27 April 2016

Off White

[I had to cut a section from an essay for publication but would hate for my love of Brian McKnight to be lost to the world. It is reproduced below.]

Half an Ativan is not enough—I still think I’m going to die as we rattle down the runway.
Since I last flew, Virgin America has failed to renew their license on Brian McKnight’s “Back at One” so I cannot listen to it during takeoff. I’ve paid the premium to fly Virgin not for the mood lighting but because I can be listening to that song at the moment the wheels leave the runway—I have never yet died while it is playing.

That the music video for the song involves a plane crash is such a ridiculous coincidence that I must have sublimated the fact when I picked my to-die-to anthem.

It has an easy chorus to repeat if you picture yourself as a nervous child who has severe issues with memorizing numbers. My right hand holds the armrest as hard as I can without the knuckles whitening and my left hand grips my right forearm. I raise the fingers as I count up, mouthing silently.

“One, you’re like a dream come true,”

I listen too carefully for moment it feels to me the engines stop pushing us up and we float out.

“Two, just want to be with you,”

I would like to be in the middle seat next to She.

“Three, girl, it’s plain to see / That you’re the only one for me,”

When She rides her bike on nights when it’s too cold her fingers go white on the handlebars and for her it’s almost always too cold.

“And four, repeat steps one through three,”

Sometimes She gets home and sends me a picture so I see what She means.

“Five, make you fall in love with me.”

I write out the reply oh, I want to hold them then erase the line with the last vestiges of will. At least I am not coating my arms and back with cold sweat—thanks for that, half an Ativan. I pick up a copy of White Girls I can’t read and watch the plastic window shade, the color of clouds at 35,000 feet.

“It’s unbelievable how I used to say that I’d fall never.”

More here.

01 February 2016

Best of 2015

In 2015 I got a gig writing for THE paper of record in Sonoma valley and boy has that established for me that Hollywood is worse than I thought...and the requirement to watch the biggest releases each week impacted my ability to write on the WTT about other, better films (thankfully, the gig has not impacted my ability to make excuses about not writing). That said, read all my reviews! I'm working up a lather now and getting stronger even if the films aren't--bet on it.

In paging through WTT "Best of" posts from years past (in a desperate attempt to put off work on this new post), the films sort of reorder themselves around the ones I've had the biggest urge to watch since. For 2015 I tried to rank less on what I consider the best in this moment and more on which films will obsess me moving forward. 

Best Supporting Actor

I have more clarity on certain subcategories of this section--the best costumes for a supporting actor goes to Isaach de Bankole in The Last Witch Hunter, the best supporting voice acting is Sam Elliott in The Good Dinosaur, the best ensemble supporting acting is a fierce competition between Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge in Far from the Madding Crowd and Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash and Adam Rodriguez in Magic Mike XXL. For some reason, Jeff Daniels' "Mark Watney is dead" line from The Martian still kills me, I don't know why. (I do know why. I wish Matt Damon were dead.) But the prize goes to Benicio del Toro, because his character in Sicario plays exquisitely off his Traffic statuette-winner and because he runs off and hides with the narrative in the last half hour of the film.

Best Supporting Actress

With apologies to Ilsa Faust in M:I5Lea Seydoux wins for the best supporting actress name--Madeleine Swann--in Spectre. The most surprising supporting actress turn belongs to Monica Bellucci in The Wonders--one cannot imagine the American analog of her fabulous guest appearance in a film about rural Italian beekeepers. Praise be the ensemble of Turkish Coppola virgins in Mustang--Güneş Şensoy, Doğa Doğuşlu, İlayda Akdoğan, Tuğba Sunguroğlu and Elit İşcan--they are charm and wallop together. Lola Kirke is excellent smirks and turns of phrase against Greta Gerwig in Mistress America but really the only performance one sees is Kristen Stewart's in The Clouds of Sils Maria--her personal assistance to Juliette Binoche dominates the landscape and then recedes in the most affecting retreat of the year. 

