Unsung culture: a reclamation

The headline above says “a reclamation,” by which I mean a reclaiming of bits of culture that have been acknowledged or acclaimed yet buried beneath indifference, ignorance or more accessible cultural detritus.

unsung |ˌənˈsəNG|not celebrated or praised; unacknowledged.

From food to film, I’m highlighting the forgotten, the forsaken and the downright dissed, retaining due respect to exceptional cultural finds.

These are the unsung. Some of them are the merely undersung — things that either had their day in the sun and were left for dead, or never got the plaudits they deserved.

Any culture buff worth his “House of Thrones” or “Game of Cards” knows where the good stuff is. So accept this as Quality Unsung Stuff 101, a nudge, some tips, a torch alighting on the unjustly obscure.

Film

Quick: Have you seen “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), “At Close Range” (1986), “Naked” (1993), “The Dead Zone” (1983) or “Tangerine” (2015) ? If not, then you have some serious, very pleasurable, movie viewing in store.

But I’m not here to discuss those under-sung films, which are largely known and well-regarded. From a sea of ignored or lost titles, I’ve tapped three under-appreciated, fairly unseen movies, the minimalist masterworks “Locke” (2014), “Chop Shop” (2007) and “Wendy and Lucy” (2009).

 * “Locke” — A desperate everyman (the brilliantly intense Tom Hardy) is in the driver’s seat, literally, for the movie’s entire 85 minutes. Yes, he’s driving the whole time. The camera never leaves him as he negotiates by smart phone the personal tumults on the winding highway of life. It sounds grueling, squirmily static. It’s not. It’s gripping, utterly.

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* “Chop Shop” — A small-scale drama about an orphan boy in Queens who works for an auto chop shop and how he deals with suspicions that his teenage sister is dabbling in prostitution. The writer-director, minimalist maestro Ramin Bahrani, is, like the neo-realists before him, a steadfast humanist, and this fascinating slice of grubby life brims with heart — and heartache.

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* “Wendy and Lucy” —  A girl and her dog. There you have it in Kelly Reichardt’s grim but soulful tale of a homeless woman (Michelle Williams) and her faithful hound Lucy as they get by as best they can. Lucy gets lost. Drama unfurls. It’s sad, funny, and inexorably stirring. The dog, a natural, is something special. (See my full review here.)

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Pop Music

Alt-rock’s embarrassment of riches in the ‘90s — Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Breeders, Soundgarden, Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Beck — birthed its share of one-hit/no-hit wonders, from Spin Doctors to Blind Melon.

Somewhere in between it all was Jellyfish, a Bay Area power-pop band that tossed the harmonic velcro hooks of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Queen, ELO, Supertramp, Cheap Trick and even, gulp, the Partridge Family into a bottle, shook it up and let it fizz all over the place. It was poppy, heady psychedelic bliss, both dreamy and driving. It sounded like Skittles.

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Jellyfish

On only two albums, “Bellybutton” and “Spilt Milk,” the woolly quartet confected soaring, careening, crashing four-part harmonies over surgical melodies and thwumping beats. The songs were so catchy and joyous that each one sounded like a hit from a bygone time. Band members looked like a Haight Street circus and their shows, like their music, were carnivalesque.

“Is Jellyfish the great lost band of the 90s?” a music site recently wondered. Decidedly, yes. The band was soon elbowed out by the grunge assault, eclipsed by angst, drugs and scratchy flannel — and some of the best music of the past 25 years.

An obvious Jellyfish forebear, Supertramp is hardly an unsung pop group. It sold millions of its 1979 album “Breakfast in America,” a masterpiece of jangly, sophisticated, hyper-harmonic rock that spawned four chart-topping hits like “The Logical Song” and “Take the Long Way Home.”

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Supertramp’s 1979 smash “Breakfast in America,” which seems all but forgotten.

But where’s that record now? FM radio and the general public seem to have forgotten it, paying excessive deference to the Billy Joels and Led Zeppelins. If not unsung, “Breakfast in America” is an example of the under-sung, a victim of cultural amnesia. Stream it sometime. The pop perfection you’ll hear is kind of overwhelming.

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Food

For food tourists and inveterate foodies, it’s by now hackneyed to actively consult career food adventurer Anthony Bourdain on where to go and what to eat when you get there. But that’s just what I did before a recent London trip. Watching one of his shows in which he prowls London for the tastiest, highest quality dishes, I took notes and underlined what he called his favorite plate — his “death row” meal — the Roast Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad at St. John in the East End.

