadt have in common? Both made their names in the California rock scene, albeit in different decades and genres, and both are part of two divine new music docs that couldn’t be more tonally dissimilar: “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” and “Murder in the Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story.” (They’re in theaters this fall.)

The former reveals the beauty and beautiful artistry — that voice could do anything: pop, ballads, rock, operetta, country, mariachi, jazz standards — of Linda Ronstadt with groove and feeling. It captures the ‘70s American rock scene with such texture, heart and authenticity, it’s a woozy time-capsule, transporting and wondrous. The gamut of denim on display is worth it alone. Trailer HERE.

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The latter, the one with lashing hair, banging heads and volcanic vitriol and virtuosity, stage-dives into the 1980s heavy metal scene in the Bay Area, surveying the bands, from Exodus and Slayer to Possessed and Metallica, that influenced global hard rock. The film limns a subculture with a streak of apt aggression and a snarl. It has crunch. It has sweat. It has bite. Trailer HERE.mitfr_photo_gal_59981_photo_1316650371_lrThe current cover story at Slate will make you want to jab your eyes out. It’s titled “The 25 Most Important Characters of the Past 25 Years” and is one of those blinkered, tone-deaf, willfully confounding listicles peppered with numbskull picks. Among them: The Babadook (No. 24), Jay-Z (No. 4), Sarah Koenig (No. 21), Bridget Jones (No. 17), Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonation (No. 8) and Carmela Soprano (No. 1!). It gets worse. Way.

Rankings like these generally give me a brain tumor, and this one is so off, so strenuously eclectic, you know the authors are just trying to get a rise out of you with their labored cleverness rather than commit serious cultural commentary. They’re about as incisive and hilarious as reviled “Star Wars” court jester Jar Jar Binks (No. 6). 

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Yeah, him.

Shot through with the bloody brutality of a Peckinpah or Scorsese, “The Nightingale” is a pretty decent revenge thriller from Australia by Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook” — see above) that’s as unflinching as it is richly affecting.

Set in 1825 in a British penal colony in what’s now Tasmania, the drama ignites when a young female convict is repeatedly raped as her baby and husband are slaughtered by a British officer and his mossy-toothed minions. Dazed and enraged, the woman, Clare (a fierce Aisling Franciosi), hops a horse, hires an Aboriginal tracker and sets her sights on sweet, savage revenge.

It’s a complex tale of frontier justice, love, death, friendship, betrayal, with an emotional and cathartic core that almost buffers the rattling volume of violence. Perhaps a mite too long at 136 minutes, “The Nightingale”  remains sturdy Gothic arthouse fare. Trailer HERE. 

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Random reflections, part II

I wish I played chess, even so-so. At this point, I have zero interest in learning how. 

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The best book I’ve read this summer is the acrid novel “Fleishman is in Trouble” by the regrettably named Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Terrifically observant, mordant and relevant, it’s dubbed a “timely exploration of marriage, divorce, and the bewildering dynamics of ambition.” I’m too lazy to describe it. But it’s superb, and superbly smart. If you’re married, or divorced, beware. It has teeth.

It’s in the news today. Never in a million years would I want to climb Mount Everest. Or any mountain for that matter. I don’t do tents. Or canteens. Or oxygen tanks. Or death.

I booked a flight to Tokyo for late October. I’m going to eat sushi and more sushi and sip sake and Japanese whiskey and absorb on a granular level Shinjuku nightlife. I may barf.

When I was 8 I saw big white beluga whales at SeaWorld. They made me kind of sick, all bulbous and albino, their big, meaty cow tongues showing when they smiled. Many years later — last week, in fact — I saw the belugas again at SeaWorld. They still make me ill. 

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Charismatic badass and “Blade Runner” actor Rutger Hauer has just died. So, alas, has presidential impeachment. R.I.P. 

A movie my mind keeps returning to is the new documentary “Honeyland,” which is about a lone female beekeeper in the unforgiving mountains of Macedonia and her struggles with her unruly neighbors, her sick mother and the mere notion of survival. It sounds terrible. It is sublime. I could see it winning an Oscar. See trailer HERE.

