Just a typical day out in Austin, Texas

A long time ago in the hip and happening capital of Texas …

AUSTIN — Motorcycles have their place: soaring over rows of parked trucks; buzzing maniacally inside the Globe of Death; revving on stage at Judas Priest concerts. But they really stank up the city over the weekend, when nearly a billion rumbled in with their owners and the chicks who ride on the back for the annual hog-athon.

The bikes were gorgeous, exotic creatures: fetishistically sculpted chrome and steel, sparkling in the sun, low-slung and high-maintenance. Many appeared like they just vrooomed out of TV’s “American Chopper.” And they were everywhere downtown, rolling in parade formations and shredding the muggy air with hot chainsaw screams and crackling flatulence.

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In other words, they were noisy and they took every single parking space. (One bike per meter? Please. You can stuff four of those things between the painted lines.) Still, I’m glad these hairy, leather-laden compatriots, who seem to believe a well-tied head scarf serves the same protective function as a helmet, enjoyed the weekend fellowship and Austin’s renowned ethos of tolerance. It gives the city that rowdy edge.

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Timothy “Speed” Levitch

I didn’t even mind that the bikes’ symphonic violence (thousands of tubas played in a rain of napalm) sporadically drowned out my conversation with Speed Levitch at Casino El Camino. Through the bar’s ambient chatter, through the jukebox punk and metal, the choppers chopped.

Speed’s the star of the garrulous documentaries “The Cruise” and “Live From Shiva’s Dance Floor.” The movies reveal a young eccentric whorling through funny, far-out reveries, spinning streamers of soliloquy around the neon rave of his own mind. He’s a performance artist, a living one-man show, radiating an internal spotlight. He’s pretty charismatic, if kind of freaky.

Part poet, part gypsy-hippy, Speed has lots of friends in town and performs here often. He came from New York to do his show over the weekend. Saturday night he was merely hanging at one of his favorite local bars to get one of his favorite local dishes, Casino’s eggplant sandwich.

As we wove through flotillas of idling two-wheelers, Speed told how he’s reinvented his famed New York tour-guide shtick into ambulatory sidewalk theater. (Watch the above movies and you’ll understand.) He was inspired by a friend who coached the late Spalding Gray, Speed said. “He told me, ‘Do what you feel and keep a clear communication with your soul, amplify it, and then call it theater.’ ”

Then Speed sped off.

Later, at the city’s premiere arts venue: Some two hundred people attended Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi fugue “Solaris” at the Paramount Theatre.

The turnout surprised me. “Solaris” isn’t action-packed summer adventure. It has more in common with Ingmar Bergman, fog and glaciers than George Lucas, androids and lasers. It’s a challenging, deeply spiritual and very long trip. It’s been called the Soviet answer to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But Kubrick’s film is “Spaceballs” compared to the abstruse, though fascinating, eye-squinchingly wise “Solaris.”

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Nearly everyone endured all three hours, despite an intermission — an invitation to flee. As the red velvet curtains closed over an elegant “The End” tag, the audience sat in dumbfounded silence. Eventually, murmurs were heard. Blood returned to vital organs.

I’m picturing some of these brave souls walking to their cars in a stun-gun stupor. They drive silently through the dark, the radio off. At home, they strip, lie on their bed in the dark, and softly weep.

Far in the distance, a chopper revs and groans.

Retro movie review: ‘Wendy and Lucy’

“Wendy and Lucy,” from 2009, is an unsung pearl of stripped-down indie filmmaking. Directed by Kelly Reichardt, it warrants a revisit by dint of its thematic relevance, stirring lead performance, and the soulful presence of an utterly endearing dog named Lucy. My review:

In the minimalist heartbreaker “Wendy and Lucy,” Michelle Williams plays Wendy with a premature perma-frown and a youthful spirit that’s been crumpled like a recycled can. Lucy is her faithful pup, a golden mutt with dark, serious eyes and the cool composure of Robert Mitchum.