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Though you can find it on many fine-dining menus — it was rather trendy a few years ago — bone marrow remains an unsung specialty that repels the squeamish and excites daredevil palates. At St. John the bone segments were hot, the oily, meaty marrow even hotter. There’s a special way to eat marrow, and the server painstakingly tells you how. With a thin scooper, you scrape out the marrow and, like brown and pink butter, spread it on crusty bread, top with chunky salt granules and parsley sprigs. Removing the marrow isn’t always easy. Eating the delicious protein is.

Japanese ramen, that soupy, slurpy noodle bowl, is a longtime favorite, but lately I’ve been almost exclusively forgoing the broth, opting for liquid-free ramen called mazeman, which still, despite growing popularity, hovers in the sphere of the unsung yummy. I rarely see people ordering it at my go-to ramen spot, safely sticking to the traditional hot soup.

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Without broth, ramen is like a bowl of zesty, hearty pasta, thick, seasoned noodles topped by a medley of meats, veggies and a shiny soft-boiled egg. You mix it all up and an umami tsunami emerges, dangling between chopsticks.

The dish is lionized in season two of the fine Netflix comedy “Master of None,” when Dev (Aziz Ansari) has it for the first time. After his second bite, he exclaims, “You know what? Fuck broth!” I must concur.

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Books

“Stoner” is a stunner. John Williams’ 1965 novel, tracing the wearied footsteps of professor William Stoner, was reissued in 2006, and, despite a surge of attention, remains, alas, relegated below the unsung heading.

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A shame, because the writing is surpassingly exquisite, the characters and place crackling with verisimilitude, the emotional dividends reverberant. Though Stoner is quite the sad sack, locked in an unsatisfying job, fissured marriage and the shackles of a deep existential malaise, the book is too splendid to be depressing.

Also unsung: Nicholson Baker’s ridiculously cerebral satire of the everyday “The Mezzanine” — something of a cult item — and Richard Yates’ devastating marital drama “Revolutionary Road, which, despite being a Leonardo DiCaprio film, seems woefully overlooked as literature.

And, as I’ve mentioned a few times here, seek out Eve Babitz, especially her zesty ’70s novels, freshly reissued, “Eve’s Hollywood” and “Sex and Rage.”

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Cities

It seems only elite travel scribes and savvy globe-trekkers talk much about the resplendence of Istanbul, one of my very top cities, a paradisiacal world of ancient mosques and prayer-swirling minarets, exotic eats, riotous bazaars, deep-dyed tradition, and some of the kindest people I’ve ever met.

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Straddling the best of Europe and Asia, Istanbul’s distinctly Middle Eastern tang and cobblestoney Old Europe patina is singular. It has seas and waterways and tall hills cluttered with colorful buildings, both old and breathtakingly modern. The whole city braids the new and the historic, and the result is the exhilarating essence of truly transporting travel.

If you can blot out the hypothetical perils and hypocritical politics, Jerusalem is a delirious fount of history and culture. Nudge aside the vexing fanaticism infesting the Old City — actually, spectacles of devotion, like a Christian pilgrim hauling a giant cross down the Via Dolorosa, are pretty enthralling — and suddenly you’re in a Disneyland of the devoted.

The Western Wall, Temple Mount, Mount of Olives, East Jerusalem — it’s all utmost fascination, even for this unyielding agnostic. Short bus rides away are Masada, the Dead Sea and Bethlehem. The volume of history, religion and culture is gobsmacking. I’m going back.

For unhinged nightlife, try suave, seaside Beirut, where taxis cram narrow, bar-riddled streets and well-attired revelers roar and carouse. During the seven nights I was there, I hit both bustling, elbow-jostling bars and cozy cafes. The partiers were friendly, the drinks strong and the troubled city’s old sobriquet, “Paris of the Middle East,” seemed fitting.

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TV

Many of you will think I’m nuts for this one, but I really do believe Chris Elliot’s wacko ’90s sitcom “Get a Life” was underrated, unloved, misunderstood and, of course, completely unsung. I also believe it was a giddy Dadaist exhibition of minor genius. All right — full-on genius.

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Elliot — balding, tubby, irretrievably nerdy and awkward (and weird as hell) — played Chris Peterson, a 30-year-old paperboy who lived above his parents’ house. He had a best friend, went on the occasional, entirely improbable date, took his first driver’s test, built a submarine in his bathtub and nurtured a mordant enmity with his best friend’s wife founded on hilarious fusillades of sarcasm.

The show, which didn’t last long on Fox (surprise!), operated on an alien wavelength that either annoyed or enraged viewers who didn’t get it. There was a dash of the Marx Brothers’ anarchic DNA in the show’s ambient absurdism. But mostly it was Elliot’s screwily non-sequitur sense of humor that shaped “Get a Life.” Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” etc.) was a contributing writer on the program, if that helps explain things.

