The best of Spike Lee

Spike Lee presents me with a conventional obstacle: his most characteristic films often contain his most regrettable material, while on first glance the hack work like Inside Man doesn’t honor him. But the first decade’s work remains astonishing. If anything, Do the Right Thing isn’t “prescient” — it’s fucking NOW, nothing has changed, and on the evidence it’s not gonna. No matter how didactic and obvious Jungle Fever becomes, Lee’s editing rhythms and shaping of acting beats are his own. Hence, the supremacy of Malcolm X on my list. Remember when Smart People in 1992 actually remarked that Norman Jewison could have directed it? That’s how Lee terrified Hollywood in the Poppy Bush Interzone: they told each other these bedtime stories.

The surprise after a first-in-twenty-five-years second look was She’s Gotta Have It; I appreciate his male curiosity about women talking to each other about guys and sex. Speaking of guys and sex, Lee will never admit it, but the way Ernest Dickerson lights Denzel Washington in Mo’ Better Blues you’d think they want to stick their fingers under his undershirts.

I wish I’d written a thousand words on Chi-raq.

1. Malcolm X
2. Do the Right Thing
3. Clockers
4. She’s Gotta Have It
5. He Got Game
6. 25th Hour
7. Jungle Fever
8. Inside Man
9. School Daze
10. Mo’ Better Blues

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The best of the Coen brothers

Nine’s a good number, and notice that five of the finalists the Coens released in the last decade, during which their mordancy and fetish for concision meshed with their sharpening tragicomic sense. For a time Barton Fink, the first one I saw at the time, fascinated me, but I couldn’t figure out if the Coens held the tendentious screenwriter as a tragic hero or a voodoo doll to be stuck with pins (in John Turturro’s performance the seams are visible). This goes double for Blood Simple: if you don’t watch it in college, don’t ever watch it.

With their movies about obsessives (about killing, money collection, cats, songwriting, and, naturally, screenwriting), the Coens tend to excite male audiences, who themselves fetishize genre and obsession with minutiae. But I can’t explain the sourness of so many of the Coens’ alleged pastiches like Hail, Caesar! and The Hudsucker Proxy; their aerobicized good cheer finally plays like contempt. The willingness to cede autonomy to their characters gives the last decade’s work its charge. No Country for Old Men can’t shake the crap book on which it’s based, but the Coens do the smart thing and concentrate on process: how to hide money in hotel rooms, how to walk silently into rooms, and so on. I suspect they would delight in blowing up the world, hence the perfect, sad, terrifying A Serious Man.

1. A Serious Man
2. True Grit
3. No Country for Old Men
4. Raising Arizona
5. Fargo
6. Burn After Reading
7. Inside Llewyn Davis
8. The Big Lebowski
9. Miller’s Crossing

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The best of Brian De Palma

“A Filmmaker by Pauline Kael,” an ancient joke went, but she’s dead and Brian De Palma undead. To make grand claims for him these days is as unfashionable as beef Wellington, but no reason to poo-poo his impressive record of producing hot glittering trash, often with a little feeling in it (Dressed to Kill, The Fury), sometimes a lot (Blow Out, Raising Cain, Hi, Mom!). I need to watch Casualties of War again; if what I suspect is true, Mission to Mars might replace it. But I have watched Femme Fatale and Raising Cain again: two trips guaranteed to produce giggles and applause as much for their formal audacity and eschewing of significance. I may be the only person mystified by the affection for Phantom of the Paradise (awful songs) and Body Double (unwatchable lead).

1. Dressed to Kill
2. Carrie
3. Blow Out
4. Femme Fatale
5. The Fury
6. Sisters
7. Mission: Impossible
8. Hi, Mom!
9. Raising Cain
10. Casualties of War

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The return of the evil dead

From the Frankenstein Files: the shitty plan that strips poor people of health care is back, this time with Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina as co-sponsors.

Starting in 2020, the Cassidy-Graham bill would eliminate both the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies and the enhanced federal funding that underwrites the expansion of Medicaid in 31 states (plus the District of Columbia). The bill would then establish a “block grant,” handing money directly to the states for helping people to pay for health care. This would produce the best of all worlds, as Cassidy and Graham would say, because it would mean states could stop worrying about the complications of the Affordable Care Act and simply use that money in ways that will work best for them and their citizens.

In reality, the Cassidy-Graham would shrink the federal investment in health care programs dramatically, by somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 billion over the next ten years, or maybe even more, according to a preliminary and rough analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Starting in 2027, the money would vanish altogether. In theory, Congress could appropriate new money then, a possibility Cassidy and Graham have raised in an effort to soothe those nervous about such a dramatic drop-off in funds. In practice, it would take $200 billion each year just to keep pace. That’d be a huge ask for any Congress.

