A writer’s journey from journalism to fiction to television

One of the best books I read last year was the pungent novel “Fleishman is in Trouble” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Studded with surgical social perceptions, mordant laughs and vibrating relevance, it’s dubbed a “timely exploration of marriage, divorce, and the bewildering dynamics of ambition.” If you’re married, or divorced, beware: It has teeth.

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I attended a recent discussion and Q&A with Brodesser-Akner, led by one of her editors at The New York Times Magazine and complemented by a full house of admiring readers. The discursive confab was funny, at times boisterous, always sharp.  

The author is well-known for her smart and sassy celebrity profiles in the NYT Magazine. Among her most famous, and infamous, subjects are Bradley Cooper, Tom Hanks and Gwyneth Paltrow. Some interviewees have not been taken by her resulting articles, but, as a one-time celebrity profiler, I had to applaud when she said that she couldn’t care less what her subjects think of what she’s written about them; she cares only what her editors and her readers think. Truth first, feelings second. Or even sixth. 

Brodesser-Akner’s novel — a smash bestseller, award-winner and named a best book of 2019 by numerous publications — is being turned into a TV series for FX that she is writing with utmost fidelity to the source, she says.

With a showy, dimply smile, big laugh and swift, expansive wit, Brodesser-Akner regaled some 100 fans, chatting about her book’s characters and motivations, responses to the novel, the jump from journalism to fiction, family, parenthood, marriage and TV writing.

Some snippets:

 — “I always just wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to make my money writing. I went to film school because I wanted to be a writer and that program had no math or science requirements, which fit my educational criteria. I fell into journalism when I found out after college that they didn’t just hire you to write screenplays. I looked in The New York Times, which used to have a robust jobs section, and there was a job there for a magazine called Soaps In Depth. And I got a job there. A year later, because of my tremendous productivity and my rapport with my subjects [she laughs], I was approached by a larger soap opera magazine.” [From there, she contracted with GQ and the Times.]

About writing personality and celebrity profiles: “You come in with the stakes being pretty low. Profiles have been so done to death that all you have to do is make sure they’re true, and then you can experiment with them. It’s like what they say about chefs and roast chicken: When chefs all get together they make for each other roast chicken, because that’s the thing you’re supposed to show from this place of plainness what you can do with it. And that’s how I think of profiles: the roast chicken of journalism.” 

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On midlife, a looming theme in the novel: “Midlife is pretty shocking. I did not know how confusing it would be at this particular age. It’s like a second adolescence. But at least when I was an adolescent I thought I knew what I was doing. Now I know enough to know that I don’t. And there’s the constant strains of contentment and being distraught being in line with each other. It’s the way I feel about the suburbs. I can walk down the block and think, ‘This is beautiful. Wait, what kind of person finds this beautiful?’ That’s middle-age for me.” 

About turning “Fleishman is in Trouble” into a nine-episode TV series: “I am writing it now, and it is very hard to write television. They want it very faithful to the book, at least for the first season. They talk about a second season because that’s all they can do. That’s all TV executives do. They’re sharks; they can only swim forward. They want it to mimic the book as much as possible, which sounds easy and it is not. What’s hard about it is if you think about what my specific skills are — when there is no story, I can still write a story. I came to prominence on a story about Nicki Minaj in which I went to interview her and she remained asleep for the duration. I wrote 6,000 words about it. It was a rollercoaster.”

On going from magazine to fiction writing: “Magazine to fiction writing was amazing. Because the book was like a profile — that’s how I kept it in my head, it’s just a long profile that I’m making up. The hardest part of it was, whereas I think I’m a decent observer of people, to make people up and then have to observe them is to kind of deny what is so amazing about people, which is that they always contradict themselves and they’re unpredictable. Whereas creating something is to make up a series of predictable things.” 

“When I decided to write (the novel), I had this gut feeling of: ‘Oh, this is the one.’”

Brilliant bite-size books

I might be a tad late on this, but I’ve just discovered the marvels that are the mighty, mini hardbacks of the Picador Modern Classics series. I’ll be brief, out of breathless excitement and, well, what can I possibly add to the unadorned fact that these books exist and that, from what I can tell, there are only 12 titles available in this novel (pun, intended) format?

So, like the books themselves, I will be compact. 

But I repeat, with a shill’s enthusiasm, I am enamored of these brilliantly itty-bitty books, which are about the same dimensions of an iPhone 11 — if thicker, more paper-y, less glassy (and, alas, devoid of Siri’s seductive, dulcet tones). 

At less than six inches tall, the books are made for pockets, but they are still chunky, quality hardbacks, running about $16 list. They’re so adorable and beautifully designed, they’re practically edible, or at least highly collectible.

I just finished Christopher Isherwood’s devastating novel “A Single Man” in the Lilliputian edition. (My review: radiant.) Now I’m re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s lyrical 1980 masterwork “Housekeeping.Rarely do I get the urge to make a phone call on it, as mostly I’m wholly aware it is a book.

Other titles in the Picador collection include Denis Johnson’s masterly, evergreen stories “Jesus’ Son”; Joan Didion’s indelible essays “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”; Jeffrey Eugenides’ breakout novel “The Virgin Suicides”; Michael Cunningham’s shrewd reinvention of “Mrs. Dalloway,” “The Hours”; and Susan Sontag’s landmark study “Regarding the Pain of Others.

That means there are five more worthy titles to check out in the series. Do so HERE.

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Approaching Vegas, warily

New_York_New_York_Hotel_and_Casino_sm_i245v0.jpgThe 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. 

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The Neon Museum

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. 

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Insanity ride

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 for the 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.

And my money stays in Vegas. 

Damn.

Things we used to like

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.

Blush.

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!)