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And because it was so good, it was naturally cancelled after 12 episodes, in 2000, only to mushroom into a cherished cult darling that reliably makes magazines’ “best TV shows ever” lists. Unsung? This one’s pretty sung.

 

The 20 most alluring actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age

We love our movie stars, and I love my actresses, especially those indelible bright lights, those sirens, sex pots and sophisticates, from Hollywood’s Golden Age, roughly the 1920s through the early ’60s.

Audiences cultivate complex relationships with the actors on screen. They crush, lust, idolize, envy and hero-worship. They take these visions personally. Sometimes they want to take them home.

With today’s top actresses and starlets, tabloid tastemakers gravitate to the Jolies, J. Los and J-Laws, brassy self-promoters with wicked powers of manipulation.

But the actresses who seize my attention, the ones who have the elusive It factor, an intelligence mingled with integrity, include Rachel Weisz, Marion Cotillard, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman. They recall the stars of Hollywood past, several of whom I celebrate here.

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Marion Cotillard

Despite their physical allure — not to fetishize appearances — I appreciate actresses with hauteur, poise and self-possession. They’re sassy and sophisticated, loopy and urbane, glamorous, flirtatious, demure and dangerous. They’re partiers, victims, fatales and floozies. Beautiful, blazing, but armed with multifaceted talent.

You might be shocked by the actresses I shut out, as much as I adamantly adore them: Lauren Bacall, Joan Fontaine, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Irene Dunne, Katharine Hepburn. Not even stone-cold goddess Marilyn Monroe makes the cut.

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Ann Blyth

And, with the key exception of Martha Vickers as the narcotized nymphet in “The Big Sleep,” I’ve reluctantly excluded the countless supporting performers who’ve galvanized so many screwballs, soaps and noirs, like the teenage Ann Blyth in “Mildred Pierce” and Dorothy Malone, who plays the bespectacled bookstore owner in “The Big Sleep.”

Here’s a 20-strong parade of my favorite Golden Age screen sirens, my old-timey It girls. They are presented in no particular order, neither by chronology, talent or pulchritude. (Please add your two cents if you’d like.)

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Hedy Lamarr: “Ecstasy” (1933), “Samson and Delilah” (1946)

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Louise Brooks“Pandora’s Box” (1929), “Diary of a Lost Girl” (1929)

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Martha Vickers: “The Big Sleep” (1946)

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Veronica Lake“Sullivan’s Travels” (1941), “This Gun for Hire” (1942)

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Ava Gardner“The Killers” (1946), “The Barefoot Contessa” (1954)

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Jean Simmons“Guys and Dolls” (1955), “Elmer Gantry” (1960)

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Grace Kelly“High Noon” (1952), “Rear Window” (1954)

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Gene Tierney“Laura” (1944), “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945)

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Ingrid Bergman“Casablanca” (1942), “Notorious” (1946)

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Joan Bennett“The Woman in the Window” (1944), “Scarlet Street” (1945)

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Paulette Goddard: “Modern Times” (1936), “The Great Dictator” (1940)

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Carole Lombard“My Man Godfrey” (1936), “Nothing Sacred” (1937)

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Myrna Loy“The Thin Man” (1934), “Libeled Lady” (1936)

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Olivia de Havilland“Gone with the Wind” (1939), “The Heiress” (1949)

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Natalie Wood“Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), “West Side Story” (1961)

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Vivien Leigh“Gone With the Wind” (1939), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)

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Elizabeth Taylor“A Place in the Sun” (1951), “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966)

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Rita Hayworth“Gilda” (1946), “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947)

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Audrey Hepburn“Roman Holiday” (1953), “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961)

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Lana Turner“The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946), “Peyton Place” (1957)

 

‘The Elephant Man’ is David Lynch’s best film

“When I first heard the title an explosion went off in my brain, and I said, ‘That’s it.’ It was a true blessing to get that movie.” — David Lynch on “The Elephant Man” in a 2007 interview with yours truly

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David Lynch

In “The Elephant Man,” David Lynch’s disturbing-heartbreaking biopic from 1980, John Hurt plays the title character, born Joseph Merrick, a young man so monstrously deformed that people scream at the sight of him, forcing him to wear a burlap sack over his mountainous head and a shroud around his body, covering every inch of his warped, tumor-encrusted flesh, save for a normal, miraculously unblemished left hand.

