One day Nicolas Cage is going to die. It will be sad, maybe shocking. Hopefully, in rightful madman form, he will spontaneously implode, eyes bugging, equine teeth gnashing, receding hairline beading with sweat, perhaps a cackle or two.
If we’re not prepared to lose this most erratic of thespians and eccentric masterminds, he apparently is. As you may know, he already has his own tomb erected in New Orleans’ oldest cemetery, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, which was founded in 1789. He bought the tomb in 2010 for a reported $3.2 million. He has big plans. Dying is one of them.
Amid mossy, decaying, crumbling graves from the 18th and 19th centuries stands, with majestic incongruity, Cage’s 9-foot-tall pyramid, resplendent in polished white marble and engraved with the Latin maxim “Omnia Ab Uno,” meaning “Everything from One” — fittingly enigmatic. (The cemetery is also home to late New Orleans voodoo queen Marie Laveau, one reason it’s said Cage picked this lot, though he’s never publicly explained why he settled on New Orleans’ most revered cemetery with a 9-foot-tall pyramid.)
I just got back from touring the cemetery and of course Cage’s ostentatious, rather comical spectacle is a big draw. Women plant lipstick kisses on the marble surface (giggling facetiously we hope), and selfies are mandatory. Locals detest this empty pyramid of death, as it befits the environs with the stylistic subtlety of a Popeye’s Chicken on the Champs-Élysées.
The actor incidentally just visited the mausoleum a couple weeks ago during Mardi Gras with a gossiped-over “mystery girlfriend.” They wore matching black leather pants for the occasion, dig.
Cage is not a native New Orleanian, but he’s owned homes in the city, including a place so haunted it caused him ghastly tax problems (it’s called evasion), cratered a soaring movie career and kinda made him crack up.
— In New Orleans next month, I’m forgoing the vaunted National WWII Museum for the more mischievously skeevy Museum of Death, a labyrinth of the gross and ghoulish and other alliterative G’s (ghastly, grisly … ). Body bags, coffins, car accident photos, Manson family ephemera, cannibalism — and, well, I’m making a poor case for my mental stability. Why not do both museums? Because I’m booked for a cemetery tour (I know, I know), a paddleboat cruise on the Mississippi, a French Quarter tour and a hop through the Dixie Brewery, which is $5 compared to the war museum’s nearly $30 entry, which is twice as much as Museum of Death tickets. And, really, aren’t both museums monuments to mortality in their ways? (Plus, I’ve seen “Saving Private Ryan.” It didn’t go well.)
— People slap flashy stickers and decals all over their laptops, without realizing the machines are not skateboards and are anything but billboards of hip. A Dell? Fine. A Mac? Plain vandalism.
— Best movie from the ‘70s I recently re-watched: rattling rock melodrama “The Rose,” starring an atomic Bette Midler, shrill and crazy, on a Criterion DVD. Directed by Mark Rydell, the tipsy tragedy, loosely based on Janis Joplin’s hasty flame-out, was shot by storied cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, with assistance on the feral concert scenes from lens legends Conrad Hall, László Kovács and Haskell Wexler. Toni Basil choreographed Midler’s bestial gyrations. The movie, a buckling downer, holds up rapturously. (Watch it with “A Star is Born.” Discuss.)
— I saw the trailer for the new Wes Anderson movie, “The French Dispatch.” My eyes bled. My mind sizzled in its teeny brain-pan. Once upon a time, Anderson was one of our most exciting young filmmakers (“Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore.”) He’s now one of our most exasperating. And cloying. And irritating. And incurably cutesy.
— “All gunfighters are lonely. They live in fear. They die without a dime or a woman or a friend.” — Burt Lancaster, philosophizing in 1957’s otherwise poky “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” Sometimes I wonder: Am I a gunfighter?
