Two quick takes: Wu-Tang (yes) and Booksmart (no)

Wu-Tang:  An American Saga

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The problem with the musical biopic as a genre is that these movies tend to put their focus into pulling off a good karaoke impersonation and ticking off the obligatory recognizable milestones (early failure, big break, escalating success, drugs and sex, hard times, and finally either redemption or an early death) rather than on telling a good story or exploring the subject’s creative process or doing something interesting with form. I find most of these movies unwatchable, though I do sometimes find myself deriving mild enjoyment from karaoke movies about artists that I like (e.g., the Biggie movie or Straight Outta Compton). There are several excellent movies about classical artists, which I think is much easier to achieve because no one is tempted to build their Mahler biopic around a gimmicky Mahler impression and a bunch of Behind the Music cliches. The ones I really love are Straub-Huillet’s Chronicles of Anna Magdalena Bach, Ken Russell’s Lisztomania and Mahler, and Zulawski’s La Note Bleue (about Chopin).

I can think of exactly one exceptional biopic about a pop musician: Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, about Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. It’s great because it totally eschews the standard formula and instead focuses on Brian Wilson’s unique way of experiencing the world and how it manifested in his creative process. It uses innovative sound design and editing techniques to depict Wilson’s point of view. I don’t see how anyone could watch that movie and not go listen to Pet Sounds a couple dozen times afterwards.

Wu-Tang: An American Saga takes a totally new approach and I loooooooooooove it. Forget the biopic, this is a bio-miniseries. It uses the larger canvas to craft a mythic origin story that focuses on the parts that are normally glossed over. We are 4/10 episodes in and no one even has their rap nickname yet. Method Man and Ghost are still enemies. This is closer to a musical version of The Wire (minus the cops) than to Straight Outta Compton. There’s certainly a degree of embellishment and narrative liberty and as far as I’m concerned THAT’S FINE. If I want to be informed about the actual history here I can watch the Wu documentary and read the wikipedia articles. Tell me a good story, I don’t care if you made some of it up.

So far, this is a Wu-Tang gangster saga with rap greatness simmering just below the surface. The RZA (Ashton Sanders from Moonlight) is at the center of it all, making beats in his basement, forced to hustle when his brother is imprisoned, torn between his duties to family and his own boundless creative drive. He’s the visionary, the one with his eye on the prize, but he keeps getting pulled towards the street game. He sees his friends, family, and even enemies as MC’s lying in wait. He’s constantly trying to pull them away from the corner spot and into his basement to lay down verses, while they are trying to pull him back out to sell blue tops. Kung fu movies play in the background. Five Percenters preach in the streets. As a fan of Wu-Tang since 36 Chambers dropped when I was 12 years old, it all feels familiar. But it feels more like the Wu Tang fictional universe developed across their body of work than like a rote wikipedia survey of noteworthy biographical events. This is the Wu-Tang Clan as they see themselves: superheroes emerging from the Slums of Shaolin. They’re gaining their powers now, and soon they will don their alter-egos. I also really appreciate that Hulu is releasing this week-by-week instead of all at once. I like having something to look forward to: Wu Wednesdays, highlight of the week.


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(warning: spoilers)

There aren’t many movies I dislike this strongly. I put it on late at night, imagining it would be a funny and entertaining high school comedy updated for contemporary moment. Not only did I not find it funny, I spent several days ruminating on how intensely I disliked it. It’s instructive to compare it with Kay Cannon’s Blockers, which is also a female-centric take on a familiar highschool formula. Blockers is a gender-inverted American Pie. Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart is often compared to Superbad, which is apt, but it’s closer to Can’t Hardly Wait, with a pinch of Ghost World. So far, so good. One feature of the high school comedy subgenre is that it can withstand a high degree of reiteration. All those American Pie sequels are solid, for instance. Blockers is very effective about both hitting all the genre norms and doing something new and refreshing. I really admire it for giving the female characters unflinchingly raunchy dialogue. Also, the way the parents’ side of the story ends up resolving is a brilliant revision. Usually in a movie like this, the parents discourage their daughter from having sex, she tries anyways, and at the moment of truth she realizes they were right all along and she should really wait to lose her precious flower. Here it’s the opposite: at least in one arc, the parents learn that it’s fine if their daughter has sex. Hallelujah.

What I really dislike about Booksmart is the way that it forsakes an absolutely essential element of the high school comedy: sincere sentimentality. I think you will find that every single great highschool comedy has a streak of saccharin sweetness. It needs to be there. Booksmart seems to want to be funny at all times. Whenever there is a moment of sweetness, it sees a chance for a cheap laugh. Its schtick is to disrupt any sense of sincerity that starts to develop with a joke on the level of a loud fart. At no point in the movie did I get a sense that the two leads are best friends. I believed that they hang out together, but I did not believe that they love each other. Their ultimate separation when one leaves for a year abroad has no impact, and in any case is disrupted with a joke on the level of a loud fart. That’s right, not even the final goodbye lets you feel anything.