I like the gulp implied in the verb-turned-predicate nominative “ask.” And “block grant” is garlic familiar to Reagan scholars, which means submitting chump change to states for essential service and, inevitably, when the states say it isn’t enough the GOP presidential aspirant can run on a GOVERNMENT IS INEFFICIENT SEE? platform. These people won’t quit until only the rich can afford socialism.

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I’m gonna do it on purpose: the best of Fiona Apple

This exquisitely self-dramatizing singer-songwriter has kept her sizable cult intact through the vagaries of record company politics. When I saw her in September 1997 on the Tidal tour she had already seduced a fair number of teenagers who have matured with her. I wasn’t a fan but was impressed with her confidence. To my ears When The Pawn… wasn’t a leap forward so much as a consolidation; since her teenage years she has understood how to present herself, shaming Rufus Wainwright, John Grant, and any male colleague whose rococo wiles adduce the complexity of their reactions. By the time she released 2012’s The Idler Wheel she was occupying her own space, delighting in playing from the periphery, dismissing a lover, perhaps “Jonathan,” as a werewolf, a shark, chemical — all in the same song — but concludes, “But we can still support each other, all we gotta do’s avoid each other.”

1. Werewolf
2. Carrion
3. Hot Knife
4. Window
5. Shadowboxer
6. Jonathan
7. To Your Love
8. The First Taste
9. Extraordinary Machine
10. Sleep to Dream
11. Valentine
12. Get Him Back
13. Criminal
14. O Sailor
15. Anything We Want
16. Fast As You Can
17. I Know
18. Paper Bag
19. Periphery
20. A Mistake

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Irma update, FPL anger edition

My parents and several friends belong to the ten percent of FPL customers without power this morning. Although the utility had been promising full restoration for the southeastern coast of Florida all week, it revised its statements on Friday: now those who live south of Miller Drive will get power restored by Tuesday latest. But FPL had twelve years and hundreds of millions spent updating the grid and technology only to have the technology crash (in the Sunshine State, residents aren’t allowed to disconnect from the grid even if they own solar panels; it’s another one of the perks that lobbyists can buy).

An example of the absurdity. On the way to the supermarket, my dad waved down a Michigan power company truck contracted by FPL. After he explained that power was out to eighty-eight homes connected to their transformer, the man said he was shocked; he checked the computer. Apparently the neighborhood wasn’t on the grid. Who knows then if trucks would have appeared at all. As I pointed out, a dozen years after Hurricane Wilma a powerful hurricane that delivered a glancing blow knocks out a million-plus customers in Miami-Dade County alone. Imagine if Irma had stuck to the Sept. 7 forecast, which had her buzzsawing through us and points north. Imagine if my father hadn’t flagged down the driver.

A week after Irma, the rest of us crawl toward normality. Classes resume at every level tomorrow. And north of the Caribbean Sea churns another tropical storm on its way to hurricane status following a similar trajectory as Irma’s. Early reports suggest Florida may get spared a direct hit. Normality in Florida means living with hurricane anxiety in September.

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‘mother!’ revels in a new kind of psyops

Claustrophobia has rarely been depicted with the precision that Darren Aronofsky demonstrates in mother!. This horror comedy about the depredations to which an unnamed young wife (Jennifer Lawrence) is subjected by her poet husband (Javier Bardem) is terrible and boring in its first hour, after which it turns terrible but interesting. The violence — psychological and physical — doesn’t waver. But some audiences appreciate a filmmaker who pummels them out of the theater.

Allusive but with a touch as light as a concrete glove, mother! wastes no time bringing knots to stomachs. At the center of mother! is a mysterious crystal, perhaps the source of Him (Bardem)’s creativity. In the first scene the ruins of a once proud mansion are reconstituted into a version of its former self. Lolling in bed, Mother (Lawrence) looks over her shoulder and says, “Babe?” This kicks off a series of moments, indebted to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, in which Mother imagines unseen forces behind walls and in the basement. Then a Man (Ed Harris) knocks on the door. Convulsed by emphysema, he acts as if he knows Him; at any rate Him, stricken with writer’s block, says he needs Man for the stories he tells (we hear none of them). Him uses the writer’s block to keep Mother at bay; as usual with these kinds of films she wants to get pregnant, he doesn’t.

mother!‘s essential plot device is to treat the house as a clown car, piling uninvited guests while Mother directs her growing outrage to her husband, who reveals himself as a man of staggering narcissism. The most memorable is Man’s wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer with vinegary menace (my relief was a reminder of how much pleasure she used to give me twenty-five (!) years ago). When Pfeiffer is on screen, Aronofsky’s dream-illogic snaps into place; she acts as if it’s her house and Mother is in the intruder, forcing the audience to question what we’ve seen so far.