Best Actor

2015 was a year of #hottiealerts. I must put order to my objectification, so, with apologies to Chris Hemsworth's faux Moby-Dick pecs In the Heart of the Sea and Jake Gylenhaal's phenomenal Southpaw abdominals, the best topless performances are by Michael B. Jordan in Creed (astonishing, truly astonishing that this film is left on the outside by the Academy) and Channing Tatum with so, so much Magic in his Mike. Shoutouts to the scruffier sex symbols Viggo Mortenson in Jauja and Vin Diesel in The Last Witch Hunter working their way handsomely through various portals. But in Far from the Madding Crowd Matthias Schoenaerts' Gabriel Oak is that most special heartthrob: women want him, blogging men want to be in (much smaller sizes of) his impeccable shepherd wear. To paraphrase J. Lo to Clooney in Out of Sight: "you really wear that scarf." I'm just thankful that now all theaters have those high-backed seats so I didn't snap my neck swooning when Gabriel sorted all those bloated sheep and got tarps over the haystacks in the rain.

Best Actress

Salute to Angelina Jolie for directing and starring in By the Sea--her excellent work was dismissed as vacuous and narcissistic with a viciousness that would never apply to male actors/directors--but I'll long remember her face in the film, a gorgeously-photographed mask of pain. Another hat tip to Kristen Stewart in American Ultra, as the straw that stirs Jesse Eisenberg's drink. One wonders how in the world Charlize Theron wasn't nominated for Mad Max: Fury Road and if one had any hopes to save #OscarsSoWhite, it would have been noms for the extraordinary cohorts in Tangerine, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor--they burn that motherfucker to the ground. I must credit longtime WTT-enemy David O. Russell for wising up and getting everything (Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, plot logistics) out of Jennifer Lawrence's way in Joy--her role shares the same electricity as that of the not-be-denied Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr

Best Pictures

Spectre, By the Sea, In Jackson Heights, Mistress America, The Wonders, Jauja, Joy, Mustang, Timbuktu, Mad Max: Fury Road.

10. Tangerine - The first minutes of the film have a fantastic effect. My mind was full of questions like what am I watching? why is it shot like this? who ARE these people? what is HAPPENING?? Sean Baker directs this picture so aggressively it's probably as close as we'll get to a Ryan Trecartin film at a cinema near us. The aforementioned excellence of Kitana Kiki Rodriguez is apparent in a flash--when her friend explains her boyfriend's been cheating on her she clarifies that she's "an upper hoe" and sets the narrative in motion. Rodriguez and her costar Mya Taylor drag the film by the hair through the streets of Los Angeles, which have never looked harsher or more beautiful than they do shot by iPhone, the day turning yellow and blue to orange and pink. Oh, and it's Christmas Eve in a city that's just "a beautifully wrapped lie." 

9. Far from the Madding Crowd - I covered the main points in my review but there are many additional things I love about this fast-paced and not-too-stately adaptation of Thomas Hardy. As previously discussed, this is an all-time great film for enthusiasts of scarves and cravats, the best I’ve ever seen in terms of neckwear style and variety (take a bow, costume designer Janet Patterson). In addition to the life-changing style of Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba is not slouch in a sterling blue milkmaid outfit, complete with kerchief, shot against a breathing couture cowhide. I also appreciate that Carey Mulligan sings a folk song that feels about an hour shorter than her “New York, New York” in Shame. As her Bathsheba explains of a most difficult year, “I seem to cry a great deal these days. I never used to cry at all.” Tell me about it lady. 