The scene that I hated the most is the bathroom sex scene. In fact, I think this is my least favorite scene in recent memory. One of the two female leads is out as gay but hasn’t yet consummated her sexuality. She crushes on a quirky girl who may or may not be gay, which leads to an unsurprising and genre-typical humiliation when she turns out to be straight. Then we get a delightful twist where the Hot Mean Girl (Diana Silvers– her performance is the best thing about the movie and she’s also great in Ma) turns out to be into her and they start making out in the bathroom. The scene starts out charmingly awkward and sweet. I had really been hating the movie and I thought to myself, “how does this terrible movie have a lovely sweet scene like this?” And then…. we get a “wrong hole” joke directly into a vomit joke.

Fuck this movie. The character has already been humiliated enough at this point and deserves a win. It would be highly appropriate to genre conventions: I thought we were getting the equivalent of the Lauren Ambrose bathroom scene in Can’t Hardly Wait. There is no good reason to humiliate the character again. It’s not funny. The movie turns around and gives her a small redemption: the Hot Mean Girl stops by to say goodbye at the end and makes it clear she’s still interested. But if you were going to give her this win, why not give it to her in the sex scene, where it can have far more emotional impact, rather than as a hasty afterthought? We are told to see this as a win, but we can’t feel it. One might think that the sex scene functions to let people know that it’s okay if their first sexual encounter is a bit of a shit show. But the movie could have accomplished this without tawdry, lazy gross out jokes. The embarrassment and awkwardness could have stood hand-in-hand with sweetness and sincerity.

Small note: I also really did not appreciate Feldstein’s arc, where she is rejected by the goy boy and ends up settling for the desperate kid coded as rich and Jewish. The subtext there is off-putting. See Blockers if you skipped it. It’s so much better.

Notes on Midsommar (Director’s Cut)

Warning: spoilers lie within.

