A day like any other, pretty much, kind of

Stuff that happened today, May 4: 

People reflected with distress and solemnity on the 50th anniversary of the Kent State massacre (war protesters, good; guns, bad). I ordered a pair of green shorts (yes, I said green). Dave Eggers, possibly my least favorite writer, penned a typically cutesy op-ed in The New York Times (vigorous head shake). Netflix announced that Nicolas Cage will play Joe Exotic from “Tiger King” in a new scripted series (pinch me). And the most spastically overrated novel of 2019 won the Pulitzer Prize (please, jurors, stop doing this). 

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Cage uncaged

What a day. But not really. Shit happens everyday, mostly minor and minuscule, a beige streak of the routine and quotidian, particularly these strange stay-at-home days. (I’m talking about ground-level life, of course, not the huge, horrible pandemic picture, whose enormity transcends the lines of this scrawny blog.) 

Today’s pedestrian episodes: I suffered continued undiagnosed abdominal issues (no, not the appendicitis, but perhaps more painful), the dog shat on the floor, a book of poetry I bought gravely disappointed, and the afternoon temperature dipped from 70 to 58 degrees over a couple hours, to my delight. I re-read an exceptional book of essays called “Off Ramp” that I recommend exuberantly. I exercised, mildly and miffed. I did the daily email boogie, writing and replying. I ate cucumber with hummus and sipped wine.

That was Monday, May 4, scrunched into a knotty ball. Not spectacular, not awful.

But lookie: The future holds quivering thrills.  

Tomorrow, May 5, is front-loaded with celebration: Cinco de Mayo, National Teacher Day and (oh, totally) National Hoagie Day. This motherlode of tippling tequila, a paean to pedagogues and bib-wearing sandwich snarfing is holiday-worthy. Where’s the confetti?

And yet the following day, May 6, pulls everything back into focus. Wednesday, according to the Fairy Godmother of special days, exalts National Tourist Appreciation Day — which reminds us: whoever’s a tourist on this day, in this moment, is a fool.

And, more poignantly, is National Nurses Day, which “provides recognition to nurses for their contributions and commitment to quality health care and brings awareness to the importance of nurses in the care, comfort and well-being of all of us.”

Now that’s a day worth honoring, one that’s not like other days, far outshining the banality of the white box on the calendar. And one that can kick your guts out, in the best, most inspiring way.

Typing instead of griping

The natty new baseball cap I ordered from The New York Times arrived the other day, and it’s a solid accessory/hair-hider. Though gaspingly overpriced, the black cap embossed with a gothic Times logo is as plush as a teddy bear and slips on with snuggly élan. (Now where’s the New Yorker tote promised with my subscription? Does anybody actually use totes?) 

The cap came speedily, an anomalous on-time arrival. The mail’s a mess. Of seven books I’ve ordered, three have gotten lost in transit and the rest have taken up to a month to come. I’ve received four refunds. The pandemic’s to blame, and The New Yorker was civil enough to apologize for the tote delay, citing the crisis. (I so don’t need a tote.)

The crisis. Damn. We’re whipped and we never had a fighting chance. Stuffed indoors, grounded from going out to play, we are occasionally embalmed in boredom. But there are things to be done. Typing beats griping. Thumb wrestling: a reliable time-passer.

This whole topic is as tired as we are, a cliché looking for a new angle, a brand-new nag. What am I going to do, write about the dog again? Regale you with what I ate for lunch? Chat about the movies I’ve been watching? 

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    The Marx Brothers: comic chaos

Done. I’ve rewatched some Marx Brothers, riotous rapscallions of Dada-esque anarchy, and the peerless noir “The Big Sleep,” in which Bogart’s smooth, smoke-wreathed private eye falls dangerously hard for the dangerously young Lauren Bacall while on a gnarled murder case. Howard Hawks crisply directs William Faulkner’s script, which is based on Raymond Chandler’s pungent detective classic. The movie sits in my personal pantheon of bests. Likewise the Marx Brothers masterpiece “Duck Soup.” (Speaking of soup, that’s what I ate for lunch.)

Outside, children shriek and gambol — my shriek and gambol days ended at 35 — their exuberant simian antics echoing through the streets and the trees and surely breaking social distancing guidelines. So what! They’re young and invincible! Barring them indoors is like corking a volcano. It’s gonna blow.

