Franchise Fever vol. 1: Saw

This is the first in a series of posts about franchises, focusing on horror and action. I’m not sure how far we’re going to take this but I at least intend to write about the Halloween, Transformers, and Fast and Furious series.

I watched through the entire Saw series earlier this spring and I think it holds up extremely well. A lot of these franchise movies are hard to evaluate at the time of their release because there is often so much noise from the popular conversation that it’s hard to avoid bias. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately: many popular franchises, including for example Transformers and Twilight, have been so thoroughly coded as low-class and for people of poor or uneducated taste that it’s not even possible to discuss their merits in a serious way without coming across as a contrarian troll (except in niche circles where there is a presumption of good faith about revisionary takes). Saw and Halloween are less vivid examples because they largely precede social media, but there was a fainter sort of cultural presumption at the time that Halloween 5 and 6, for instance, were garbage. I often find when I go back and revisit a series with as much of an open mind as I can muster, I end up surprised. This is why I’m revisiting several franchises and writing this series of posts.

I don’t have some grand take on Saw, but I do think it is a very interesting horror series. My views about the relative merit of the films are unorthodox, but I’ve generally found that people either like most of these movies or hate all of them so relative ranking is probably not the biggest controversy. Regarding the broader question:  I’m definitely a hard yes on Saw. It’s not as good as the Halloween series, for instance, but it’s absolutely delightful in contrast with the smarmy so-called “elevated horror” trend.

Saw is grimy, grisly, and grotesque. The themes are blunt and spelled out explicitly. The writing unapologetically embraces the absurdity of continuing the series past the first couple sequels and becomes so convoluted and intricate that you couldn’t possibly follow what’s happening in the late sequels without a fresh rewatch of the earlier ones. The visual style is abrasive and lo-fi with whiplash editing. It’s like a diseased nightmare of late Tony Scott.

What does Saw have to offer? The most obvious answers are the creative set pieces and kills, the healthy serving of schadenfreude we get from the loathsomeness of the victimsand the standard franchise pleasure of familiarity amidst difference (“THE CHOICE IS YOURS!”). I would also add that a diseased nightmare of late Tony Scott is a very fine thing to be. The level of abrasive scuzz on display is impressive. I fully adore the byzantine narrative of the late sequels, where Jigsaw is already dead (OR IS HE?) but traps he laid years earlier are still being sprung. In general, I think one’s reaction to expansive horror franchises heavily depends on how one feels about the sort of flagrant narrative contrivances that keep the series going. A good contrivance makes me cackle: yes you thought we beheaded the villain in the previous installment, but that was a cop he forced to wear his mask! If you dislike this sort of narrative MacGyvering I’m happy to live and let live, but I have trouble relating.

The Saw series ranked (no spoilers):

8) Jigsaw (Spierig Brothers)

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I like the Spierig Brothers’ Daybreakers and (especially) Predestination but they are just the wrong directors for Saw. I’m all for keeping the Saw series going but I think it’s a mistake to reboot the aesthetic the way they did here. This is waaaaaaaay too high polish to be Saw. The kills are generally solid but nothing groundbreaking. I wasn’t as thrilled with the overall narrative structure: it seemed more concerned to glorify the writer’s cleverness than Jigsaw’s. There is going to be another Saw movie and I am very optimistic. Chris Rock had an idea for a premise and he is producing it, with Bousman directing. I implicitly trust that if Chris Rock is going to go to the trouble and expense of getting this movie made, he’s got a damn good idea. In any case, he shows excellent judgment in bringing Bousman back on board. I expect it will be a real Saw movie.

7) Saw (Wan)

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The original Saw is iconic and supplies great material for the rest of the series to develop but it’s got way too low of a body count and the dialogue and acting are too lousy to sustain the threadbare chamber horror approach. I have affection in my heart for Saw, but it’s the weakest of the proper Saw movies.