  1. On the director’s cut: My sense is the longer cut is the way to go. I didn’t see the original theatrical cut because I knew that it was much shorter than Aster’s preferred cut and I wanted my first experience of the movie to be of the more authoritative version. The director’s cut includes more scenes that give us a sense of Christian and Dani’s relationship and more depictions of rituals that aren’t integral to the main narrative. The one element of the director’s cut that I could see a case for cutting would be some of the thesis material, but my sister-in-law Izzy makes the point that this is the one place where the movie gets into racial themes and it does a lot to establish Christian’s entitled white guy douchiness. The other question is pacing. I can’t attest to the way the pacing feels in the shorter cut but I don’t expect that the movie would benefit from trimming down. One of the most interesting things about the movie is the way it pushes the classic slow burn horror arc past its traditional scope (see below). I think the longer runtime is crucial here. Image result for midsommar
  2. On “elevated horror”: Some of the most hardcore horror fans whose opinions I follow love to shit on A24 horror releases. I totally understand where they are coming from, but I think that each movie deserves a fair shake. A24 tends to release some of my favorite movies and some of my least favorite movies every year, without too much in the middle. The bad stuff wouldn’t be so infuriating if all the hipster critics didn’t wet their pants over it and throw around phrases like “elevated horror.” Here’s a tip: if you ever see that phrase being used unironically, ignore the author’s views. The problem is the presumption that horror needed to be elevated. The sorts of themes that these “elevated”  indie horror movies bring to the surface are already there in the subtext of reams and reams of unpretentious genre movies. There are vast numbers of haunted house movies that are about grief, trauma, abuse, and family secrets, for instance. They typically address these themes in subtle ways, keeping the outward focus on the horror action. “Elevated horror” movies take a heavy hand to what was already there. They turn the subtext into text. Critics who throw the phrase “elevated horror” around (think Indiewire) don’t actually like horror, and they praise A24 releases at the expense of the genre. They say things like, “this isn’t just a horror movie, this is a piercing study of grief and trauma.” Horror fans want to say: “fuck you, horror doesn’t need all this indie film festival bullshit to be a piercing study of grief and trauma, you just don’t know how to watch a horror movie.” That said, I think Midsommar is far from elevated bullshit like The Babadook. It’s a horror movie to its bones. I liked Aster’s previous movie, Hereditary, but I didn’t love it. That movie mushes together a prestige drama and a bargain basement haunted house movie somewhere between Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring, with a Rosemary’s Baby ending tacked on. I was concerned when I saw the long runtime of Midsommer that he was giving us a feature length prestige drama conjoined with a feature length horror movie. Nope! The extra length is devoted to the slow burn. It’s a movie with broad connections to the history of the genre, coming from a place of love and admiration, rather than the sort of condescension that characterizes the worst examples of “elevated horror.”
  3. There’s a beautiful and perfect Texas Chainsaw Massacre nod that announces the beginning of the final act. It’s the scene where Josh sneaks into the forbidden temple to photograph the forbidden book. His grisly demise closely echos the first kill from Texas Chainsaw: 
    Notice the mask of human skin, the smash, the squeals, the dragging. It’s unmistakable. Aster knows that any serious horror fan will catch this reference, and to me it felt like a warm reassurance: “This right here is a horror movie, buckle up.”Image result for midsommar ending smile
  4. There are two respects in which Midsommar is notably original: the three-hour scale and the aggressive brightness of the cinematography. There aren’t many horror movies where most of the action takes place in sunlight. The Wicker Man is the most obvious point of comparison (in many respects), but Midsommar not only takes place in sunlight, it is one of the brightest movies I’ve ever seen. It is the inversion of the neglected vampire gem 30 Days of Night, which takes place in Northern Alaska during the winter solstice.
  5. Midsommar connects with three venerable horror traditions: folk horror, the Italian Cannibal movie, and the slow burn. Folk horror– horror based on dark folklore–is most closely associated with late 60’s-early 70’s British films like Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw, and of course The Wicker Man. We’ve seen a resurgence of interest in the subgenre in recent years, with titles like The Witch, Hagazussa, and The Curse of La Llorona. Midsommar has a high degree of continuity with the British classics, but also pushes the subgenre in new directions. Most notably, it fuses folk horror with the Italian Cannibal movie. Italian Cannibal movies typically depict a group of westerners– usually anthropologists and/or resource exploiting capitalists– journeying into the heart of the jungle to the territory of an uncontacted tribe, where they both brutalize and are brutalized by the tribe’s members. On the way in, the westerners romanticize the tribe. The typical end result is the ceremonial slaughter and consumption of any westerners who are still alive. By this point, the westerners have perpetrated enough atrocities on the tribe that it’s a pleasure to see them eaten. The theme of these movies is that civilization is a way of institutionalizing rather than transcending violence. Civilizations that imagine themselves more developed are really just more developed in their savagery. There have been two recent titles that revive the Italian Cannibal movie: Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno and S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk. The former is a pretty classic rendition while the latter fuses the Italian Cannibal movie with the Western. Both of these movies more-or-less flew under the radar, but can you just imagine how the hot take brigade would react to a proper Italian Cannibal movie making it to the mainstream? There is no question that the racial politics of these movies is vexed (not to mention the gender politics) but the genre has much to offer and deserves rehabilitation. I think Aster’s solution is genius: make the tribe the whitest people in the world! This racial shift and the corresponding gender inversion of the sexual violence give Aster space to make an Italian Cannibal movie for the age of the woke take. The main point of reference is definitely The Wicker Man, but Italian Cannibal movies like Cannibal Holocaust are a close second. And then there’s the slow burn. This is a 60’s and 70’s tradition and the paradigmatic example is Rosemary’s Baby, but we have seen some excellent slow burns in recent years, my favorites being Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem and Ti West’s House of the Devil. The art of the slow burn is to stretch the crescendo out as far as possible and escalate the tension until it becomes unbearable and ultimately explodes into a frenzied catharsis. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a slow burn quite at the scale of the director’s cut of Midsommar. The closest thing I can think of is Polanski’s The Ninth Gate. By the time the movie really shows its teeth (the Texas Chainsaw scene!), half of the protagonists are already dead. And then you couldn’t ask for a more frenzied catharsis *Italian chef kiss*.
  6. The score is straight fire, courtesy of Haxan Cloak. There have been some worrisome trends in horror scores. Namely: scores that are not creepy or scary. That Thom Yorke Suspiria score is one of the worst damn horror scores I can think of. More of this, less of that, please.
  7. I don’t even know how many cinematic representations of drug-induced hallucinations I’ve seen in my life and this is literally the only movie I can think of that effectively captures what drug-induced hallucinations are actually like. The persistent use of these excellent effects helps the viewer to become immersed in Dani’s state of mind, which for me greatly enhanced both the buildup of tension and the visceral release of the climax. Image result for midsommar
  8. Thank you for the ambiguous City Lights ending. There are still bits and pieces of immaturity (Gaspar Noé has ruined the upside-down shot and I wish everyone would refrain from using it for a good long while), but Aster has come a long way from Hereditary. Rather than giving us both a disappointingly literal prestige drama and a horror movie like he did in Hereditary, he’s just given us an excellent horror movie that lets the audience draw connections for ourselves between the opening sequence with Dani’s family, the depiction of her relationship with Christian, and the ending. There are themes of co-dependence, grief, alienation, etc., but nothing is spelled out explicitly, and the audience is allowed multiple ways of reacting to her fate. One of my favorite things about the movie is the incongruity between the foreshadowing and the conclusion. Being familiar with the relevant genre conventions, when Pelle initially tells Dani about the May Queen competition I thought, “OH FUCK NO, YOU DO *NOT* WANT TO BE THE MAY QUEEN!!!!!”. We expect that the May Queen will be the one sacrificed. The surprising inversion of the finale– she’s the only one NOT sacrificed– abruptly inflects everything that preceded it with new significance, particularly the opening sequences.
  9. Concluding summer movie rant: This was one of the worse summers for movies that I can remember. Fuck Disney! Anyone who boycotts companies like Amazon and Walmart should look long and hard at Disney. They have bought up all the most popular properties and given them the New Disney Treatment of ironing out as much distinctness as possible and delivering safe, predictable box office products that pander to audience expectations. Any time I thought about going to the movies this summer I was dismayed to see that I only had one or two non-Disney options. I’ll keep going to see Lucasfilms movies, because I can’t not, but otherwise I’m done with this shit. The live action remakes of classic 2D animated movies are the last straw for me. This is the most cynical cash grab bullshit of all time. Amidst this landscape of cultural decay, we must cherish the few gems that make it into the multiplex. Midsommar is one of them. I just have to give props to Aster and A24 for making a hit out of a long, slow burn folk horror movie, even if they had to cut a half hour out of it. I saw the three-hour version at the local multiplex, and that’s remarkable. The other horror gem from this summer that I would urge people to check out is Aja’s Crawl. It’s a wonderfully old-fashioned creature feature. It’s not goofy and self-aware like Snakes on a Plane (and most other creature features from recent memory– the Australian crocodile flick Rogue being the most notable exception). It’s an efficient, scary, tense, chomptastic alligators-in-a-hurricane genre exercise and it rules. Go see Midsommar and Crawl if you still have the opportunity. Support the good shit. Fuck Disney.