— I liked but didn’t love Oscar history-maker “Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho’s catchy Korean comedy-thriller-horror flick. It swept the Academy Awards, becoming the first foreign-language movie to win Best Picture, which I’m all for. But the movie doesn’t explode. It’s not “Crash” or “Green Book” bad, somehow and embarrassingly snatching top honors — not even close. It is, simply, the most overrated movie of 2019. I placed it #8 on my top 10 list. It is very good. And I am so happy it shut-out “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” patently one of the year’s worst films. For those who haven’t seen “Parasite” but have followed its triumphs, I’m afraid some shade of disappointment is possible.
— Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker is one of the sharpest art critics I’ve read, and one of the lushest, most literate prose stylists around. Gifted as he is, he still says things like, “I’ve toiled all my life, in vain, to like myself.” He adds, “Writing is hard, or everyone would do it.” It is humbling.
— This is the most poignant line I’ve read in a book in some time: “There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds.” It’s from Jenny Offill’s deep and droll new novel “Weather.” I also liked this: “I’m too tired for any of it. The compromise is that we all eat ice cream and watch videos of goats screaming like women.”
— Winter is fast receding. Son of a bitch.
— I noted above that “Saving Private Ryan” and I had a dubious relationship upon its 1998 release. As a full-time movie critic, I gave the summer blockbuster two stars out of four. I recently located my love letter to the film, part of which reads:
“The World War II epic ‘Saving Private Ryan’ begins with a screen-size image of the American flag. The banner ripples in the breeze with patriotic solemnity, as John Williams’ score puffs its chest and gives a stern salute to our tear ducts.
“Dissolve to a scene of soft-focus Americana plucked from Norman Rockwell, featuring a family borrowed from a life insurance commercial. As this ideal of scrubbed, middle-class solicitude walks quietly toward a white cross in a military cemetery, the screen fairly creaks with labored pathos. You start to wonder if you’re watching a parody of a Steven Spielberg movie.
“Actually, it’s an inadvertent self-parody, for this is a Spielberg movie, his latest and most contrived attempt at serious adult filmmaking. Despite its unflinching (almost desperate) depiction of battlefield carnage, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is marred by mawkish indulgence and counterfeit drama, Spielberg’s twin weaknesses. The man can’t help it: He lards the film with freeze-dried sentiment, tingle-inducing declarations and cello cues. The considerable gore is largely separate from the main story; it’s a bombastic stage setter.”
One of my favorite Golden Age Hollywood actors, Kirk Douglas, died last week at age 103. The cause: overwhelming magnificence. Here debonair, there explosive, Douglas, he of the arresting crater chin, fetching floppy hair and feline growl, made a raft of movies, acting in, producing, or both. He could chomp a scene or recede with quiet, smirking menace. No matter what he did, the ecstatically watchable performer made every movie moment better. I’ve picked nine of his best starring roles, all worth a rewatch:
1. “Paths of Glory” — Playing against type in Stanley Kubrick’s gut-wrenching 1957 antiwar masterpiece, Douglas is a moral paragon among obscene military corruption, with scenes so emotionally powerful, they sear. (See this.)
2. “Ace in the Hole” — A scathing portrait of Douglas’ unscrupulous newspaper writer, who will ditch a man’s life to nail a career-making scoop, in Billy Wilder’s haunting and prophetic 1951 thriller. Deemed so cynical, one critic dissed it as “ruthless.” Consider that a compliment.
3. “Out of the Past” — Quintessential 1947 noir, directed by mood-meister Jacques Tourneur (“Cat People”), streaked with guns, fedoras, dames, snappy dialogue and mushroom clouds of cigarette smoke. Douglas, as an oily, vengeful gangster, hires Robert Mitchum’s private dick to find his mistress (Jane Greer, a classic fatale). Mitchum falls for his quarry and things get very, very complicated. This is Mitchum’s film — he’s in almost every shot — but Douglas slithers his way in, like a cobra.
4. “Detective Story” — Or: “The Angriest Cop in the World.” Douglas cleaves the screen in William Wyler’s 1951 chamber noir set over a single day in a police precinct station. He plays a draconian detective with a Vesuvian temper, always the bad cop in the face of criminal slime — “a one-man army against crime.” He has other, personal troubles brewing, too, making him even more mercurial, a violent, teeth-gnashing fury. He’s a spectacle, and he’s marvelous.