Children are not my tribe. I have none, and I’m grateful for that. I do not feel bereft in the least. Parents do not arouse envy in me. (In fact, I consider it this way: bullet dodged.) My nephews are terrific and as close to parenthood as I ever want to get. The only creature that calls me Poppa is the dog, which affirms twin beliefs that I’m part canine and he is made of magic.

After reading and a walk, it’s back to the keyboard, one of my few comfort zones. Warmth is not a comfort zone. Temperatures are rising, summer’s rottenness creeping in. People love this stuff — heat, sweat, sun — another popular phenomenon I spurn, like dinner parties, reggae and the American version of “The Office.” (I’m typing and griping.)

Which means summer hibernation will come naturally. I love A/C, loathe UV. But really, will there even be a summer, or will it just be streaming? Will people sit in wide, loose circles on patios, sliding down face masks to sip rosé and eat guac? The annual September block party — will that too be nixed? Maybe not. Eighty households can Zoom together at once, right? Surely. Hot dogs and deviled eggs, those are your responsibility.

Pin the tail on a good cause

I don’t care what they’re doing, where they are, or what condition they’re in — donkeys unfailingly crack my heart. That includes old brooding Eeyore, even if his despondency seems almost willed, like the chump shrugged and gave up and became a droopy black cloud of clinical donkey depression. (How does chipper Pooh put up with him?) 

Eeyore, a stuffed animal held captive by Disney, isn’t my concern. It’s real donkeys, which always look pitifully downcast, afflicted and abused. I’ve seen them in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, China, Thailand, India, Mexico, Morocco. These distant relatives of horses are exploited largely as beasts of burden, weighed down with pound after backbreaking pound of cargo, whipped and lashed, mostly in Asia and Africa. In China, which owns the bulk of the world’s 41 million donkeys, donkey meat is a delicacy. (Alongside cat, dog, rat, shark, horse, snake, porcupine, raccoon, deer — it’s a hell of a menu.)

I was reminded of the donkey plight — I generally try to banish thoughts of wretched pack animals — when I was distracted by an online ad for the Indian animal sanctuary Animal Rahat, which rescues cows, bulls, dogs, birds, camels, snakes, donkeys and more from rampant hazards, neglect and abuse across the despairing subcontinent.  

2007-03.donkeys-hauling-bricks-at-brick-kiln-4.jpgThe ad spotlighted donkeys, which, as mentioned, I reserve a soft spot for. Photos of emaciated, crestfallen, injured animals accompanied a plea to sponsor donkeys for as low as $12. That donation would provide vaccinations and antibiotics for 30 donkeys. I immediately clicked my PayPal account. (The donation funnels through PETA, which sends it to Animal Rahat.)  

The creatures have it as bad as imagined, and worse. Says Animal Rahat: 

“It’s a common belief in India that ‘beasts of burden’ don’t need as much nourishment as other animals, so they are commonly left to scavenge through garbage piles to find food scraps. It’s only a matter of time before our vets are called out to provide these neglected animals with emergency treatment after they swallow plastic and sharp objects.”

I read more, I donated more. I’m in the mood. I know this is Covid-19’s moment, but animal causes are in perpetual panic. The virus is exacerbating the situation. I’ve also given money to PETA, two local animal shelters and the SPCA. I’m sure I’ll do more.

The damn donkeys. They captured my heart, with those big dewy eyes, pointy vertical ears and stout mini-horse bodies. The mounds of bricks strapped to their backs didn’t hurt. Maybe I’m a pushover, a fool. Maybe I’m one of them, just an incurable jackass. Fine.  080319-8-blog-3-768x576.jpg

(“Rahat,” incidentally, means “carefreeness” or “insouciance” in Urdu. I like it. For more about Animal Rahat, go here.)

The blessing of boredom

Get outside.

The experts speak this as an imperative. The words throb with anxious urgency.

GET. OUT. SIDE.

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They urge us to recess from in-house isolation, get fresh air and do brisk exercise near home. It is health-smart, holistic and good for the body, mind and, if possible, social maintenance, though the latter is rife with rules: keep a six-foot spread between bodies; no physical contact; wear a face mask (we all look ridiculous, like third-rate bandits); spray hissing mists of Lysol® all around, including on your friends, who will thank you later. Or not.  