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Embalmed in layers of latex and makeup, Hurt is entirely unrecognizable as Merrick. He’s like a knobby, gnarled, twisted tree trunk with sad, tiny eyes and a high, saliva-slurred voice. It’s an amazingly sensitive performance, that of an actor vanishing into and fully embodying a character. (Hurt, who died in January, was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the role. He lost to Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull.”)

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(The real Joseph Merrick, left; John Hurt as Merrick in the film.) 

Co-starring a pointillistic Anthony Hopkins in perhaps his finest role, “The Elephant Man” is a showcase of virtuosity, from Lynch’s eccentric vision to Freddie Francis’ sumptuous black and white photography and John Morris’ chilling carnivalesque score. A study of two men — Hurt’s freak show celebrity and Hopkins’ conflicted physician caretaker — the 19th-century-set drama is also a tender inquiry into human dignity and compassion. In look, texture and emotional rewards, it’s a model of cinematic specialness, ravishingly artistic and uncontainably sad. It is, in short, Lynch’s masterpiece.

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Anthony Hopkins in maybe his best performance

It was none other than funnyman Mel Brooks who tapped Lynch to direct “The Elephant Man” as part of Brooks’ foray into producing serious films. He was struck by Lynch’s 1977 feature debut “Eraserhead,” a hallucinatory head-trip that’s become the epitome of the cult midnight movie. “Eraserhead” is the surrealist progeny of Dali and Buñuel’s “L’Age d’Or” (1930), shuddering with unsettling images, notably a reptilian squawking monster-baby and a small dancing girl inside a radiator, whose cauliflower growths on her face mirror the tumored deformities of Merrick. In our 2007 interview, Lynch called “Eraserhead” “My most spiritual film.”

If “The Elephant Man” is his most emotional film, it also doesn’t shirk the avant-garde flourishes beloved by Lynch, the master of modern surreal cinema. With their unnerving atmospherics, several scenes could be lifted from “Eraserhead”: the opening attack of Merrick’s mother by rumbling, trumpeting elephants; Merrick’s vertiginous nightmare; the elegiac denouement. The scenes are decidedly phantasmagorical, filled with dancing clouds of smoke; clanking and throbbing with ambient industrial noise; and damp with symbolic water and steam. Executives at Paramount wanted the sequences removed from the film, but Lynch prevailed.

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Lynch, cameraman Francis and production designer Stuart Craig evoke an eerie Victorian London in haunting black and white, the shades of dreams and nightmares. From the city’s backstreet slums to the boisterous freak shows, it’s a sooty, Dickensian world, paved in rain-soaked cobblestone and punctuated by hissing blasts of steam billowing from primitive machines. It sets a mood that puts you on edge for the entire picture, and it is somehow beautiful.

For all that, “The Elephant Man” remains the director’s most accessible movie — after, of course, the almost comically anomalous “The Straight Story,” a delightful G-rated family film released by Walt Disney in 1999.

Six years after “The Elephant Man” Lynch wrote and directed the gleefully perverse “Blue Velvet,” which landed him his second Best Director Oscar nod. (He’d earn a third for “Mulholland Drive.”) As violent and otherworldly as it is, “Blue Velvet” feels largely grounded and relatably human.

His next pictures — including the anarchic blaze of “Wild at Heart,” the tedious and drastically overestimated “Mulholland Drive,” the experimental mishmash of “Inland Empire” and television’s wearying “Twin Peaks” — not so much.

(Mercifully, I’ll skip Lynch’s ill-fated adaptation of “Dune,” his follow-up to “The Elephant Man.” When I asked him about it in our interview, he simply replied, “Heartache.”)

I have a hard time taking Lynch’s later work seriously. I’ve always thought the “strangeness” in these films was indulgent and sophomoric and not very well thought out. He suggested as much during our interview. He told me he made up the story for the three-hour ordeal that is “Inland Empire” as he was shooting it. Yup, that’s exactly what it feels like.

And that’s why the almost button-down linearity of “The Elephant Man” is rather a relief. It’s also why, possibly, die-hard Lynch fans, practically cultists, don’t talk a lot about his first studio film, going directly to “Blue Velvet” as a starting point. Despite its weird ornaments, “The Elephant Man” might be too mainstream, too Oscar-nominated for purists. The film earned eight nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director.

What’s different about “The Elephant Man” from the other movies is that it doesn’t traffic in abstractions and actually contains feeling, heart and soul. Though it’s never exploitative — it’s hardly emotional porn — it can be a wee manipulative. (There are least four crying scenes.) It’s Lynch’s most human, most humane, work of art.

It is his only film of unfettered beauty.