She’s a good dog. Wendy’s striving to be good, too, but fate and circumstance have thrown up a gauntlet of bad luck with no room in which to budge. With impressive calm and fierce nonjudgment, the movie puts you in Wendy’s shabby sneakers and taps into our morbid economic moment when it can seem that a dog is all you have.

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Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to her scruffily lo-fi “Old Joy” is a desolate story told in miniature with almost forbidding quietude. It crackles on life’s lowest, most natural frequencies, banishing slash-cuts and musical cues, except for the singsongy, slightly eerie tune Wendy sometimes hums, and courts the rustle and flow of its woodsy Oregon setting. Such a threadbare aesthetic speaks of self-conscious formalism, yet form and function here are gracefully and expressively wed.

The story, what little there is, starts in mid-sentence, with Wendy and her steady companion stopping in a small Oregon town on their way to Alaska, where Wendy plans to get work in a cannery. “I hear they need people,” she tells an old parking lot security guard (an extremely un-actorly Walter Dalton) who becomes her angel in hard times.

Wendy has an exhausted voice for her age. It’s breathy and weary and assumes a pitch of exasperated despair as her troubles mount. Her car breaks down, she gets caught shoplifting dog food and, topping things off and setting the nonplot in motion, Lucy disappears.

Wendy searches for Lucy and, with no money, tries to get her car fixed. That’s it. But of course that’s not it. The movie’s a symposium in American poverty, about how people living on the brink of destitution can land there with a shift in the wind. It’s about how people respond to a woman whose only problem seems to be chronic bad breaks. It’s about how you and I respond to that dude and his dog with a cardboard sign at the intersection — our fellow citizens and brethren. Wendy becomes different things to different people: parasite, criminal, an everywoman in need. It’s about our state of affairs, right now.

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Reichardt and co-writer Jon Raymond, who displayed a similar fascination with the dispossessed and marginalized in “Old Joy,” purposely strip Wendy of backstory and even much personality, and this could challenge viewer empathy. Williams, sporting cut-offs, a tomboy shag and vacant eyes, recedes into the role, making Wendy a wraith in society, all but invisible. It’s an entrancing anti-performance.

You could say nothing happens in “Wendy and Lucy,” but if it were your life, everything happens. The movie doesn’t make it easy on pleasure-seeking viewers. It proudly basks in the quotidian now and lives in its exquisite details, be it Wendy washing and changing in a dingy gas station bathroom or walking past graffiti that simply says “Goner.”

In its stubborn airiness “Wendy and Lucy” grants you gaping spaces in which to wander with the protagonist and feel her metastasizing despair. Without melodrama or the clanking machinery of by-committee plotting, the movie engenders a sense of effortlessness that snares you in its lyrical spell.

It’s tempting to call this frowzy story a tone poem, but it’s not. It’s cold, naked prose, scratched in gravel with a stick.

A few things keeping me afloat

A glass half-empty sort of fellow, I maintain a suspect relationship with reality, an existential leeriness that has proven keenly unhelpful. Though I’ve fought it, I’m kind of stuck with it, a black and blue complexion not unlike a bruise. 

The world’s not helping — Trump, Syria, Israel, Bolton, the EPA, fires, flooding, shootings — but I’m still able to locate an array of things to be glad about. Small, but good.

I could mention the pleasures of last week’s birthday, my family’s sound health, my sister-in-law’s spiffy new car or the dog’s chewy glee over the pig’s ear I got him. I could mention my niece’s turquoise hair, my friend’s marriage or how the Stormy Daniels affair is closing in on the president like a vice. 

But I won’t, even though I just did. 

Here are a few other things currently leavening my oft-smudged outlook:

  • Last week saw the release of “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History,” a book this circus freak-show fanatic had to get, and did as a birthday present. Yunte Huang’s widely praised biography of famed conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker is a vast, panoramic narrative of the twins’ bizarre, unlikely life (wives, numerous children, slave ownership) in 19th-century America that deftly weaves details and personalities from U.S. history into a rich, fluttering tapestry. Elegant prose twins with magnificent detail.