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The “Lizard 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.

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Dali’s ‘The Temptation of St. Anthony”

— 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.   

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— 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.

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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

Betting on Vegas

Twenty years ago I went to Las Vegas for the first time. After one night and a day and a half in which I crammed in a jolting rollercoaster ride, some dreary slots action, a few free casino drinks, one mediocre buffet and an excursion to the breathtaking Hoover Dam, I was deliriously bored. The plan was to stay two nights, but I cut out early. Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. For the most part, it can keep it.

So now, as I mull a few days in Vegas, apprehensions flare. I’m not entirely sure what the desert playground might offer me, even as I am older, wiser, my perspective expanded, evolved, more eclectic. Yet my curiosity about this capital of gilded debauchery has blossomed. The city’s dining has radically improved, flights are affordable and good hotels are crazily economical. My wanderlust, post-Japan, is in full swing. I need a quick fix. Something cheap, fast and out of control.

strip_b86ddbea-3add-4995-b449-ac85d700b027.jpgVegas is one of the last places friends and family would expect me to visit, like a concrete Cabo, a bacchanalian bender full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  

Yet it’s culture of a kind, unfiltered Americana, grubby and glamorous, crass and class, streaked with electric rainbows, trading in hedonism, peppered with amusement-park thrill rides, gaudy stage shows and two-bit wedding chapels. It’s loud, bright, obnoxious. I see in it something of a sociological study. I see writing fodder. Notes will be taken.

I’m not a gambling man (a grumbling man, yes). The only card game I know is blackjack, but I’m too reserved to sidle up to a table and play with strangers in the open. (Even though I did so once at Lake Tahoe and hit 21 three times in a row, winning a staggering $30. I was young.) 

Vegas platitudes pile up with ease. I forever associate it with frat bros and bachelor parties, lushes, heedless gamblers, the easily amused. It lacks soul, teeming with tourists doing a hollow shuffle, an empty hustle. I love lights, but there’s no beating heart beneath the blinking wattage. The blinding bloat lacks depth; it’s all sheen.

Still, I plan. And as I dig, the more intrigued I get. I’m going to go all in, play by Vegas rules, go with the flow, insert your own cliché here. I’m making reservations for Jaleo, Jose Andrés’ acclaimed Spanish restaurant, as well as Andrés’ Vegasy carnivore joint The Bazaar. I will hit a rollercoaster or two (of course; I’m loopy for a good, crap-your-pants coaster), see a brassy show (sans magicians), play a few money-sucking slots and maybe check out The Neon Museum.

Though I’m planning a short trip — I think I can get my fix in two days — I worry I won’t be able to fill the time with the kind of cultural nourishment I crave in my travels. I have to adjust my expectations, lower the bar and hope I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Usually I know mostly what I’m getting into in my journeys. This one’s a gamble. 

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Japan-tastic

As I sit here, speeding through Tokyo on the bullet train (or shinkansen), I gobble an egg salad sandwich, as simple as it sounds, bought at a ubiquitous FamilyMart  convenience store. I have no idea why the abundant convenience stores here — be it 7-Eleven or Lawson — make such famously tasty little sandwiches, so humble and dainty even the crust is removed. America, lick and learn. 

Day Five in electrifying Tokyo, I’m now on the train to this jovially mad city’s near polar opposite, ancient, placid Kyoto, a major urban center flavored with temples, shrines, gardens and the fading tradition of the rosy-cheeked geisha. I envision relative quietude, and mounds of soba noodles and many yakitori skewers. (For now, I’ve had my fill of sushi, though more is assured later. In fact, once in Kyoto, I was quick to mark a conveyor-belt sushi joint next to my hotel.)

Tokyo, as American kids would say, is lit. And lit (well, lighted, blindingly) it is, vibrating with a friendly freneticism, thrumming with courteous, controlled chaos. It lacks New York’s pavement-pounding determinism and San Francisco’s self-satisfied beauty and bohemianism. Order reigns and rules are followed — you’ll never see a jaywalker and there is absolutely no litter, not even a stray cigarette butt, bizarre for a city totally bereft of sidewalk garbage bins — but it’s not the slightest iota oppressive or authoritarian.

Far from it. This is a city filled with laughter, a robust nightlife (several nightlifes, as the many neighborhoods, from Roppongi to Shibuya, boast their own partying personalities) and a staggering overall kindness and politesse. The locals are approachable and often approaching, just to see where you’re from or if you need anything, and also to practice their English. They are unfailingly accommodating and vigorously helpful. People don’t yell, don’t argue in public, hoot or holler. Truly, the only vocal noise to break the sound barrier I’ve experienced is laughter.  

Now, a couple days later in Kyoto, I find, unsurprisingly, the same congeniality and penchant to oblige, but in a far more compact if still bustling setting. As with Turkey, it’s the people who make the deepest impression here. I’ve been pegged a misanthrope (who me?), a bit inaccurately, but whatever. People just make me nervous. I blame my own ample timidity, baseless anxieties, feeble fears that rattle the mind and inflame the stomach. The point is I find the people here wonderful, even wondrous, comforting; cool, models of affable composure to be emulated.  

There’s lots to write about this trip — the food, the drink, the stores, the temples, the shrines, all that electric overkill — but I’m vacating, so I’ll let pictures do the blabbing.

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Movies, yes. Art, not even.

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!

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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.”

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(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.)

Just saying …

The wonder of the Trump administration — the jaw-dropping, brain-exploding phantasmagoria of it — is that it doesn’t bury its rottenness under layers of counterfeit virtue or use a honeyed voice to mask the vinegar inside. The rottenness is out in the open. The sourness is right there on the surface for all to see.”

Frank Bruni, The New York Times

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Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.