California Food Odyssey

Strohltopia will always be cinema-centric, but I’m going to try to incorporate occasional food writing, including this report on my recent trip to California.

By an incredible stroke of good fortune, the Pacific meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics happened to fall immediately before my spring break this year. I thought about the prospect for two seconds and spoke the words aloud: California food odyssey!

As far as I’m concerned, LA is by far the best place in the USA to eat food. It’s not even close. Sure, there are some particular categories that are superior in other places: NYC for pizza and bagels, NJ for Indian food, Seattle for oysters, Texas for BBQ. But no place has anywhere near the breadth and depth of amazingness that LA does.

The plan was to drive along with my wife Angela to Berkeley for the conference, hang out an extra day or two in San Francisco, drive down the coast, and then spend a few days doing some world class eating in LA, punctuated by a quick trip down to San Diego to visit the Riggles.

We had to narrow down our food agenda. LA is just too overwhelming, and I knew that rubber necking would be a bad strategy. We decided to totally cut Mexican food out of the picture. We spent two weeks in Oaxaca last year eating everything in sight and I spent another 5 days in San Diego, during which time I ate like 40 tacos. That itch has been scratched. We decided to focus on two other categories that are particularly well represented in LA: Chinese and Korean. I ate a ton of Chinese food in Flushing last fall and I’m headed to Vancouver/Richmond BC soon, and so I will have visited the three best places to eat Chinese food in North America within one year. We decided we would also fit in one or two Thai meals and a single Persian lunch, and I figured that since it’s Angela’s first visit to California I absolutely had to get her to In-N-Out Burger and Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. She was appropriately impressed by both.

Here’s a trip report with up-to-date California food recommendations, followed by a brief excursus on my methodology for culinary tourism.

Berkeley

We ate well in Berkeley! Better than I expected, honestly.

Top recommendations:

Royal Egyptian Cuisine

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This is by far my top recommendation for the Bay area. I have to thank my friend Autumn for sending us to this place.  It’s a food truck that sets up by a sketchy little park on Folger Ave. You have to check twitter in the morning to see if he’s going to be there or not: https://twitter.com/EgyptianCuisine?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor

If you catch him, the trick is to show up and just say “I’m hungry, Chef Elmy, please feed me,” and then specify any dietary restrictions. I went with Angela and Anthony Cross and it was the best damn food truck omakase we’ve ever had. Elmy himself is hilarious and utterly charming, and the food he served us was a uniformly delicious mix of traditional and bizarre. He served fried polenta seasoned like a samosa. There was a rice and grain pilaf with fucking Roquefort on it. He gave each of us a gyro with fresh flatbread. There were freshly made dolmas and fried peppers and falafel. It was a feast, and it was obscenely cheap. He basically said that he likes to undercharge so that you know that he’s cooking for you out of love rather than a desire for profit. Elmy is a being of pure culinary light. Bask in it. And tip well.

Fournée Bakery

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This was way the hell out of the way but I’m glad I tried it. I had a couple croissant variations and a canelé. The canelé was just okay but the croissants were some of the best I’ve ever had. I started eating the fruit croissant above and then realized I’d better document it. Look at that fucking lamination! This place had a long, annoying line on Saturday morning and it’s in a very inconvenient location but they seemed to have tons of extra trays of each item, so at least you don’t have to race there first thing in the morning lest they sell out. I took two Ubers to get these croissants and I’d do it again without hesitation

Others:

Udupi Palace

This is a fantastic little south Indian place close to campus. I will try to have lunch here every time I come to Berkeley from now on.

Chengdu Style

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This is an absolutely perfect place to take a big group after a conference.  Big tables in a big room with a delightful cafeteria feel. The menu is super legit and we ordered a feast. It was all really good and very inexpensive. Highlights: husband and wife cold beef slices, toothpick lamb, stir fried cabbage, and a gruesome crimson bowl of various innards and cubes of duck blood bobbing in molten chili oil that Thi ate like half of himself before I realized what he was up to and commandeered the remains.

Pyeong Chang Tofu

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Super legit Korean soft tofu joint. I believe it’s an outpost of a popular spot in Oakland. Very spicy broth, beautiful tofu texture, good banchan. Not too expensive. Highly recommended.

Tacos Sinaloa

Mediocre taco joint near campus. The al pastor was alright but definitely not worth wasting a meal on this place.

Chaat Café

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Fish pakoras were a hit and the chaat was solid. Close to campus, recommended.

KoJa Kitchen

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I wound up here with the motley crew of Angela, Susan Feagin, Corey Reed and John Dyck after Saturday’s talks. We chose this place because Angela was super hungry and we needed something fast. KoJa stands for “Korean-Japanese” which would have ordinarily deterred me, given my distrust of all things fusion, but I’m glad I bracketed my skepticism because this shit is delicious. The main event is what they call a KoJA: a sandwich where the “buns” are lightly deep fried garlic rice cakes and the filling is Korean BBQ. Holy shit, these Berkeley undergrads are lucky. If I had access to this place late at night in my undergrad days I would have massacred some KoJa. We also had Kamikaze waffle fries topped with bbq beef, kimchi, hot sauce, and Japanese mayo. Very craveable food.

Royal Rangoon

I had in mind to go to Burma Superstar, but a friend of a friend suggested this place as a less-hipster and lower key Burmese alternative run by former affiliates of Burma Superstar. There were some good starters but the curries were boring and the noodles were bad. Seemed like the food could have benefited from some hipsterization? In any case, not recommended.

Rainbow Donuts

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This place is far from campus but near where we stayed and it’s hella good, though not worth a big expedition if it’s out of the way.

San Francisco

San Francisco sucks now! Wow, does it suck. I remember when there was a legitimate conversation to be had about whether SF or LA is better (I certainly always thought LA), but that conversation is over. San Francisco is tech douchebag purgatory. Everything is outrageously expensive and everyone sucks. Anecdotally, we shared an Uber with some Trader Joe’s shopper who refused to put her groceries in the back because “it’s dirty back there.” The driver, Muhammad, protested, “but the food is completely contained within a grocery bag!” She insisted on bringing three full bags of groceries into the front seat with her, “it’s food, and I don’t want it to get dirty, does that make sense?” Much to my pleasure, Muhammad held onto the truth despite the imminent threat of a bad review: “To me, this does NOT make sense.” No, it certainly doesn’t. We did have some good dim sum, though.

Top Recommendation:

Yank Sing

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Famous dim sum place in a central location, on the expensive side but super amazing. I think it’s justifiable to pay a little extra to eat here if you’re in this part of town rather than schlepping out to a cheaper dim sum place in the environs. I went with Angela and John Dyck and we frickin’ loved it. The highlight for me was the seafood and basil dumpling. Angela went nuts over the honey walnut shrimp and the baked pork bao.

Other:

State Bird Provisions

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This was the splurgiest meal we went for. I was intrigued by the concept: dim sum style service, dim sum inspired dishes, but localvore seasonal farm-to-table Michelin star kinda shit. Alas, I can’t say I’m too surprised to report that it was a bit underwhelming. It wasn’t crazy expensive but you could eat at Yank Sing two or three times for the price of eating here once, and Yank Sing is way better. This is a fun place to eat with friends, though, (in my case, Angela, Samantha Matherne, and Thi) and it’s entertaining to see surprising things roll out of the kitchen and conduct quick negotiations about what to order. I thought the food was generally weak when it tried to imitate dim sum (e.g., the dumpling skins were too thick and a bit under-cooked) and much better when it went off into left field. In retrospect, the most memorable dish was definitely a cube of pork belly that was crispy on the outside and silky on the inside, served with fish sauce vinaigrette and fresh fruit.