But the blood letting doesn’t begin until the couple’s sons (Domhnall Gleeson and Brian Gleeson) appear unannounced too and fighting over the will. From this point forward mother! climaxes with a pair of tableaux that riff superficially on The Exterminating Angel: a wake and an assembly of Him’s fans celebrating the publication of the collection of poems inspired by Mother’s sudden pregnancy. How the poems and pregnancy happen I won’t share. Aronofsky is at his best in these passages, which are edited with an eye for rapid movement, especially when capturing people and bits of action at the camera’s periphery. His other strategy is to fill every inch of the screen with reaction shots of Lawrence staring straight into the camera, making the audience complicit in the bludgeoning.

“Jesus Christ. At least we had two hours of air conditioning,” I overheard an Irma-weary man tell his wife exiting a screening of mother!. With art I’m no democrat — several people fled the terrific Marjorie Prime before the end credits had rolled. Darren Aronofsky may have intended an experience this alienating. A sadist dressed up as a fabulist, Aronofsky specializes in movies in which he expects audiences to get their jollies from watching pretty stars get theirs onscreen, from Jennifer Connolly and Jared Leto’s heroin addicts in Requiem for a Dream and Natalie Portman’s ballerina in Black Swan to Russell Crowe’s titular hero in Noah, his least repulsive film. The violence in mother! is staggering: shards of glass as weapons; a mob stomps on Jennifer Lawrence; a baby’s life is threatened. The picture offended me insofar as it was at the service of banal points about a poet’s self-absorption. Conveying dread isn’t a skill if what the audience dreads is stupid. Lawrence doesn’t give a performance; it’s an endurance test. mother! deserves feminist scrutiny: while it does show Him as a smooth-talking monster, the film does so at the expense of Mother, who’s abased in a manner that suggests the writer-director is having a grand old time (a glance de Sade’s Justine may be illustrative). Horror flicks have used the woman-in-distress trope for a century; with Mother! it might be time to put it on ice. Aronofsky can put the magic crystal where his brain ought to be.


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Go ahead with your schemin’: the best of Vince Clark + Erasure

Suspicious of Vince Clarke’s facility, I hesitated before publishing this list, in cold storage for several weeks. But a Facebook discussion with Ned Raggett about Music for the Masses forced a re-listen of Pop! in the car. Clark isn’t a resourceful melodist, and Andy Bell is an enthusiastic vocalist without much range, but within their limitations as Erasure they nailed it rather often. Live was another story — I saw them with friends on the 2005 Nightbird tour, as rococo a show as I’ve ever seen and great fun. I danced a lot, and so did my straight friends.

In this list I included Yazoo co-writes and the immortal “Never, Never,” released with Undertones singer Feargal Sharkey under the Assembly moniker. While I’m not a fan of “Always,” I included it for two reasons: as a pace changer — I bet no one expected a British synth pop duo to score a legit top twenty American hit in 1994; and because the chorus “Always I want to be with you/and make believe with you,” with Bell tugging upward the stressed words, had resonance in a peak year for AIDS deaths.

1. Only You
2. Oh L’Amour
3. Love to Hate You
4. Never, Never
5. Situation
6. Walk Away from Love
7. Don’t Go
8. Chorus
9. Sometimes
10. Chains of Love
11. Fingers and Thumbs (Cold Summer’s Day)
12. Hideaway
13. Blue Savannah
14. A Little Respect
15. Ship of Fools
16. Mr. Blue
17. Always
18. Am I Right?
19. I Love Saturday
20. Breathe

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‘Paris Can Wait’ a hunk of moldy cheese

Escargot should be cooked alive. Fava beans were found in Egyptian tombs. American cheeses are dead because we pasteurize them. If Paris Can Wait had appeared as an article in a French travel magazine, I would’ve excused its genial snobbery. But Eleanor Coppola has instead written and directed a ninety-minute advertisement for la vie epicurienne in which Diane Lane and Arnaud Viard eat well, flirt worse and fail to justify the experience.

With narrative an excuse for Crystal Fournier to photograph cathedrals and lamb chops, Paris Can Wait coasts on our tolerance, like a wine whose subtleties we’re assured will be revealed. Lane is Anne, the owner of a closed dress shop and a (very) amateur photographer, marooned in Cannes with her film-producer husband Michael (Alec Baldwin, who would have played, as he did in Blue Jasmine and It’s Complicated, yet another garrulous steward for women of privilege had Coppola not disposed of him not long after the opening credits). Although they’re supposed to fly to Budapest, Anne’s recurring earache keeps her on the ground; Michael’s business associate, of course named Jacques (Viard), offers to drive her north where she and Michael will ostensibly rendezvous. That’s the movie.