5. “Lust for Life” — The actor’s beautiful depiction, both physically and psychically, of the tormented, misunderstood-in-his-life painter Van Gogh, brings to the fore Douglas’ primal strength: inextinguishable passion.
6. “Lonely Are the Brave” — In screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s melancholy masterstroke from 1962, Douglas is a cowboy Quixote, living in modern times like they’re the Old West, happy to cling to a carefree existence on the back of his faithful horse. The drama, writes one critic, is a “hymn to rugged individualism and freedom slowly being strangled to death by voracious urban development.” Douglas is alternately euphoric and conflicted by the rule-bound world he must face. It’s heartbreaking.
7. “Spartacus” — Douglas and director Stanley Kubrick wrangled making this consummate 1960 swords and sandals epic, a friction that perhaps kindled the actor’s fiercely multifaceted performance. Through romance, slave revolts and mano-a-mano combat, he gives it his clenched-jaw all.
8. “The Bad and the Beautiful” — With frigid duplicity, Douglas plays an amoral movie producer in Vincente Minnelli’s exemplary Hollywood takedown that’s sometimes spoken in the same breath as “Sunset Boulevard.” If not as wickedly gothic as the latter, this entertaining soundstage drama hits its Tinseltown targets with giddy marksmanship. With Lana Turner, Dick Powell and an Oscar-winning Gloria Grahame.
9. “Champion” — Few original dramatic strokes here, but Douglas, as boxer Michael “Midge” Kelly, rages operatically, elevating a gritty sports melodrama to near noirish heights. It’s about sacrifice, family, commitment and finally integrity, something Douglas proved the epitome of — on screen and off. The 1949 role earned him an Oscar nomination, his first of three. (Three? Shame on you, Academy.)
Runners-up: “A Letter to Three Wives” (directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1949); “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (Richard Fleischer, 1954); “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (John Sturges, 1957); “Seven Days in May” (John Frankenheimer, 1964); “The Fury” (Brian De Palma, 1978).
The Las Vegas trip I wrote about many weeks ago is fast approaching, and I have so many qualms about it — still — that I often refer to it as “madly misbegotten” or “crazy-stupid” or “a dangerously prolonged snap of full-fledged insanity.”
I wonder: What am I doing? Here’s what I’m doing: I’m trying Vegas on for size after a lame visit 20 years ago, when I was as green as a gecko, this time for two days and three nights, tiptoeing out of my comfort zone of Big City Cosmopolitanism (Barcelona, Tokyo, etc.) and making the plunge into trash, cash and neon splash.
I’m going to the atomic-bomb-blasted Mojave Desert for some improbably fine dining, appalled and mouth-agape strolls through Disneyesque fake-scapes that perversely mimic Manhattan, Venice, Paris and Egypt, and possibly plopping coins into some one-arm bandits (I even know the lingo!), if they still exist. I hear coin slots are nearly obsolete in favor of tawdry video slots. But what do I know?
Not much. I picture myself getting up latish, say 9 a.m., and wondering what in the hell one does in Las Vegas at that hour, besides shake off the previous night’s debauchery. Breakfast/brunch buffets and gambling are what I’ve gathered. I don’t do either. Most of those bargain buffets are gruesome, Greco-Roman barf-fests and serious gambling’s for dolts and the delusional, so then what? I’m lost.
But not quite. To while away an hour or two there’s the curious National Atomic Testing Museum, which sounds about as festive as the Paris sewer tour I once took, without the fetid funk. I expect the grim and the grimy, hairy history and some shock (America did what?) and awe (kablooey!). HazMat suits preferably required.
More radioactive, hence something I surely won’t be doing, is the overrated-seeming Neon Museum, which currently is semi-colonized by electric signage designed by movie director, artist and Tiny Tim wannabe Tim Burton, whose films — “Edward Scissorhands” to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”; “Sleepy Hollow” to “Dumbo” — give me spontaneous cavities and slashing migraines.