Golden Gate Bakery

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Famous egg tarts. The pastry is incredible, the filling is unremarkable. The other pastries they sell are at least as good so don’t stop at the tarts. Overall, I wasn’t as thrilled by this place as I was by the New Flushing Bakery in NY.

Barnzu Korean

We had dinner with an old friend of mine here (the one and only Gary Tsifrin). The sweet and spicy Korean fried chicken was great (skip the garlic soy variant) but this place was just okay overall. It’s the sort of newfangled hipster Korean restaurant where they don’t give you banchan by default. In addition to the chicken, we had a big braised pork hock, which was good but nothing special, a nice seafood pancake, and some very disappointing salty Brussels sprouts.

LA part 1: Koreatown and West LA

We started the Southern California portion of the trip with a brief stay in Koreatown, then hopped down to San Diego for one night, and then spent the last stretch of the trip in the San Gabriel Valley. I totally recommend both Koreatown and the SGV as places to stay. They were cheaper than other areas and you are totally surrounded by amazing food and boba joints. Koreatown also features the famous, fully amazing 24 hour Korean Wi Spa where you can get totally naked (on gender segregated floors) and then sit in a 200 degree sauna (!) before plunging in an ice bath. I love this place: it has just the right mix of shamelessness and extremity for me.

Top Recommendations:

Eighth Street Soondae

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This was a deeply soul satisfying meal. I love everything about this place. You walk into a disconcertingly large, mostly empty room but are immediately beckoned through a door to the cramped backroom dining area. There isn’t much on the menu—mostly variations of soondae and broth—but it all sounds hella good. We ordered a combo platter for me and a bowl of tofu for Angela. The banchan were tremendous. The combo platter turned out to be enough food for four people. There was a big stack of soondae (vermicelli, blood, onions, seasoning, etc stuffed into a casing) and then there were generous piles of intestines and sliced heart, tongue, and liver. I found the overcooked liver unpleasant but everything else was amazing, especially the silky, luscious, mild soondae. If I had to eat one meal for all of eternity this would be a strong contender. The ladies who run the place were impressed by the zeal with which I attacked the family-sized portion.  “You like it?!” “Why yes, I most certainly do.”

Naan Hut

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Sangak bread from the gods. I was going to skip this place but my eating associate Thi Nguyen absolutely insisted that I eat here and then he brought it up five times reminding me to make sure I don’t miss it. I was a bit dismissive at first: how good could naan be? But I decided that Thi is at that highest echelon of aesthetic trustworthiness where I would be a fool not to take such an insistent recommendation from him. I was told to get sangak with kashk and eggplant. And yeah, Thi was right. Do not miss this place. Make sure you try the bread both toasted and untoasted. Toasting brings out more depth of flavor but one also needs to experience the impossibly stretchy texture of the untoasted bread.

Saffron & Rose

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Persian ice cream place not too far from Naan Hut serving some of the best ice cream we’ve ever had. Normally I’m ambivalent about floral ice cream but this is on another level. Angela and I both thought Orange Blossom was the best. Stick with the Persian flavors, I sampled a couple others and they were nowhere near as good.

Others:

Dan Sung Sa

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This is a dark, atmospheric bar with tasty grilled skewers, open late. It isn’t an ideal place to sit down and eat dinner but it would be a great place to party with friends.

Oakobing

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What is this sorcery? I don’t even know. It seemed like some sort of lighter-than-air shaved ice construction but it’s not shaved ice in any normal sense, it’s some ethereal but painfully cold substance from another dimension.

Jitlada Thai Restaurant

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I ate at Jitlada like a decade ago and remember feeling so overwhelmed by the menu that no matter how indulgently we ordered I was never going to be satisfied. I vowed to go back and order completely different things. I’ve finally lived up to that vow, but I still feel like I have to go back a half a dozen more times before I’ll even begin to make headway on that damn menu. This is vibrant, gorgeous southern Thai food, with a lot of unusual regional preparations that you’re not likely to see anywhere else in the US. I’m still dreaming of the pomelo salad. The pork and jackfruit curry was spicy and pungent and the Dungeness crab with chili-garlic sauce was delicious (though they didn’t even attempt to retain any of the delicacy of the crab).

Night + Market

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This is the other really famous Thai restaurant in LA. I had never eaten here before. This place does two totally different things: crowd-pleasing party food and aggressive pork-centric regional food from Northern Thailand. You can only get the really aggressive dishes at dinner time. I was fighting with myself over whether we should spend a dinner slot on this place over Chinese, and I was finally deterred by a trusted friend who told me he had ordered much of the menu and was unimpressed. As it turned out, we drove right by this place at lunchtime and made a snap decision to try out the party favorites. Some of it was pretty good, like sweet and salty wings and a fried chicken sandwich piled with papaya slaw, but this stuff was also quite predictable. The very spicy grilled pork salad was more adventurous but way the hell out of balance: too much acid and salt. It seemed like it had been seasoned indiscriminately. The crispy rice salad was both boring and too acidic.

Attari Sandwich Shop

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Good Persian lunch spot but would not recommend over Naan Hut. Bland but pleasant osh, tender sliced tongue sandwiches. The star is the super interesting kuku sandwich, which contains a frittata-like egg filling that’s about 50% herbs.

Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles

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As Thi rightly put it, there are places with better fried chicken and places with better waffles, but no place with better chicken-waffle gestalt. The soft, fluffy waffles demand to be wrapped around shreds of meat, skin, and syrup like a little taco.

LA part 2: San Gabriel Valley

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There’s not as much to do in this area aside from food but if you’re out this way definitely hit the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. It has a small but densely wonderful collection and– best of all– it’s not crowded. There were no kids and very few selfie-taking philistines.  We also enjoyed visiting Imen at Tea Habitat (pictured above) to sample the best Dancong oolong collection outside of China. This is very advanced and expensive tea, but if you’re into this kind of thing it shouldn’t be missed.

Top Recommendations:

101 Noodle Express
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The best bite of food I ate on the entire trip was the beef roll at 101 Noodle Express. If aliens visited the Earth and were like “Earthling, show us your most delicious Earth food.” I would be like “yo get that beef roll at 101 Noodle Express.” This paragon of human culinary achievement consists of a thin pancake, lightly smeared with the world’s best sweet bean paste, judiciously studded with shreds of five spice-scented braised beef, generously piled with cilantro, rolled up and fried crisp. It looks intimidating but is actually light, airy, and herb-forward. It’s a crispy, crackly umami bomb of profound deliciousness. I cocked my head back and bellowed “yuuuuuuuuummm.” I’m told their dumplings are also great but I had no eating capability left after the late night beef roll.

Chengdu Taste

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This is widely thought to be the gold  standard for Sichuan restaurants in North America and I don’t disagree. It’s awesome. It will make you sweat and thoroughly anesthetize your mouth, but at the same time it is very refined. The husband and wife beef slices are the best I’ve ever had (though I have to dissent on the dan dan noodles: good but I still think I prefer the ones at Han Dynasty in Philadelphia). One absolutely must order the green pepper fish, which is a nuclear Sichuan bomb. The broth is generously seasoned with green Sichuan peppercorns and raw green chilies and loaded with tender fish slices and crunchy bean sprouts. It’s intensely grassy and floral and it will definitely clear out your sinuses.