Streaming Recommendations, Vol. 8

Featured image from 10 to Midnight. 

Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime continues to overflow with riches. This time I have an impressive batch of 70’s and 80’s exploitation movies to recommend along with some very nice odds and ends.

The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)Millie Perkins in The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)

Featuring a memorable lead performance from Millie Perkins, this slow burn is at the far “arthouse-feminist” end of the exploitation spectrum. It’s got buckets of grime, but it’s also a potent dramatic portrayal of trauma and mental illness. Essential 70’s horror.

10 to Midnight (1983)Image result for 10 to midnight

Wall-to-wall sleaze. A repulsive incel serial killer runs afoul of Charles Bronson, a Dirty Harry type. Directed by J. Lee Thompson, who also made the original Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone.

Blood Rage (1987)
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Bonkers! Blood Rage is top tier 80’s horror. Terry and Todd are identical twins. Todd has been locked up for a decade for a grisly childhood murder at a drive-in theater but has now escaped, Michael Myers style. But has Terry been the real psychopath all along?? Absolutely incredible Louise Lasser performance as the mom.

Night Train Murders (1975)Image result for night train murders

Heading over to Italy, this Aldo Lado jam is a particularly depraved riff on Last House on the Left (which in turn is a riff on The Virgin Spring). A couple of girls headed home to visit family end up on a train with a trio of violent sadists. Every content warning certainly applies. Lado’s stylistic chops are on full display and Ennio Morricone contributes a sparse and unnerving score.

Under the Silver Lake (2019)Image result for under the silver lake

This is from David Robert Mitchell, who also made The Myth of the American Sleepover and It Follows. After the success of the latter, he got a pretty nice budget for this one, and what he ended up doing is deeply weird. So much so that A24 dumped it to VOD just three days after its theatrical release. I was *definitely* vibing on this. It’s a 2 hour and 20 minute stoner Philip Marlowe odyssey into the surreal underbelly of LA’s Silver Lake neighborhood. It’s in the tradition of The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski, and Inherent Vice, but it’s very much its own thing. One of my favorite new releases of the year.

Peterloo (2019)Image result for peterloo movie

A powerful, richly detailed study of a clash between activism and tyranny, vitally relevant to today’s world. Worthwhile political films are in short supply nowadays and I wish everyone would watch this.

Lord of Illusions (1995)Image result for lord of illusions clive barker

Clive Barker made three movies and they are all horror masterpieces. This one was severely underappreciated when it came out, partly because the theatrical cut was butchered. It has since been rehabilitated on home video and taken its rightful place in the canon. A cult of magicians is led by Swann, a popular illusionist  who is in fact performing real magic on stage. Swann’s wife (Famke Janssen) hires private detective Harry D’Amour (Scott Bakula) when she fears that other cult members are conspiring against her husband. Madness ensues.

