One magnificent mollusk

Coiled near its rocky den, the octopus slowly unfurls a tentacle like a flower blooming in a time-lapse photo to the human hand before her. It glances the hand then suddenly sucks it, gently pulling it toward her. The moment carries the pitter-patter of courtship, of holding hands for the first time. Could this be love?

“That’s when you know there’s full trust,” says the owner of the suction-cupped hand, free diver and filmmaker Craig Foster, in his remarkable documentary “My Octopus Teacher.” A viral smash, the Netflix film has been shortlisted for the best documentary Academy Award. Really, it deserves a special accolade, say, Best Buddy Picture Between Man and Mollusk. The movie is something else: devastating octo-poetry. 

A simple story about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery cephalopod in the swaying kelp forests of South Africa, the film depicts the burly, soft-spoken Foster as a dedicated student of the ocean who is truly moved by the relationship he forges over a year with the sea animal that remains unnamed. (I suggest Octavia.)

Part of his lesson is noticing the striking similarities between us and these “alien” creatures, the way connection, interspecies or not, is essential and a well of bracing contentment. “It does give you this strange level of octopus joy,” notes Foster, saying words that have likely never been uttered before.

As a pupil, Foster is a keen observer, learning by watching his silent friend do what she does: hunt, hide, jet, crawl, swim and, sometimes, walk on two legs on the ocean floor. That trippy spectacle, both funny and boggling, is one of many scene-stealers.

She’s a gelatinous chameleon, enacting stunning physical transformations with her bulbous head, serpentine legs and polka-dot suckers to blend seamlessly into the Day-Glo surroundings. Her effortless shape-shifting is part of the movie’s multi-pronged magic.

“My Octopus Teacher” reminds me of many oceany things, like the charmingly odd adopt an octopus campaign at the World Wildlife Fund, where for a $55 donation you get a plush stuffed octopus, a photo, an adoption certificate and other tentacular goodies. It never occurred to me that octopi were endangered, but WWF says they’re “vulnerable to toxins and pollution,” yet doesn’t that cover just about everything? (Please send me $55. I am endangered. My plush doll is amazing.) 

As much as I love watching the delightful octopus in the movie, I love even more putting octopus in my mouth. Almost unavoidable on midscale restaurant menus — perhaps another reason they’re endangered — grilled octopus is hot stuff, up there with bone marrow and short ribs. Both chewy and silky, the meat has a mild sea-foody flavor complemented by a good fiery sear. Here’s a spectacular piece I scarfed in Barcelona:

I don’t want to eat the movie’s affable octopus. She’s a darling — adorably clever, wily and pretty, much like the picture itself, which is also fairly wrenching (brace for some drama). 

It’s an elemental tale rife with homey pleasures: the hand holding, the snuggling, the mutual respect. The bond is inexplicable but palpable, right there on screen, like when Foster’s new BFF seems to be tailing him through the sea.

“That’s one of the most incredible feelings,” he beams, “to be followed by an octopus.”

It’s fantastic, and it almost breaks your heart.

Pop culture docs that pop

A pair of new documentaries — one about a famous disco club, one about an infamous/classic comic book flick — caught my eye and my fancy. They’re both worth checking out.

  •  “Studio 54″

In Matt Tyrnaue’s sparkly “Studio 54,” the supreme disco saturnalia of ‘70s New York is enshrined as a Felliniesque funhouse of fame, freaks and fortune, a shaken snow-globe of gilded sin and glittered celebrity: Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Michael Jackson, Liza Minnelli, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Cher, to name-drop a few pampered regulars.

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Though notorious for its ruthless, velvet-rope exclusivity, the cavernous club was a haven for LGBTs where sex, drugs and romp ’n’ roll played out among gyrating bodies and unrepentant theatrics: fog, snow and wind machines; glitter, confetti and balloon drops. For 33 publicity-pumped months, 54 was the hottest ticket in town, perhaps the world.

With input from club patrons and associates, and miles of bracing archival footage, Tyrnaue first makes a case for 54’s throbbing fabulousness — well-trod glitzstory — and how it sprang from disco’s post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, let’s-party zeitgeist.

Attention then pivots to 54’s founders, best friends from Brooklyn, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, regular guys who wanted to “change the universe, invent the world,” recalls Schrager. (Though Rubell died at 45 from complications of AIDS, in 1989, the doc is rife with vintage footage of the impish, devil-may-care co-founder.)