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My brother and I have reservations next month at Alice Waters’ legendary Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse, where we will dine on such succulent fare as, quote, “Sheep’s milk ricotta ravioli with chanterelle mushroom and garlic brodo” and “Sonoma County duck confit with frisée, haricots verts, fig vinaigrette, garlic crouton, and sage.” I don’t know what half that means. I don’t care. I will delight, as my wallet gently weeps.

I promised I would never mention my Sea-Monkeys again. I lied. There are a half-dozen survivors, swirling through the briny tank, each one as big as Moby Dick. I hope the cats are hungry.

Too many critics and other dopes are declaring season two of the amazing Amazon Prime comedy “Fleabag” superior to season one. Wrong. Season one is fresher, funnier, wiggier, better. Season two is splendid, no doubt, and you should watch it, as it’s the best comedy on TV. I’m just saying.

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Speaking of TV hilarity, the lamest, most overrated “comedy” is “Bojack Horseman,” a Netflix show so consistently and embarrassingly unfunny, such a bizarre misfire, it just makes me tired. (If you find this show amusing, please leave a comment and explain.)

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Some years ago, my Dad took us to an incredible slew of jazz and comedy shows. A few luminaries we saw live: Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as live NBC tapings of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and, way back, “The Goldie Hawn Special” featuring then-pop idol Shaun Cassidy. The whole thing’s a head rush.

I recently bought a can of sardines. I keep looking at it, baffled and fearful.

9 best films of 2019 (so far)

In no particular order, the movies I’m excited about at the year’s half-way point …

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“Climax”

Puckishly sadistic, Gaspar Noé and Lars von Trier remain cinema’s great pessimists, glib nihilists and gleeful provocateurs. Look, without flinching, at Noé’s masterwork “Irréversible” or von Trier’s “Antichrist” and you’ll see my point. With the head-spinning, hallucinogenic swirl of body (and camera) movement that is “Climax,” Noé takes his visual and thematic tics past the edge of woozy chaos. When an extraordinarily talented dance troupe’s party is ruined by a bowl of LSD-spiked punch, hell uncorks with fury. What was a glorious pageant of writhing bodies becomes a descent into a violent nightmare of screeching, thrashing individuals trying to relocate reality. The camera rides a liquid wave of neon hues, racing and corkscrewing down halls and weaving through rooms. Frequently indulgent and meandering, with no real characters or story, just sensation and electro-shock, the film is pure immersion, a sustained climax. I didn’t say it was pleasant. But it is novel, and queerly riveting. And purely Noé. Watch the trailer HERE.

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“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

At once arty, elegiac, poetic and tough-minded, this is a tale, a beautiful reverie, that strikes on topics of race and class and gentrification with sparks and lyricism and primary-color Spike Lee sizzle. It’s something singular, and it slowly intoxicates with its emotional and sociological depths. Following Jimmie Fails (played by the actor of the same name — he’s as charismatic as a young Don Cheadle) as he presses to reclaim the giant Victorian home of his grandfather, the film is both a call to honoring blood bonds and a plaintive hymn to a troubled city. Joe Talbot directs (and co-writes) with soaring vision and intense feeling. The result is dire, daring, dreamy. Trailer HERE.

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“Honeyland”

In this gorgeously observational documentary, weathered, middle-aged Hatidze lives in the rocky Macedonian mountains, where she cares for her ailing mother and tends to several beehives that produce honey for a tenuous livelihood. A large, rowdy family moves next door and decides to try beekeeping, but without expertise, they flail and almost comically get stung more than they harvest the sweet goo. Tensions arise between the neighbors, but this achingly humanistic look at an exotic if seriously impoverished way of life is mostly a portrait of Hatidze, a steely, lonely woman who has as much soul as those mountains can contain. The doc won a record three awards at Sundance 2019, including for its ravishing cinematography. Trailer HERE.