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  • The giddy anticipation of mulling world travels is a reliable endorphin. I recently posted my dual urges to go to Budapest and Amsterdam — the former I’ve never been to, the latter I’ve visited in quick, couple-days spurts. Always looking ahead, with one eye on the calendar and one on the map, I get a jolt just thinking about strolling new streets, eating exotic cuisine, ogling art, architecture and people. It’s already April. Time to start some serious research. (Spoiler alert: I’m leaning toward Amsterdam.) 
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Amsterdam
  • I’m captivated by the film “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library” by that doyen of documentarians, that genius of fly-on-the-wall observation, Frederick Wiseman (“High School,” “La Danse”). Released last year and running a whopping three and a half hours, the movie is a leisurely, painstaking amble through the hallowed marble halls, offices, shelves and auditoriums of the NYC institution. Wiseman’s eminent pointillist eye and febrile curiosity fashion an immersive experience inside everything from folios to fundraising, e-books to behind-the-scenes bureaucracy, programs to performances, community outreach to the organization’s pumping inner organs. Almost defiantly, “Ex Libris” is culturally kaleidoscopic. 

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  • Another birthday gift whacking the sweet spot is a squat, artisanally stylish bottle of Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin, a German, handcrafted, batch-distilled, 47-percent alcohol (94 proof) beverage that tastes like an Everlasting Gobstopper in liquid form, swirling and multi-chromatic — fragrant, aromatic, smooth, rich and tangy. My brother was scanning the gin shelves and three individuals, one who worked in the shop, voluntarily told him that Monkey 47 was the best gin they’ve had. Three random people. He was sold. Now we both are.

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Retro movie review: ‘The Darjeeling Limited’

“The Darjeeling Limited,” from 2007, is minor Wes Anderson but, as always, colorful and interesting, frantic and funny. I bring it up because of Anderson’s new “Isle of Dogs.” Wildly stylized, a bit melancholy, “Darjeeling” holds up better than many think. My review upon its release:

From “Rushmore” to “The Darjeeling Limited,” Wes Anderson inserts us into lush and artificial places, heady imaginary worlds slathered in sizzling primary colors and soundtracked to infectious ’60s rock that courts a light-headed buzz. His ornate sets and surgical compositions are like dioramas made of gumdrops and lollipops. Be sure: They will cause toothaches.

Anderson is a showman — a show-off — with a dandy’s sensibility for design and décor, a little bit of Pedro Almódovar swished with Richard Lester, lovely but spasmodic. That aesthetic hit its mark in “Rushmore,” one of Anderson’s comic masterstrokes (the other is “Bottle Rocket”), but got out of hand in the cloying “Royal Tenenbaums” and the meandering “Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” cutesy confections that strained to delight the Anderson cult with rampant quirks.

Anderson’s a hipster nebbish, the self-conscious artist as a youngish man still locating a workable balance of personal voice and cinematic immortality.

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Perhaps chastened by the pallid response to “Life Aquatic,” Anderson pulls back in “Darjeeling” for something sweetly inviting. Co-written by Roman Coppola and one of the film’s stars, Jason Schwartzman — both of whom trace bloodlines to the Coppola dynasty — this yeasty picaresque about three troubled brothers on a bumbling train journey across India shows Anderson in fair control of his material. Excess gives way to highly stylized understatement, grounded by an unmistakable thrum of melancholy.

In fact, the affair is so mild that Anderson’s ideas about reconciliation and healing amid a dysfunctional family (abiding themes in all his movies) don’t quite jell. When the rural Indian dust settles, it’s not clear what the characters actually accomplished in their distinctly un-mythic quest.