Huge Tree Pastry

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Taiwanese breakfast joint, not to be missed. I frickin loved the fan tuan: it’s a savory donut, some fried pork fluff, an egg, and some pickled mustard greens wrapped in rice. The layered textures and balanced, mild flavors made my heart sing.

Beijing Pie House

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These are really damn good Northern Chinese meat “pies.” The shell is thin and light but effective at containing the juices, which dramatically squirt out when the pie is bitten into without appropriate caution. We had lamb with squash and pork with leek and they were stellar.

Others:

Savoy Kitchen

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A longtime institution, serving Hainan chicken in a tiny little corner spot. Hainan chicken is a simple dish of plain poached chicken and rice cooked in the resulting chicken broth, served with three condiments: soy sauce, ginger sauce, and chili sauce. The simplicity of the dish lets the main points stand out: the texture of the chicken, the savory unctuousness of the rice, and the bracing pungency of the condiments. This was a very nice version of the dish, though didn’t stand out among the wealth of SGV treasures.

Hui Tou Xiang Noodles House

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The thing to get here are the hui tou, which are the rectangular pork dumplings pictured above. They have a perfect crispy texture and the oniony filling is delicious.

Shaanxi Garden

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We ate here in honor of my beloved Jia Zhangke (who hails from Shaanxi) after seeing Ash is Purest White (which is an extraordinary film). The specials here are the biang biang noodles and the rou jia mo, which they refer to as a “Chinese hamburger.” It’s a crispy bun filled with braised pork. The noodles had a nice toothsome texture and were long enough to be served with scissors, which is always a good sign. I’d pass on the wontons in hot sauce next time. Angela particularly liked the noodles.

Phoenix Desserts

Hong Kong dessert chain with a couple locations in the SGV. Definitely enjoyed it but I admit I struggled with the Durian mochi rolls.

Banh Mi My Tho

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Anthony Cross absolutely insisted I try this place. It was low commitment to split one with Angela and it was indeed extremely good, though we had even better Banh Mi at Dakao Sandwiches in Vegas on the way home.

Miscellaneous:

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The Riggles have been known to set a damn fine table! Great to see them.

The Griddle

If you ever find yourself in Winnemucca, NV, eat breakfast here.

Fiesta Mexicana

Always delighted to get a chance to swing by the much-loved Dillon, MT taco bus. Some of the best food in the state of Montana.

Nomad Donut

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Made a brief stop in the morning after visiting Riggle in San Diego, and I continue to be impressed by these donuts (which I had a couple times the last time I was in San Diego).

Dakao Sandwiches

A few miles off the highway in Vegas but totally worth it. The best baguette texture of any banh mi I’ve ever had.

Methodology:

I do a fair amount of research for trips like this, and I think in general I get good results. Here’s a few notes on the various resources that are available.

Yelp/Tripadvisor/Google reviews

Borderline useless, especially Yelp. Yelp is so reliably bad that you can almost use it as a reverse predictor. There are many problems with these aggregators. They are too democratic.  Most people who post reviews just don’t know what they’re talking about. Typical reviewers harbor a preference for crowd-pleasing, Instagram-optimized, inoffensive, boring food. People who use these platforms tend to weigh service and cleanliness too highly, giving preference to over-attentive, obsequious service. Very, very often when there are two places in the same category and one place has 4.5 stars on Yelp while the other place has 3 stars, the 3 star place serves better food and doesn’t give a shit what you think of the service. Of the three I think Google reviews tends to be the most useful (the content of particular reviews, not the aggregate) and Tripadvisor is much better than Yelp.

Chowhound

Vastly more useful than Yelp et al, but still unreliable, attracts annoying self-styled foodies, and you have to wade through a lot of useless and outdated content to find useful tips. It can be a goldmine when you find someone who really knows what they’re talking about, though, and there are a lot of people on Chowhound who really know what they’re talking about. In general, negative reviews should trump positive reviews. Everyone wants to think their $200 dinner was good, it takes courage to admit that it wasn’t. Chowhound is California-centric and thus the California discussion threads are particularly overloaded. I only used Chowhound on this trip for cross-referencing recommendations from other sources, but I’ve used it extensively for visits to other cities and gotten very good results.

Asking random locals: Airbnb hosts, taxi drivers, etc.

I know some people who swear by this. It’s high risk but high reward. A lot of people like things that are bad, and it’s not easy to determine how much to trust an individual. If you get lucky with who you ask, though, you can get some of the most up to date and under the radar info.

Food critics

Publications like Eater, The Infatuation, Serious Eats, etc. provide a good starting point but they are extremely fallible and need to be cross-referenced with Chowhound or a friend. A lot of the listicles that these outlets put out (e.g. “15 Best Dumpling Joints in the SGV” or “22 Foods You Have to Try in San Francisco Before You Die”) are composed without much thought or care as ephemeral clickbait, but others are actually quite helpful. Unfortunately, many the critics working for these publications (let alone regional newspapers) are from my experience just unreliable. I’ll never forgive Kenji López-Alt for sending me way the hell out of my way for a mediocre Cuban pork sandwich. If you find someone whose sensibility works for you, it can be a godsend, but it’s a double-edged sword. LA of course long benefited from the work of one of the best and most reliable food critics of all time, Jonathan Gold, but anyplace he raved about was propelled into super popularity and as a result may no longer be as good as it was when he reviewed it. Still, his lists and guides (e.g., the wonderful Koreatown guide) are the best place to start for LA trip planning.

Friends

I don’t tend to crowd-source food recommendations, especially for big cities. You may get some good recs but it generates too much noise. People with limited knowledge of a city will recommend the two things they liked out of the four things they tried. And people are more likely to recommend farm-to-table small plates shit rather than the kind of stuff I like. I try to single out friends whose sensibility I trust and who have extensive knowledge of a given city.  I’m acquainted with some pretty hardcore food enthusiasts, and they are often sources of the very best information, but for a city as big as LA all individuals have blind spots and friends need to be supplemented with other sources.

So, then, my overall methodological recommendation is:

Narrow down your agenda to a few categories; use google, listicles, critics, and Chowhound to generate an initial list; cross reference questionable options with Chowhound and/or by Googling to find food bloggers; and then if you have a friend or two with knowledge of the area run everything by them to eliminate some places and add things you may have missed. Or you can just show up and ask a taxi driver what’s good and not be such a nerd about it.

Recommended on Netflix: Lady J


As someone who ragged on Netflix relentlessly for years, I’ve gotta keep giving credit where credit is due: they have been been killing it with proprietary content lately. This time I’m here to rave about Emmanuel Mouret’s Lady J (aka Mademoiselle de Joncquières).

It’s based on the same Diderot story as Bresson and Cocteau’s collaboration Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. A widow resists the advances of a womanizing Marquis until he eventually persuades her that his intentions are honorable. When he betrays her faith, she plots revenge by enlisting an unfortunate woman born to noble parents out of wedlock and her ethereal young daughter.

I love this movie. It scratched the itch that I hoped The Favourite would scratch. It’s got that “polite on the surface but oh so deliciously nasty and wicked underneath” Dangerous Liaisons thing going on. The Favourite was a near complete failure for me: the emotions are too close to the surface, it’s missing the tension that accrues when passions are left to seethe beneath oppressive social norms. And Emma Stone just doesn’t have the range to pull it off. Cécile de France, on the other hand, is a stone cold genius. She is immaculately perfect in this movie.