About all that’s left in outside activity, besides risky trips to the store, is a lone jog, a bike ride or a walk with a fellow homebound relative through the apocalyptically empty neighborhoods of Coronaville, whose population, once robust, plunges by the day.

So there I am, taking a stroll about our idyllic, all-American hood, which is suddenly shrink-wrapped in dread. It’s a breezy 60-something degrees with hazy, semi-blinding sunshine. Blooms and petals swirl everywhere, polka-dotting streets and sidewalks, celebratory confetti for spring’s arrival.

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I wear burgundy track pants and a burgundy hoodie, looking like a tall glass of pinot noir, something I wish I had with me to offset the tedium of aimless ambling. But Cubby the unflappable fur ball is with me (pandemic, shandemic, he woofs) and we walk up the hill, to the thriving rose gardens, him stopping, sniffing and tinkling every two feet, doing the one-leg-in-the-air thing, a kind of yoga that instills both wonder and winces. (Is this Downward Dog?)

We are not alone. I count six other mutts and their masters walking about, puttering and peeing, shouting across the way to waving friends who are well over the prescriptive six feet apart. The gist: Be well, take care, say hello to so and so! Oddly, I hear no one say, This sucks! Spirits are high. We are the healthy ones, strolling in the sunshine. For now.

Despite the fine weather — I strain to call it that, for spring is my second least favorite season — it’s time to go back inside and resume being a stolid, musty homebody who reads, writes, sees movies and does a bit of what you’re looking at. As boredom overtakes outside, it’s time for a new brand of boredom inside, one filled with sighs and gripes and yawns and, in those precious moments of clarity, a reasoned muttering: Thank heaven.

Reckless randomness in scary times

Like many of you, we are grumblingly housebound during the seismic spread of the coronavirus, aka the Trump Pandemic, a little scared, a lot curious, shuffling clenched and downcast in a novel world of social paralyzation and dystopian edicts, woozy with the surreal and unthinkable. Enter: takeout, Amazon, streaming movies, books we should have read eons ago, board games, bottomless web surfing, asphyxiating boredom, idle nose picking, staring contests, etc.

The end is nigh. 

Or not. 

Yes, bars, restaurants and even Starbucks are shuttering, and it’s a cataclysmic cluster-boink. I can’t even get a haircut now, so by July I’m going to look like Weird Al Yankovic.

But if you have the gall, guts and lunacy, there are ways out. Like zooming to far-off lands that may well be (yes, they will be) infected. Peek yearningly at PlanMoreTrips, a new site that promises, with a pinch of perversity, to “Find the Best Corona Virus Flight Deals,” like: a $137 roundtrip from New York to Lima, Peru; a $43 roundtrip from Dallas to Las Vegas; or a $231 roundtrip from New York to Barcelona.

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Lima, Peru

All of that makes me want to travel badly; I strain at my leash. But it’s a global crap-storm out there. I don’t want to go to Paris when the D’Orsay and the Louvre and Frenchie restaurant and my three favorite cinemas in the Latin Quarter are closed. (Though I still kinda really do.) And of course I don’t want to get ill or make anyone else sick. So we sit. We stew. We play Scrabble. Shit.

Now for some random, corona-free stuff (just what you were waiting for) … 

—  Cubby the hirsute hound finally got a haircut. In puppy parlance, he was groomed. While his body is shorn and tiny now, almost tubular, like a Pringles can, the Baron Munchausen beard and mustache remain, rather regally. And all that hair removal revealed something we always suspected was there, but never saw: a bright pink butthole. Sorry, but it’s true. And it’s strangely alarming, yet delightful too. He’s got one! He’s even less freakish than we thought! Good boy.  

  Spring dispirits for many reasons. Besides sunshine and heat and bugs and pollen, and everybody chirping about such delirious wonderfulness (they’re all wack), there are insane allergies some of us contend with. Actually, I combat them daily, through all climes, so I can’t blame the new season, as much as I detest it. (Did I mention swimming pools, barbecues and shorts?) Thing is, my allergy meds barely work, if at all. Runny nose, watery eyes are my main symptoms, and they could not vex me more. I’ve tried an array of meds. This week I’m moving on to Flonase. Can anyone vouch for this pricey nasal spray? (Gross, right?) 

