4 for fall

1. Au revoir, France — hello, Ireland? That’s how it looks right now, especially since I’ve swapped my flight to Paris for a ticket to Dublin. So I guess I’m going to Ireland in October (insert a wee leprechaun kick). Or I think I am. The tyranny of the pandemic can upend everything, so while Ireland has relatively open tourism guidelines, things can change in a depressing snap. I scotched Paris because France’s Covid rules have become groaningly prohibitive — très crappy. I’m not torn up about it. I’ve been to Paris a few times, but this purportedly worldly traveler has never made Ireland. Frankly, it hasn’t lured me to its bucolic charms: rolling green hills, craggy ocean cliffs, mossy castles, obsession with pubs and, suspiciously, Guinness beer, minor museums and churches. It’s been on my index of non-bucket list destinations (including Australia, Iraq and pretty much anything Caribbean) until now. What clicked? The idea of something far and uncharted (and not tropical). Focusing on Dublin and, briefly, Galway, it will be a mellow journey, eight lolling days of food and drink, mild tourism, immersive history and lots of questionable Irish music. If I really get there, I’ll be lucky, charmed.

2. With uncluttered elegance, the film is called “Lamb, and it will chill you to the bone. Coming October 8, it’s described by hip indie studio A24 as “Icelandic folktale on top, Nordic livestock horror on bottom,” and it flows in the vein of A24 creep-outs “The Witch” and “Midsommar.” This one, by Valdimar Jóhannsson, is about a childless couple adopting a creature that is neither lamb or human: a sheep has given birth to a hybrid animal that has the body of a baby and the head of a lamb. Watch the trailer here. It’s unsettling. It’s eerie. It’s glorious.

3. I’ll take sweaters over sweat anytime, and I cherish every cool breeze that cuts through this soggy, sloggy summer. Let’s call it a wrap. I have things to do this fall and the chaotic weather, be it soak or scorch, is proving a deflating victory for climate change. It’s time for 50s and 60s and the end of wildfires, heat waves and floods. Yes, I hate summer, but no season’s perfect. Even autumn, the best of them all, has its pesky drawbacks, from confetti storms of leaves and Mandalorian costumes on Halloween, to football and corn mazes. We can deal.

4. And we curl back to Dublin, via Irish author Sally Rooney, whose new book “Beautiful World, Where Are You” arrives September 7. A globally celebrated wunderkind for her twin novels “Normal People” and “Conversations with Friends,” both written before she was 28, Rooney returns to her familiar milieu of middle-class millennials swirling in career, interpersonal and libidinous distress. Couplings and uncouplings of bright young things juice the story and, if her other books are any indication, things will get hot. And bothered. A Rooney fan, I’m looking for artistic growth in the new novel, her longest yet. Rooney’s not the most assertive stylist, her stubbornly lean prose tweezered of metaphor. In a 2019 post, I concluded that “Rooney’s smart little beach reads — people boast about how they gulp her books in one sitting — are crisp divertissements. But they are lacking in weight, import, poetry, the stuff of lasting literature.” That said, they’re nourishing and human, and I’m banking on “Beautiful World” to be a frothy palate cleanser after more vinegary fare this summer. Then, for some tang, I’ll grab E.M. Cioran’s self-explanatory “The Trouble with Being Born,” and the world will sleep well again.  

Ta-ta, Tarantino

It’s safe to say Quentin Tarantino doesn’t like me. We enjoyed several years of mutual respect, perhaps even admiration. But some time ago we lost that loving feeling.

I’m not entirely sure what happened. Was it the fact that I pretty much loathe his movies, except for ‘90s masterworks “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” and that, as a film critic, I got to say that and more in wide-circulation print? Probably. 

The last interaction I had with the hopped-up hipster helmer was when he cancelled our interview mere minutes before the appointed time. No official word why — the publicist was at a loss — but I was still oddly flattered, even thrilled. QT had cut me off. Shucks. Cool. 

And things were so good! I’ve sat down with and interviewed Tarantino at least four times, and watched many classic grindhouse flicks with him during his annual QT Film Festival in Austin. I wrote an effusive article about the festival that he told me he loved and went on and on about. I’ve been at several parties for him. I once honked and waved when I saw him walking down the street. He waved back.

Yet he’s always been thorny and brusque, too, like when he sat behind me during Richard Lester’s 1973 swashbuckling comedy “The Three Musketeers” and I left early to chat with someone in the lobby.

After the movie, back in my seat, I turned to him and told him how much I loved the movie as a kid. “That doesn’t mean shit if you weren’t watching it now,” he snipped. I turned back around, chastened, a whipped mutt.