Another area where Lady J triumphs while The Favourite fails is
mise-en-scène. As I’ve said, The Favourite looks to me like shitty Barry Lyndon. Lanthimos just throws the camera down in the corner with a fisheye lens. Those compositions are neither pleasing nor interesting. Lady J, on the other hand, doesn’t waste a single shot. Every composition is purposeful. Every image is appealing. The use of sunlight is vibrant without being cloying. The blocking highlights the subtle brilliance of the acting and conveys overwhelming lust without ever being vulgar or heavy-handed. As a bonus, there are some delightful nods to Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais is another clear influence.

I am tempted to go on raving about how much I love this, but I think you’d be better served if I just insist that you go watch it. It’s a rare instance of a truly great costume drama.

Nicolas Cage year in review: 2018

This was a busy year for Nicolas Cage. He was in 8 movies, including smaller voice-acting parts in two animated movies (Spiderverse and Teen Titans). I didn’t see either of them, but Josh says he’s funny in Spiderverse.  We’re only including movies that he starred in.

The Cage movie everyone was talking about this year was Mandy. To be frank, as longtime Cage diehards who have eagerly watched every damn direct-to-video crime movie he’s ever done, our feeling is that Mandy is for posers. The key to the latter-day Nicolas Cage movie is that it’s just a regular movie that Cage took in some extraordinary direction. Cage is most often at his best when he’s out of proportion with everything else. Mandy is too self-consciously a Nicolas Cage movie, and it teeters on the brink of self-parody. If Cage made two other movies like Mandy, it would be time to declare him on the decline. Thank god, he did not. He made three movies that were considerably better and a couple others that were trash (which we are fine with: it can’t all be fine dining, and wading through trash makes it all the more gratifying when he hits one out of the park).

Without further ado, our ranking of the six movies that Cage starred in this year:

1) Looking Glass (Hunter)

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Tim Hunter! You’d probably know him from River’s Edge, but he also directed episodes of many popular TV shows (Twin Peaks, Breaking Bad, Riverdale, and lots of others). Looking Glass is pure sleaze and we love it. It opens with credits in David Lynch font and some ominous driving. We soon learn that married couple Nicolas Cage and Robin Tunney are struggling after losing their only daughter and have purchased a scuzzy motel off Craigslist in hopes of starting a new life. The hook is: Cage finds a secret passageway to a two-way mirror where he can spy on guests! It’s a bit like Bad Times at the El Royale, but good. His performance is brilliant throughout, and he’s doing something that he’s never done before. It’s a relatively understated performance, without a lot of screaming and shouting, but it is totally batshit. Three things especially stand out. First: for most of the movie, whenever he’s not looking through the spy mirror, he’s thinking about looking through the spy mirror. The distracting obsession is all over his face. Second: his reactions! There are dozens of meme-worthy reactions in this movie. Certainly all the scenes where he’s perving out at the spy mirror are pure gold, but his reaction to his own messed up dream is priceless. Third: the sex scenes with Robin Tunney are magnificent.

2) Between Worlds (Pulera)

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If it were just me writing this, I probably would have put this first, but Josh feels strongly about Looking Glass and he makes a strong enough case that I decided to concede this one. Looking Glass has Cage doing something we’ve never seen him do before, whereas this is another in a long line of balls-to-the-wall Cage explosions. But what an explosion it is. I mean look: he’s wearing a shark tooth necklace. It’s hard to describe this, but basically: Cage is a truck driver who has lost his wife and daughter. He meets a woman with psychic powers (Franka Potente, from Run Lola Run) who wants him to help guide her comatose daughter’s soul back to her body, but Cage’s wife’s soul ends up possessing the daughter. It’s completely insane throughout, with Cage leaning into the white trash angle. There’s lots of weird sex shit and the movie savors every morsel of luridness. Director Maria Pulera is someone to watch.

3) Mom and Dad (Taylor)

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We love Brian Taylor and this movie is a ton of fun. It’s a fairly straightforward extrapolation of an excellent premise: parents everywhere are overtaken with an uncontrollable urge to murder their children. Cage here is very clearly paying homage to Jack Nicholson. It’s a blast, even if his performance is predictable. Mom and Dad loses some Cage factor points because Selma Blair soundly upstages him.

4) Mandy (Cosmatos)

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Ah, Mandy. Look, we wanted to love this. We thought we would love this. But we just didn’t. It’s a glorified music video, remixing tropes that have been done so much better before (you want a scary satanic sex cult? Let me direct you to Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark, which eats Mandy for breakfast). The storytelling is inept in a bad way (it’s too pretentious to enjoy its ineptness as such). The part that irked me the most was when he sets out to track down the cult, with only one lead about where they might be, and we cut *immediately* to him having them in his crosshairs. I mean c’mon, how can there be tension when you don’t even try? Also, to borrow an observation from Brazilian critic Filipe Furtado, it takes a special kind of mediocrity to render a meeting between Nicolas Cage and Bill Duke underwhelming. And yet that’s what Cosmatos has done here. We don’t hate Mandy, though, we just think it’s overrated and for posers. We have to admit that it has two scenes that immediately join the Cage pantheon: vodka-chugging and axe-forging.

5) 211 (Shackleton)

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This is deep in the bottom of the bargain bin. It does, however, work on the good-bad level. What makes it fun is that the bank robbers are total psychopaths who kill people indiscriminately rather than professionals who only resort to violence if they have to. Cage loses it only once, but there are lots of fun shots of him casually shooting a pistol in the general direction of a building full of hostages. One of the main arcs in this is “bullied black teenager learns that white cops are his friends,” and so A+ for “Not ALL white cops. Not Nic Cage, for instance.”

6) The Humanity Bureau (King)

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Alas, this one has basically no redeeming value. It starts off with a promising setup: it’s the near future, and climate change, etc.. has messed everything up real bad so that there’s not enough to go around in the US anymore. There’s a dystopian state with a policy of deporting anyone who produces less than they consume to the euphemistically-named “New Eden.” The Humanity Bureau is like the new I.C.E., but now they’re scooping up derelict Trump supporters (yes, Trump is explicitly referenced). Anyways, it quickly loses any semblance of interest and becomes a tedious slog. No Cage factor to speak of.

 

 

 

 

 

Why I loved 24 Frames and hated Widows

24 Frames

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When Abbas Kiarostami died in 2016, we lost one of the greatest artists of our time, but he did leave behind one last film. He was still working on it on his deathbed and left his son instructions for finishing it. And what a film it is.

24 Frames is not the place to start with Kiarostami (I’d suggest Taste of Cherry), but to paraphrase his son, it’s the perfect place to end. It’s at once confoundingly simple and profoundly challenging, and a film that I look forward to watching over and over again throughout the rest of my life.

Here’s the basic idea: the film is composed of 24 short films, or “frames,” each of which is four and a half minutes long (note that 24 is the number of frames per second for traditional film projection). Each frame is based on a still image, which Kiarostami manipulates in various ways (superimposition, digital animation) to turn into a moving picture. The first frame is based on Pieter Brueghel’s famous painting “The Hunters in the Snow.” He tells us in an opening title card that he wanted to fill in what he imagined might have happened a couple minutes before and after the moment captured in the painting. This was how he first got started on the project, but he soon proceeded to his own photographs, which serve as the static images for the remaining 23 frames.