Entry is normally $22 to walk about the corpses of old Vegas signage, but because there are emblems from Burton films the price is $30 and I’m not paying one extra dollar to see anything by Burton, kiddie clown and gothic goblin of make-believe, eyeliner ghouls and big-eyed bugaboos. (OK, I kinda liked “Beetlejuice.”)
For true titillation, I’m eyeballing at least two thrill rides, something Vegas, knowing its lack of sticky attractions, has stuffed itself with. The Big Apple Coaster at the ridiculous New York-New York Hotel barrels around a towering simulacrum of Manhattan, Statue of Liberty and all, with hair-blowing, cheek-fluttering views of the Strip and a pygmy Empire State Building.
Atop the landmark Stratosphere tower is the delectably named Insanity, described as a “ride that dangles you 866 feet in the air and spins you around, all while forcing you to stare at the ground. A massive mechanical arm extends 64 feet from the edge of the Stratosphere, and spins you at speeds of up to 65 mph.” As near to heaven as one can get.
Night falls. Instead of Vegas’ dazzling yet pocket-wringing Cirque de Soleil extravaganzas — I’ve seen a few in my day, all blaze and wonder — I’m opting forthe famed Comedy Cellar which, I’m certain, will be a jamboree of mediocrity. (Discount tickets help.) There’s a lot of bad comedy out there. As the adage goes, dying is easy; comedy is hard. I have a feeling I’ll witness mostly the easy part. But that’s some of the fun of live comedy, he said wistfully.
Onto food. Here’s what I’ve lined up, dinner-wise:
— Bouchon — Sitting at the bar at Thomas Keller’s renown French bistro at The Venetian, I’m mulling the French onion soup (Soupe à l’Oignon) and Gnocchi à la Parisienne. (Or maybe the Poulet Rôti, or roasted chicken.)
— Lotus of Siam — Regarded by some as the best Thai food in America, this cozy hotspot is also a bucket list destination. (I don’t have a bucket list, but I’m adding this to it.) Recommended are moo dad deaw (Thai-style pork jerky), a deep-fried marinated spicy pork appetizer, and khao soi, crispy duck on a bed of egg noodles in curry, with lime and pickled vegetables. I’m getting both.
— Jaleo — At celeb chef José Andrés’ renown Spanish joint, jamón ibérico de bellota is dubbed “the most luxurious cured meat in the world.” I’ll take that and perhaps the José Experience tasting menu. Thank you.
That sounds like a lot of fun, actually. But face it, Vegas is really one elaborate rip-off, a con job, a losing proposition, a fool’s game, especially if you gamble. Even those thrill rides I mentioned: they’re $15 and $29 a spin. I just looked that up and I’m currently making new plans. I hope there’s a merry-go-round nearby.
Sin City clichés are only reinforced as I re-watch movies like “Casino,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” Albert Brooks’ comedy classic “Lost in America” and Elvis Presley’s camp classic “Viva Las Vegas,” in which he warbles:
Viva Las Vegas/With your neon flashing/And your one-armed bandits/Crashing all your hopes down the drain
“Crashing all your hopes down the drain”? Coming from the King, I don’t know if I should laugh or cry. What I do know is care must be taken. I believe the slogan: What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.
Which I take to mean, my money is filched in Vegas.
We all have embarrassing lists of things we once thought were beautiful, whatever they are, like Monet haystacks or Kieslowski films.”
— Megan O’Grady
Confession: Once upon a time, I was entranced by the poetry of Jim Morrison. Well, entranced is pushing it. I was interested in it, I liked it, I thought it was … neat-o.
At 17, I was spongey and vulnerable, easy prey for a bad poet with good hair who’d whisper sweet nothings (and I do mean nothings), like:
Did you have a good world when you died?/Enough to base a movie on?/I’m getting out of here./Where are you going?/To the other side of morning.
At a friend’s urging, I had just finished the cathartically lurid biography of Morrison, “No One Here Gets Out Alive” (a sensational read, I’m telling you). It’s a thick mass market paperback and, as a budding rock ’n’ roller (I drummed for years, had hair down to here), I snarfed up Morrison’s simultaneously literary/glittery exploits, his Nietzschean excesses and his laughable self-crowning as the “Lizard King.” And of course his rockstar antics on- and offstage as the Dionysian frontman of The Doors. (Dead at 27. Long live the King!)