In this parable of excess, hubris and the perils of having a ball, antiheroes Schrager and Rubell play hard and fall hard, taking their precious property with them. “They thought they were so important that they could do anything,” says author Steven Gaines.

An arrest for selling alcohol without a liquor license leads to raids on the club, uncovering drug possession and skimmed cash. With legendary pit bull Roy Cohn as their lawyer, the duo pleads guilty to a gasping $2.5 million in tax evasion. They each get three and a half years in prison. They sell Studio 54 from the pen and, by aiding feds with other tax-evasion cases, reduce their sentences. 

Anatomizing the implosion of an empire, “Studio 54” lends enlightening texture to an oft-sensationalized cultural moment. “When I look back on it now, it was so preposterous,” says Schrager, today a successful hotelier. “What were we thinking?” 

Streaming on Netflix. Trailer here.

  • “Life After Flash”

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It’s hard to recall that before he was a fair-haired galactic god the character Flash Gordon, in 1980’s kitschy cult movie of the same name, was a star quarterback for the New York Jets. And that was the quasi-superhero’s so-called superpower that would save the world — his football-chucking athleticism. Odd, yet so righteously all-American. 

Exalted in Lisa Downs’ adoring doc “Life After Flash,” Flash (played by young, ripped ex-Marine Sam J. Jones) finds himself accidentally rocketed into space to a cornea-curdling cuckoo land of soaring hawkmen, green-faced midgets and the estimable Max von Sydow bedecked in flummoxing Fu Manchu facial hair and a flowing red silk cloak.

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This is the planet Mongo and von Sydow, clinging to his dignity, is nefarious, wizardly Emperor Ming the Merciless. You either accept this or stroll over to “The Goonies” booth.

A film-nerd’s dream, the doc embraces, nay, bearhugs, Flash and his jut-jawed mythology, enlisting a galaxy of voices — Stan Lee, director Robert Rodriguez and a passel of genre performers — to lionize the film in a richly informative orgy of nostalgia. (Natch, most of the interviews happen at Comic Con and similar geekoid jamborees.) The movie’s actors and director Mike Hodges delightfully chime in.

Bluff but affable, blocky and bulked-out as if made of Legos, Jones, 64, is the cynosure of the doc, except when he’s not. His life is mildly interesting: Hollywood, surprise, proved a rocky road, and his personal travails are par for the course.

But it’s the backstage drama of making “Flash Gordon” that grips. From legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis’ run-ins with Jones and the pre-CGI effects out of an Atari game gone berserk; to Queen’s gloriously operatic theme song, which co-star Topol calls “the best thing in the movie,” and the running squabble about the film as a straight-faced epic or comic-book send-up.

In this classic pop-culture resurrection narrative — as middle-aged fans crave a nostalgia fix, Jones is cool again — there is good news. Jones lands a self-parodying role in the hit Seth McFarland comedies “Ted” and “Ted 2” and revels in signing autographs and posing for selfies — no Flash in the pan. “Did I ever want to step away from being the image of Flash Gordon?” Jones asks. This rollicking portrait provides the answer: not in a million light years.

On iTunes, Google Play and Hulu; on Blu-ray and DVD on March 26. Trailer here.

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Sam J. Jones — Flash himself — today at a nerd convention with a hirsute hawkman.

Defending the unsung thrill of ‘Miami Vice’

It came on TV, caught my eye, and had me entranced all over again. 

Michael Mann’s virtuoso 2006 crime drama “Miami Vice,” streaming on Netflix, will hook you hard — that is, if you connect with the under-appreciated film. I do — I gave it four stars in my original review in a large daily newspaper — and I stand by it, despite a host of haters who can’t see masterly filmmaking for Colin Farrell’s facial stubble.

So I come to defend “Miami Vice.” Major publications — Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, The Boston Globe, Variety — praised the film, with New York Times critic Manohla Dargis calling it “glorious entertainment” and extolling its cutting-edge digital camerawork. Still, unaccountably, the movie holds only a 45% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Insanity.

At the end of 2009, the critics of Time Out New York chose “Miami Vice” as #35 of the 50 best films of the decade. That’s great, but I would place it higher than that. 