Typically, the action depicted is sparse. A boat washed up on shore is batted about by the waves. A group of pigeons is repeatedly dispersed by passing traffic. Two lions mate in the rain. There are some recurrent themes, like human activity as an intrusion into nature, but no one theme is touched on in all 24 frames. A recurrent visual motif is looking out into the world from some interior space (a car, a house, etc.), but again, this is not true of every frame.

There are many layers to be unpacked through repeated viewing, but my initial take is that one of the things Kiarostami is doing is meditating on the nature of cinema as an art form by connecting present digital filmmaking techniques with early cinema (as in late 19th and very early 20th century cinema). Early films were thought of as “moving pictures.” Photography and drawing were already established media, and cinema was understood in reference to these media. The magic and wonder of early film was seeing a picture– something that’s normally static– move on its own. Early films were just short snippets: a train passing, a horse running. But these simple moving images were awe-inspiring. We’ve lost this sense of awe as cinema has progressed and we have gained the ability to manipulate images digitally and portray pretty much anything we want to. Giant alien robot emerging from the sea floor and propelling itself into the cosmos? No problem. Kiarostami is rediscovering the bygone joy and wonder of film, and he’s doing it on his damn deathbed. He’s taking still images and making them come alive– returning in the digital age to the original manifestation of cinema as moving pictures. A very accomplished photographer in his own right, he’s also exploring the relationship between the media of painting, photography, and film and elaborating on how this relationship informs his own creative process.

I just find this deeply moving as the swan song of one of my favorite artists. Especially coupled with the knowledge that he bequeathed the unfinished project to his son to bring to movie theaters as his final statement.

24 Frames (2017)

I want to turn now to the single worst film review I’ve ever read, from Indiewire darling David Ehrlich, known for his best-of-the-year video edits. I haven’t always minded Ehrlich: back when I wasn’t paying very close attention, I often noticed he’d include a movie in his yearly round up that I thought was generally underappreciated. But after reading this review and then looking at what else he’s had to say lately, he’s come to embody for me the worst of contemporary film criticism. Here’s the review: https://www.indiewire.com/2017/05/24-frames-abbas-kiarostami-review-cannes-2017-1201833244/

I have a problem with nearly every sentence here, but I want to focus on the most appalling through line, which is his absurd, self-serving, and utterly offensive interpretation of Kiarostami’s quote: “Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for for weeks.”

Here’s the full context where he said this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxukX96bqAU&feature=youtu.be&t=1m33s

He draws a contrast between on the one hand films that take you hostage, take command of your attention, and provoke you but then you forget about them the next day, and on the other hand, films that give you the freedom to drift away, that lull you into a meditative state, that don’t take forceful possession of your attention, but that burrow into your thoughts and stay there long after they are over. You may even doze off watching the latter kind of film, but it will chase you into your dreams.

Here’s where Ehrlich goes with this quote (I’ll quote all the relevant bits at once here):

“So while I passed out (and passed out hard) roughly 15 minutes into “24 Frames,” the fascinating, posthumously completed non-narrative project that will serve as Kiarostami’s final farewell, I suspect that he wouldn’t take my unconsciousness as a criticism or a show of disrespect. On the contrary, I imagine that he would have been delighted to see the dozens of nodding heads that dotted the film’s final Cannes screening, where the narcotic quality of Kiarostami’s cinema was compounded by the sheer exhaustion of simply coming to see it. He would have loved the low rumble of snores that filled the auditorium in surround sound. To some extent, he might have even appreciated the steady stream of walk-outs, or my decision to take a short walk halfway through and then watch the rest of the film while standing at the back of the room.”

“Kiarostami corrupted the tyranny of time and space, he dissolved the wall that separates present and past. He made Schrödinger’s cinema, and — as “24 Frames” so poignantly confirms — he is both dead and alive, as all great artists will always be. But yeah, it’s still one hell of an endurance test. Arguably better suited as a museum installation than as a theatrical experience (the context of the former might help encourage people to engage with the project on Kiarostami’s terms)….”

“And, in the end, patience is a virtue. After walking back into the theater to shift and stir through the final five tableaux, I was rewarded with a beguiling experience that doubles as a perfect — and perfectly self-reflexive — tribute to the defining pursuits of Abbas Kiarostami’s working life…. So what of the unconscious girl, there but not present, who misses out on a great filmmaker’s dying flare of genius? She’s just one last person who Kiarostami had the satisfaction of putting to sleep.”

In the middle of all this, he slips in that he considers Close-Up to be his favorite film. That’s certainly a respectable choice– the film is a masterpiece– but I find it extraordinarily off-putting that a professional film critic who is posturing as a great lover of Kiarostami could at the same time say such incredibly disrespectful shit, giving himself a free pass on the basis of a very extreme interpretation of a single quote taken out of context. An endurance test? Seriously: a fucking endurance test??? Maybe if you’re someone who goes in cold with no familiarity with Kiarostami or experimental film it might be a tough sit. But it boggles my mind that someone who claims Close-Up as their favorite film could see 24 Frames as an endurance test. The frames are four and a half damn minutes a piece. The film is less than two hours long. On a typical visit to a photography exhibit, plenty of people spend at least 4-5 minutes a piece on the photos that interest them. Here the photos fucking move and somehow it becomes an endurance test? And look, when Kiarostami said that some films that have made him doze off have also been the ones that have kept him up at night, he did not mean that these films made him “pass out hard” after a mere 15 minutes and then get up and walk around, restlessly stir, and then stand in the fucking back for the last bit. A Cannes audience was snoring and there were a steady stream of walkouts? Everyone knows that Cannes audiences are revered for their good etiquette.

Sorry, but it’s offensive as hell that you slept through this movie, got up and walked around, made a pronunciation on its merits without actually watching it, and then claimed Kiarostami would have approved. And, sorry, but the museum exhibit line is the worst thing you say in the entire godawful piece. Have you ever seen a video installation in a museum? People talk, use their phones, kids misbehave, walk in and out without any regard for whether they’re at a natural starting or stopping point. A museum video installation has to be designed to withstand this awful setting. This film was not. It was designed to be shown in a theater, and for people to see the entire thing from start to finish, with maybe a brief doze or two. There are 24 frames, you’re supposed to see all 24 of them, not the second half of one frame and first half of another as you make your way through a museum.

Widows

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This one I hated and Ehrlich loved. Plenty of people loved it, so I’m not interested in singling him out here (though he is at the center of the current trend of fawning on films like Widows that substitute progressive signaling for cinematic ideas), but I’ve got some thoughts about the film:

Let’s say you want to make a heist movie with an all-female team of crooks featuring Viola Davis, Cynthia Ervio, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki. That sounds super rad. One of the first things you should probably think about is how to make the heist itself cool as hell. Don’t want to go for the cheeky flash of Oceans 11 or the massive scope and harsh brutality of Heat? There’s always the quiet tension of Rififi. Just give me SOMETHING. Make the heist interesting in some way or other.

This question doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone involved with Widows. The result is perhaps the most boring heist movie ever made. What special obstacles do the women face when planning the heist? What occasion do they have for ingenuity? Money is heavy and they’re women so it’s hard to carry. I’m not making this up: that’s really all this movie has up its sleeve. It takes about an hour and 40 minutes for anything to happen and when it does it could hardly be less interesting. There are a couple additional minor obstacles when the heist is in progress, but they are very conventional and easily dealt with. This is a heist movie where no one even tried to make the heist interesting. It’s so cynical: it tries to get by on the most superficial possible social justice pandering and a few topical references. But can’t they be a diverse crew of women *and* pull off a cool caper?