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“The Mustang”

Breaking a horse is a bitch. Triple the challenge if it’s a rearing, snorting wild desert mustang. That’s what Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is tasked with as a violent criminal in a Nevada prison program in which convicts break mustangs for auction, preparing them for work in law enforcement. “We’re not training these horses for little kids’ birthdays and pony rides,” growls Bruce Dern’s crusty bossman, who knows both man and horse require an especially prickly strain of tough-love. If Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature debut falls into a formulaic groove — the apex of the depiction of trust-building between human and wild horse remains Carroll Ballard’s 1979 “The Black Stallion” — the film doesn’t flinch from gritty, violent twists. The dangerous dance between Roman and his horse Marcus retains tension, as the two captives, both scrappy and obstinate, circle each other in a face-off that could end in injury and defeat, or mutual respect and friendship. Roman’s frustration boils — “Just fucking listen to me!” he snaps. “I’m not going to hurt you! You hear me, you stupid animal!” — and it’s no surprise the horse is listening. Trailer HERE.

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“Her Smell”

Elisabeth Moss’ performance in this shambolic punk-rock portrait is as athletically interior as it is exterior, spiked with physical fits and spasms like a lunatic child in a druggy tantrum. In my favorite performance of the year, Moss plays Becky, volatile front-woman of a female punk band she’s struggling to keep together between coke binges and flame-throwing hissy fits. The actress stirs up a cackling, hand-flinging cauldron of Courtney Love, Blanche DuBois, Charles Manson and Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” It’s all raw-nerve, and Moss commits to her anti-heroine in a self-immolating blaze. She’s as shattering as this ballsy, surprisingly sensitive film by writer-director Alex Ross Perry. Trailer HERE.

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“Booksmart”

Barreling forth with raunchy vigor and unbridled zest, this breakneck coming-of-age comedy, actress Olivia Wilde’s impressive directorial debut, screams fun. Almost literally: There’s a lot of screaming — in surprise, horror and explosive joy. An amplified spin on school-days greats — “Dazed and Confused,” John Hughes’ oeuvre and last year’s “Lady Bird” and “Eighth Grade” — “Booksmart” piles on twists with a sharp, knowing eye that zooms in on the timely and topical, from female power and LGBTQs, to bullying and the corrosive effects of cliques, and, duh, the liberating if daunting pull of sexual exploration. Starring a terrific Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as boundary-pushing besties, who learn, in a fleeting haze, that maybe bongs are as fun as books. Trailer HERE.

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“Gloria Bell”

A glowing Julianne Moore — is there a more radiant actress? — assumes the title role in this sweet, ebullient, slightly melancholic snapshot of a middle-aged divorced woman seeking love and connection in modern Los Angeles. A touching remake of the 2013 Chilean film “Gloria,” by the writer-director of that movie, Sebastián Lelio, the movie follows its wise, free-spirited character onto her favorite place, the dance floor, where she finds romance with a nice guy (a fine, empathetic John Turturro) and all the attendant delights, complications and disappointments of love. No matter how sore things get, Gloria’s joie de vivre stays infectious. Trailer HERE.

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“Non-Fiction”

French writer-director Olivier Assayas‘ dramedy is a tireless, tonic gabfest that had me speed-reading the flurry of subtitles more than drinking in the warm faces and colors of the bustling scenes. That’s no complaint. The profusion of words — intelligent, eloquent, biting — brim with ideas, humor, pain and pathos, for an enveloping artful experience. You want to know the fork-tongued characters, led by an enchanting Juliette Binoche, because of the literary, arty cosmos in which these writers, editors and actors orbit. It’s heady and human: They’re just people, with all of our people-ly problems, and it’s more exciting than you think. Part tart publishing-world satire, part feast of infidelity, part anatomy of midlife crises, “Non-Fiction” is light on plot, more enmeshed in ideas about love and life, loyalty between friends and lovers, and, in a topical concession, a pointed conversation about new media vs. the printed word. It’s like a Gallic Woody Allen comedy, without the tootling clarinet and stammering, gesticulating neuroses. Trailer HERE.