8. Macbeth - Here's another adaptation of concision--director Justin Kurzel took a lot out of the play but the snatches he left are indelible. "O full of scorpions is my mind!" he says and no contemporary actor has a more scorpion-dense head than Michael Fassbender. He is well on his way to developing the harshest crow's feet in cinema history and his Macbeth dispenses proper, proper violence. His handwash is blood, his war paint is ashes and his crown is tarnished gravestones. Marion Cotillard's Lady Macbeth matches his intensity, her face essentially a constant death frieze. The witches are hair-raising, the music chills. Kurzel took a green and grey Scottish expanse and turned it defiantly red and black. And as I turned another year older while writing this recap, I appreciated Macbeth's comforting speech about aging:

I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

7. The Assassin - The black and white opening movements of this film are so perfect I wished for time to stop; I wanted to ask the projectionist for the replay. I gasped and wrote furious notes to myself to look up the cinematographer: Ping Bin Lee (In the Mood for Love, of course). We're introduced to the Assassin in question as she deals death with remarkable naturalness, like a cloud passing across the sun, much more vivid for being so brief. Lee is the longtime lenser for Hou Hsiao-Hsien and, like their work together on The Flowers of Shanghai, this film uses the slightest of camera movements to ratchet the tension of palace intrigues. The set design is gauzy curtains and candlelight--seemingly peaceful, Lyndon-esque compositions interrupted by cuts like the flash of a knife. I often find myself back with the advice of the Assassin's mentor: "your mind is still hostage to human sentiment." 

(The 8 PM screening I attended is also my favorite theatre moment of the year. I was surprised at the relatively full house at the AMC Metreon but the turnout was all based on the title--throughout the two-hour run time, wuxia fanbois with strappy sneakers and ill-coiffed hair paraded out in huffy disgust. An auteur sneak attack!)

6. Carol - The biggest relief of the year. It was set up to be the one film to save all the shittiness that came before and so it did. Like all red-blooded Americans, I adore Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven and was impressed by how different Carol looks--it's less reminiscent of Douglas Sirk Technicolor than Robert Frank's black and white Americans. The acting is all so fine, with Cate Blanchett lionessing and Rooney Mara Audreying her tiny bangs and Coach Taylor behaving terribly because he had to be named Harge. The smeary interior of the Midwest is exactly the right amount of ugly, just as Highsmith would've wanted it, a slightly unfocused backdrop to the love story. And the formulation of the central relationship is ideal for me: a young artist is drawn resistlessly to an older lover whose art is her life itself. "Take me bed." My only problem with the film is that Carol is such an uninspired title. You know what's a great title? The Price of Salt.

5. Magic Mike XXL - Some of my feelings are noted here but it's nice to revisit the film because the Magic Mike franchise is my favorite argument. How do we live in a culture that insists on taking Avengers films seriously but dismisses Magic Mike as too shallow for serious discussion? People who deny themselves the pleasures of XXL are like this gas station cashier holding off on smiling as long as she can. In part two of what I hope is an endless saga, there are some excellent laugh lines, my favorite being Ken's on the the departed Dallas: "Don't say his name, don't give him that power." As a road picture, a lot of pleasure comes from the casual conversations the guys have, on their plans as they grow up. When not stripping, they work low-level jobs, from running a fro-yo truck to moving furniture--they are American dreamers. The pleasure-center release of the dancing benefits the recipients (who, in XXL, have a beautiful variety of body shapes and colors) as well as the entertainers. I’d say it’s still their day.

4. Blackhat - I love Michael Mann left to his own devices. As I touched on in my In the Heart of the Sea review, Chris Hemsworth (like Colin Farrell in Miami Vice) is better as an exterior, a vacancy. Blackhat is a film about visions rather than words--characters speak in thick accents and shorthand with the meanings often glitched out. From Los Angeles to Hong Kong, they move through spaces that are like the inside of computers, prisoners tethered to technology, neon chips falling over their faces--even the gold chains on necks come to look like strings of data. Despite the abstraction of much of the film, Mann remains the best composer of gunfights ever, this time surpassing himself with a crosscut sequence where the bad guys retreat down a circular ramp as the good guys make right angle turns in a warren of apartment buildings. Mann features faces and locations no one else could find and set pieces no one else would conceive. I hope his next film bombs too so he can stay small, dirty, digital, violent--he's at his greatest at the edge of coherence.    