The wonderful cast is terribly wasted. How can you not give Michelle Rodriguez any scenes to steal?? Cynthia Ervio is an electric screen presence, but she gets jack shit to say or do. She’s supposed to be The Driver and she doesn’t even do any noteworthy driving. It’s insulting: ogling her biceps is the prescribed mode of admiring her female strength. Even Viola Davis in the lead is rendered paper thin— she’s reduced to a gesture in the direction of the grieving black mother media fetish object. The police violence topical reference is perhaps the most cynical element of this movie: it’s substituted for more robust character development, as though it tells us most of what we need to know about this woman all by itself. There’s an empowerment arc, and it centers on the agonizing cliche of female strength as a self-conscious imitation of masculinity. This is exactly the bullshit Rivette critiqued in Gang of Four: find a way of portraying female strength that isn’t just acting like men and delivering shitty dialogue about having enough balls.

Everyone praising Widows (including our friend Ehrlich) focuses on how great Elizabeth Debicki is, and they are right about this: she’s by far the best part of the movie, followed by Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell and a couple surprising shots where McQueen imitates Kiarostami (the reverse POV driving shots, especially the one where we can’t see into the car). But doesn’t anyone see the irony here? We’ve got a black woman in the lead, a black woman as the badass driver, and frickin’ Michelle Rodriguez, and the best role goes to the tall, slender blonde woman?

 

M. Night Shyamalan reconsidered

There are two common critical lines on Shyamalan. Mainstream critics generally say that he peaked with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and is now a joke. Deeper down the rabbit hole of blackbelt cinephilia, one finds a lot of hardcore Shyamalan cultists. There are several people I read regularly who think most of his films are masterpieces and many others who revere a subset of his Certified Rotten output. I occupy probably the least populous quadrant of Shyamalan critical opinion: I think The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are two of his weakest movies and that he didn’t really come into his own until he started tanking on the Tomatometer. I’m not going out of my way to be a contrarian here: these are my honest views, settled only after revisiting Shyamalan’s body of work and reflecting on it a great deal.

Shyamalan is not for everyone. He’s certainly not for The Bookkeeper. The Bookkeeper is the viewer who is preoccupied with continuity and plot rationality. The Bookkeeper hates Bird Box and The Last Jedi. I’m happy to live and let live in matters of taste, but I generally don’t enjoy discussing movies with The Bookkeeper and there’s very little chance we are going to converge at all on this one. Shyamalan is also not for The Irony Skeptic. The Irony Skeptic doubts that Shyamalan knew exactly what he was doing when he cast Mark Wahlberg as a science teacher. The Irony Skeptic laughs derisively at goofy, wonky dialogue and thinks it’s trying and failing to be serious rather than assuming it’s supposed to be funny.

This stuff is more likely to appeal to the viewer who is happy to put style and craft first, who enjoys the ridiculous and goofy, and who isn’t put off by big, dumb (often metafictional) themes delivered with a superlatively heavy hand. I should qualify this characterization by mentioning that there are some very advanced contrarians out there who find all sorts of fascinating things to say about Shyamalan’s themes. See, for instance, the writings of Mike Thorn. I have great admiration for this sort of highbrow Shyamalan criticism, but this is not the primary level at which I personally enjoy most of this stuff. I’m more interested in the execution than in what he’s trying to say.

Now, I shall rank and comment on his filmography:

12) Wide Awake (1998) and Praying with Anger (1992)

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These are the two Shyamalan films that predate The Sixth Sense. I tried watching both of them and found both to be unwatchable. Praying with Anger feels like a student film and is only available as a horrendous VHS rip. Wide Awake got destroyed by Harvey Weinstein, but it never had a chance: an annoying kid struggles with his Christian faith and forms a friendship with a kindly nun played by Rosie O’Donnell. You lost me at “kindly nun played by Rosie O’Donnell.” It’s saccharin to the point of being unbearable.

11) The Sixth Sense (1999)

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I never liked this movie. Along with The Usual Suspects, it’s a pinnacle of the late 90’s twist-gimmick cycle that I fundamentally hate. I know some people found it scary back in the day, but I certainly wasn’t one of them. I revisited it recently and my opinion hasn’t changed. I hate the gimmick, the kid is extraordinarily annoying, Bruce Willis is a blank, and the central romance is so underdeveloped that I’m unable to find the Olivia Williams’ grief as moving as it should be (though her performance is the bright spot of the movie).

10) Unbreakable (2000) 

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I like the concept: a superhero origin story that’s set in the “real world,” i.e., the nearest possible world where there are superheroes. I also like the metafictional themes that emerge through making the supervillain a comic book obsessive. Samuel L. Jackson is very good. Where this falls apart for me is in the details. One of the central, driving questions in Bruce Willis’ investigation into whether he may in fact be a superhero is whether he’s ever been sick. I’m no Bookkeeper, but this just makes so little sense that it’s hard for the investigation to sustain interest: how could he possibly be in doubt about whether he’d ever been sick? He wouldn’t even know what it’s like to be sick! Unbreakable is way too front-heavy with this tedious, poorly written investigation material and when we finally get around to the superhero ascendancy it feels rushed. When he goes out into public to be a hero he finds a serial killer *immediately* and dispatches with him in like four minutes, and then we get those godawful anticlimactic closing title cards. It’s so dissatisfying.

9) The Last Airbender (2010)

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I don’t know the source material and I don’t generally like this sort of kids movie but this isn’t all that bad. The narrative is a total mess and there’s some ridiculous dialogue and acting but Shyamalan is way, way better at using CGI than most directors and I thought for the most part this movie looked cool as hell. Don’t go out of your way, but it has its pleasures.

8) After Earth (2013)

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There’s a lot to like here. This is a tight, tense sci-fi survival-adventure movie with one glaring flaw: Jaden Smith. Will Smith is actually pretty good in this but his kid is a train wreck. Recast this with Michael B. Jordan and you’ve got a very solid movie. The action scenes are great.

7) Signs (2002)

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From here on up everything is excellent. Signs is probably Shyamalan’s most conventionally well-executed movie. It works on multiple levels: as a thriller, a parable about faith, a character-driven family drama. The whole cast is great. Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix are standouts, but even the kids are really good in this one. I prefer Shyamalan’s crazier movies, but I’ve got nothing bad to say about Signs. 

6) Glass (2019)

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I went to see Glass and I loved it, but I am going to be conservative with ranking it because I have much less confidence in my appraisal than I do for the ones I’ve seen multiple times. My initial opinion is that it has second act pacing problems but is otherwise thrilling. I love low-budget digital Shyamalan. It’s very evident that he feels freed rather constrained by this mode of filmmaking. Glass’s greatest merits are the seamless, masterful direction and two brilliant complementary performances from James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy. If you couldn’t stand McAvoy in Split, you won’t be able to stand him here, but if you’re like me, there’s no such thing as too much McAvoy (NB, I did not like him until I saw Split). I find Anya Taylor-Joy’s blurring of the line between Stockholm Syndrome and profound Christian compassion deeply moving (more below re: Split). If you haven’t seen Split, see that first. If you like it, definitely see Glass. If you don’t, there’s not much of a chance you’ll like this.