6) Saw: The Final Chapter, aka Saw VII (Greutert)

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This one is divisive. A lot of fans of the series dislike it. It definitely has problems. The main one for me is a very common issue with 3D franchise entries (like The Final Destination): the 3D becomes a substitute for cleverness. The traps and kills are less creative because the director is just riding the 3D gimmick, which of course is lost on home video unless you’re a 3D TV owner. The other thing people don’t like about it is exactly what I find appealing: the narrative gets exponentially more ridiculous in its contrivances. When you watch through the series in order by the time you get to this point it’s amazing how many Generic Movie Cops it has become necessary to keep track of.

5) Saw III (Bousman)

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Saw III is undeniably an endurance test. Whereas the rest of the series wisely keeps running times short, this juggernaut is just north of two hours long! It has some of the best kills but it’s pretty repetitive: over and over again the guy caught in Jigsaw’s maze has to decide whether to try to save someone from a trap or not, and each time he decides to save the person after it’s too late and makes a gory failed attempt. If you are not into the series, this is probably the one you’ll hate the most. For me, there’s something admirable about Bousman’s brash indifference to the audience’s ability to tolerate the depraved spectacle. This is TOO MUCH SAW IN YOUR FACE. It’s not my favorite, but respect.

4) Saw V (Hackl)


Also divisive. People who are not interested in the mythology will get off the train here, as this is deep in the weeds introduced by the fourth installment and the focus has decidedly shifted away from Jigsaw himself. It does look and feel like a Saw movie and there are some great kills. The real estate commentary is a nice touch– I like the idea of exploiting the audience’s class resentment to juice up the schadenfreude. Perverse social consciousness suits Saw well.

3) Saw IV (Bousman)

Billy Otis in Saw IV (2007)

Now we’re talking. I think this and the next two are stellar. This is the Fast and Furious IV of the Saw series: dawning self-awareness plus a bit of a reboot that brings the franchise closer to its authentic self. This is where Saw gets super byzantine and FUN with all the Generic Movie Cops and batshit twists. 

2) Saw II (Bousman)

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This is the gnarliest saw movie. It fulfills the unrealized potential of the first movie without yet getting too deep into the convoluted overarching narrative. It contains the best set piece in the series and one of the best in modern horror with the FILTHY USED SYRINGE PIT. This one is for genre fans and is not going to appeal to the squeamish.

1) Saw VI (Greutert)

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I normally use ‘didactic’ as a pejorative when discussing movies but this baby is didactic in the best possible way. Imagine Bernie Sanders getting a Mission Impossible message: “Bernie Sanders, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to win the American public over to single-payer health care using only a Saw Movie. This message will self-destruct in five seconds.” Released during the original Obamacare debate, this is an absolutely delicious feast of healthcare-themed torture porn. It takes the perverse social consciousness that I enjoy in Saw V to a sublime level. It holds up extremely well in the Age of Trump. Easily my favorite.



Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 7

Amazon Prime

Keoma (Castellari, 1976)

A shoddy version of Keoma has been on Prime for a while, but now they have the new Arrow transfer and it looks fantastic! I love Keoma so much that I get full body tingles when I think about it. This is spaghetti western nirvana, and one of the last notable works in the cycle. Franco motherfucking Nero plays a half-Indian gun-slinging vagabond/existential searcher (one of his best roles) who returns to his home town to find that (surprise) a wealthy oppressor has everyone under his thumb. This is a very typical setup but what makes Keoma special is the abundance of biblical apocalyptica, Nero’s unspeakable badassery, Castellari’s pulpy Western Gothic hyperstylization, and a whole ‘nother level of soundtrack that I didn’t even know existed before I saw this. I’ve watched it twice this week since I realized the Arrow transfer was out, once with each audio track. I think it’s a toss up between the Italian and English tracks (they both have merits) but in any case the English version is the one on Prime.

Compañeros (Corbucci, 1970)

Image result for companeros movie tomas milianComedic Zapata spaghetti western with a really fantastic cast. You’ve got a comedy duo beyond your wildest dreams with Franco Nero and the one and only Tomas Milian, you’ve got Fernando Rey as the idealistic professor, and then you’ve got an absolutely amazing Jack Palance in an insane role as a vengeful falconer with a wooden hand. Plus you’ve got an Ennio Morricone score. Hell yes.