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“The Souvenir”

Not an easy film, Joanna Hogg‘s elusive, divisive relationship drama is boobytrapped with qualities that repel people from the arthouse. It’s glacial, elliptical, remote. It makes you work with loosely hanging scenes, a jagged structure and oblique characterizations. I broke a small sweat trying to solder the plot together, identify with the actors and figure out where Hogg was taking me. The entry point is young film student Julie, played with winsome diffidence by Honor Swinton Byrne. Julie’s lover Anthony (Tom Burke) is a heroin addict, a secret until it’s not, which inevitably snarls their relationship. The story is mostly scenes of the couple muddling through their unconventional, occasionally off-putting upper-middle-class affair. With drugs. And spats. And sex. And dinner parties. And the making of a student film. And an IRA bombing. Somehow, Hogg’s disparate elements crazily fall together. Trailer HERE.

The best performance of the year (so far)

Writer-director Alex Ross Perry and actress Elisabeth Moss have a special relationship: He puts her through the wringer and she acts her guts out. 

In two films, this year’s “Her Smell” and 2015’s “Queen of Earth” — deep-dish psychological studies of women flailing and wailing on the verge — the result is explosive symbiosis, a convulsive give and take between a director who lays out a vision and lets his muse run with it at breathtaking velocity. 

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Run she does, maybe too far, too fast (as some have argued). Moss’ performance in “Her Smell” is athletically interior and exterior, jagged with physical fits and spasms like a lunatic child having a druggy temper tantrum. It’s my favorite performance of the year so far. 

Moss plays Becky, volatile front-woman of a female punk band she’s struggling to keep together between coke binges and flame-throwing hissy fits. The actress stirs up a hot, cackling cauldron of Courtney Love, Blanche DuBois, Charles Manson and Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” It’s all raw-nerve, and Moss commits to her anti-heroine in a self-immolating blaze.

Eyes drizzling mascara, teeth gnashing, arms and hair thrashing, lipstick smeared with a paint-roller, Moss spews apoplectic, apocalyptic poetry in what’s less a performance than a detonation of eye-popping possession. It’s an electric and crazily entertaining one-woman show, the kind Oscar never sees and wouldn’t know what to do with anyhow.

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What grabs you is the devotion Moss brings to both Becky in “Her Smell” and the more quietly unhinged, clinically depressed Catherine in “Queen of Earth.” Dramatically different than her more contained, yet reliably strong women in “Mad Men,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Top of the Lake,” these characters are solipsistic, narcissistic, unbalanced, straight-up unwell. 

Director Perry grants them close-up, single-take soliloquies that are so chiseled they avoid becoming indulgent workshop exercises. The camera eye stares Moss down, never letting her off the hook. Moss gives right back. You watch shaken, exhilarated.

It’s important to note Moss isn’t performing in a vacuum, despite the fact the characters, especially punker Becky, would make arresting (abrading?) Off-Broadway solo turns. Both films have slight but linear stories — they are the definition of soul-baring character examinations — populated with superb co-stars, from the bandmates and manager (Eric Stoltz, wonderful to see you) in “Her Smell” to the great, flinty Katherine Waterston as Moss’ increasingly estranged best friend in “Queen of Earth.”

Without other players, Moss’ fascinating creations would just be feral, foundering head cases bouncing off the walls and slipping into oblivion. Her cast-mates keep Becky and Catherine in reality, our world. They are friends and antagonists, yang to Moss’ yin, and they haul her from the edge.

Still, what this formidable actress pulls off on her own, between her and the camera, is remarkable. With scary conviction, she summons wrenching human meltdowns in all their grim and glorious beauty.

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“Her Smell” and “Queen of Earth” are on DVD and several streaming outlets. 

“Her Smell” trailer HERE.

“Queen of Earth” trailer HERE.

Want to know if the dog dies? Go here first

In the bullet-peppered, body-slamming thriller “John Wick,” innumerable bad guys die stylishly gruesome deaths.