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It’s now something of a cult film, especially among younger critics and filmmakers. Harmony Korine notes how much it influenced his riotously outré “Spring Breakers.” One critic wisely said the film is a visual meditation on “failure and futility” and — I love this — “one of the most expensive art films ever made.”

Another critic, perhaps more to the point, wrote that the movie “has just laid the foundations for a new order of action films.” Indeed. 

This is my rave review from July 2006, a rebuke to the benighted:

Awash in the blacks and blues of a fresh bruise, Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” plays hard and mean to thrilling, often harrowing effect. Mann, who was an executive producer of the influential 1980s television series on which the movie is ever-so-loosely based, obliterates the glib sunshine and pastel glamour of the show to forge a dark, frighteningly real universe of undercover law enforcement and globalized crime. 

It delivers what no other movie this summer has or likely will: the pure pleasure of watching an intricate, perfectly calibrated machine kick, shoot and crank with dazzling power and efficiency.

That might sound heady for a movie called “Miami Vice,” a title that instantly evokes Reagan-era gilt and South Beach deco. Don Johnson in a white linen blazer/pink T-shirt ensemble and an equally suave Philip Michael Thomas amid a backdrop of neon, glass bricks and palm trees — those soft-rock memories should be dispensed with. Instead, brace for an unflinching contemporary crime drama that makes no concessions to pop nostalgia or mocking remakes such as the no-brow “Starsky and Hutch.”

People forget that TV’s “Miami Vice” was more than its stylish, trend-making veneer, but a crack cop drama presenting sophisticated criminal situations through intelligent, movie-worthy writing that delved deep into character and emotion. Mann takes that as his springboard for a surprisingly emotional character-driven thriller that takes itself so seriously, there’s hardly a smile in the two-hour-plus epic.

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While the plot is as rudimentary as a “Miami Vice” TV episode — vice cops Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) go undercover for the FBI to unravel a multi-tentacled, international drug ring — Mann laces it with the themes and macho philosophy he’s so obsessively explored in similarly expert crime pictures “Manhunter,” “Thief,” “Heat” and “Collateral.” 

His heroes are really antiheroes who dwell in the shadows of film noir, be it James Caan’s riven criminal in “Thief,” Tom Cruise’s solitary hitman in “Collateral” or a superb Farrell as an undercover agent who drifts dangerously over the line.

The complicated loner wavering between right and wrong — the blurring of human duality — fascinates Mann and has always been his subject. These men (Mann’s is a fiercely male-centric universe) are vessels for ideas and themes about choosing a way of life and pursuing it with as much iron-willed integrity the world will allow.

This is the loner’s existential struggle, which he carries out with a heavy heart and pensive mind. Working in either crime or law, he’s acutely aware of his mortality and life’s cruel vagaries. “Time is luck,” Farrell tells the woman (Gong Li) he falls in love with, as her life skids out. The same line is said in “Manhunter” — “Time is luck. I know the value of our days” — as well as “Heat,” when Robert De Niro’s career thief muses, “I know life is short, whatever time you get is luck.” (Sharp-eared Mann fans might also notice the reuse in “Vice” of the nicknames “sport,” from “Manhunter,” and “slick,” from “Heat.”)

Helicopters slash the skyline and power boats knife the ocean. High-tech surveillance gadgets crackle and heavy artillery blasts. Within the dizzying action and disorienting nation-hopping, a whip-fast Foxx and a brooding Farrell, who smolders with long, Johnsonesque hair and unchecked stubble, stand sturdy.

The actors’ chemistry is sufficient and both men cut intense, sympathetic figures, whether they are taking down scum — the movie crawls with furry creeps and bald thugs — or making passionate love to their women. Mann’s lingering depictions of sex are the epitome of adult intimacy rarely seen in a Hollywood film.

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There’s not a dud in the superlative cast: Li’s flinty fatale, Naomie Harris as Foxx’s cop girlfriend, John Ortiz as the drug middleman and Luis Tosar as the drug kingpin. Mann’s dialogue, funny and profane, has a hard, urban pop, and the soundtrack ripples with interesting choices, from spare electric guitar and moody synthesizers to songs by Moby and Audioslave.

How “Miami Vice” is put together is as compelling as the story and characters. A notorious perfectionist, Mann demands technical verisimilitude, nailing the intricacies of how criminals and cops think and operate, down to their clothes, words and twitches.