The creator of Hearts of Darkness, one of cinema’s most essential documentaries, Coppola doesn’t know what to do with the material except present it as if she were a young chef cooking for connoisseurs. Paris Can Wait has no urgency, no fever; it’s less dramatic than the Epcot pavilion’s travelogue, which at least used Eric Satie music with élan. In the car Ann listens to Phoenix, Jacques to Mozart. Using her credit card, they stop at boutique country inns and dine well — oh, do they dine well. At least the jus d’agneau flatters Coppola’s taste more than her choice of bon mots, such as “Guilt is bad for your digestion” and, uh, “It’s the best time of the year to eat young animals.” And the white wine of which Ann and Jacques consume gallons boasts more crispness than Jacques’ nickname for her (“Brûlée” — really).

No stranger to being cast as an accompaniment — an addendum — to pleasure (Under the Tuscan Sun), Lane has too much intelligence and vibrancy for a picture that restricts her to some of the most cretinous reaction shots in memory. After tasting yet another delicacy Jacques has shoved in her face, she responds as if he’d asked permission to mow the lawn. By the time Paris Can Wait reached its preordained conclusion I could smell the mold on this old cheese.


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Singles 9/15

In three years, Lee Ann Womack has become a necessary adjunct to my life. Steeped in blues verities, “All the Trouble” would be wallpaper at a country fair were it not for producer-husband Frank Liddell’s sympathetic settings and Womack’s aversion to bathos. Listen to the section with the verses: “It’s hard being little; it’s hard being small / Make it up that mountain, you’re standing big and tall/Well, the trouble with a mountain, there’s a million ways to fall.” The subtlety with which she lets the notes dip a little adduces her continual evolution.

Click on links for full reviews.

Lee Ann Womack – All the Trouble (8)
Astrid S – Such a Boy (7)
Wanna One – Energetic (7)
Luke Bryan – Light It Up (6)
Aly & AJ – Take Me (6)
Niki and Gabi – RU (6)
Gary Numan – And It All Began With You (5)
Miguel ft. Travis Scott – Sky Walker (5)
Not3s – Aladdin (4)
Lindsay Ell – Waiting on You (4)
Steven Wilson ft. Sophie Hunger – Song of I (4)
Maroon 5 ft. SZA – What Lovers Do (3)

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Courtesies that I despise in me: the best of Portishead

Ready to allow for the originality of their admixture of trip hop and film scores, once the provenance of kitsch, I admit I found them silly in 1995 when Beth Gibbons’ pinched expressions of misery sounded like automatic self-parody. But they hung around long enough to carve a niche independent of Whale, Garbage, and Tricky, and, if you like, audiences were ready for the subtle refinements of 1997’s eponymous second album after three years of hearing “Sour Times” in every Gap dressing room in the land. Then they disappeared for another decade. Thicker, heavier, suffused with a despair that by then was as existential as Ronald Reagan’s permanent cheer, Third eliminated the possibility of a followup; it was as beautiful and complete as a marble sarcophagus. But Portishead have made a career of defying assumptions about their limits.

Here are a dozen dark stars.

1. Wandering Star
2. Machine Gun
3. Sour Times
4. Roads
5. Silence
6. Cowboys
7. Threads
8. Mourning Air
9. The Rip
10. Glory Box
11. Magic Doors
12. Mysterons

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Harry Dean Stanton — RIP

He had a face like a map: flat but riven with the topography of many lands, in his case states, for Harry Dean Stanton was as American as the interstate system. Paris, Texas made this clear. The 1984 Palme d’Or winner, which I saw again on Labor Day weekend, gets woolly when Sam Shepard’s austere notions of what women owe men clashes with Wenders’ sentimentality about The Open Road. I have no patience for this bullshit. But Stanton doesn’t waver; he had a talent for emptiness if not erasure, for disdaining superfluity. Orson Welles loved playing Harry Lime because everyone in The Third Man talks about Lime even when he’s offscreen. My favorite Stanton performance depends on a similar conceit: in The Straight Story, Richard Farnsworth’s Alvin hits the road — that plot strand again — in the hope of reconciling with his brother, played by Stanton in a performance marked by several decades of contained grief and regret, released in the last frames of David Lynch’s 1999 film.

But Stanton played wily bastards too: Lethal Weapon and 48 Hours didn’t sport a cop duo as weird and fascinating as Stanton and Emilio Estevez in 1984’s Repo Man, a punk’s romanticized vision of L.A. subcultures. When he needed to be in a hit, he accepted those offers: in Alien; in Pretty in Pink Stanton seems to be looking for a more complex idea of fatherhood than John Hughes’ staging and script allow, but he and Molly Ringwald generate real warmth.

“No movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad,” Roger Ebert once wrote. Wrong. But when Stanton the actor was at his best his eyes were clouded with private, mystic visions; he saw things he didn’t, wouldn’t, share.

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