Being berated by a major talent isn’t so bad. It’s kind of exhilarating. For two seconds they’re lavishing undivided attention on you. You feel a tiny bit important, even if you’re wincing. 

Mouthy and explosively passionate, Tarantino gives great interview. The man can gab, and he has plenty to say. Intense, garrulous, profane and scary-smart, his encyclopedic film knowledge rivals Scorsese’s, if the elder director was obsessed with biker schlock and zombie-cheerleader exploitation. His tireless hands make wild semaphores and he accents thoughts with assertive “All rights?” — a rhetorical flourish that he’s almost trademarked. I liked this whorl of energy quite a bit. 

He still makes garbage. Accomplished garbage, but garbage nonetheless. People often ask me why I find QT’s movies almost unbearable. The short answer is that they’re sophomoric, shamelessly derivative, self-satisfied, indulgent, juvenile, unfunny and, worse, brutally tedious. The fetishized violence is exasperating and the three-hour run times denote an egomaniac’s lack of discipline. The films, from the asinine “Inglourious Basterds” to the odious “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” are baggy and boring.  

I never told him he made crap. I did write a negative review of the first “Kill Bill” and I may have talked up my aversion to nonsense like “Death Proof” to fellow film folk. The Austin movie scene, in which Tarantino often hung, is insular and gossipy. 

One of my last QT encounters was at the party for “Grindhouse,” a double feature that includes the rotten “Death Proof.” I conducted a quick stand-up interview with Tarantino before he joined friends and colleagues. 

Later, my friend got a free poster of the movie and asked Tarantino to sign it — a searing faux pas. Tarantino was livid. “This isn’t some Target opening and I’m not Ronald McDonald greeting the kiddies,” he told my friend. “This is just me hanging out with my friends at a party. So, no, I won’t sign it.”

He was genuinely miffed, gesticulating, that iconic jaw jutting. The group of guys sitting around him passed around a joint and cracked up. I was mortified, my friend devastated.

But that’s QT. I don’t begrudge him that emasculating dressing-down. In fact, he sharply cautions fans not to approach him for autographs at his festivals and parties. Come talk about the movies, great, but no panting fanboy b.s. (A paradox, since Tarantino is the biggest fanboy of all.) 

My autograph-hound friend: guilty. Off to movie jail.

Which is where I feel I am after Tarantino fired me as a journalist and an acquaintance. I’ve been upbraided by other disenchanted celebs — Sandra Bullock, Bud Cort, Ethan Hawke, Mike White — but this felt personal. We had a years-long rapport, bumpy but true. Quentin Tarantino doesn’t have to like me, and I don’t have to like his movies. 

God bless him: He has sworn he is done making films, that he would quit “at the top of my game” (in which I ask: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is the top of your game?). And I’m done with panning films (well, mostly). 

I suddenly picture Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi pointing guns at each other in “Reservoir Dogs,” two killers gripped in a dangerous truce. QT and me, after a fashion. 

Going to the movies with your girlfriend

“When I’m getting serious about a girl, I show her ‘Rio Bravo,’ and she better fucking like it.”

— Quentin Tarantino

It’s a truism that when you’re dating, or deep in a relationship, you want the one you adore to like what you like, be it a book, band, meal or merlot. That typically takes shared exposure, an excursion to a favorite restaurant, museum or bookshop. 

And, of course, to the movies. 

Romance in the flickering dark of a theater may be a dating cliché — shared popcorn, awkwardly slinking your arm around her shoulder — but it’s also a communal act of culture. It filters preferences and underscores taste. Will she like it? Did she like it? (She better fucking like it, as Tarantino says.)

I’ve taken risks on movie dates, bringing girlfriends to foreign arthouse films like “Fellini Satyricon,” Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” Tarkovsky’s “Mirror” and Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali.” (I never willfully tortured them with a Bergman dirge.)

‘Seven Samurai

These aren’t the easiest movies. They can be long, slow, thorny, with subtitles to boot. I don’t force it. If the film is proving a slog, I’m flexible. We walked out of “Satyricon” when I noticed the corpselike look on my girlfriend’s face (I’d seen the movie before, luckily).

New mainstream movies are fine, but, when possible, I lean to classics, rarities and art films. I got most of my cinema education at great revival houses in the serious movie towns of San Francisco, Austin and New York. Those funky theaters — the Castro, Alamo Drafthouse, Film Forum — are where I lapped up, wide-eyed, gritty film noirs, widescreen westerns, merry musicals and foreign essentials. It’s where I met Buster Keaton, Rita Hayworth, John Wayne and Anna Magnani and fell in love. 