In retrospect, Jim Morrison was a ridiculous, even dangerous cultural icon, despite that nimbus of curls and his body’s perfect synergy with tight leather pants. He was heedless, abusive, narcissistic, a drug addict, pure outsize ego and unshackled id. I thought he was cool. I hung a poster of him in my college dorm room. Until I put away childish things — in the dumpster.
As journalist Megan O’Grady points out at the top of this post, “We all have embarrassing lists of things we once thought were beautiful, whatever they are.” And what are they? They run from the sentimental and the tacky to the precious and pretentious. It’s stuff we grow out of, intellectually and aesthetically, as we mature or plainly change.
(Such things are not to be confused with guilty pleasures, those so-bad-they’re-good objects: “a film, a television program or a piece of music, that one enjoys despite understanding that it is not generally held in high regard,” explains Wikipedia, that handy font of clickable sagacity. Did someone mention the 1965 schlockfest “Village of the Giants”? So delectably awful, so crazily unimpeachable.)
Some other things I’ve changed my mind about or sloughed off like so much dead skin:
— In my late teens and early 20s the paintings of Salvador Dalí mesmerized me — all that trippy dream razzle-dazzle, latticed beauty, gimcrack grandeur and overblown symbolism. Yet Dalí the man, P.T. Barnum with an easel and vaudeville villain’s mustache, was a showoff, charlatan and prankster — not the king of Surrealism, but its preening court jester. With cartoonish Freud-meets-frenzy, he sabotaged his art, which was ultimately hollow and self-aggrandizing and so often silly.
— As stated, I fell for Jim Morrison’s sophomoric poetry — and, almost as tragic, his band The Doors, which couldn’t afford a bass player so let Ray Manzarek fill the role with his corny, carnivalesque “keyboard bass.” I wish, like Morrison, I could blame whiskey and psychedelics for this troublesome stretch. Addled adolescence takes the rap.
— Oh, ’80s-era stone-washed jeans (before they inevitably got hip again). Whoever thought these were a good look (um, me) probably digs denim shorts. They scream John Hughes, “Dirty Dancing” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.” More a shriek than a scream really.
— Early in my dubious hard rock heyday, I fell briefly under the spell of metal hair bands Ratt, Mötley Crüe and W.A.S.P. They were loud. They were flamboyant. They were L.A. bad boys. They spritzed gallons of Aqua Net on voluminous tresses. In the case of W.A.S.P., the singer drooled fake blood. (Gene Simmons should sue.) I can only snicker now, with a sour wince. I blush a mean shade of fake blood.
— How this happened, the cosmos will never tell, but during its bestselling peak I actually enjoyed Robert James Waller’s saccharine rural romance “The Bridges of Madison County” (I know). I eagerly recommended it to my mom. I think she finally decided not to strangle me in about 2011.
— It was adorable the first time, candied, cooing and so très French. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s twee 2001 romantic comic fantasy “Amélie“ is a juicy smooch of primary-color whimsy, lush style and steroidal art direction. Its star Audrey Tautou is a human gumdrop. When I watched the film again, all of these descriptives became detractions. It grated and cloyed. It was unfunny and charmless, smitten with its own labored cutes. And Tautou’s mincing protagonist was someone to be throttled, not adored. The pixie was now poison.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
10. “Her Smell” — Elisabeth Moss’ performance in this shambolic punk-rock portrait is as athletically interior as it isexterior, 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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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, isastonishingly 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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
(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.
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” — A kaleidoscopic catastrophe, Tarantino’s blundering ode to ‘60s movies, music, television and celebrity isan 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.
I’ve aired it here before, and if I haven’t I will now: almost every comic book movie bores me to suicidal tendencies. They make zero narrative sense and are the most cynical kind of anti-art — soulless, silly, self-inflated money machines. They’re a cineplex pox.