Serenity (2019)Image result for serenity movie

My favorite good-bad movie of 2019. I admit I had started to become a little bit of a Matthew McConaughey detractor. I very strongly disliked him in Dallas Buyer’s Club and let myself get carried away. Between this and The Beach Bum (see below), I stand corrected. I am ashamed of myself: Matthew McConaughey is a gift to be cherished. In this GLORIOUS movie, he plays a salty charter boat captain who pleasures Diane Lane for rent money and spends his days on a quest to catch one specific fish (the fish’s name is Justice). The plot thickens when his ex-wife (Anne Hathaway) pays him to take her abusive husband (peak Jason Clarke!) out on a day trip. I love this movie from the bottom of my heart.

Belladonna of Sadness (1973)Image result for belladonna of sadness

Someone pointed out to me recently that I don’t spend much time on Strohltopia talking about animated movies and asked whether I’m partial to anything in particular. I thought for a minute and said “well I love Belladonna of Sadness!” 86 minutes of insane phantasmagoria, witchcraft, and vengeance.

Millennium Actress (2003)Related image

Another animated favorite. This is Satoshi Kon’s journey through the memories of an aging actress. It’s a sister film to Perfect Blue, offering a more positive variation on similar material.


I resent Netflix for cancelling their best show (The OA!) but I can’t stay mad at them long when they deliver stuff like Wu Assassins.

Wu Assassins (2019)Image result for wu assassins

Angela and I are having a great time with this series. It’s like Iron Fist but good. It’s got all my favorite stuff: Iko Uwais (aka The Guy from The Raid), superhuman martial arts powers, food, triads and tongs. It’s a compulsively watchable delight.

The Box (2009)Related image

This didn’t cause quite the stir of Donnie Darko or Southland Tales but it’s probably my favorite Richard Kelly movie. It begins with an ethics class thought experiment where a sublimely creepy Frank Langella gives Cameron Diaz a black box with a red button and tells her that if she presses the button she will receive a million dollars while a stranger somewhere in the world will die. Her choice begins a dark spiral into batshit sci-fi territory.

Lady in the Water (2006)Related image

As I wrote in my Shyamalan piece, this is easily my favorite M. Night movie. I was delighted to see it featured front and center on Netflix. Often used as a punching bag by dour detractors, it deserves reappraisal. I was struck on my most recent viewing by how hilarious Cindy Cheung is.

Horns (2013)Image result for horns movie

Aja has put together a very impressive body of work. Not exactly being a Daniel Radcliffe fan, I was skeptical, but he’s good here. He stands accused of murdering his girlfriend and spontaneously sprouts horns and gains the power to compel people to confess and then act on their most depraved impulses. Aja is in fine form stylistically.

The Wandering Earth (2019)Image result for wandering earth

Armageddon times a thousand. This is the first big budget sci-fi extravaganza produced in China. The entire earth has become a space vessel being propelled out of the solar system by giant thrusters. Threatened by a collision with Jupiter, a rag-tag team of misfits must save the day. I enjoyed how massive and excessive this movie is, and I also enjoyed the way that it packs in the “collective before individual!” themes wherever it can.


Hulu was starting to wear out its welcome with me but they’ve done a lot to redeem themselves by bringing us a fourth season of Veronica Mars. They’ve added a few notable movies as well.

Veronica Mars (2019)Image result for veronica mars season 4

Yeehaw! I devoured S4 like the delicious meal that it is. It feels like home. I love how seamlessly it connects to the previous seasons and the movie. If you’re into the show, a great delight awaits. If you’ve never gotten into it, Hulu also has seasons 1-3. Certainly this is one of my favorite TV shows of all time.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018)Related image

My opinion of Moonlight is that the first act is transcendently gorgeous but that the second and third acts let it down. Jenkins’ follow up lives up to the promise of that first act.  A period piece set in 70’s Harlem, this is a superlatively sumptuous, sensual piece of film-making. The acting is so expressive that this could have worked as a silent film. Curl up on the couch with your beloved and/or your cat or your dog or your favorite stuffed animal– someone or something to snuggle– and be ready to cry your eyes out.

Joe (2013)Image result for joe nicolas cage

Arguably David Gordon Green’s best movie, featuring an exceptionally great serious dramatic performance from Nic Cage as an ex con with a soft spot for a hard luck kid working on his crew.

The Beach Bum (2019)Image result for the beach bum

A gentler, sweeter side of Harmony Korine. Featuring one of two great salty wharf rat performances this year from McConaughey (see Serenity above), this is a loving and unapologetic ode to the life of a stoner degenerate. It warmed my heart.

Final Destination 1-3 (2000, 2003, 2006)Image result for final destination 1

I love these movies. The formula is simple: several individuals are saved from a disaster when one of them has a prophetic vision, but then death comes to claim them anyways and they die one by one in elaborate freak accidents. Each film is a collection of grisly, imaginative set pieces. The fourth one is also on Hulu but it’s not very good (it was the first 3D entry, and it substitutes 3D for creativity), but the fifth one (not on Hulu) is amazing and completists may just want to watch them all.