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Filming life in fascinating fragments

Too many worthy films flitter aimlessly in the ether, small and micro titles that never reach the local whatever-plex and go straight to DVD or get lost in streaming’s infinitely accommodating democracy (see, for one, Joe Swanberg’s hidden comic gem “Win It All” on Netflix). Sometimes the films get lucky, becoming cult revelations (“Wet Hot American Summer,” anyone?). Yet so often they go poof, vanishing into cinematic oblivion.

One of those small movies is “Cameraperson,” Kirsten Johnson’s transfixing, deeply personal free-form documentary, which is doing quite well, thank you. The 2016 film, peculiar and pretty wonderful, played minimally, and then, oh-so sneakily, debuted on DVD.

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I don’t even remember how I heard about “Cameraperson.” It’s that kind of discovery, unique and hushed, like a hot, under-the-radar new restaurant, or a monkey’s paw. Remarkably, I located the movie at the library, just sitting there patiently, new, unsullied, waiting to be taken home like a shelter dog.

But “Cameraperson” is no mistreated mongrel. In fact, it’s laureled with widespread acclaim, earning a 99% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and shiny critical bouquets like “brilliant“ and “masterpiece.“ And none other than The Criterion Collection (which takes such good care of its superbly tasteful catalog that I bought a t-shirt) issued the DVD and Blu-Ray of the film. That’s prestige.

But what is “Cameraperson”? It’s a curio of whole-cloth originality, a globe-hopping cinematic scrapbook assembled from Johnson’s 25 years as a non-fiction cinematographer for other directors. She shot, among many docs, Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour,” both of which won Oscars for best documentary.

But this is her movie, so personal that she calls it “my memoir.” It could also be called a vivid, living career diary, a collage of unvarnished outtakes from numerous docs that she handpicked and wove together with a crazy-quilt method that’s not always obvious.

Zigzagging and hopscotching from subjects and locations, a visual essay emerges. Artful connections and startling juxtapositions happen. Panoramically, with spare narration — her debt to Frederick Wiseman is palpable — Johnson captures multitudes: from a mossy-toothed shepherd strolling with his wooly charges, to bristling backstage drama at a Brooklyn boxing bout; from a fraught Nigerian maternity ward complete with yawping, slime-coated newborns, to shots of lightning in rural Missouri, punctuated by Johnson’s own camera-shaking sneezes. “These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still,” she says in the film’s opening note.

There is so much more.

Jumpy Liberian street scenes. Interviews with former rebel warriors who give testimonies of combat horrors. A panning shot of a Yemen prison for Al-qaeda fighters. A rickety, joyful Ferris wheel ride in Kabul. Grim visuals of Guantanamo Bay, Wounded Knee and Tahrir Square, places far removed from peace. A Christian-themed ballet performed by little girls in Colorado Springs. Far-flung centers of protest and massacre, mass rape and public executions. A visit with Johnson’s mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Chirpy frolics with Johnson’s adorable twin toddlers, who are enthralled by a dead bird.

Though beauty abounds — there’s even splendor in a Bosnian martyrs’ cemetery — not all of Johnson’s shots are the master compositions you’d expect from a seasoned camera artist, and that might be the point. Many of the visuals are haphazard, shaky and seemingly random, like she’s busy setting up a shot or gathering all-important “coverage.”

You might also say the pictures are achingly authentic, quivering in the raw, glinting moment; that they are human, all too human.

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Kirsten Johnson and friends

Samuel L. Jackson, film’s charismatic Old Yeller

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Samuel L. Jackson is a yeller. A growler. Part human, part pouncing jungle cat.

He scares the shit out of everyone.

When I interviewed him way back when for “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” I noted: “Samuel L. Jackson enters a room the way you’d think Samuel L. Jackson would enter a room — with velocity, fury … ,” and there memory fails me. But fear not, because you can fill in the blanks, envisaging the long coat fluttering in a gust, his hello more of a guttural emission than a salutation.

I had to laugh.

But do we still laugh? The actor, bad, bald and raging, has a persona to maintain, and, yes, its tongue remains deeply in cheek. His is a cultivated act, swathed in black leather, engined by a scolding severity, and leavened by a scratched baritone laugh that could go either way: sinister or Santa Claus. (It’s almost always the former.)

Jackson, with a strenuous wink, even tries to intimidate us, if just a little, in his “What’s in your wallet?” Capital One commercials, some of which are humorously doctored by those who want their hero reliably profane. He prowls the screen with proprietary confidence, his spokedude’s blandishments quite uncompromising. (Use this card. Or else.)