  Timely thought: “Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil, or imaginary. Take your pick, and choose wisely.” — Sam Harris, author of “The End of Faith”

—  Serious film fans know Werner Herzog — prolific auteur of mind-tweaking features (“Fitzcarraldo,” “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”) and consciousness-rattling documentaries (“Grizzly Man,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”) — as a brilliant iconoclast, Germanic chaser of “ecstatic truth,” and venerated pop culture polymath (he’s voiced himself on “The Simpsons” and plays a villain in the “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian”). This week, he’s interviewed in a New York Times Magazine Q&A under the unsurprisingly prickly headline “Werner Herzog has never thought a dog was cute.”It’s typically profound and brain-expanding. “How do we give meaning to our lives?” Herzog says. “That question has been lingering over my work and life. That’s what I’ve been pursuing for a very long time.” And from there, he’s off.29mag-talk-jumbo

—  The other day, Yahoo!, the oddly antiquated web server, rapped my knuckles with a stern warning to be a nice boy. An admonitory email landed in my rarely used Yahoo! mailbox, part of which reads: 

“It has come to our attention that you may have violated the terms of service on Yahoo! Please reread the terms and cease any use of your account that may violate them. If your use of your account is brought to our attention again, we may terminate it without further notice.” 

I’m shaking in my sneakers, big bad Yahoo! (Thank you for providing the exclamation point I otherwise would have furnished in that sentence.) My crime: replying to a couple of comments on a Trumpian news story on the site, which unaccountably attracts a large, semi-literate, far-right readership. The comments, dumb as dirt, borderline racist, the usual vile cant, set off my volcanically anti-Trump triggers and, helplessly, I typed some half-baked responses, teeth grit, smoke poofing from orifices.

Perhaps stooping to the commenters’ level, I called them ignorant hillbillies who should skitter back down the holes they crawled out of — or some such balderdash of which I am not proud. I used no curse words (wait, isn’t “hillbilly” an expletive?) and hardly drew outside the lines. Yahoo! is having none of it. I broke the rules. I upset some Neanderthals and a corporate legal department. To the corner I go. Such a bunch of … yahoos.

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Tale (tail?) of a hirsute hound

Cubby the wonder dog has gone a very long time without a good, healthy grooming. His face is downright Ewokian, that wet button nose struggling to peek out from the furry foliage. His brows are thick, heavy, senatorial. His body would make Bigfoot blush. Such inordinate overgrowth is witnessed in only the most luxuriant jungle weaves and tangles, invoking machetes, flamethrowers and scythes fit for Death himself. 

Cubby, we submit, needs a haircut.

He knows it, we know it. Supercuts knows it. As does the kid down the block who mows the neighbor’s lawn for five bucks.

Seriously, clippers and razors should be at the ready. Cubby fears and loathes the grooming ordeal — sedatives required — and we sympathize. And so we let him go, and grow. But it’s in his best interest to be shorn, for comfort, hygiene, and to not look like David Letterman. 

Right now, three months after the photo below was taken, Cubby’s corkscrewy fur looks like swirling oceans of gray Reddi-wip, curling waves lurking with mythical sea monsters. If you think he looks lush here, you should see him now. To namecheck another “Star Wars” critter, he’s wildly Chewbaccian. I live with a barking, carpet-staining Wookiee. 

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Then again, here’s what he looks like after a spanking professional shearing. Such grooming makes him appear bald and sprightly, thinner, a bit rat-like, though retaining that preposterous Spaghetti-O tail (which I adore). Gone are the Austro-Hungarian mustache and frowzy Haight-Ashbury beard. (Gone too is that panting smile, curiously.)

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All of which is to say: 1. A barbershop chair awaits Cubby’s fuzzy tush. 2. Call it a springtime trim, ripe for warmer days. 3. Wanted: Dog groomer who can handle a hirsute hound that’s neurotic, nervous and Xanax-popping, and may require a John Deere to cut mighty scrubland. We exaggerate, a little.

Boning up on how to be a real dog

I thought it’d be nice for Cubby the dog to have, at long last, a true, honest-to-god bone, the kind dogs spend hours gnawing and worrying, trying to get at every last nip and nibble of gristle and gore and marrow, keeping boredom at bay, digging into denuding the hunk of flesh-coated cow skeleton with grunting determination, tail-wagging vim and feral gusto. I thought it’d be a fitting Christmas present for the rescue hound who hasn’t experienced all the things prototypical cartoon dogs (see Marmaduke bury his bone in the backyard like treasure) have enjoyed in their inky realms, a rite of passage, like college graduation, or circumcision.  