That said …
A couple of weeks ago auteur Martin Scorsese volunteered his opinion about Marvel comic book movies. Here are his now notorious words, which sparked howls of defensive dialogue, mostly from comic book movie writers and directors (naturally):
“That’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
As one might exclaim in the cartoony Marvel universe: kapow!
Then, yesterday, Francis Ford Coppola, Scorsese’s esteemed comrade in canonical ‘70s Hollywood, hurled perhaps a bigger grenade into the controversy:
“When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration. … I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again. Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”
Not enough? Lauded British filmmaker Ken Loach offered his two pence this week about superhero films:
“I find them boring. They’re made as commodities … like hamburgers … It’s about making a commodity which will make profit for a big corporation — they’re a cynical exercise. They’re a market exercise and it has nothing to do with the art of cinema.”
(What superhero movies do I like, you might ask? I love “The Dark Knight,” “Logan,” “Iron Man,” “Unbreakable,” and one of the early “Spider-Man” flicks, I can’t remember which one because there’s like 12.)
A freestyle digest of stuff — anecdotes, lists, thoughts, opinions …
In 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.”
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; 6. San Francisco; 7. Sevilla; 8. Amsterdam.
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.) Rightful 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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m a nervous guy, anxious about some things (social situations, small children, cancer, Tyler Perry movies) though calm about others (air travel, clowns, death), making my anxiety pool a kind of grab-bag, a Kellogg’s Cereals Fun Pak, if you will.
Neuroses are a blast, a frothy enchantment of stomach pangs, irritable digestion, insomnia, jitters, fatigue, hypochondria, fatalism and an ambient unease that makes you want to switch skins with the nearest stable person, no matter if his name is Rupert.
Mornings are the worst. But as the day unfurls, the bad, the black, slowly burn off. By night I’m mostly calm, relaxed, hardly even thinking about brain tumors and leukemia. I assume that’s why I am steadfastly nocturnal, vampiric, stiff drink in hand.
For instance, when I wake each morning, my upcoming Japan trip sounds like a terrible idea, an exorbitant blunder and colossal miscalculation. My stomach flips; I wince. Around midday, I warm to the thought and picture an experience of Michelin-star sushi, bullet trains and megalopolis madness. By dark, optimism flowing, I’m on the computer or flipping pages plotting my incontestably epic and mystical adventures in the Far East.
They make pills for this, of course. But meds are at best serviceable. Too meager a dose scarcely soothes the nerves. Too much tends to narcotize. Things are lighter — aren’t they always when you’re napping? (Not really. My dream realm is an id-iotic hellscape of troubling memories, fraught encounters and anything that gnaws on my insecurities. Kafka would clutch his chin and nod.) Plus, you don’t know what’s what with some of those sedatives. A doctor once told me to chuck my Xanax. “That stuff is crack,” he scoffed. Oh.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a panic attack, unless that time browsing with my niece at the American Girl® doll store counts. Though I have experienced shortness of breath, racing heart and a kind of overwhelming, generalized terror of being alive. I suppose that counts, even if I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a clinically defined panic attack and merely my reaction to deliriously unfunny ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s latest Netflix special.
Want to churn my anxiety? Make me speak in front of a group, crowd or microphone. I don’t do meetings, panels, town-halls, televised interviews or, for that matter, karaoke or charades (charades — parlor game of the dark arts). I kind of recoil singing “Happy Birthday” among friends. With pathological resistance, I avoid having my picture taken (keep your cameras to your selfie).
My low-frequency embarrassment, raking self-consciousness and broken self-esteem are congenital delights. In the words of Morrissey (indeed, Morrissey), I am infected with a ”shyness that is criminally vulgar.” None of it is fun or poignant. But what are you to do? Therapy, meditation, yoga, tequila shots, a fistful of Clonazepam. These have been tried. Futility reigns. Relief is fleeting, often downright illusory.
And yet we soldier forth. We function in spite of the topsy-turvy tummy, mild paranoia, paper-thin skin, social squirming, hyperbolic pessimism, etc. Then I think: I’m going to Japan in three weeks. That’s something. During my extensive travels, my angst all but evaporates. I am unshackled, life’s daily detritus dispersed by an existential leaf blower. For this trip, I expect elation, moderate ecstasy, radical stimulation and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. Nothing short of sublimity.