Shivers (1975)Image result for shivers

This might be my favorite early Cronenberg. There’s a sexually transmitted parasite that turns the people it infests into sex-crazed maniacs. Mayhem ensues. Works great on the “zombie orgy of gore” level but also gets into Cronenberg’s abiding interest in the relationship between the body and technology.




TV Roundup

Featured image from Too Old to Die Young (also the next two images)

TV is pretty lit right now.  I was getting pessimistic about the state of the medium but this summer’s fare has changed my tune. I’m having trouble keeping up. I have not started Stranger Things season 3 yet but I’m excited for it. It seems like credible people love it and less credible people hate it.

First, let’s divide things up into three categories: Meh, Very Good, and Where Have You Been All My Life.  I will also comment on the Deadwood movie at the end. I can’t put it in any of these categories.

MehGood Omens, Legion S3, Chernobyl

Very GoodFleabag S2, Big Little Lies S2, Billions S4

Where Have You Been All My LifeEuphoriaToo Old to Die Young


First the good news: ambitious, transgressive TV is back on the menu. Refn’s Too Old to Die Young (Amazon Prime) is an absolute banger. Let me be clear: it is NOT for everyone. A list of the relevant content warnings would pretty much include every possible content warning. It is fucking dark. If you ever avoid things because of content warnings, this is probably something you should avoid. I was a little skeptical going in because Refn’s so full of himself that it’s kind of hard to self-identify as a fan, but I really, really loved both of his last two movies (Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon), so I guess I can say that I am a huge fan of post-Drive Refn (Drive is okay, but nowhere near the level of what’s come after).

I think it’s fruitful to compare Too Old to Die Young and Chernobyl.  Before starting Chernobyl I thought, “I really hope this isn’t too heavy handed with the Trump/Putin connections,” and then BAM! the opening narration spouts the dreaded cliche: “If you repeat a lie enough times…”

There are glimpses of something really interesting that could have made for a very special TV show. In particular, amidst all the olive-drab-so-you-know-it’s-the-USSR production design there are bits and pieces of expressionistic radioactive imagery that scream to be fleshed out further. Make like 50% of the show radiation horror and add a pulsing synth score in the style of John Carpenter and you could really have something. Instead, the show mostly goes for a “banality of evil” approach, where we see horrible consequences accrue from a bunch of bureaucrats making self-serving decisions and other bureaucrats following orders. There’s some very nice body horror, especially in episode 3, but I would have enjoyed a more hysterical and less sentimental approach to the hospital material. In any case, my overall opinion of the show as a work of horror is that it manages to take some of the most viscerally horrifying material imaginable and make it relatively mundane. It’s a black rain nightmare that wants to be a stodgy procedural.

Image result for too old to die young yaritza

Too Old to Die Young is the exact opposite. It takes commonplace elements of the contemporary zeitgeist and filters them through a neon prism of hallucinatory existential panic. Sex trafficking, #metoo, drug cartels, border violence, hedge fund managers, police corruption, collapse of the gender binary, Trump, even cultural appropriation of the taco by white hipsters: it’s all in there, but in the manner of a nightmare. If you’ve seen Refn’s more recent films you might worry that the whole thing becomes too incomprehensible, but there’s no need to fear, his collaborator Ed Brubaker (of comics fame) moderates his more extreme experimental impulses. Brubaker pulls the show in the direction of an aggressively dark border noir with a tight narrative while Refn pulls it in the direction of a glacially-paced, neon pink Inland Empire. Add pulsing synth music from Cliff Martinez and the result is completely and utterly exhilarating. Best show since Twin Peaks: The Return and it’s not close. To reemphasize, though, this is definitely not for everyone. It is very hostile to audience expectations. I find this quality thrilling. But if you don’t like being messed with, this is probably not the show for you.

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It doesn’t compare to Too Old to Die Young, but the other show that’s really impressing me is HBO’s Euphoria. It’s been stealing Big Little Lies’ thunder on Sundays. Euphoria is at its core a new entry in the well-worn high school soap opera genre with a heavy dose of hard NC-17 Kids/Thirteen-style teens behaving badly. Initially I was skeptical. It seemed to me like the business model here was to be as shocking as possible to promote controversy to get people curious enough to subscribe to HBO. All the lurid content seemed to be framed in terms of pro-helicopter parenting moralism.  DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOUR KIDS ARE DOING?? But it’s sooooo lurid and seemed to have mischief in its heart, so I stayed with it. Four episodes in it has just gotten better and better. The fourth episode shows that Sam Levinson has some chops, with its vivid carnival setting and well-executed cross cutting between multiple subplots.  I thought homeboy was a hack after seeing Assassination Nation but I can’t fault what he’s doing here. The moralism, I’ve realized, is just to clear the way for some seriously risque fun. It’s like those early 60’s exploitation movies that would frame themselves as warnings about the dangers of homosexuality (or whatever)  but really just as a pretense to portray subject matter that couldn’t otherwise pass the censors. Euphoria is not here to lecture us, it’s here for subversive fun. 