The Slumber Party Massacre (Jones, 1982)

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I’ve been watching through key moments of the 80’s slumber party/sorority house/summer camp slasher cycle and this is a high point. Most people would be surprised to learn how many of these movies (including this one) were written and directed by women. There’s a kind of punk feminism beneath the surface– very, very, very, very different from contemporary manifestations of feminism in film. Many of these movies follow the giallo convention of not showing the killer till the end but this is not one of them. It’s a lunatic with a power drill (i.e.. death phallus). This is a ton of fun and ideal for a movie night with a crowd.

Ronin (Frankenheimer, 1998)

I’m excited to revisit this myself. It’s a spectacular late work from Frankenheimer. It’s best known for having one of the very best modern chase scenes (maybe the best?), but it’s just a peak crime movie in general.

20th Century Women (Mills, 2016)

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I highly recommend giving this a look if you skipped it. It’s a companion piece to Mills’ beautiful Beginners. Whereas that film is a tribute to his father, who came out as gay late in life (and is touchingly portrayed by Christopher Plummer), this one is a tribute to his mother (a characteristically phenomenal Annette Bening) and a story about growing up punk rock in a house full of strong women.

Funny Face (Donen, 1957)

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Gershwin music, Audrey Hepburn as a bookish philosophy hipster, Fred Astaire: pure joy.

Southern Comfort (Hill, 1981)

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One of Hill’s very best movies, about a group of National Guardsmen out on a training excursion in the LA bayou who get embroiled in a conflict with some swamp folk. The virtuoso ending features some of the best use of sound in any action movie.

Youth Without Youth (Coppola, 2007)

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While many of the great 70’s auteurs have been fairly tame in their late output, 2000’s Coppola goes harder in the paint than just about anyone. This is an unqualified masterpiece and one of his best films. I see it as a sort of sequel to his Dracula, and they make an awesome double feature.


Cage Corner

Say what you will about Netflix, they have been great about offering plenty of bargain basement Nic Cage titles. I watch them all. I don’t necessarily recommend any of them to a general audience, but Cage fans should take note. Here’s my rundown of the newest additions:

Arsenal (Miller, 2017)

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This is the one to watch. This is that good shit. This is that 3% Tomatometer Cocaine Cage shit. One unfortunate thing about Cage’s filmography is that one of his very Cagiest performances is too small a part of the movie: DeadfallArsenal is a dream come true: he reprises the character from Deadfall, but now he’s a major part of the movie. Make no mistake: Miller is a hack and in some ways this is a terrible movie, but it has twenty times the Cage factor of Mandy. Come for the Cage, stay for the Cage.

The Runner (Stark, 2015)

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The Cage factor here could be easy to miss for the untrained eye. It’s a pretty mild movie striking some low blows against capitalism in light of the BP oil spill. Its cynicism is trite. But as a hothouse melodrama I kind of love it. Cage is an idealistic politician with an inconsistent New Orleans accent who just wants to do good but can’t keep it in his pants. This has more Cage factor than any of the others except Arsenal.

Season of the Witch (Sena, 2011)

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Oh boy. This has some decent Cage factor but that’s not really the main attraction. The Claire Foy factor is what makes this. Also, the story is way less formulaic and way crazier than I expected. This is not the greatest movie but if you’re into this sort of thing (dark ages horror-adventure), you could do a lot worse.

Inconceivable (Baker, 2017)

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Meh, this doesn’t really live up to its premise. It’s a hand that rocks the cradle sort of thing where the nanny wants to seduce Cage and replace his wife, but there are only a few glimmers of Cage delight and this formula is beyond tired. I can’t deny I enjoyed watching it, though.

I Think You Should Leave (Robinson, 2019)

Sketch comedy that’s actually funny! It avoids politics and just goes for deep weirdness that straddles the highbrow/lowbrow distinction. I’m still laughing about that motorcycle sketch.