Sharing this love is part of a good movie date, and I’ve had wonderful experiences with women at “Casablanca,” “Duck Soup,” “Annie Hall” and “All About Eve,” as well as brainy documentaries by Werner Herzog and playful French New Wavers like “Breathless.”

They’re movies I want to see and expose my lovers to. I become an enabler, a tutor perhaps, unspooling new cultural experiences. I am, for one, forever grateful to my brother for introducing me to the fun, frenetic bliss of Hong Kong action flicks, from Jackie Chan to John Woo and movies like “Peking Opera Blues” and “Hard-Boiled.” You never forget the impact of that, much like your first kiss. 

‘Hard-Boiled

Going to current movies is different. It means we’re taking a shared ride of discovery in the dark. A serious girlfriend and I watched “Dazed and Confused” and “Pulp Fiction” during their first runs (she loved them as much as I did, thank god). We got our classics fix watching “Sunset Boulevard” and Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” on video, rapturously. 

It doesn’t always work out so well. One date rejected the virile operatics of Michael Mann’s crime masterpiece “Heat” (fail!), while another huffed and ridiculed my choice of adjective when I called “Reservoir Dogs” “astonishing” as we left the theater. 

I know the feeling. I’ve been in the other seat, when I scorned a shared movie experience. My rants and tiny tantrums after sitting through the brain-dead “Titanic” and “Independence Day” come queasily to mind.

Then there’s the movie mistake, like when my brother took a girl to the emotionally devastating downer “Sophie’s Choice” on their first date. Nice libido killer, bro. She married him anyway.

Movie dates, then, are a fraught enterprise. What seems an innocent night out for easy entertainment can reveal telling value judgements about taste and temperament (she actually liked “The Notebook”?). They can even be deal breakers. (Again: she actually liked “The Notebook”?)

You take it personally. If I pick a movie I’ve seen before, I sit giddy and expectant, trying to gauge my date’s response, praying she likes it or at least endures it. As seriously as I am about film, however, I’ve never broken up with a girlfriend over a movie disagreement. That would be petty and asinine.

But I do keep score. 

Retreat of the Jedi

When I was 9, “Stars Wars” was the shit. That movie and “Jaws,” two years earlier, jounced my cinematic world off its axis and into, well, outer space. (This of course happened to 95.9 percent of every kid of a certain age, so I’m sort of stating the obvious.)

I devoured “Star Wars” action figures, posters, a cool TIE fighter model, even bed sheets that were blue like the cosmos. “Jaws” — same. I was shark-crazed for about five years. I owned a real shark jaw from Tijuana, a “Jaws” t-shirt (see my About page), many shark books, and a dorky “Jaws” game, where you tried to fish junk out of a plastic shark’s mouth without his toothy smile chomping down on your pole. I sucked at it.

My grade-school teachers grew concerned about my constant drawings of sharks munching the limbs off hapless swimmers in blood-filled waters. Thing is, I’m still a bit batty about the misunderstood ocean predators, which are perfectly evolved, hyper-efficient killing machines, much like the creature in “Alien.”

But my starry-eyed view of “Star Wars” dimmed at a dramatic clip — almost light speed, let’s say. I only half-heartedly went to see 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” a movie that inspired no more expenditures on franchise merch. (By then it was a cultural arm wrestle between “Star Wars” and KISS — George Lucas vs. Gene Simmons. The latter spit blood. He won.) 

Jedi jaded as I quickly became — the Force was now farce — I never did get around to 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.” I wasn’t interested. I didn’t care. Hard rock and girls had hijacked any alliance to “Star Wars,” and, besides, I was obsessing over more interesting movies like “An American Werewolf in London,” “The Elephant Man,” “Alien,” “The Dead Zone,” “The Fly” and, dare I say it, Woody Allen’s entire oeuvre. 

But a third “Star Wars” installment, no matter how disappointing its description, was still news — if not a cultural earthquake, then a rippling aftershock. Crowds flocked and you couldn’t help being exposed to trailers, photos and fan regurgitations of the episode in which Darth Vader famously croaks.  

Furry bundle of unrelenting embarrassment

And what I saw was repellent: frenzied Muppet creatures; the unforgivable Ewoks (tiny, fuzzy Jar Jar Binkses); the grinning ghosts of Yoda, Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker (together at last!); and the coda’s mortifying Ewok celebration, featuring gibberish music and creature dancing (Chewbacca boogies!). And I vowed I would never watch “Jedi.” Ever. 

Until I did.

This is where I admit that I watched “Return of the Jedi,” a full 27 years after it was released. It was an impulse rental, done under a cynical cloud of camp: “This is going to be so gorgeously godawful,” I thought, “that it will furnish a galaxy of perverse pleasures. I will howl with laughter at the Razzie-worthy writing and titter at the labored excesses of puppet pandemonium, including the hopelessly lame Jabba the Hutt, who reminds me of a big burp.”