So the other day I impulsively bought a $6 beef bone at Whole Foods, which was wrapped in that red fishnet nylon in which holiday pet stuff is so often swaddled — festive but peculiar. My plan was to present the bone to Cubby on Christmas morning, per the whole gifting hullabaloo. But at home, when he sniffed it out in the grocery bag with disarming excitement, I decided I wanted right there and then to see how this would all play out: Cubby the beef bone virgin getting his first totally supreme chew chunk. It went …

Hang tight. I digress. First, in the seasonal spirit, Cubby was forced to do what so many little boys and girls must do: get their picture taken with Santa Claus. Children over 3 years old tend to love this ritual because Santa asks what they want for Christmas. It’s like sitting in the lap of a magic, wish-granting genie. (Those under 3 tend to use Santa’s lap as a red velvet diaper, bawling all the while.) 

Pretty sure Cubby’s Santa, part of a charity for Doggie Daycare, didn’t ask what the dog wanted for Christmas (and if he did, I hope Cubby replied: “A big, real-life bone, Santa!”) 

So here he is, posing, pantingly, with the third least convincing Santa Claus ever, be he at the North Pole, Macy’s or in the mall atrium:

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If Santa looks befuddled, Cubby looks mortified, thinking, “For Christ’s sake — really?” That wide canine smile is pure theater, gleaming fakery, a gaping signal of full-body shock. (It’s exactly the kind of “smile” I pull out of my bag of humiliations for those mechanically posed group shots on “special occasions.”)

Cubby survived the photo shoot with Santa Paws. The bone was a slightly different story. He loved the smell of it but he didn’t quite know what to do with it. It was big, a fist-sized rock, and Cubby is not so big. Frankly, he acted weird about the whole thing, unnerved, as if an alien creature had been introduced into the house.

He sniffed it and gingerly circled it. He daubed it with tentative licks. When the cats sauntered past, Cubby suddenly became proprietary — this is mine — and angrily chased them away.

And then it happened. Cubby gripped the marbled brick in his little maw and trotted about with it. Acceptance!

As this mating ritual played out, I thought the dog was nuts. Not only was he acting neurotic, he was putting off chomping on this amazing bone that had meat and sinew baked on the outside that he eventually tore off with his front teeth, stripping it like bark, before digging into the tunnel stuffed with roasted marrow.

He worries it fiendishly and greedily, like there’s gold inside. (And there is. Anybody who’s had bone marrow in a better restaurant knows what culinary pleasures await.) 

Cubby’s horizons keep expanding. He learns new things all the time. I look at the big bone experience as a critical test of true doghood. 

He passed.

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Cubby zonked after a long day of gnawing and jawing his new bone.

The best movies of 2019

1. “Honeyland” — In this gorgeously observant documentary, weathered 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.

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2. “Booksmart” — Barreling forth with raunchy vigor and unbridled zest, this coming-of-age comedy 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” to John Hughes — “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, yah, 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.

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3. “Pain and Glory” — Antonio Banderas, broken-in yet handsomely fit, plays an aging, ailing film director re-encountering figures from his past: his disapproving mother and a former lover, to an actor in one of his most famous movies. Pedro Almodóvar’s lavish drama, revealing the artist in peak form, brimming with soul, pinballs through time for a richly felt reflection on life, love, art and mortality.  

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4. “The Chambermaid” — Ghostly quiet and meticulously observant, this narratively spare but humanely complex Mexican drama follows a hotel maid on her monotonous rounds, evincing stark lines of class. What slowly unfurls is an unsparing character study that’s as hermetic as it is riveting. 

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5. “American Factory” — When a Chinese company takes over a closed General Motors factory in Ohio, an epic culture clash erupts in this fascinating and timely documentary. A Chinese billionaire opens a glass factory in the empty GM facility, hiring two thousand blue-collar Americans. Things seem good until they don’t, and the stark differences between high-tech China and working-class America are exposed for explosive tension and real-life drama. 

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6. “Ford v Ferrari” — A gas. This based-on-a-true-story traces how the Ford company chased, literally, Ferrari in the pursuit of engineering the fastest racing car possible. Matt Damon and Christian Bale are at their charismatic peaks as driving rivals slash pals who ping off each other, willing pawns in the big contest. 