Ninja Assassin (McTeigue, 2011)

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Look, I am not in favor of CGI ninjas, but we are in an era where you can’t really expect otherwise. Game of Thrones is like “yeah we didn’t put Ghost in this final season much because the CGI is too expensive,” and I thought, “is it no longer even an option to just use a fucking dog?” Anyways, as CGI ninja movies go, this one is the bee’s knees. The premise is so wonderful: the dire consequences that accrue when ninjas fall in love. This is actually one of my favorite martial arts movies from the last decade.

The Butterfly Effect (Bress and Gruber, 2004)

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This baby has aged well. It has always been an extremely funny good-bad movie but newly restrictive norms of political correctness make this play even funnier, because it deals so flippantly with such taboo topics.

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart II (Johnnie To, 2011 and 2014)

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Two of the only truly great romantic comedies this decade. They work as genre movies, but they also weave in an acrid critique of life as a successful professional under late capitalism (relating to To’s Life Without Principle and Office).


Hulu is pretty bad now (but they’ve got Veronica Mars coming) They’ve still got the wonderful The Duchess of Langeais, at least. These two recs are super obvious and probably not helpful but just in case:

Happy-Go-Lucky (Leigh, 2008)

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A masterpiece of bittersweet optimism from one of the greatest British filmmakers.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Waititi, 2016)

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Waititi’s best movie by a mile. I think we’ve already recommended this once, but in any case, if you liked the diluted flavor he brought to Thor: Ragnarok, you can get the full strength version here.

Criterion Channel

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I don’t usually include recommendations for Criterion Channel/Filmstruck, because really it’s all worth watching and I think it’s best to let the curators be your guide, but I want to super emphasize one thing: My Name is Julia Ross. It’s a feminist gothic noir that could have been famous for originating the concept of gaslighting if not for the movie Gaslight.

High Life

I had been keeping my eye on the possibility of catching a screening of the new Claire Denis flick High Life while visiting Vancouver this last week. It opened Friday, and I realized that my only opportunity to see it would be at the most commercial possibly downtown multiplex at 10pm Friday night. Not ideal, but I went for it because I’m not sure I’ll be able to see it on the big screen in Missoula (it will play at the art theater, but I won’t watch movies there: the place attracts people who view the movie theater as a place to eat, drink and socialize). The Vancouver audience was relatively well-behaved. One awful woman crinkled a bag of smuggled candy during a quiet moment, but even the popcorn barbarians generally knew when to stop crunching. This movie really benefits from the big screen presentation and I’m so glad I decided to go. 

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Denis is among my very favorite living filmmakers, so I was dying to see this. I wasn’t sure what to expect, though. Her narratives are often so elliptical that they approach incomprehensibility and her subject matter tends to be very multiplex-inappropriate. Given the relatively optimistic marketing blitz High Life has received (complete with obviously deceptive trailers), I wondered if maybe she took a more accessible turn with her first English-language movie.

Definitely not! It’s not her most elliptical narrative (this is of course L’intrus), but it is quite elliptical (more and more so as it progresses), and it does have some of her most challenging subject matter (alongside Bastards). I think it’s an absolutely tremendous film. I expect it will be in my top ten for the decade. It’s a film that will surely be divisive and I fully understand how someone with good taste could dislike it, but I’m all in.

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***I can’t discuss the film further without mentioning certain things that I personally wouldn’t want to know before seeing it, so some may want to stop reading at this point.***

Why is it bound to be divisive? Well, aside from the elliptical narrative and unpleasant subject matter, it is her most heavy-handed film, with the possible exceptions of her two films directly about colonial Africa and her relation to it as a French person who grew up in Cameroon (Chocolat and White Material). It very bluntly and sometimes a bit didactically addresses the moral atrocities of the death penalty, lifetime incarceration of young people, and incarceration as a solution to social problems. It also addresses the vastly disproportionate impact of these atrocities on black people, and even builds in a mea culpa about the fact that the three main characters in a movie concerned with incarceration are white. “Even up here the blacks die first.” There’s a moment that I found brilliant where we see the body of the one black male central character (André 3000!) fertilize the spaceship’s onboard garden of Eden. Whoa. Another reason many will dislike High Life is that as a sci fi movie (which she denies it is, though, c’mon, it clearly is), it’s not innovative.