Still, it’s a fun ride. Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody make an amusing trio whose passive-aggressive deadpan is relieved by fits of brotherly scrapping. Yet we never get caught up in their professed spiritual journey or the small adventures into which they shamble.

Anderson tames the dirty, dizzying India of reality and other India-set films. He brightens it up with that free-flowing electric pallete and organizes the chaos to fit his fussy sensibilities. From all reports, he even gets the smell of the country wrong. (“I love the way this country smells,” Brody’s character says. “It’s kind of spicy.”)

Anderson has no interest in the heaving Indian miasma. He fails even to contrast our goofy heroes’ monied, white upper-middle classness with the local penury. Everything is beautiful: Their titular train is all luxury coaches, and when they enter a far-flung village, the light falls perfectly, the colors mesh and flowers abound.

That village sequence, by the way, centers around a sudden tragedy midway through the 90-minute film. It’s a thing of sadness, but Anderson mishandles its impact on the story. The incident not only shuts down and sobers up the boys, who have been clownish entertainers until now, it throws a pall over the rest of the show.

A blowzy charmer, Wilson mostly reprises his Dignan character from “Bottle Rocket,” playing the bossy, control-freak brother with an iron plan. He’s brought a travel assistant with a PC and printer to be cumbersomely schlepped around.

Eerie to some, par for the celebrity course to others, Wilson’s character sports a mummy’s worth of facial bandages through the film, thanks to a failed suicide attempt, which recalls the actor’s recent real-life suicide attempt.

All three brothers bear wounds. Schwartzman, who mysteriously goes barefoot the entire trip, looking like Paul McCartney on the “Abbey Road” album, is nursing a broken heart, and Brody’s stuck in a moribund marriage. The trip, ring-led by Wilson, is also a way to bring the brothers together after a year of silence following their father’s death.

Slight as it is, “The Darjeeling Limited” is of a piece in the Anderson oeuvre. Ferrying between poles of enchantment — happy levity to wistful sorrow — it tenderly limns shattered family dynamics, and does so with panache. Anderson’s visual tics are in full flower: the swift, information-packed pans; long horizontal tracking shots; lyrical slow-motion. (And, hey, there’s Bill Murray!)

Some will call this mellow picture minor Wes Anderson, which would be reductive. I call it growth.

Getting critical about critics

Good essay at Slate today titled “The Reviewer’s Fallacy,” which includes the subhead: “When critics aren’t critical enough.” When I read that line I let out a resounding if whispered Hallelujah!

The article, by the terrific Ben Yagoda (see his knockout book “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing”), discusses the rankling discrepancy between the opinions of professional critics and regular consumers of books, movies and music, and wonders why so many critics exalt so much art that just plain bites.

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“Critics,” Yagoda writes, “have been charged with being offenders of a few specific types:

  • Over-intellectual nitpickers who blame works for not being what they were never intended to be: the ‘Daddy’s-Home-2’-isn’t-Molière syndrome.
  • Soft touches who’re in the pockets of studios and record labels. Most egregiously, ‘quote sluts’ supposedly craft money notices for the express purpose of being featured in display ads.
  • Chummy logrollers — a perception heightened in the social media age. In a 2012 Slate piece called ‘Against Enthusiasm,’ Jacob Silverman wrote, ‘if you spend time in the literary Twitter- or blogospheres, you’ll be positively besieged by amiability, by a relentless enthusiasm that might have you believing that all new books are wonderful and that every writer is every other writer’s biggest fan.’ ”

I know the types. I reviewed films at a major daily newspaper for 12 years, and, despite some very kind accolades, I wasn’t the most popular guy in town. To many readers, I was a naysayer, a contrarian, a hard-ass (and, yes, an asshole). To me, I was simply honest, discerning, discriminating. When you saw as many movies as I saw — about 10 a week — it gets easy to winnow the wheat from the chaff. Your crap-detectors become sharper, more attuned, and your patience for mediocrity and flat-out bilge shrivels and dies. You get tough. Compromise is the critic’s kryptonite.