So, alas, does the dog.

The blameless Beagle puppy named Daisy is mercilessly killed before our hero’s eyes, which squint with vengeance instead of squinch with tears. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) isn’t taking this outrage sitting down — he’s not letting dead dogs lie — in the 2014 cult classic. He’s about to unleash a two-hour massacre.

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Play dead. For good.

Spoiler? You bet. That’s exactly what the fine, sometimes funny and oddly practical movie- and animal-lover site Does the Dog Die? is here for — to tell you ahead of time if the damn dog dies. You want to know. I definitely want to know.

Anytime a dog, or any animal for that matter, appears on screen I tense up and just hope the creature doesn’t get shot, run over by an SUV or mauled by a demon (or, if you’re the rabbit in “Fatal Attraction,” boiled alive). Animals in movies are too often sacrificial lambs, beelines to our heartstrings or, as in Wick’s case, catalysts for revenge. (Or just workaday roadkill. Shrug.)

The website covers all manner of movie, TV and book animal deaths. Fed by visitor input, it’s a spoiler sanctuary revealing what animals perish or get injured and how, in often graphic terms. (Sample: “A cat accidentally gets smashed by a book. A half-human, half-dog gets his arm chopped off and punched into the ground.”) Ha, ha.

It’s humorous. It’s helpful. It’s horrific. Here’s a short screen grab to show you what entries looks like (note, it’s not the prettiest web design):

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Some more reader reports about dogs dying onscreen at Does the Dog Die:

  • “The Babadook” — “For anyone who DOESN’T WANT TO WATCH THE DEATH OF THE DOG, don’t watch from 1:09:20 to 1:11:20.”
  • “I Am Legend” — “Dog is infected by a zombie-esque virus and is killed by her owner.”
  • “The Witch” — “Dog disemboweled in the woods.”
  • “The Good Place” (TV) — “A dog is kicked into the sun.”
  • “The Thing” — “Many dogs die on and off camera. One looks like it got doused in acid and is still moving around.”
  • “John Wick” — “Yes, and it’s terrible, BUT John Wick spends the rest of the movie deliberately, gloriously, and violently avenging the dog, so it feels really pro-dog overall.”
  • “Old Yeller” — “Yes the dog dies. He’s shot by his owner after contracting rabies.”
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“Old Yeller” — he’s either shaving or he has rabies. Yep: He dies.

Does the Dog Die goes well beyond dog deaths, featuring 50 queasy-making topics, things you might want to know before flipping on the TV or entering the multiplex. Some topics and contributor comments:

Does a kid die?

  • “Game of Thrones” (TV) — “Season 2, Episode 1: For goodness’ sake, don’t watch this episode if you can’t stand a child being hurt. A baby is murdered.”

Is someone burned alive?

  • “Thor Ragnarok” — “Someone is literally melted.”

Are there clowns?

  • “It” — “Shockingly, there are clowns.”

Does a head get squashed?

  • “Venom” — “Does a head getting eaten count as squashed? I’d say yeah, but some may disagree.”

Is Santa spoiled?

  • “Bojack Horseman” (TV) — “In the Christmas special, Bojack’s character admits that Santa is a lie in a way that is phrased to deny the existence of God.”

Are any teeth damaged?

  • “Room” — “Ma has a ‘bad tooth’ which hurts her when she eats. It eventually falls out and she gives it to her son.”

I can handle clowns, squashed heads and rotten teeth, but I hate it when the dog dies. Hate it. It’s one reason I call canine-killing movies like “Where the Red Fern Grows” and “Marley & Me” doggie-death porn. They all but fetishize the dog’s demise, milking the moment as they twist a knife in your heart, probably snickering as they do it. Sadists.

And so we have this neat site to tell us when to cover our eyes, leave the room, or skip a movie, show or book altogether. It’s not just a clever concept, it’s a public service.

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Sorry, Marley — you’re doomed.