Let’s cut to the chest: Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece “Alien” is forever remembered for one indelible scene — a “very significant moment in film history,” genre director Gary Sherman says — the chest-burster sequence, when a gore-slimed, serpentine creature chews its way out of the torso of a hapless John Hurt while he’s having dinner, leaving him a quivering, blood-drenched corpse and unleashing the title monster to slither away and torment the rest of the spaceship’s unsettled crew for the next hour.
Great detail and respect are granted this monumental moment in Alexandre O. Philippe’s dizzyingly in-depth, intellectually exhaustive documentary “Memory: The Origins of Alien” — from wild talking-head theories (Hurt is literally giving birth!) to gruesome behind-the-scenes footage of this greatest of gross-outs.
One of those talking heads, author Ian Nathan, deftly parses the visceral and dramatic importance of the scene: “The chest-burster changes the complexion of the film from a kind of epic to a kind of horrible, horrible intimacy that’s claustrophobic and inward. Suddenly everybody is trapped. Suddenly the spaceship is small and confined” and the film becomes a primal survival story.Which, I say, renders “Alien” such a splendid, fearsomely realistic haunted house tale during a grisly second half that vibrates with unendurable tension and dread.
“Memory” makes a strong point that the mythos and monster in “Alien,” which was written by sci-fi fanatic Dan O’Bannon, were hardly original. “‘Alien’ didn’t come out of a creative vacuum,” we’re told. “It drew from a whole heritage of American science fiction.”
O’Bannon cherrypicked sources over the years, including comic books, H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction, and B-movies like “It! The Terror from Beyond Space” (1958), Howard Hawks’ “The Thing from Another World” (1951), “Planet of the Vampires” (1965) and, most extensively (and strangely), Roger Corman’s lurid “Queen of Blood” (1966).
But it was O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott’s mutual exposure to the lithograph “Necronomicon,” a phantasmagoria of wondrous and hideous creatures by Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger, that cemented the look and language of “Alien.” Scott rhapsodizes about the titular creature, sometimes known as the Xenomorph: “This is beautiful, not just threatening, and it also has very sexual connotations. It’s like a rather beautiful, humanoid bio-mechanoid insect.”
Giger himself did some artistic cherrypicking, synthesizing Egyptian mythology, dream imagery, Boschian fright-scapes, medieval dragons, Hindu goddess Kali and, key to the chest-burster, the disturbing canvasses of British artist Francis Bacon. “Giger consolidates every monster from every mythology from around the world into a single creature. It embodies the mythic Other,” USC professor Henry Jenkins says.
Why “Alien” works so well is its commitment to the kind of gritty realism of so much superior 1970s American cinema. An Altmanesque naturalism permeates the film, and it boasts gorgeous Kubrickian photography, a crack cast of virtual unknowns, deliberate pacing and adult restraint.
It is, simply, an art film. It spurned the space-western kicks of “Star Wars” and the Keane-eyed aliens of “Close Encounters” (both 1977). Suddenly we were served a new, naturalistic depiction of outer space in the sooty, clanky, eerily rain-soaked cargo ship Nostromo, a floating industrial city, a grungy “space truck,” that fatefully investigates a distress signal beamed from an alien planet.
“Memory” is fascinating when talking about artistry and craft, but veers onto shaky ground when its commentators argue too hard that “Alien” is a product of its social and political times or, almost laughably, gaze at the film through a scrim of academic feminist theory. Says one: The movie is a “male fantasy of the kind of oppression that had been handed out to women over the century of guilt that was part of masculinity.” (Where’s the chest-burster when we need it?)
Fortunately the focus stays mostly on the allegory and mythology behind this iconic, massively influential movie, and the obsessive density of it all is both boggling and breathtaking. The film “can mean many, many, many things,” says writer William Linn, conceding, “I don’t think we can get to the bottom of ‘Alien.’”
“Memory: The Origins of ‘Alien’” hits theaters and VOD on October 4. Trailer HERE.