My plan, alas, backfired. 

The movie completely surpassed its build up of rank horrendousness. But the experience wasn’t fun or funny. In fact, the sheer naked badness of “Jedi” served as a bludgeon that beat me into one of my darkest post-movie depressions ever. I actually felt physically ill watching it, and by that satanic climax of dancing Ewoks and high-fiving heroes I had died a few deaths. To this day, I consider “Return of the Jedi” one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. (Yes, worse than “Jaws 4: The Revenge.”)

At least critic Chuck Klosterman puts a humorous spin on it: “‘Return of the Jedi’ is quite possibly the least-watchable major film of the last 25 years. I knew a girl who claimed to have a recurring dream about a polar bear that mauled Ewoks; it made me love her.” 

And yet at the ever-vexing Rotten Tomatoes, the movie boasts an astonishing 82% approval rating. Opines the Denver Post: “It’s everything it ought to be — glorious, exhilarating, exciting, absorbing, technically wondrous.”

No, no, no, no and no. The movie is absolutely none of those things. Just watch this scene and try not to vomit. 

Jabba the Hutt, looking like an unspeakable bodily excretion.

It’s true that I’ve way outgrown the whole “Star Wars” dweeb-o-sphere, much as the Marvel universe is to me so much sophomoric hubbub. I’m not watching the latest “Star Wars” spinoff, “The Mandalorian,” and I have a terrible urge to squish baby Yoda’s head. 

That pretty much disqualifies me from the Way-Out World George Lucas Built, and that’s fine. Who needs Ewoks and Wookiees, Jabbas and Jedis, CGI and C-3PO, third-rate mysticism and fourth-grade mythology?

And yet “Jaws,” my other grade-school movie crush, remains one of my favorite pictures ever. Its arresting grainy realism is still fully convincing. Its adult’s-eye view of human frailty and interpersonal politics makes no concessions to the popcorn crowd. So finely orchestrated are its grisly thrills, you can allow yourself to be terrorized by a 25-foot plastic mechanical shark that’s as supple as a redwood.

It helps that Spielberg is 5,000 times the filmmaker Lucas is (OK, “American Graffiti” is pretty great). But it also helps that “Jaws” is Muppet-free and doesn’t traffic in cockamamie mythos. It helps that its only creature is sincerely menacing with very high stakes, and that all of “Jedi’s” itty Ewoks would make so much tasty shark chum.

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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Scorsese

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.)

9 best films of 2019 (so far)

In no particular order, the movies I’m excited about at the year’s half-way point …

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“Climax”

Puckishly sadistic, Gaspar Noé and Lars von Trier remain cinema’s great pessimists, glib nihilists and gleeful provocateurs. Look, without flinching, at Noé’s masterwork “Irréversible” or von Trier’s “Antichrist” and you’ll see my point. With the head-spinning, hallucinogenic swirl of body (and camera) movement that is “Climax,” Noé takes his visual and thematic tics past the edge of woozy chaos. When an extraordinarily talented dance troupe’s party is ruined by a bowl of LSD-spiked punch, hell uncorks with fury. What was a glorious pageant of writhing bodies becomes a descent into a violent nightmare of screeching, thrashing individuals trying to relocate reality. The camera rides a liquid wave of neon hues, racing and corkscrewing down halls and weaving through rooms. Frequently indulgent and meandering, with no real characters or story, just sensation and electro-shock, the film is pure immersion, a sustained climax. I didn’t say it was pleasant. But it is novel, and queerly riveting. And purely Noé. Watch the trailer HERE.

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“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. Following Jimmie Fails (played by the actor of the same name — he’s as charismatic as a young Don Cheadle) as he presses to reclaim the giant Victorian home of his grandfather, the film is both a call to honoring blood bonds and a plaintive hymn to a troubled city. Joe Talbot directs (and co-writes) with soaring vision and intense feeling. The result is dire, daring, dreamy. Trailer HERE.

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“Honeyland”

In this gorgeously observational documentary, weathered, middle-aged 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. The doc won a record three awards at Sundance 2019, including for its ravishing cinematography. Trailer HERE.