5) The Village (2004)

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The Village is arguably Shyamalan’s greatest accomplishment of mise-en-scène, and it’s probably his most revered film among blackbelt cinephiles. It was widely dismissed in the US when it was first released, though Cahiers du cinema had it on their top ten of the year (Shyamalan usually makes their list). I certainly dismissed it; I was in a very anti-twist mindset and I found the ending to be a real groaner. But I was young and I didn’t know very much and I was wrong to dismiss the film. Revisiting it, I found it worked much better already knowing the twist. Having the big picture in mind helped me appreciate the rich details of Shyamalan’s direction, and also let me understand what the hell Adrien Brody is up to. The acting is wall-to-wall amazing throughout (not to mention the dialogue!). The score is top notch. I plan to revisit The Village again and I think it’s entirely possible that it will grow even more in my esteem. If you skipped it or haven’t seen it since its initial release, I recommend giving it a fresh look. It’s aged well.

4) The Visit (2015)

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Grandparents horror! What glorious subject matter. Watching this, one wonders why more filmmakers haven’t tapped into the vast horror possibilities that grandparents present. Aging, illness, incontinence, mental dissolution: this is the terrifying reality of grandparents. The Visit was Shyamalan’s first low-budget digital movie, and his glee at being able to do whatever he wants shines through. He inverts his usual high polish aesthetic, going for a grimy found-footage approach, but the Shyamalan metafictional wonkery is present in full force, with the young girl as the diegetic filmmaker and the young boy as a freestyle rapper. The rapping is very cringey but I admire how Shyamalan just totally goes for it. The tone is so wildly uneven (in a good way) that I can accept the absurd insistence on giving the 13 year old ample rapping time. Also: the jump scares are far superior to those found in typical found-footage horror.

3) Split (2016)

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Split is not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me. I delayed watching this for a long time because I wasn’t at all interested in yet another horror villain with Dissociative Identity Disorder. I had no idea. This is a giant James McAvoy atomic bomb. I can TOTALLY imagine finding him unbearable in this but for me his performance is an absolute joy. He frickin’ lets it rip. This is R-rated, low-budget, off-the-leash Shyamalan and it is remarkably insane for a movie that made 280 million dollars. It goes to some extremely dark places, with bold shifts in tone that are even more jarring than those in The Visit. This is not a politically correct movie: the subject matter is volatile and unsanitized. But I think it’s got what it takes to roll with high stakes content. It builds surprising weight by the end and McAvoy and the phenomenal Anya Taylor-Joy absolutely crush oceans of feeling.

2) The Happening (2008) 

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The Happening is a modern day cult classic. Watching Bird Box recently (which I liked), I was struck by how much more mileage Shyamalan got out of the spontaneous suicide premise. This was his first R-rated movie, and it’s a great delight in the age of PG-13 horror. He doesn’t waste any suicides: they are imaginative and often disturbing. He’s said in interviews that he was going for a B-movie in the vein of The Blob, and admitted that he may have punched too high at times and misled the audience about what he was going for. I don’t really see how so many people were misled when the central thematic exposition is delegated to Hotdog Guy, but there is a level of seriousness to the movie’s environmentalism that clashes with the overall ridiculousness of the whole affair (which for me just adds to the ridiculousness). There is camp value throughout, thanks in no small part to the ridiculous casting choices (Wahlberg as a science teacher and Leguizamo as a math teacher), but it’s also genuinely frightening. I’ve watched The Happening lots of times but I had two major new insights on my last viewing. The first is that it’s picked up a new resonance: middle class refugee crisis. The second relates to my own biography. I lived in the northeast until I was 26, when I moved to Montana. I spent five years in NJ, not far from where this movie is set. Part of what generates the horror of The Happening is being trapped in the all-consuming maze of suburban sprawl as the menace strikes smaller and smaller population centers. The path to safety for the protagonists is to stay away from people, but this is impossible in that part of the world. I relate very strongly to the movie’s Northeast claustrophobia. There’s just no way to get to wide open spaces, and anyplace that’s even a little open is bound to be full of people. I’ve lived this shit: once I drove to damn North Carolina and back just to try to find some open space. Once I drove to Ithaca, NY just to go swimming. Endless suburban sprawl messes with your mind, and this movie nails the horror of being trapped in it.

1) Lady in the Water (2006)

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To be forthcoming: I am definitely an outlier on this one, but I feel very strongly about my stance. Lady in the Water is Shyamalan’s masterpiece. I loved it back when I first saw it, and revisiting it more than a decade later I loved it even more. It’s definitely not for people who are on the fence about Shyamalan: it is his most extreme work with respect to metafictional mayhem and he goes right ahead and casts himself as the messiah figure. Lady in the Water announces its primary theme through Bob Balaban’s grumpy film critic, who makes the familiar postmodern complaint that there’s nothing new under the sun and cinema is doomed to rehash its past ad nauseum. Shyamalan is like “Hold my beer, ’cause Uncle M. Night’s gonna tell you a bedtime story.”

The nature of a bedtime story is to make it up as you go along, piecing together an ad hoc mythology that generates continuous conflict while facilitating the desired conclusion. Shyamalan builds this methodology into the structure of the film, as an antidote to the postmodern death of originality. It’s an optimistic film that aims to reveal the boundlessness of the imagination. The meta-fictional material and the first-order narrative work seemlessly together. The result is by turns hilarious, moving, suspenseful, and exhilarating in its unbridled creativity. Giamatti is incredible, as is the rest of the cast. I love Lady in the Water with my whole heart, and I’m not ashamed to shout it from the rooftop.

The day I stumbled into one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen and my Netflix cynicism finally cracked

The last couple years I’ve been watching about 700 movies a year, probably 90% of which are from the 20th century. I made a deliberate decision to stop trying to keep up on new releases (I let my brother filter those for me) and focus on deep canon dives. I’ve also cut way, way back on TV and I’ve been brutal about quitting shows if they don’t totally grip me. As one might expect, given my frame of mind I’ve been very down on Netflix, which is all about the next new insubstantial audience-pandering thing. Lately, though, I’ve been feeling like their algorithm picked up on the fact that some people like things that are good, because they have been sorta killing it. Two Timo Tjahjanto genre movies, CAMThe Haunting of Hill House: this is some excellent shit. I was definitely a thumbs up on Bird Box, which is way more fun than most thrillers of the same ilk.  They also ponied up a massive budget for Martin Scorsese, and I’m damn excited to see the results of that. I haven’t watched Roma yet but I intend to… I’ve heard very mixed things. Some people whose taste I admire thought it was a masterpiece, a lot of others shrugged. Netflix also wrote a check for Bogdanovich to finally finish editing the long lost Orson Welles holy grail The Other Side of the Wind, which is a MASSIVE service to the world. I haven’t watched it yet, because I’m saving it for the perfect day and because I want to finish ticking off the other late Welles films I haven’t seen first (I’ve made a lot of joyful progress on this task). They’ve also been greatly expanding their collection of Hong Kong flicks in the original language with subtitles: lots of Johnnie To and Shaw Bros.

So I was browsing Netflix with a new sense of optimism. Then, yesterday, I got my face melted. I’ve been very sick all week and I haven’t really felt like watching too many heavy duty movies, so I’ve been watching more TV. I saw You featured on Netflix and was mildly intrigued: ooh, Dan from Gossip Girl… stalker… sounds like a black comedy. But how the hell is it a Lifetime show?? I didn’t even know they did anything with high production value. I was slightly deterred by the way I was seeing it hyped on social media: clickbait articles from trashy entertainment publications that I only follow for the sake of hate-reading touting it as “the bonkers, out of this world show you just HAVE to binge watch!” The last time I fell for that line I wasted a couple hours of my life on the Jonah Hill and Emma Stone shitfest Maniac, which is horrendously awful. But I was sick and I needed another show and it does have Dan from Gossip Girl. I ended up watching the entire season in one sitting and it’s one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen.