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Even people not watching the show may have seen headlines about transgender model Hunter Schafer’s performance. She is really phenomenal. Her character is probably the most complex, three-dimensional transgender character I’ve seen in popular media. Too often, characters that occupy particularly marginalized social roles are saddled with moral sainthood. This is an insidious tendency. It reflects the impulse of guilty privileged progressives to idealize the moral purity of the oppressed, which is its own sort of dehumanization. Schafer’s character, Jules, is both flawed and profoundly sympathetic. Euphoria strikes the perfect balance of filthy dirty fun and sincere poignancy. 

And now, the bad news: Legion continues to languish. I thought the first season was stellar. That season was short and tight, and the weirdness was focused around a few good ideas that gave the whole thing structure. Several episodes take place in the time it takes a single bullet to travel across a room. That’s a really good idea! Season 2 was bloated and aimless, with whole episodes devoted to uninteresting tangents and an excess of godawful Don Draper pseudo-philosophical voiceover soliloquies (the smartphone sermon was where I admitted the show had jumped the shark). The finale of S2 was kind of a banger, however, and it left the door open for the show to redeem itself. So far, I’m disappointed. S3 started out with some pretty entertaining time travel action but now it’s back to slow and uninteresting tangents that pack less dramatic punch than their posture indicates.

I watched three episodes of Good Omens on Prime and bailed. Stylistically, it’s like a toothless American Gods. I was intrigued enough by the apocalyptic premise and the fact that the Antichrist is a character, but the show is much more interested in the friendship between an angel and a demon who have taken to enjoy life on Earth. The concept seems to be to get two very fine UK actors (Michael Sheen and David Tennant) buddied up and just let them banter. But the writing is nowhere near compelling enough to render this interesting. And once the apocalypse does start breaking out it is far too goofy. Not for me.

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Turning back to the Very Good, I certainly enjoyed the latest season of Billions, though it does have some major flaws. Some of the plotting is lazy. The first couple seasons felt fairly grounded in the show’s internal logic but at this point all such pretense has been abandoned and the writers take whatever contrived narrative shortcuts are necessary to set up the desired rivalries and give each character ammunition against the others. This complaint aside, though, the rivalries themselves are very entertaining. The show’s become a character study of the two most vindictive people in the world. I fear that we may be headed towards a cold shower of moralism, but we’ll see. For now, it’s all horrible people screwing each other over in ingenious ways and tons and tons of excellent dialogue in the show’s sui generis style.

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Big Little Lies is delightful. The show was teetering between preachy and campy at the end of S1 and now it’s doubled down on the camp. It’s basically like “let’s round up all our hammiest actresses and let them go absolutely apeshit on a hothouse melodrama.” Meryl Streep rehashes her glorious Mommy from Hell from Demme’s’ The Manchurian Candidate remake, but with fake teeth added and some very loopy dialogue. I love her so much in this! Laura Dern continues to absolutely slay, and Shailene Woodley is actually pretty good in this season. I’m still not fully onboard with the Reese Witherspoon performance, though, which seems really obvious and one-dimensional compared with all the genius around her.

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This brings us to Fleabag, which I think is very good indeed. It’s short and there’s no reason not to watch it. It’s witty, dirty, and relatively original. I appreciate how efficiently it turned Andrew Scott’s priest into a sex symbol. Olivia Colman continues to be amazing. Good show.

Deadwood: The Movie

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Alas, I wanted it to be better. I rewatched seasons 2 and 3 and they hold up incredibly well. The show has some of the best dialogue ever written. As for the movie, I don’t think it’s good, but at the same time I have affection for it as a Milch swan song.

The three seasons of Deadwood reflect the progression of the western genre. S1 is a heroic western with a relatively black and white moral landscape where we know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. S2 is more in the territory of a 60’s Italian western where most of the characters fall somewhere in a moral grey area and the audience is invited to identify with less than savory characters as they manipulate and connive against even worse assholes. S3 resembles the late westerns that chronicle the fall of the last honorable men as the inevitable westward march of progress brings the intertwined forces of modernization and exploitation.  Aside from some unfortunate loose ends, the end of S3 was already perfect. It’s sad and dissatisfying but that’s how the west went out. Deadwood: The Movie is at its worst when it plays as fan service. It essentially returns to the heroic western paradigm, riles us up anew about Hearst, and then gives us a small victory to quench our dissatisfaction.  But this undermines the poignancy of the original ending. My other complaint is all the flashbacks from the original series reminding people who didn’t rewatch it of things that they may have forgotten. These flashbacks are uniformly disruptive and the scenes they intrude into would have been much more powerful if we could have inferred the relevant memory rather than being shown it. Just rewatch the series, it’s worth it. On the positive side, the Deadwood movie is at its best when Milch is foregrounding his own showdown with mortality and sense of abiding regret. There are some powerful moments, particularly surrounding Al on the one hand and Joanie and Jane on the other. Alas, I’m grateful to have this, but it’s not what I hoped it might be.