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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. “We’re not training these horses for little kids’ birthdays and pony rides,” growls Bruce Dern’s crusty bossman, who knows both man and horse require an especially prickly strain of tough-love. If Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature debut falls into a formulaic groove — the apex of the depiction of trust-building between human and wild horse remains Carroll Ballard’s 1979 “The Black Stallion” — the film doesn’t flinch from gritty, violent twists. The dangerous dance between Roman and his horse Marcus retains tension, as the two captives, both scrappy and obstinate, circle each other in a face-off that could end in injury and defeat, or mutual respect and friendship. Roman’s frustration boils — “Just fucking listen to me!” he snaps. “I’m not going to hurt you! You hear me, you stupid animal!” — and it’s no surprise the horse is listening. Trailer HERE.

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“Her Smell”

Elisabeth Moss’ performance in this shambolic punk-rock portrait is as athletically interior as it is exterior, spiked with physical fits and spasms like a lunatic child in a druggy tantrum. 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, Charles Manson 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. She’s as shattering as this ballsy, surprisingly sensitive film by writer-director Alex Ross Perry. Trailer HERE.

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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. 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 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, duh, 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. Trailer HERE.

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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. A touching remake of the 2013 Chilean film “Gloria,” by the writer-director of that movie, Sebastián Lelio, the movie follows its wise, free-spirited character onto her favorite place, the dance floor, where she finds romance with a nice guy (a fine, empathetic John Turturro) and all the attendant delights, complications and disappointments of love. No matter how sore things get, Gloria’s joie de vivre stays infectious. Trailer HERE.

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“Non-Fiction”

French writer-director Olivier Assayas‘ 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 an enchanting Juliette Binoche, because of the literary, arty cosmos in which these writers, editors and actors orbit. It’s heady and 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. 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 from the arthouse. It’s glacial, elliptical, remote. 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. The entry point is young film student Julie, played with winsome diffidence by Honor Swinton Byrne. Julie’s lover Anthony (Tom Burke) is a heroin addict, a secret until it’s not, which inevitably snarls 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. Somehow, Hogg’s disparate elements crazily fall together. Trailer HERE.

The best performance of the year (so far)

Writer-director Alex Ross Perry and actress Elisabeth Moss have a special relationship: He puts her through the wringer and she acts her guts out. 

In two films, this year’s “Her Smell” and 2015’s “Queen of Earth” — deep-dish psychological studies of women flailing and wailing on the verge — the result is explosive symbiosis, a convulsive give and take between a director who lays out a vision and lets his muse run with it at breathtaking velocity. 

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Run she does, maybe too far, too fast (as some have argued). Moss’ performance in “Her Smell” is athletically interior and exterior, jagged with physical fits and spasms like a lunatic child having a druggy temper tantrum. It’s my favorite performance of the year so far. 

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 hot, cackling cauldron of Courtney Love, Blanche DuBois, Charles Manson 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.

Eyes drizzling mascara, teeth gnashing, arms and hair thrashing, lipstick smeared with a paint-roller, Moss spews apoplectic, apocalyptic poetry in what’s less a performance than a detonation of eye-popping possession. It’s an electric and crazily entertaining one-woman show, the kind Oscar never sees and wouldn’t know what to do with anyhow.

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What grabs you is the devotion Moss brings to both Becky in “Her Smell” and the more quietly unhinged, clinically depressed Catherine in “Queen of Earth.” Dramatically different than her more contained, yet reliably strong women in “Mad Men,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Top of the Lake,” these characters are solipsistic, narcissistic, unbalanced, straight-up unwell. 

Director Perry grants them close-up, single-take soliloquies that are so chiseled they avoid becoming indulgent workshop exercises. The camera eye stares Moss down, never letting her off the hook. Moss gives right back. You watch shaken, exhilarated.

It’s important to note Moss isn’t performing in a vacuum, despite the fact the characters, especially punker Becky, would make arresting (abrading?) Off-Broadway solo turns. Both films have slight but linear stories — they are the definition of soul-baring character examinations — populated with superb co-stars, from the bandmates and manager (Eric Stoltz, wonderful to see you) in “Her Smell” to the great, flinty Katherine Waterston as Moss’ increasingly estranged best friend in “Queen of Earth.”

Without other players, Moss’ fascinating creations would just be feral, foundering head cases bouncing off the walls and slipping into oblivion. Her cast-mates keep Becky and Catherine in reality, our world. They are friends and antagonists, yang to Moss’ yin, and they haul her from the edge.

Still, what this formidable actress pulls off on her own, between her and the camera, is remarkable. With scary conviction, she summons wrenching human meltdowns in all their grim and glorious beauty.

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“Her Smell” and “Queen of Earth” are on DVD and several streaming outlets. 

“Her Smell” trailer HERE.

“Queen of Earth” trailer HERE.