These are not problems for me. Some artists use heavy-handed thematic content and symbolism and well-worn genre trappings as a context for other sorts of artistic achievement.  The interest of High Life is primarily in the details of the execution. The heavy-handed and well-worn elements work for me in the film because they provide the context in which these exquisite details are realized. This is not to say that the film is flawed in some respects but excellent in others: I don’t think it could have worked as well if the handling of the main themes were more subtle — the heavy-handedness generates brute force impact. The details elicit such a visceral response in part because the larger structure is so unapologetically blunt.

I was reading a few reviews this morning and I found a very negative write-up from parental watch organization Common Sense Media that unintentionally did a great job conveying much of what’s great about the film. They write (NB there are spoiler-ish revelations):

“The result is a crude, profane, violent film that aspires to be high art but is more a collection of things you wish you could unsee. It creates a highly sexual environment in which everything about reproduction is cold, clinical, and icky. French director Claire Denis viscerally attacks the audience with shocking rapes (brutal and drugged), dripping bodily fluids, and a never-ending scene in which a completely nude Juliette Binoche masturbates on top of a sex chair.”

I often come across negative reviews that increase my interest in seeing a film, but this example is the bee’s knees. Doesn’t the movie they describe just sound GREAT? If not, it’s probably not for you. High Life outdoes Denis’ wonderful Trouble Every Day with respect to its fixation on bodily fluids and orifices (including a literal black hole!). I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a film (aside from gross-out comedies) with more semen and urine. There’s also a whole lot of blood. The clinical, Cronenberg-esque approach to reproductive bodily functions is indeed deeply icky, and I love it. The brilliant set design enhances this icky clinical feel. These elements pile up into what I found to be an intensely visceral experience that left me shaken and unable to sleep. High Life infected my thoughts with images that just won’t leave me alone (the ones the Common Sense Media folks wish they could unsee), and that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay a film. It also addresses sexual trauma in a particularly visceral way, and delivers moments of tragic catharsis that took my breath away.

Juliette Binoche’s performance is perhaps her most bizarre effort to date. I have seen a whole lot of Juliette Binoche movies and I can report that she is fully capable of delivering English-language dialogue in a non-stilted way. Many of her most important lines in High Life are delivered with a Bressonian level of emotional blankness. This is clearly a deliberate artistic choice. In general, the emotional blankness of much of High Life sets the viewer up to be absolutely destroyed by the moments of nakedness and catharsis. Binoche’s character—a terrifying latter-day Medea—is one of her very best. I don’t have as much to say about Robert Pattinson, but he continues to be excellent, and the thought of unexpecting young folks going to see this because of residual Twilight fandom utterly delights me.

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I would also call attention to the portrait of fatherhood in High Life. It’s interestingly almost like a prequel to the father-daughter relationship in Denis’ (again, wonderful) 35 Shots of Rum. In that film, the father-daughter pair are isolated from French society by their status as immigrants, whereas in this film they are isolated from humanity by light years of literal distance, but in both the result is an unusual degree of intimacy. It’s at once creepy and warm, and the warmth is somehow both disrupted and reinforced by the icky and disturbing dog scene. It’s that special Denis magic.

Is High Life the most refined new release I’ve seen lately? No. That would be Ash is Purest White. But High Life is certainly the most intense, viscerally affecting new release I’ve seen in a long time. I love it without qualification.





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.


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

Top recommendations:

Royal Egyptian Cuisine


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:

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



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


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


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


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


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

KoJa Kitchen


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


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



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.


State Bird Provisions


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


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



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


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


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.


Dan Sung Sa


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.



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



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



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



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


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


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

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


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


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


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.


Savoy Kitchen


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


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



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


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.



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


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.


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.


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.


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)

Image result for looking glass movie cage

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)

Image result for mandy cage

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)

Image result for 211 nicolas cage

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)

Image result for the humanity bureau nicolas cage

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:

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:

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 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 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.


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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?