“It can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap,” Yagoda quotes sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon as saying, promptly agreeing with him: “It’s inarguable that the majority of what comes down the pike, in any medium, is mediocre or worse.”

As a persnickety reader, finicky TV watcher and choosey filmgoer I emphatically concur with Sturgeon and Yagoda’s furrowed-brow attitude, which is one of frequent disappointment, confusion (people actually like this rot?) and exasperation. Being a Negative Nelly can be a lonely spot. For instance, I’m not crazy about the acclaimed series “Stranger Things.” The stance has made me few friends. I think even the dog is angry at me.

Critics, Yagoda argues, are often suckers. They “fall prey to a sort of hermeneutic Stockholm syndrome. They experience so much bad work that they get inured to it. They are so thankful for originality, or for a creator’s having good or arguably interesting intentions, or for technical proficiency, or for a something that’s crap but not crap in quite the usual way, that they give these things undue credit. You see this in reactions to Coen brothers films.”

Love that Coen brothers dig. Yagoda’s article is well worth a look — the link is in the opening graf of this entry — and includes trenchant quotes about softball criticism from George Orwell and Elizabeth Hardwick, who says — and  “Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.”

The 10 best movies of the year, so far — Part II

In July I scared up a list of the 10 best movies of 2017 up to that point. (That list is here.) Since then, the Oscar-bait season has commenced and the year is almost a wrap. I’ve caught up with some of the movies I missed earlier and saw many of the new batch, though I have yet to see raved-about titles like “Call Me By Your Name,” “Lemon,” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.”

For now, here’s the second installment of the best movies of the year, so far:

1. “Lady Bird” — By turns a sweeping and intimate coming-of-age dramedy of devastating charm, heart and honesty, Greta Gerwig’s feature debut stars a phenomenally nuanced, preternaturally poised Saoirse Ronan as a high school senior grappling with the usual: budding hormones, blossoming opinions, bristling anti-authoritarianism and a mother (the great Laurie Metcalf) with whom she’s at crippling odds. It’s familiar ground, but Gerwig and Ronan whip it into a consistently fascinating, funny and profoundly felt journey that’s not easily shaken. Indeed, it’s intoxicating.

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2. “The Florida Project” — Ugly yet beautiful, soaked in blazing Day-Glo Floridian hues and druggy homeless miseries, Sean Baker’s affecting follow-up to his 2015 stunner “Tangerine” celebrates the anarchy of childhood as told through the impish eyes of a little girl named Moonee (jaw-dropping newcomer Brooklynn Prince). She lives in a long-stay motel with her bedraggled (and be-drugged) mom (the superb Bria Vinaite, a kind of Courtney Love doppelgänger at her mascara-running worst), where she forms a pack of fellow summer-break youngsters who raise hell to the perpetual consternation of motel manager Willem DeFoe, who’s at his fuming best. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s illuminating and something of a tour de force, with a miraculous denouement that swells the heart with hope.

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3. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” — A teenage girl is raped and killed and months later the case is still not cracked. The girl’s fed-up mother (a ball-busting Frances McDormand, who will get an Oscar nod) rents three blood-red billboards that accuse the local police of ineptitude in handling the case. No one is happy about it, especially the police chief (the reliably riveting Woody Harrelson) and his loose-cannon underling (crackpot genius Sam Rockwell). As Tarantino once was, writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) is a master at balancing dark humor and bloody crime kicks, seamlessly blending violence and whorling emotional textures. The film is streaked with a Coen-esque unpredictability that’s whiplashing and totally winning.