Looking back at Chewbacca

This is the very first image I ever saw of Chewbacca:

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It was spring 1977 and I was young. I had hair like a mid-career Beatle. Movie-wise, I was obsessed with “Jaws” from two years prior. And, even at that early grade-school age, I thought “Dog Day Afternoon,” watched repeatedly on cable, was the dope. (Later movie manias would include “Close Encounters,” “Alien” and “The Elephant Man.”)

My dad came home with a thick press kit for the summer movie roster from 20th Century-Fox. (A journalist, he often arrived from the office with public relations goodies from movie studios and, maybe coolest, the Mattel toy company. We were the first kids in town to have Slime and Shogun Warriors.)

I don’t recall any of the movies in the 20th Century-Fox press kit but one, a mysterious little picture called “Star Wars” that was slated to hit theaters May 25. My immediate fascination with the movie, well before I saw it, is so clichéd that I will keep the recollection trimmed and distilled. 

Amid a sheaf of black and white stills of characters from the film, bound in a colorful folder emblazoned with the now-iconic “Star Wars” logo, my attention zeroed in on one particular photo. The caption read: “Chewbacca, the hundred year old Wookiee, co-pilots the Millennium Falcon, a Carnelian pirate starship.”

Chewbacca? Wookiee? Yes! This was the baddest movie character I’d ever seen, a hair-covered giant holding an automatic weapon in what appeared to be the desert with a Clint Eastwood, “Go ahead, make my day” expression on his Sasquatchian puss. The pure, scorching exoticism of it blew my little mind. I immediately stuck on my wall the 8-x-10 with four silver tacks. Anticipating the day I could see this creature move and (not quite) speak on the big screen became a pastime of electric excitement. 

The man I would soon learn filled the Chewbacca fur-fest was Peter Mayhew, a 7-foot-3 Briton who died of a heart attack at 74 yesterday at his North Texas home. (Check out his personal site Chewbacca.com.) The galaxy weeps. 

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Mayhew and Chewbacca. Similarities abound.

As Chewie, Mayhew growled and laser-gunned his way through five “Star Wars” features as sidekick and co-pilot to Harrison Ford’s swashbuckling Han Solo. They were a dynamic duo, BFFs who fought together, cried together, drank together and probably had a secret handshake. That’s all the speculation I will pursue.

Chewbacca wasn’t the most complex character. He had moist, soulful animal eyes and teeth like a German shepherd’s. The mournful, bestial yowls he had to rely on for vocal communication without the gift of speech could shred your ears, and rend your heart. (His voice was created with recorded animal sounds.)

“He put his heart and soul into the role of Chewbacca and it showed in every frame of the films, from his knock-kneed running, firing his bowcaster from the hip, his bright blue eyes, down to each subtle movement of his head and mouth,” Mayhew’s family said in a statement.

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Chewie and Solo — one of the great action duos in movie history

Valiant, righteous, a fighter, friend and even funny, Chewbacca as portrayed by Mayhew was more than a guy pantomiming in a gorilla suit. He lent the Wookiee spirit, spunk and purpose. I absorbed all of this when I finally, in a one-screen art-deco movie theater in the summer of ’77, saw my hero in action, this towering benevolent beast, who fleetly dispensed with Imperial baddies and didn’t complain when saucy Princess Leia dismissed him as a “walking carpet.”

It’s why as a kid I was so crestfallen when, at the end of the film, everybody got a Medal of Bravery for saving the galaxy and blowing up the Death Star except Chewie, who just stands there during the ceremony, tall and noble, nothing dangling around his neck. Only his mighty ammo-filled bandolier, worn like a sash on his left shoulder, bedecks him.

But that’s Chewbacca — humble, honorable, tough and self-effacing. He deserves a medal. If not for assisting in nearly killing Darth Vader, then for being both a literal and figurative colossus.

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A few things revving me up

I’m having a tricky time getting jazzed about too much lately — only Socrates rivals my sage discernment and penetrating taste — yet I am alive, blood sluices through my veins. Some things I’m digging:

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Richard Serra sculptures at Dia: Beacon, New York

Caustically hilarious British TV series “Fleabag”; Sigrid Nunez’s quietly affecting novel “The Friend”; the reliably stirring Dia: Beacon museum, so serenely cluttered with minimalist and sculptural masterworks; poetic Polish romance (and Oscar nominee) “Cold War”; and Weezer’s “Teal Album,” featuring frighteningly faithful covers of Toto’s “Africa” to Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” It’s a gas.

Mostly this entry is a sequel to my December year-end inventory of now-time enthusiasms, stuff getting my juices flowing. These are the current tops:

  • Jade Bird

Strumming an acoustic guitar, her long hair swinging, she sings in a hushed girlish voice before belting like a banshee, loosing a squall of blazing catharsis. She has pipes that purr, then roar, then come back. You sway to twangy folk, then rock with giddy fury. 