He’s got it down: the self-parodic scowl and growl, eyes popping, mouth a lion’s maw, the apoplectic human megaphone. We’d have it no other way. He’s modern movies’ go-to badass, the man you call when, in the face of ineptitude and criminal folly, glowering gravitas and debonair menace are demanded.

That voice. The earth rumbles.

In this former film critic’s review of the 2008 thriller “Lakeview Terrace,”  in which Jackson plays a toxic cop, I wrote that Jackson’s “roiling, rhythmic voice is an instrument of interrogation and intimidation. It barks, recoils, then rears up and roars. He has a rapper’s control of tone and timbre, turning passion and ire into a kind of sociopathic backbeat.”

In my take on his 2000 “Shaft” reboot, I went on:

“Samuel L. Jackson speaks like a building storm; his words have lightning jags in them.

“When he taunts his quarry, which he does with great frequency, his throat tightens, throttling syllables. His voice kicks up a few octaves until words sing with angry strain. Expletives fly in shrapnel sprays.

“‘What’s my name? What’s . . . my . . . name?’ shouts Jackson at a preening dope dealer as his pistol forges an elaborate imprint on the pusher’s cheek.

“In his crime-dude roles, in films like ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘The Negotiator,’ Jackson is pure gale-force attitude and wrath-of-God fury.”

Jackson’s breakthrough role, and arguably his most popular, is Jules Winnfield in “Pulp Fiction.” Slick in a bespoke black suit, head crowned with a Medusa nest of glistening Jheri curls, and with scary Bible verses at the ready, he’s all grooving fire and brimstone, an apocalyptic preacher-man with a very large gun and a very short fuse.

Jules showcased Jackson’s range, which is more faceted than the picture painted here of an implacable, one-note Angry Man. Jackson is a genius at outrage, explosive outbursts of verbiage and violence. But his Jules also revealed he’s an expert comedian, with a gift for brilliant badinage, not to mention a penchant for brooding, sometimes profound introspection. He’s proud but protean.

Jackson doesn’t need to yell to get our attention. His seething charisma is all it takes. It’s the aura of a star, some kind of supernova, that snags us in his thrall. He’s the real deal. Just don’t piss him off.

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“It’s the one that says ‘Bad Mother Fucker.'”

The 10 best movies of the year, so far

What’s usually a Christmasy pastime, the year-end best-of list, is happening now, today, amidst the gruesome swelter of mid-summer. Movie best-of’s are mostly tiresome, self-aggrandizing exertions, but they seem worthwhile now because the year has already produced a trove of must-sees, pictures that are, largely, detergents to summer’s franchise flotsam.

So this one-time film critic has compiled a litany of bests, even if it’s strictly provisional. For instance, I haven’t seen — and I’m in no rush to see — “Wonder Woman,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “War for the Planet of the Apes.” I’ve also, with regret, missed “Baby Driver,” “Raw,” “It Comes at Night” and “Graduation.” They’re in my crosshairs.

Meanwhile, from what I have seen, here are the top 10 films from the first half of 2017:

