Random reflections, part V

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

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

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

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

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Numero Uno

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

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

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

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

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“Ms. Congeniality” —   enough said.

Want to know if the dog dies? Go here first

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

So, alas, does the dog.

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

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Play dead. For good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does a kid die?

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

Is someone burned alive?

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

Are there clowns?

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

Does a head get squashed?

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

Is Santa spoiled?

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

Are any teeth damaged?

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

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

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

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Sorry, Marley — you’re doomed.

Good movies right now

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

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 “Booksmart”

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

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

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

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

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

In theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.

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

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

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

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

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

In theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.

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“The Souvenir”

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

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

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

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

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

In theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.

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 “What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali”

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

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

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

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

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“The Biggest Little Farm”

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

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

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

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

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

In theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.

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