Intimate and Velcro-sticky, Bird’s music, performed acoustically or with a small band, circles Americana, punk and soulful indie pop. Country fans are drawn by her evocations of rocky, star-crossed relationships, and there’s country crunch in those folk-rock vocals. Her galloping cover of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” is a jam-session joy.

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In this 21-year-old Brit, the Dixie Chicks are at their fiercest, alongside a banging Liz Phair, Courtney Barnett, PJ Harvey and other steely indie royalty. Bird’s lyrics pop and sear. In the unreasonably rousing “I Get No Joy,” Bird sings with such speedy agility, she’s almost rapping:

“Psychotic, hypnotic, erotic, which box is your thing?/How many days a week, do you feel/Electric, connected, unexpectedly/Affected, what do you need?”

It’s a kind of sublime whiplash.

(Watch her HERE.)


  • “Capernaum”

His hair is a fluffy fiasco, a brown brushfire, his splotched face the seasoned mug of a gang member. He’s filthy and swears like a sailor. He’s homeless. He’s 12. 

In Nadine Labaki’s Beirut-set stunner, a nominee for the best foreign language Oscar, the boy, Zain, is a resourceful renegade in the scrappy mold of Huck Finn and Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows.” Fed up with his struggling parents and their feckless care of their many children, Zain takes them to court, accusing them of the crime of giving him life. It’s a preposterous idea, a satirical glance at the Lebanese judicial system.

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Zain (the extraordinary Zain al Rafeea) fast becomes a tough street urchin who finds a gig babysitting the gurgling infant of an illegal Ethiopian refugee, played by Yordanos Shiferaw. (The film’s devastating cast of non-professionals play versions of themselves.) When the young mother is arrested, Zain is stuck taking care of the baby on his own. In this harrowing situation — the movie is a tart indictment of Beirut’s corrupt state of child welfare — the fathomless despair can be unbearable to watch.

“Capernaum” — the title means “chaos” — owes much to the children-centric neorealism of ‘80s and ‘90s Iranian cinema, from “The White Balloon” to “The Color of Paradise” — heart-renders told in raw, wrenching lyricism that aren’t without political undercurrents. It’s a street tale alive with miscreants and thieves and few kind gestures. It’s so gritty and grubby the camera lens almost seems smudged. Redemption, however, is in the air.

(Trailer HERE.)


  •  “Asymmetry”

Beautifully written, radiantly spun and shot through with smashing intelligence, Lisa Halliday’s first novel “Asymmetry” bristles with humanity as it mingles conventional and unorthodox structures. It’s a literary feat kneading the fictional form like Play-Doh.

I’m only a third of the way through its brisk 271 pages, but I’m sold. (Being part-way in a book you’re relishing is where you want to be; there’s more on the way to savor.)

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The novel is chopped into three sections. I finished the first section, “Folly,” which traces the May-December romance between Alice, a 25-year-old aspiring writer, and Ezra Blazer, a famous author 40 years her senior. (If he rather resembles Philip Roth, it’s not chance: Halliday had a relationship with Roth while in her twenties.)

And so we get an old-fashioned affair of unpushy comedy and sweet asides set amidst Upper West Side means, with tender banter and the not uncomplicated theme of apprenticeship, much like a Woody Allen movie, without the deep-dish neuroses.

Alice has career issues, Ezra has health issues, and brewing in the background is the launch of the Iraq War. (The war plays a prominent role in the next section, “Madness.”) In this, one of The New York Times’ 10 best books of 2018 (and a favorite of Barack Obama), Halliday doesn’t flinch from the vagaries of love, including the sort, like Woody’s, peppered with literary chatter and throbbing with aching uncertainty.

The dialogue is unfailingly smart, wry, just right. Alice and Ezra conduct short, gem-cut conversations that bring a knowing grin:

“Is this relationship a little bit heartbreaking?” he said.

The glare off the harbor hurt her eyes. “I don’t think so. Maybe around the edges.”


  • “United Skates” 

In urban roller rinks across the country thousands of African-American roller-skaters are lacing up and getting down. Beneath rays of twirling disco balls an underground roller renaissance thrives among a force of skate buffs who throw after-dark rink parties and commit kinetic art on waxed wood floors: backflips and break-dances, tag-team acrobatics, backwards trains and other daredevilry. Many revelers simply trace ovoid loops in a kind of roller-boogie bliss.

With new and archival footage, much of it contagiously groovy, “United Skates” directors Dyana Winkler and Tina Brown chronicle the hip-hop-fueled scene with at once bracing and brooding electricity. They hopscotch the nation — Los Angeles to Baltimore — and capture the community-building soul of skating as well as the heartrending gentrification that’s swiftly shutting down classic rinks, dinosaurs of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Few will survive.