  1. “Maudie” — Richly idiosyncratic and unbearably poignant, Aisling Walsh’s intimate biopic about an arthritic Canadian folk artist (played by an avian Sally Hawkins, who’s so fragile she seems made of twigs) and her unlikely marriage to a brusque fishmonger (the macho Ethan Hawke excelling out of his element as a human cinder block with jelly inside). A miniature about art and love, it’s simple, slow, aching, beautiful. (More about it here.)        maudie_film_still.jpg
  2. “John Wick 2” — Oh. Yes. An explosion of Hong Kong-stylized mayhem, fueled by revenge and the ability to look impeccable while dispatching a fleet of attackers with the elastic, tentacular ease of the guy in “Oldboy” (who did it with just a hammer). Über-assassin John Wick (a simmering, sneering Keanu Reeves) is on another tear, engaging in non-stop, surgically choreographed street fighting and bullet ballets — Astaire and Rogers with knives and Glocks. Exhilaratingly bloody and pornographically suave, this exercise in arms and Armani is about as good as the first one. And, yes, Wick has another dog.john-wick-2-guns.jpg
  3. “The Wedding Plan” —  After her fiancé abruptly dumps her, 32-year-old Michal, an Orthodox Jew, decides, demands, insists that she is going, God willing, to get married in 30 days — with or without a groom. A series of comic blind dates, goosed by bumbling despair, is a showcase for Jewish rituals and mating rituals, not to mention an array of sparkling performances. An American director would muck it all up with farce and bathos, and despite the rare feel-good sop, the film, by Rama Burshtein, stays true as a serious, delightful peephole into faith, Orthodoxy and the universality of companionship. A find. wedding plan.jpg
  4. Get Out” — A scathing op-ed about American racism and race relations disguised as a bloody horror-thriller, Jordan Peele‘s ingenious what’s-it follows the relationship of Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) as it graduates to her bringing him home to meet the ‘rents. Hitch: They don’t know Chris is black. Rose assures her nervous beau that it won’t be an issue. Right. Peele keeps the boat rocking, with discombobulating tonal shifts and shocking reversals, as well as jabs of genre-apt violence. This disturbingly original movie also killed at the box office.  get-out-jordan-peele.jpg
  5. “A Quiet Passion” — A fine-grained Cynthia Nixon, alternately pinched and forthright, is 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson in cinema bard Terence Davies‘ lushly elegant biopic of the reclusive writer, who deflects the twin tyrannies of sexism and religion with vocal mutiny and bridling impiety. Far from musty, the movie is an epigrammatic delight. Austenian, even Shakespearean, repartee festoons the crackling script about a bitter, celibate, sequestered genius who considers hers a “minor” life. “I would like some approval before I die,” she says. The world’s response is, well, heartbreaking.
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  6. “I Am Not Your Negro” — Raoul Peck’s cool, contemplative doc is based on a manuscript by James Baldwin about the lives and back-to-back assassinations of his close friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. (He left the manuscript behind when he died in 1987.) Read by an eerily hushed Samuel L. Jackson, the material, catalyzed by riveting archival footage, traces all that was going down in the heat of the Civil Rights movement. The movie’s timely racial resonance makes it an excellent companion piece to last year’s astonishing “O.J.: Made in America.”james.jpg
  7. Personal Shopper” — This offbeat drama is a risky mash of tones and genres, but out-there auteur Olivier Assayas is a daredevil, one of our most fascinating filmmakers, and he achieves wonders. He elevated Kristen Stewart in the entrancing “Clouds of Sils Maria,” and made the callow actress fly. Here she soars. This singular and sometimes freakily supernatural thriller about, yes, a personal shopper, boils down to: Kristen Stewart, Kristen Stewart, Kristen Stewartpersonal shopper.jpg
  8. “Okja” — A Netflix flick by South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Snowpiercer”), “Okja” is a weird, witty and wild action-fantasy about a girl and her pig (think “Charlotte’s Web,” with a dash of “King Kong.”) The titular creature is a ginormous swine that looks more like a galumphing hippo. It has floppy elephant ears, nubby teeth and a tongue that flaps like a beach towel. Okja is a soulful pig, playful and protective, like a child’s canine BFF. But that’s where the joy ends. See, she is a genetically engineered “super pig,” bred by an American corporation for her delicious meat. And the company wants her, now. The spunky little girl who raised Okja for years is having none of it. Paul Dano sympathetically plays an animal liberation leader and Tilda Swinton is splendidly venal as the corp head. Jake Gyllenhaal? He’s the best human cartoon you never saw on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” The candy-colored affair is a harrowing, heart-cracking moral tale, whose message is: Free the pig!
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  9. “Logan” — Logan’s the non-mutant name Wolverine goes by, so you know heading into this Marvel Comics marvel that fearsome knuckle talons will retract like 12-inch switchblades and baddie flesh will be slashed and perforated. Logan (a ruffled, ripped Hugh Jackman) is in a pissy mood, a worn and torn X-istential hero who’s had it up to here. This is all he needs: A little mutant girl who happens to be blessed (cursed?) with the same weaponized fists — a distaff Wolverine who’s also a murderous wildcat when danger strikes. (Unfortunately, she forgoes Logan’s luxurious facial fur.) Writer-director James Mangold aspires to an impressive hard-R grit and gore and an almost “John Wick”-ian body count (impaling! beheadings!) in this bruising X-Men installment. The complexion is dark, the tenor aggrieved, yet there’s no lack of the bonkers excitement that galvanized “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The story is unencumbered by fussy superhero mythos, focussed more on family and past, with a bold stroke of unexpected sadness. This one’s for the grownups.

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10.  “Dunkirk” — Certain to go down as the most fulsomely praised picture of the year, Christopher Nolan’s alternately epic and intimate WWII drama isn’t quite as singular or special as you’ve been led to believe. Pity the poor war movie, which has to transcend hoary combat clichés while delivering the bloody, kablammy goods; which has to strive for rigorous tough-mindedness while furnishing the hokey uplift of victory to swelling orchestral strains. Nolan does his best with his mostly gripping, always picturesque telling of the celebrated rescue mission of some half-million Allied troops out of Nazi-surrounded Dunkirk, but convention gets in the way and a you’ve-seen-this-all-before mood settles in. Canned heroics and schmears of sentimentality lard the third act. But Nolan finally prevails for an impeccably staged war rattler of intermittent intensity. Yet let’s not get carried away. Some are calling “Dunkirk” Nolan’s masterpiece. It’s not. Both “Memento” and “The Dark Knight,” er, blow it out of the water.