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4. “Good Time” — With flickers of the young Pacino and De Niro, Robert Pattinson is revelatory as a scrappy, dirty, dangerous two-bit criminal, who’s on the lam after a comically/tragically botched bank robbery. The lo-fi film, by the gifted Safdie brothers (“Heaven Knows What”), pulls you on a thrilling run-for-your-life tumble through nocturnal Queens that’s at once loose-limbed and sweatily taut. A raw portrait of redemption and ruin, pocked with ground-level authenticity, it exhilarates as it harrows. Co-writer/co-director Benny Safdie’s performance as Pattinson’s mentally disabled brother will cleave your heart.

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5. “Jane” — There’s heartache, too, in this absorbing documentary about famed chimpanzee expert/primatologist Jane Goodall, which is composed of hitherto unseen film from her decades in the African jungle, as well as family home movies. Goodall comes off as a winsome Mother Teresa, trying to preserve her hairy pals and the planet to boot, and the footage often grazes the breathtaking (and heartbreaking). Caveat: Along with primates dying of terrible diseases, there’s a nauseating burst of internecine chimpicide on display. It’s brief, but brutal.

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6. “Wind River” — Taylor Sheridan, writer of the gritty near-masterpieces “Sicario” and  “Hell or High Water,” tackles another noirish crime drama for his fine directorial debut, which starts at a chug but gathers velocity for an uncommonly intelligent thriller about people and place. After a brutal rape and murder on a remote Native American reservation in snow-socked Wyoming, a green FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) is called in to take the case. She’s joined by a compassionate local wildlife officer (a soulful Jeremy Renner) and soon they are deeply, and dangerously, entangled in the crime’s harrowing complexities. Sheridan’s a superior writer — the dialogue is terse and crackly — and his instinct for mood is unerring. Somber, but bracing.

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7. “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond” — This bizarro documentary peek at the extreme idiosyncrasies of an overly committed artist — in this case the mercurial Jim Carrey — is as squirm-inducing as it is enthralling. In the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon,” Carrey portrayed daredevil comedian/performance artist Kaufman, but he pulled a full Method stunt, refusing to step out of character after “Cut!” was yelled. Kaufman was the apotheosis of strange — inscrutable, volatile, scarily unpredictable — so Carrey’s on-set behavior as “Andy,” seen here in rare footage, rattled, roiled and enraged crew and co-stars. Director Chris Smith interviews Carrey today, and the actor explains his reckless impulses. Or at least he tries. (On Netflix)

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8. “Baby Driver” — As an expert getaway driver for a group of high-stakes bank robbers, Baby, as he’s called (a solemn but beat-happy Ansel Elgort), drives like a demon, churning smoke and pulling 50 mph pirouettes to the groovin’ pulse of tunes blasting in his ear buds. Director Edgar Wright has a clever concept — boy wonder drives the likes of Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx to turned-to-11 classic rock, funk and soul — but it doesn’t quite take off for a full-bodied narrative. Still, the music’s a kick and you get the best car-chase porn this side of the “Fast and Furious” franchise.

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9. “Obit.” — “Obits have next to nothing to do with death, and in fact absolutely everything to do with the life,” says New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox in Vanessa Gould’s tonic and info-rich documentary about the technical, curatorial and artistic aspects of writing compelling narratives about those who’ve passed. Zooming in on the august obit desk at the Times and its stable of crack stylists, the movie traces the creative evolution of the form — today obits can be “just as rollicking and swaggering as their subjects” — shows the persnickety process of winnowing worthy subjects from lesser ones and unveils the muses behind the writers’ elegant, punchy, even humorous essays. “Maybe it’s macabre, maybe it’s a little morbid,” one writer notes about his craft. This film shows that that is simply not the case.

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10. “Mudbound” — A sharp cast and lavish period detail invigorate this evocative and lushly filmed snapshot of a racially turbulent postwar Mississippi. Director/co-writer Dee Rees describes the relationship between a white family and a black family, which is uneasy at best, thanks to the harsh indignities of Jim Crow rule. Sometimes savage, sometimes soapy, the film aspires to an epic scope, but its made-for-TV feel, a conventional, predictable sheen, thwarts its loftier ambitions. (On Netflix)

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