3. Sicario - While not a particular Denis Villeneuve fan before this film, I was thrilled with the look of the picture. There's a downright Mannian border crossing sequence and later a deep push into the realm of night goggles and body heat maps. Most of my praise is contained in the review I wrote at the time so I'll re-emphasize my appreciation for the good films and books that lend a better better understand the ongoing Ciudad Juarez apocalypse. Recently I've read Yuri Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World, the first chapter of The Story of Vincente and listened to Charles Bowden, all to say I'm more convinced than ever by the pitch blackness into which Villeneuve drops viewers. Critics of his film had similar difficulties with No Country for Old Men, in which many were put off by the surprise death of (the wonderfully resurrected in Sicario) Josh Brolin. But that's cartels, killing the protagonist of any counternarrative with their unslakable thirst for death.

2. World of Tomorrow - Across the 16 minutes of Don Hertzfeldt's short but capacious animated masterpiece, every frame is screenshot-worthy and every line is quotable. Emily Clone, speaking from the future to her much younger grandmother, Emily Prime, gave me both the hardest laugh ("I drew a snakeboy") and shared the darkest thoughts of 2016 ("I do not have the mental or emotional capacity to deal with his loss but sometimes, I sit in a chair, late at night, and quietly feel very bad"). As we watch World of Tomorrow, much like Emily Prime, we are enjoying ourselves and don't quite sense how serious it is all getting. As carefree 4-year old playing a carefree 4-year-old, the filmmaker's niece Winona Mae gives the best vocal performance...ever? Probably ever. The film is full of ideas, second to second, visual and intellectual and emotional ideas and I want all of it, I want to be it--learn it, love it, stream it, buy it. "I am very proud of my sadness because it means I am more alive." "Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle."

(A quick hat tip to David Ehrlich for alerting me that I needed to see this. And, while we're here, his yearly Best of videos are one of the greatest gifts to cineastes--the 2015 version builds to a climax worthy of any film.)

1. Clouds of Sils Maria What I've come to understand is that the films I love best are the ones I must keep watching to try to understand--this is why Our Beloved Month of August and Certified Copy were perhaps underrated in previous years' lists. I saw Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria three times in theatres and there's still something just out of reach. 

The first act is an introduction to actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) who consider whether Maria should take the role of aging Helena in a restaging of the play Maloja Snake--Maria made her name 20 years earlier playing Helena's young foil Sigrid. Of course she must say yes. The second act--an endlessly beguiling affair that takes place in the cabin where Maloja Snake was written--has Maria and Valentine running lines as Helena and Sigrid with no real clarity on where the play ends and their personal conflicts intervene, whether the tensions between them are written. The third act is back in tumult of life with the new Sigrid, Lohanesque paparazzi-magnet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), meeting and tormenting Maria/Helena with what is presumably excellent method acting.

All of this plays off of Moretz and Binoche and Stewart's real life notoriety. They ask themselves why an actress like Maria Enders (like Juliette Binoche!) would take a role in an X-Men film and their conversations about Hollywood compromises are not trivial--it feels like they are addressing the heart of my work, reckoning with the commercial pictures of 2015. More than any action film, these meta games had me on the edge of my seat with excitement. Stewart is so tremendous in this film (and in 2015 as a whole) that I want to watch the Twilight films. I cannot put that in starker terms. Binoche (revelatory as she shifts from slumping in a train car to glamming up for fashion photos) is the best selector of roles and directors alive. Moretz holds her own and even takes the lead in the best image from Cannes

Which role is Binoche? Sigrid or Helena? Helena and Sigrid? Can the present overwrite the past? Assayas makes the Maloja Snake eats its own tail. I will keep watching until I can tell you everything about the play within the play and movie within the movie and the actors within the actors--The Clouds of Sils Maria is my best obsession of the year. 