Good movies right now

Before summer’s prequels, sequels and tweak-quels bombard us, I offer this eclectic spread of late-spring cinema surprises, all worth a look:

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 “Booksmart”

Barreling forth with raunchy vigor and unbridled zest, this breakneck coming-of-age comedy, actress Olivia Wilde’s impressive directorial debut, screams fun. Almost literally: There’s a lot of screaming — in surprise, horror and explosive joy. It’s damn near contagious.

An amplified spin on school-days greats — “Dazed and Confused,” John Hughes’ oeuvre and last year’s “Lady Bird” and “Eighth Grade” — “Booksmart” piles on twists and layers with a sharp, knowing eye that zooms in on the timely and topical, from female power and LGBTs, to bullying and the corrosive effects of cliques — and of course the liberating if daunting pull of sexual exploration.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play best friends Molly and Amy, super-nerds at their high school who are maligned for their almost pathological goodie-goodie-ism. They’re all books and no bacchanal and are certain that’s the only way to make it through college and life.

Molly, who has a crush on an unattainable pretty boy, and Amy, who has a crush on a scrappy skate-girl — sort of the story’s dual heroes’ journey — recklessly decide to shed their image and go all out on the night before graduation. The upshot is an epic party-hopping misadventure festooned with the silly, surreal and psychedelic, aided by riotously inspired side players who should get their own movies (including Carrie Fisher’s daughter, the scene-stealing Billie Lourd).

“Booksmart” radiates the crazy anarchic spirit of party-hearty teen classics like “Superbad,” and indeed “crazy” might be the movie’s one-word elevator pitch. Hang on for the insta-classic “doll scene.” It’s a little bit Barbie, a little bit “Team America,” and all warped genius.

In theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.

*nonfiction-actual-final-poster.pngNon-Fiction”

French writer-director Olivier Assayas‘ new dramedy is a tireless, tonic gabfest that had me speed-reading the flurry of subtitles more than drinking in the warm faces and colors of the bustling scenes.

That’s no complaint. The profusion of words — intelligent, eloquent, biting — brim with ideas, humor, pain and pathos, for an enveloping artful experience. You want to know the fork-tongued characters, led by a ravishing Juliette Binoche, because of the literary, arty cosmos in which these writers, editors and actors orbit. It’s intoxicating and deeply human: They’re just people, with all of our people-ly problems, and it’s more exciting than you think.

Part tart publishing-world satire, part feast of infidelity, part anatomy of midlife crises, “Non-Fiction” is light on plot, more enmeshed in ideas about love and life, loyalty between friends and lovers, and, in a topical concession, a pointed conversation about new media vs. the printed word. It’s like a Gallic Woody Allen comedy, without the tootling clarinet and stammering, gesticulating neuroses (though there’s plenty of neuroses to go around). 

Assayas, one of our most talented and inventive living filmmakers — like Michael Winterbottom and the late Kubrick, he’s a virtuoso of versatility — has made a comedy of manners that has more in common with his wonderful, verbose family drama “Summer Hours” than his masterly supernatural genre-buster “Personal Shopper.” Like the best of his movies, it’s brightly observant and conspicuously literate — as rich as a great novel, kind of ironic for a picture titled “Non-Fiction.”

In theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.

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“The Souvenir”

Not an easy film, Joanna Hogg‘s elusive, divisive relationship drama is boobytrapped with qualities that repel people away from the arthouse. It’s glacial, elliptical, remote, woolly. It makes you work with loosely hanging scenes, a jagged structure and oblique characterizations. I broke a small sweat trying to solder the plot together, identify with the actors and figure out where Hogg was taking me. (“Hogg,” writes one critic, “has the courage of her incoherence.”) Mostly I succeeded, finally granting this vaguely experimental flick a shaky B+.

The main entry point is young film student Julie, played with winsome diffidence by Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of indie eminence Tilda Swinton, who has a small role as, who else, Julie’s flittering mother, her face a pinched mask of imperious disquiet.