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  • Honorable mentions: “A Ghost Story” — One of the most wildly original films I’ve seen in ages, this elusive drama about a ghost (a touching Casey Affleck, wearing, yes, a sheet with eye holes cut in it) who haunts while mourning for his still-living wife. Shot in dreamlike ultra-long takes and nearly wordless, David Lowery’s challenging, sensitive love story is a vision, and visionary. … “The Big Sick” — Not bad, not spectacular, Kumail Nanjiani’s smile-making rom-com with a dark undertow, featuring a fine Zoe Kazan and Holly Hunter, is worth a look, and a chuckle. (More about it at the bottom of this post.)
  • Overrated: “The Beguiled” — Sofia Coppola’s uneventful snoozefest has the bounding verve of a somnambulist. Its 94-minute run time is a godsend.

My, oh, ‘Maudie’

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Today’s movie was between Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” and the no-one-knows-what-the-hell-it-is indie “Maudie,” starring the serendipitously hawkish Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke. For various reasons (read: two reasons, neither scintillating) I chose “Maudie,” showing at the cozy, weirdly configured arthouse cinema.

It’s a Tuesday matinée and tickets are a chest-clutchingly cheap $7. The darkened theater is, per usual, populated with nattering, dithering geriatrics, clogging the entrance and doddering up the aisle as I stand impatiently, sighingly, behind them. “Jesus,” I finally mutter as I squeeze past a stolid body. Then I think: “Christ, this movie better match its unanimously rapturous reviews.” I lean back, put a foot up.

The movie is a splendor, something immoderately special. Inchworm slow and ear-cuppingly quiet, it’s a doozie about an eccentric couple, a painter and a fishmonger, that somehow, against bounteous, brittle odds, stays together and loves one another. My eyes moistened. Hawkins, all aquiver, like an injured sparrow — devastating. Two unwell people, frail and difficult, made me conscious of death and illness and curdled personalities, misanthropy, shyness, pain. It was scary. A fine work of art, if not altogether pleasant. I will see it again. I like my movies rather agonizing.

Also pretty agonizing are other peoples’ movie lists, bests and worsts. I take them personally; I get gastric distress when I read them, always. The New York Times recently proclaimed its 25 Best Films of the 21st Century, and it’s a muscular litany of durable art: “Boyhood,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Moonlight,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Yi Yi” and so forth. (Although it also lauds the quizzically overestimated “Inside Llewyn Davis.” I’ve seen it twice. It’s still as vapid as drywall.)

The list tips its hat to the Dardennes brothers’ 2006 neo-realist ordeal “L’Enfant,” which I, in my professional film critic days, named one of the best films of the aughts. This in mind, I rewatched it the other day. It was about half as good as I remember it.

Loose-limbed and one-note, with a pleading social conscience worn on its tattered sleeve, “L’Enfant” is a chiseled moral tale about a poor teen couple that’s just had a baby. She loves the child while he, a tragically inept thief, turns around and sells it on the black market. He is a dim young man.

The film’s verite grit is bulldozed on and you feel dirty and battered hanging out in its fearsomely authentic demimonde. I adored it on first viewing, and many people still do. I wonder if they’ve watched it recently. You can tell the movie’s final shot is supposed to tear you apart, and I’m sure it did when I saw it 11 years ago. Not now. It’s a little pushy and mawkish and more than a mite manipulative. You can see right off that it’s going to dwell for an eternity on the couple crying together then go black — not fade, but a hard cut to black, then credits. And that’s what happens. I wasn’t buying it.

That confessed, I still like the film; I’m just seeing it through a heightened critical prism. That happens. You can be hard on a work of art but still enjoy and appreciate it. Take “The Big Sick,” the praise-spangled rom-com starring the charming and funny Kumail Nanjiani and the always swell Zoe Kazan, whose quirky luminosity lights a fire under the low-temperature affair.

It’s wry, cute, droll, vaguely touching, but it never gets there. I liked it — I’d give it a B — but not as much as I felt I was supposed to. It’s mild and soft when it should bite, cutesy when it should be real. It’s also, at close to two hours, about 30 minutes too long.

Amid the crush of hosannas for “The Big Sick” I feel like a party-pooper, the sole hater swirling alone in outer space, far from its admirers. Be thankful: In space no one can hear you grouse.

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‘The Big Sick’