He and cinematographer Dion Beebe return to the handheld high-definition video they used in “Collateral,” bringing a grainy, documentary vibe to the action that’s unnerving. It’s non-style taken to high style, soaked in ocean blues and inky nocturnal blacks. There’s not a wasted shot.

Since 1995’s “Heat,” Mann has been our greatest living action-crime director, edging ahead of past giants Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin and John Frankenheimer. The technical bravura and artistic depth Mann brings to his films staggers. He respects his craft and his audience. “I ain’t playin’!” blurts a character in “Vice.” Neither is Mann.

A transcendent dogumentary

They scramble and scrabble, bark and bound, nap and nuzzle, making an indelible imprint on their human pack leaders whose love for canines is crazily uncontainable.

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“Dogs,” a terrific six-part anthology series on Netflix, lushly shot by a squad of bravura documentarians (Glen Zipper, Oscar-nominated Amy Berg, et al.) , is a frank and unadorned look at the relationship between man and mutt. Heartrending and heartwarming, little is forced or pushily sentimental. Episodes provide spectacularly detailed snapshots of person, place and pup, and you strangely come away with a broader comprehension of life itself. Which makes the series certified art. 

Emotions organically erupt from an array of situations, be it a Labradoodle service dog that detects seizures in its epileptic owner with whooping barks; an imperiled Syrian war refugee that happens to be a yowling Siberian Husky; an aging golden Lab in a quaint Italian fishing village that dutifully follows his master onto Lake Como where they drift together; the fabulously groomed pooches of Japan and the uncharted culture of competitive grooming; a sanctuary in Costa Rica that’s home to 1,200 free-range strays; or New York City’s exploding rescue-dog phenomenon.

Each textured 50-minute portrait is framed within the big picture of the humans’ lives, from political to familial, together with the dogs’ often precarious realities. Funny, galvanizing, sad, uplifting and even spiritual, “Dogs” shows how beautifully symbiotic the two entities, hound and human, truly are.

Watch the “Dogs” trailer HERE.

What’s so strange about ‘Stranger Things’? Not much.

When people ask what I think of the sci-fi Netflix series “Stranger Things”the hot streaming show last summer — my guard goes up, I tense a bit and, mealy-mouthed, I say it’s OK, not bad, pretty good.

In truth, I want to say it’s not that great, it’s overpraised, it’s kinda, well, meh. But I don’t. It’s exhausting being that guy, the crossed-arms critic who can’t “let go” and “enjoy.” (Brother.)

(I bring up the series because the trailer for “Stranger Things 2” is now out here. Season 2 arrives on Netflix, four days before Halloween.)

I didn’t not enjoy the show, he said defensively. It’s entertaining, vivid, sporadically funny. And yet — and this is vital — it’s almost never scary. As much as I stuck with it and went along for the ride, I wanted it to be less of a wholesome family show and more of a spooky supernatural thriller, which is what its premise — a boy is abducted by unknown forces and the fraught search for him is aided by a mysterious girl with psychokinetic powers — promised.

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With its largely youngster cast, “Stranger Things” reminds me of a glorified version of ‘90s kiddie show “Goosebumps,” a would-be creepy anthology series that supplied as many chills as a camp-fire spook. Not much is chilling in the Netflix show either, at least nothing you haven’t seen in superior movies from which the Duffer Brothers, the show’s twin-sibling creators, poach and pilfer. The result, as many have noted, is a studied pastiche of ‘80s supernatural thrillers, horror, sci-fi and scrappy kid adventures like “E.T.,” “Poltergeist,” “The Goonies,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Stand By Me.”

Set in 1983, the show looks good, persuasive in its (at times ham-fisted) period detail, murky cinematography and all. But the Duffers don’t seem to know where to go with their fetishized homages, from obvious period pop tunes and a tinkly synthesizer score worthy of John Carpenter, to apt fashions and hairdos. They coast on the easy fumes of nostalgia that GenXers and retro-mad millennials are so eager to huff.

What plays like a rote missing-persons drama, with bonus scenes of sinister figures in hazmat suits and a slimy monster-thingy, finally feels empty, clunky and too familiar. The show never brushes the sophisticated originality or creep-outs of, say, “The Twilight Zone.”

The Duffers also over-emphasize how cute the boys are with their dweeby tween banter and precocious smarts of incurable nerds. That said, all of the young actors, even the mysterious girl who’s mostly a saucer-eyed cipher (Millie Brown), are quite good.