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7. “Non-Fiction” — Olivier Assayas’ French dramedy is a tireless, tonic gabfest that had me speed-reading the flurry of subtitles more than drinking in the 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.

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8. “Parasite” — A totally implausible class fantasy set in South Korea, Bong Joon Ho’s comic-horror parable is a bit too on-the-nose meditation on wealth vs. poverty. Yet it soars with a warped originality and off-kilter atmosphere that never quite lets on where it’s going. There will be blood. 

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9. “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.

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10. “Her Smell” — Elisabeth Moss’ performance in this shambolic punk-rock portrait is as athletically interior as it is exterior, spiked with physical fits and childish spasms. 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 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.

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The rest (in alphabetical order):

  • “Atlantics” — In Senegal, an engaged woman, Ada, is in love with another man, Suleiman, who takes to the ocean with co-workers for better job prospects. The men seem to vanish in the sea and a distraught Ada seeks signs of her lover everywhere. What begins as a linear romance morphs into an unpredictable drama of workers’ rights and supernatural mysteries. If it doesn’t wholly congeal, Mati Diop’s film is a uniquely promising debut.  

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  • “Climax” — With the head-spinning, hallucinogenic swirl of body (and camera) movement that is “Climax,” Gaspar Noé takes his visual and thematic tics past the edge of woozy chaos. When a talented dance troupe’s party is ruined by a bowl of LSD-spiked punch, hell uncorks. What was a glorious pageant of writhing bodies becomes a descent into a violent nightmare of screeching, thrashing individuals trying to relocate reality. It’s vintage Noé. 

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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. Deeply heartfelt and human. 

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  • “Los Reyes” — A near-silent documentary following the tales, and tails, of two stray dogs — one old, one young — getting by in a Chilean skate park. The movie, dispensing with music, narration and anthropomorphic cutes, is astonishingly patient, relying on the dogs’ alternately mirthful and mournful antics, quizzical gazes, the way they doze unfazed among the rackety-clackety skaters and how they find joy in chasing balls up and down the concrete. 

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  • “Memory: The Origins of ‘Alien’” — Let’s cut to the chest: Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece “Alien” is forever remembered for one indelible scene: the chest-burster, when a gore-slimed serpent chews its way out of the torso of a hapless John Hurt. Great detail and respect are granted the monumental moment in this dizzyingly in-depth, intellectually exhaustive documentary. But the film’s focus stays mostly on the mythology behind the influential classic, and the obsessive density of it all is both boggling and breathtaking.

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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. If Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature debut falls into a formulaic groove, the film doesn’t flinch from bursts of gritty violence and chewy realism.

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  • “The Nightingale” — This bloody revenge thriller from Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”) is as unflinching as it is affecting. Set in 1825, in a British penal colony in today’s Tasmania, the drama ignites when a young female convict is raped as her family is murdered. Dazed and enraged, the woman, Clare, 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 emotionally cathartic core that almost buffers the rattling violence.

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  • “Rocketman”Parts “Tommy,” “Moulin Rouge” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Dexter Fletcher’s bedazzling, beguiling, Broadway-esque biopic of Elton John is vaulting rock opera, fire-hosed in glitter and gold, stars and sequins. The facts of John’s life — born Reginald Dwight, he was a timid piano prodigy who exploded to pop megastardom with lyricist and co-writer Bernie Taupin — are embroidered with lush fantasy that makes the perfect soundtrack (in spite of cornball “Crocodile Rock”) even more infectious. 

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(Acclaimed movies I have yet to see: “Little Women, “Uncut Gems, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire, “The Lighthouse, “Queen & Slim,” “Varda by Agnès.” One that conspicuously didn’t make the cut, Noah Baumbach’s both flat and histrionic “Marriage Story.)

* Bonus fun — Gaseous, over-worshipped disappointments by auteur royalty:

  • “The Irishman” — Scorsese’s plodding, punishingly overlong true-crime saga is historically engaging but rarely entertaining. Baggy and monochrome, the 3½-hour epic misses the color and snap of “Goodfellas,” which it badly wants to be. With geriatric turns by Pacino, Pesci and De Niro, it should be called “Oldfellas,” including the palsied vision behind the camera. Scorsese has recently griped about superhero movies repeating themselves with the same tropes and plots. At the height of hypocrisy, he cannibalizes his own oeuvre with diminishing returns.