The comparisons that come to mind: Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Veronica Mars, Dexter, Nip/Tuck. There’s so much Hitchcock! Suspicion, Strangers on a Train, Rope, Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho, Rear Window, Rebecca. And a whole lot of Lang’s M and Secret Beyond the Door. The show does an absolutely masterful job of getting you to sympathize with and even involuntarily root for the sociopathic monster at its center… so much delicious cognitive dissonance. It’s also extremely funny, with a sense of joy in its nastiness that rivals Nip/Tuck. It manages to hit a lot of very salient themes re: MeToo, nice guys of OkCupid, shitty allies, etc., without being cloying or preachy. Believe me: if it were cloying or preachy I would definitely be writing a savage diss right now. Throw in some funny MFA creative writing satire and a totally solid cast top to bottom (that alcoholic neighbor guy! whoever that actor is, he’s amazing). And they totally stick the landing: what an ending. I am absolutely with the viral TV trend of the moment: run, don’t walk. Avoid spoilers. Enjoy.

The show bombed on Lifetime but it’s Netflix’s most popular show right now (I just read). They are taking over and bringing us a season 2. I hope they don’t mess it up they way they messed up Black Mirror (badly enough that I now dislike the original series because I can’t get the horrible Netflix-produced episodes I watched out of my head). If they do that, maybe I’ll go back off the Netflix wagon, but for now: feeeeeeeeed me.

Missoula Dining Guide 2019

I’m generally grouchy about the dining scene in Missoula but there are a few gems. I mostly cook at home, save my money, and go nuts when I travel. In any case, here’s my advice:

The Best (go out of your way):

Biga Pizza

I’ve had multiple visitors from places with great pizza (like, um, NYC) who have texted me months later telling me they are still thinking about Biga Pizza. This is the one culinary experience in Missoula that is truly world class. It gets the basics right (excellent brick oven crust and high quality ingredients) and then adds lots of really amazing, thoughtful flavor combinations. Chef Bob Marshall thinks about texture when putting toppings together, which is something that even a lot of very good pizza chefs ignore. My winter favorites are the pie with sweet potato, bacon, maple-chipotle, and hazelnut and their signature classic: smoked Gouda, fennel sausage, Flathead cherry chutney. In the summer I like the margherita, the bacon and fennel marmalade, and the mushroom-arugula. Also, with the exception of the occasional vanilla-laced vinaigrette, their salad game is on point. I almost always order the special salad, and it’s almost always stellar. One small negative comment is that lately I don’t think Marshall has been developing the weekly special pizzas himself and some of them have been out of balance (like a Cubano pizza that sounded amazing but was overwhelmingly acidic).

Dinosaur Cafe

Cajun joint in the back of Charlie B’s. The setting here is great. Charlie’s is the best bar in Missoula, and really the only one I actively enjoy spending time in. What’s so great about it is the total lack of social barriers. Everyone goes to Charlie’s from all Montanan walks of life and people mostly get along. I can’t vouch for most of the menu but the Gumbolaya (yep, gumbo on jambalaya) is the best cheap, quick lunch around and I would eat it twice a week if I lived closer. Also: very good wings. I’ve had the etouffee and some of the po’ boys and I enjoyed them but I like the Gumbolaya so much I rarely even think about what I’m going to order.

Le Petit Outre

Well-prepared Vivace espresso from Seattle and excellent not-too-sweet French-style pastries. The canelés are transcendent and the other pastries–except the scones– are great (though a lot of people also like the scones). This is the only coffee or espresso in town I will go out of my way for (ignore their drip, though).

Kamoon Arabian Cuisine

New food truck outside Imagine Nation Brewing. Spendy, but I don’t mind supporting these guys and this is really the only great non-Western food around. Indeed, it’s exceptional. One thing: if you get a wrap, probably ask them to heat the shell just to make sure they do. That’s the one problem I’ve had.

Hobnob Cafe

Best breakfast, and a good value. Corned beef hash, sourdough pancakes.

Parker’s Family Restaurant

This is actually in Drummond, but it’s totally worth the drive (closed on Sundays and Mondays!) and easy to tie in with a visit to Garnet ghost town during summer months or Phillipsburg all year round. They have like 127 burgers on the menu and they get really crazy. Like, you can get a burger topped with a smaller burger. The woman who runs the place is AMAZING and I LOVE HER.

Also decent:

La Mas Fina Mexican Food

This is down in Victor, but it’s the only Mexican food around I’d go out of my way for. Good tamales.

Notorious P.I.G.

This place has been inconsistent in my experience but it is generally very solid BBQ. They are better at ribs than brisket. The sides are generally awesome. Not into the sauces but when you catch them on a good day their meat doesn’t need any sauce.

Lisa’s Pasty Pantry

A taste of Butte, right here in Missoula. Aside from a classic pasty, you can get a Butte-style fried pork chop sandwich or a pretty damn good Reuben.

Snowbowl

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a ski area that serves better food for more reasonable prices than Snowbowl, which is also open much of the summer for MTB and ziplining. The pizza is not as good as Biga, but I wouldn’t want to eat only Biga and never have Snowbowl. It’s good in its own way.

Sweet Peaks

Excellent hipster ice cream. Much better than Big Dipper. Avoid the sorbet. I like mainstays like salted caramel, but their very best special flavors deploy fresh herbs.

Bernice’s Bakery

Excellent cake. The only bakery around besides Le Petit that I’d recommend.

Glen’s Cafe

Fun spot for homemade pie down in Florence

Red Bird Wine Bar

Best burger in the city limits. Get hushpuppies on the side. The duck pâté is good but I generally don’t enjoy the rest of their menu.

Masala

Unexceptional but pleasant Indian counter service. A good choice for a quick, relatively healthy lunch.

Bamboo Chopstix

They moved to Lolo. The only acceptable Americanized Chinese food around.

Tagliare

Inconsistent but usually very good expensive sandwiches. I always get the Megadeth.

The Empanada Joint

Solid. They do more traditional Argentine-style but also breakfast empanadas with eggs and bacon or sausage that are awesome.

Other comments:

I do not recommend fine dining in Missoula. None of the places here would be good enough to stay open in a modestly competitive market. If you absolutely must, you can get a tasty plate of overpriced food at the Pearl. Avoid Scotty’s Table and ignore the people who will inevitably disagree with me about this. They make some very basic mistakes for a place that charges as much as they do (standing out in my memory: mushy mussels and unbalanced plates without enough of components that you need with every bite). Except for their holiday stollen, avoid the very popular Black Cat Bake Shop, which has gone way down hill. Almost everything there tastes like the walk-in freezer.  They fill fruit pastries with pie filling out of a can. Almost everything is underbaked. Avoid all Asian food not mentioned above, except maybe Vietnam Noodle, which does kinda sorta have a place in my heart (it’s not good per se but it’s got charm). The Michi Ramen bar is probably the single worst place I’ve eaten at in Missoula (the food made me so angry that I was inspired to write this post– greasy, watery, undersalted, mushy noodles, undercooked egg white, overpowering burnt garlic). Definitely no sushi. There used to be a marginally acceptable place in Hamilton but it closed and reopened and I heard that it’s now bad. Avoid all the random upscale bar food like the James Bar. Just go to Charlie’s if you want to eat in a bar. And that, friends, is my grumpy Missoula dining summary.