What actually is scary in “Stranger Things” is ‘80s screen queen Winona Ryder as the missing boy’s shaken mother. Locked in hyperventilating hysterics, she’s strained and haggard, like she might be hurting herself. Shrieking and puffing a cigarette with a quaking hand, it’s a repetitive performance and, if it wasn’t so irritating, a risible one.

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Winona Ryder … berserk.

Never mind all that for a moment. “Stranger Things” is critics’ catnip. It’s racked-up several Emmy nods and enjoys a 76 out of 100 score at Metacritic and a 95% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. I stand baffled, if not bowed.

Again I feel like the ornery outlier, the curmudgeon who won’t play along, lean back, pull out the popcorn. But as a teenager tells his younger brother in the show, “You shouldn’t like things just because people tell you you’re supposed to.”

Like most of the series, it’s not an original idea, but it’s one I’ll stick by.

Eric Wareheim and Nina Arianda are the funniest people on ‘Master of None’

Perhaps it’s sacrilege to say, but the funniest, most outstanding performances on Aziz Ansari’s great Netflix series “Master of None” are by Eric Wareheim and Nina Arianda. (Yes, by two white people on a brown person’s show. Deal.) I’m talking funny factor and acting wattage. Ansari is himself a crack comic actor — a laser-witted, rubber-faced, helium-voiced mensch, remarkably sensitive, graced with an unassuming authenticity. Wareheim and Arianda are better. They’re eccentric, wild, take more comedic chances. They’re sort of bonkers.

While Wareheim appears in most of the 20 episodes in the show’s two seasons, Arianda was a one-shot guest star in a single episode during season one titled “Hot Ticket,” a masterwork of comic ingenuity, including Ansari and a fine cast spritzed by the deadpan Lena Waithe and the wry and dry H. Jon Benjamin (who also, btw, provides the voice of Archer).

One episode! And she’s practically the best thing that’s ever happened on the show. Arianda makes her blowzy mark during roughly six minutes of screen time. She’s like Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glen Ross” or Gene Hackman in “Young Frankenstein,” stealing the show with a fizzy vigor that throws the whole affair off its axis.

Let’s be clear. “Master of None” is consistently good and frequently superb. Following the professional vagaries, friendships and turbulent love life of 30-ish Dev (Ansari) in New York, the show throbs with feeling, a millennial “Seinfeld” but with pathos, whose observational insights are both funny and socially and racially attuned. Excellent episodes abound — season two grazes Woody Allen heights of romantic complication — but I find myself returning to “Hot Ticket,” which gets funnier on each viewing.

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Eric Wareheim. Don’t ask.

Wareheim — half of the gloriously deranged “Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” — plays Arnold, Dev’s best friend, a 6-foot-7-inch bearded man-baby. Rather thick in the head, Arnold provides uproarious seasoning to Dev’s occasional blandness. With his adenoidal voice and pursed lips, he often traffics in dry, surreal laughs. (Note in “Hot Ticket” his query to his pals: “What if someone sent you a picture of a turtle climbing out of a briefcase?” Believe me, it’s a gut-buster.) When Dev, Arnold and pals gather to watch the BBC’s “Sherlock,” Arnold has to hush them up. “Dudes, can we please not talk during the show? Respect my Cumberbatch!”

Wareheim’s Arnold is reliably present on “Master of None,” yet always a treat. Arianda, who plays a waitress named Alice in “Hot Ticket,” is a novelty to be savored. Her big scene comes when Dev invites her to a VIP concert. He barely knows her, but that changes fast as she performs loud impersonations of Cartman from “South Park,” demands Dev take obnoxious Vines of her, dares herself to give a stranger a blowjob in public and tops things off by stealing a girl’s jacket, then proposes they do some coke and play laser tag. She a gorgeous nightmare, and all Dev can do is watch horrified before running for his life.

Arianda is so good as Alice, she shakes all of us up. A Tony-nominated Broadway performer (“Venus in Fur”), with roles in films like Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” the actress has a scratchy voice and elastic facial features. She’s pretty and protean, and her Alice might be one of her most off the hook turns. Season three of “Master of None” is a done deal. We can only hope she didn’t scare off Dev too much.

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Nina Arianda and Aziz Ansari, just as she starts getting … whack. Notice his wax-museum smile.