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Next to dwindling skate spaces, the film locates other troubles: the apparent profiling of black skaters at certain rinks that ban rap and the skinny wheels many black skaters prefer. When skaters organize “adult nights” — “Code for ‘black night,’” says one — police fill the parking lots and security is thick. No such hysterics are apparent on a typical “white” night. It’s a familiar microcosm of current race relations.

Yet the party rolls on. The subculture retains a die-hard exuberance not easily snuffed. The film’s final scenes are far from elegiac; against all odds they are tonically celebratory.

(Starting Feb. 18 on HBOTrailer HERE.)

The 5 most overrated movies of the year (so far)

Critics and crowds made big stinks over these movies this year. I didn’t.

1. “Roma” — Topping many “bests of” lists, Alfonso Cuarón’s meandering memory drama, based on his early-‘70s childhood in Mexico City, was the biggest disappointment of the year. Flaccid and unfocused, this pretty black and white picture is about Cuarón’s middle-class family just as their father leaves it. Fatally, the film’s nominal main character is the live-in housekeeper, who, perplexingly, is a narcotized, non-verbal cipher. Her reaction when she discovers she is pregnant rivals Buster Keaton’s stone face matched with Harpo Marx. Some critics have tried to pass off “Roma’s” absence of structure as a “meditation.” It is not. Rather it’s a story-free stream-of-consciousness that leaves little to grab onto and be affected by. Dog poop, believe it or not, plays one of the liveliest roles. For all of Cuarón’s lush, gliding camerawork, swooshing this way and that, capturing rambling life as it happens, the affair is implacably inert.  

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2.“Leave No Trace” — A film that leaves no trace, emotionally or otherwise, this achingly static homeless drama about a father (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie — both shine) living off the grid in an Oregon forest suffocates on its own aridity. Scant happens when they’re hauled into social services, or when they attempt a run for the wild. For so much heart, little resonates.

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3. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” — In this six-chapter Western anthology, the Coen brothers hew tightly to time-honored oater conventions while spinning them on their dusty Stetsons for typical tonal whiplash. Zigging from bloody to farcical at the speed of a bullet, with a game all-star cast, it’s handsome, violent, intriguing, and tediously quirky. (Earmark the episode with Zoe Kazan. She’s fantastic, and she’ll shatter your heart.)

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4. “Shoplifters” — This sometimes playful Japanese social drama by the accomplished Hirokazu Kore-eda sporadically springs to life with small jolts that only make you hunger for more. The award-sprinkled film is about a family that relies on shoplifting to ease its poverty. Naturalistic and deeply humanistic, it suffers from a lack of movement, and the modest emotional punch comes too late. 

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5. “Private Life” — A hackneyed bourgeois dramedy about, sigh, a middle-aged couple that can’t have children in the traditional fashion, so try all manner of misadventure to conceive. The couple, played by Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, great comic actors brought down by middling material, are New York writers (really?) surrounded by brainy friends (really?) who try and help. Marital friction erupts (really?) until a secret weapon appears. Hope abounds. This is slushy, sitcomy stuff that writer-director Tamara Jenkins (“The Savages”) is above.

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6 more: an honor-roll of the overpraised, in no order

“Isle of Dogs” — Wes Anderson, that leaping leprechaun of willed whimsy, presents a fun, funny premise about stray animated dogs sloughed off to a trash-heap island in Japan, until he, reliably, clutters things up with over-plotting and mirthless mayhem.

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“You Were Never Really Here” — I wish someone could’ve said that to me after watching this turgid hitman character study, starring a grody Joaquin Phoenix and directed by the grit-addicted Lynne Ramsay (“Ratcatcher,” “Morvern Callar”).  

“Hereditary” — Toni Collette’s lashing performance as a beleaguered mother can’t salvage this confused supernatural horror tale that careers from realistic, upsetting family drama to near-laughable nonsense replete with séances, demons and covens.

 “Mandy” — A full-on bonkers genre goulash of volcanic incoherence that, despite the presence of a teeth-gritting, eye-popping Nic Cage caked in baddies’ blood — just the way we like him — isn’t half as fun as it thinks it is.

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“Black Panther” — As I wrote in June, I found this mega-hit a “slick, savvy vehicle that gets predictably bogged down in mythical mumbo-jumbo, comic-book convolutions and contrivances that I haven’t the energy to follow or care about.”

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“Happy as Lazzaro” — Watching this coy Italian flirtation with magical-realism, I felt I was dying a slow, awkward death.

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