Julie’s lover Anthony (Tom Burke) is a heroin addict, a secret until it’s not, which inevitably tangles their relationship. The story is mostly scenes of the couple muddling through their unconventional, occasionally off-putting upper-middle-class affair. With drugs. And spats. And sex. And dinner parties. And the making of a student film. And an IRA bombing. Hogg’s disparate elements somehow fall together.

There were two huffy walkouts at my recent screening, and online reviews are tetchy. “I found this film to be tedious and unrewarding,” one gripes. “I want my money back,” harrumphs another. And this: “The only movie I’ve ever walked out of in my life. I’m amazed I stayed awake and endured it for over an hour.”

With a giggle, I take those as good signs — chance-taking auteurism is always encouraging — more reasons to stick with this exacting film and reap its chilly virtues.

In theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.

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 “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali”

Eyes wide, mouth agape, a fist pounding the table, Muhammad Ali is unleashed, free-associative verse tumbling from his unstoppable maw. Harnessing vainglory and the gift of gab, Ali is showboating, again, his audience of press and promoters rapt and laughing. And then he winds down, admitting exhaustion, the pugilist at rest.

The sudden calm is a rare state for the heavyweight champ, self-anointed The Greatest, whose taunting poetic prattle — “I’m so bad, I make medicine sick!” — earned him both infamy and adulation. “He talks too damn much! Put your fist in his mouth!” Ali recalls a ringside heckler shouting in this HBO documentary, a transfixing, rap-rattling trip through the fighter’s professional life told almost exclusively in his own words. It’s a beautifully edited stream of vintage press conferences, TV and radio interviews, with ribbons of color from managers and trainers, magazine covers and newspaper headlines.  (“He could never keep his big mouth shut,” reads one.)

The two-part, near-three-hour film, directed by Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “Southpaw”) and co-produced by LeBron James, whomps with exhilarating fight footage, and so much more. If Ali was a raving icon in the ring, he was perhaps more of one outside it. He used his supersize personality and cascading eloquence to speak out for civil rights and Islam and against segregation and the Vietnam War. This keen portrait of social decency and athletic supremacy is also a voyage through late 20th-century history and culture, in which an African-American became an international hero.

On HBO and HBO GO. Watch the trailer: HERE. 

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“The Biggest Little Farm”

If John and Molly Chester learn a few things while building their farm from the sun-baked dirt up, it’s that birds decimate crops, pigs get sick, coyotes feast on chickens, organic eggs sell crazy-fast and manure is magic.

Stars of this inspiring, sometimes harrowing auto-doc, thirty-something couple John and Molly chronicle what happens over seven years when they ditch their tiny Santa Monica apartment for 200 neglected acres an hour outside L.A. to miraculously conjure a working, biodiverse farm. It’s a quixotic, back-to-the-land quest made of heedless ambition and fashionable enlightenment.

“Everyone told us that attempting to farm in harmony with nature would be reckless if not impossible,” says John, this enchanting film’s director and narrator.

Well, almost impossible. John, a wildlife cinematographer — blame him for the movie’s plush nature imagery — and Molly, a chef and food blogger, seek purpose via this sustainable farm. Molly yearns to grow everything she cooks in conservational fashion, as if from a “traditional farm from the past,” dutifully echoing the Earth-friendly ethos of the likes of chef Alice Waters and responsible-foodie manifesto-writer Michael Pollan.

Over years battling pests, drought and the elements, the Chesters’ apparent folly assumes the mantle of glorious accomplishment. (How they pay for it is another question entirely.) Through toil and struggle, heartache and heartbreak, they cultivate a luminous idyll, a practically paradisiacal spread bounding with life, joy and abundance. You almost can’t believe your eyes.

In theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.

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  • Bonus pre-summer movie: I haven’t seen it yet, but I know a masterpiece when it has a barrel pressed against my head: “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum. Taciturn and hitman-cool, the Keanu Reeves vehicle has been called bloody, balletic, exhilarating and “a refresher course, and a liberating one, in the nature of escapist entertainment.” If you haven’t caught the first two John Wick flicks, you have my sympathy. The trailer’s HERE.