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  • “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” — A kaleidoscopic catastrophe, Tarantino’s blundering ode to ‘60s movies, music, television and celebrity is an indulgent sprawl; a brutal, unfunny mess; an embarrassing cartoon scrawled by an ego-drunk adolescent. The film is self-smitten, wearing a slap-worthy smirk, and at times, like the last half-hour, is downright despicable. onceheader.jpeg

Random reflections, part V

A freestyle digest of stuff — anecdotes, lists, thoughts, opinions … 

paul-rudd-headed-to-netflix.jpgIn 2007 I interviewed actor Paul Rudd at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. He was charming, funny and absurdly laidback. As he answered one of my questions he blurted out a lengthy, earth-rattling burp. “Whoa,” I laughed, “what flavor was that?” Rudd replied: “You know what’s weird? It wasn’t a flavor so much as an actual scent, like a potpourri, a mixture of peppermint and brisket. I went to (barbecue joint) The Salt Lick last night, and I ate brisket. I’ll tell you something: It was very different than my Nana’s brisket.”

51Joc3GzvtL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Ben Lerner’s “10:04” is a breed of intellectual masterpiece, a novel I’ve praised here before. His 2011 debut “Leaving the Atocha Station” is also remarkable, the work of a poetic brainiac with torrents to say, crackling with life observations. His new novel, “The Topeka School,” is his most acclaimed yet — and I’m not sure why. I read fully half of it, and while the writing is pristine, the thinking impressive, I got lost in the choppy, distracting narrative thread. Unmoored, I put it down, migraine emerging. Yet I’m not through with the scandalously young Lerner. I’m taking “10:04” on my 14-hour flights to and from Japan — my third communion with that radiant auto-fiction.

My list of favorite cities has shifted just-so over time, and will likely keep doing so. For now: 1. Paris (eternally tops);  2. Istanbul;  3. Tokyo (this may change after my upcoming visit); 4. New York;  5. London;  6San Francisco;  7. Sevilla;  8Amsterdam.

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Numero Uno

The New York Review of Books is hallowed home to academic think pieces about all things, from politics to poetry, by some of our most prodigious and stylish writers: Zadie Smith, Adam Kirsch, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Rachel Cusk. Why then do I find the essays gassy, tedious, enervating, as long and dry as the Sahara? Never, not once, have I read more than a third of one. (It’s me, I know.) 246x0w.jpgRightful cult classics, “John Wick” and “John Wick: Chapter 2,” starring a lank-haired, bullet-proof Keanu Reeves, are action-flick orgies, chop-socky pistol poetry of a kind unseen since the heyday of John Woo’s “The Killer” and “Hard-Boiled.” I could barely wait for this summer’s “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.” And then, ugh. Grindingly repetitive (though that urban horse chase is nifty), drawn out and mired in its own smug formula — with a wider narrative scope that attenuates rather than expands the affair — this one is all diminishing returns. The film runs 131 minutes. I quit it, bored, fatigued, with 40 minutes left to go. This Wick is no longer lit.

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It’s still hard to reckon, a year after his death, that American novelist Philip Roth never won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Like most awards, it’s a scam, a sham. Roth was one of the greatest, dwarfing most writers who have indeed won the prize. That he received only a single Pulitzer — for 1997’s astonishing “American Pastoral” — is itself a gross dishonor. Every once in a while this pops into my head and I get all rankled. philip-roth-e1545164284312.jpg

Gusty and blustery, a wind storm howls, churning treetops like crumpled paper, flinging acorns that pelt cars and roofs, dropping like small rocks, falling leaves twirling, the house creaking, windows rattling and Cubby the dog, shaking, leaps into my lap, where he curls into a donut, glancing up with fraught brown eyes that say, simply: “Papa.”               This lasts all day. img_0832.jpg

When I wrote about film in Austin, a particular local celebrity didn’t like me. That’s because I didn’t write super stuff about her — one Sandra Bullock. I thought she was a cutesy hack, all dimples and snorts, with dismal taste in roles. Knowing she told a colleague that she wanted my “head on a stick,” I won’t deny a small surge of pride.

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“Ms. Congeniality” —   enough said.