Remember: "Now is the envy of all of the dead." 2016 is going to be great--so cheer the fuck up.

20 December 2015

Okay Readers

To touch upon one of the happier aspects of my unwanted but perhaps inevitable experiment with online dating, I've taken a survey of what women are reading in a five-mile radius of my domicile.

What is this scientific method? I scroll to an algorithmically-approved woman (whose eyebrows appeal) and click through to her profile. I swoop straight for the books section for close textual analysis and here, all too often, we lose the plot. But, if our tastes in authors are felicitous (and she reaches a height of no more than 5'8"), I message after a period of time between ten minutes and three weeks. 

An aside that emphasizes how much I care about literature: I mistakenly had a picture of my bookcase up as my main profile photo for a weekend, which is too on the nose even for me. 

As we say at my place of employment, let's put these issues in different buckets. 

Back button and recoil from keyboard cussing out OkC algorithms:
Ayn Rand

Just no:
Paulo Coehlo (my Christ, The Alchemist is the OkLady Bible*)
Tom Robbins (I never find a Michael Robbins fan)
Chuck Palahniuk (this is not just poor taste, it's passé poor taste)
Mary Oliver (poetry for non-poetry readers)
"I enjoy novels and non-fiction"
"I read over 20 books in 2015"
"I'm not used to reading but I love NPR" 
"Too many to name" (but if you had to try...) 

*Tangentially: my younger cousin's high school English teacher decided her class would read The Alchemist instead of The Great Gatsby....in a generation, we will have the country we deserve.

Deadly combinations:
Eat Pray Love and Lean In
Me Talk Pretty One Day and No One Belongs Here More Than You
Henry David Thoreau and Thich Nhat Hanh

Say no to hipsters and self-help.

I probably ought to be okay with but actually am not:
Jeffrey Eugenides (can Eugenides be the next guy we all agree sucks, now that we've turned viciously on Franzen?)
Haruki Murakami (is Murakami just grown-up Harry Potter? (somehow this is most damaging if they only list 1Q84))
Malcolm Gladwell (especially Outliers--at least read the filet of this overrated muppet)

Hardest call to make, on OkC as in life:
Raymond Carver (he often appears in an otherwise respectable list and I just want to tell her, "let's embrace Lish's other children, the Hannah, the Holland, my god the Hempel--we can do better than old Ray!")

Regularly occurring combo I almost get judgy about till I realize this is also me:
J.D. Salinger and Wes Anderson (oh aren't you precious with your kittenish Franny and Zooey cuddled up next to your Criterion of The Royal Tenenbaums--wait, shit!)

If you put an age range down to 25 you have to deal with:
Harry Potter (I can only hope there are fewer than two exclamation points after Potter and it doesn't appear at the exclusion of all other novels...and, anyway, don't the books have individual titles? can I at least get a hot take on how Prisoners of Azkaban is great and Goblet of Fire is trash?)

You think everyone is talking about this but OkEveryone is not:
Elena Ferrante (two months till I even found someone who listed it...and then she was too tall.)

For posterity, here's what I list:
In Search of Lost Time to White Girls. Autobiography of Red to Bluets. Sleepless Nights to Light Years. Wuthering Heights to Birds of America.* Another Country to The Emigrants.

*Combo added because a friend said, "why don't you put something down someone might have actually read?" That's right, Wuthering Heights is the most popular book I could think to list.

But let's keep it positive! On to the winners' bracket...

Piqued my interest enough I had to message:
Mary Ruefle 
Tess of the d'Urbervilles (went with the quote about the imperfect perfection of Tess's lips)
Raymond Chandler
Autobiography of Red (if I can't have at least one awkward cocktail (or--dare to dream--a non-awkward cocktail) with a woman who shares with me same damn obscure favorite book of poetry I'll quit the game) 

Through my astonishing condescension let me say, in the end, that I credit the folks who read anything in 2015. They're more worthwhile than those who list no literature at all.

Except for the Ayn Rand fans.