Franchise Fever vol. 2: Halloween

Halloween recently turned 40, a perfect occasion for a fresh installment (courtesy of David Gordon Green) and reappraisal of the series. I think it’s easily the greatest multi-director horror franchise. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a hot mess and there’s little solace for the purist, but if you’re willing to take each movie on its own and forsake all concern for continuity, it has many pleasures to offer.

Speaking of continuity, there are no less than five timelines in the franchise. It will be helpful to begin by laying them all out:

Original Timeline

Halloween (Carpenter, 1978), Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981), Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988), Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989), Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Chappelle, 1995)

There’s a lot of lore surrounding the way the series was originally prolonged into multiple sequels and as a John Carpenter fan it’s easy to be annoyed by it, but the shit show that surrounded the production of these movies is what caused the later ones to turn out so distinctive and crazy. Basically, Carpenter wanted the Halloween franchise to be a disconnected anthology of Halloween-themed horror movies, but the public and the studio wanted more Michael Myers. He was contractually obligated to write part 2 and he made the screenplay deliberately bad out of disdain for the task. Tommy Lee Wallace, Carpenter’s right-hand man, was supposed to direct but washed his hands of it after reading the script. Rick Rosenthal felt differently, however, and directed the ever living shit out of Carpenter’s script. Carpenter got his way with part III, which broke away from the Michael Myers timeline in an attempt to turn the series into a disconnected anthology. It sadly flopped and so part IV brought back Myers, retconned the ending of II and proceeded to rehash the original. IV was more successful than III, and so V and VI continued on the same timeline. The productions for parts V and VI were notorious disasters and the story veers off into outstandingly bizarre directions in these entries (which I personally love). One thing the movies that make up the original timeline have in common is that they all feature Donald Pleasence as Loomis. If you ask me, Pleasence is the best element of the entire franchise. He just totally rules. He’s the British Klaus Kinski.

Season of the Witch Timeline

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)

Halloween is a movie in the Season of the Witch universe. This is the only entry without Michael Myers. It’s a totally independent story about a nefarious scheme involving Halloween masks and Stonehenge. It flopped and was long neglected, but it’s been reappraised and is now considered a horror classic.

H20 Timeline

Halloween (Carpenter, 1978), Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981), Halloween: H20 (Miner, 1998), Halloween Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)

After the last couple entries in the original timeline were box office failures and the story had been irreparably written into a corner, the H20 reboot was launched with Jamie Lee Curtis back in the fray (her first appearance since part II). The narrative developments of IV-VI were discarded and on this timeline Laurie Strode (Curtis) survived her youth and has taken up at a secluded boarding school. Michael was thought to have died at the end of part II, but he has been alive all along and returns 20 years later to pursue Laurie.  Resurrection does not have Jamie Lee Curtis, but it does continue directly from the end of H20,

Blumhouse Timeline

Halloween (Carpenter, 1978), Halloween (Green, 2018)

David Gordon Green and Danny McBride’s reboot for Blumhouse discards the narrative developments of all the sequels. In this one, Michael Myers hasn’t killed anyone for 40 years and has been locked up the whole time. Jamie Lee Curtis is back and Laurie Strode is more like Sarah Conner in this version, having long alienated her family with her Michael Myers-prepper lifestyle.


Halloween (Zombie, 2007), Halloween 2 (Zombie, 2009)

Zombie’s Halloween remakes the original Carpenter film and has a timeline all its own. It begins before the events of the original and fleshes out Michael’s origins further. In the original, Michael is from a suburban middle class family. In the Zombieverse, he’s white trash. Zombie wanted to focus on this prequel material, but he was forced to include a quick rehash of the plot of the original film in the second half of the movie. His Halloween 2 goes off in a totally different direction from the original timeline. It has strong thematic continuity with Zombie’s other work.

Matt’s ranking

It probably won’t surprise Strohltopia readers to learn that my ranking of these movies is a bit heterodox. I’m just being honest. Let me be very clear that *I love all of these movies* and for the most part it’s very hard for me to rank them.

11) Halloween: H20 (Miner, 1998)

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This one is definitely last. I do love it, but it’s the one that gives me the least joy. Lots of people who dislike IV-VI think that this entry saved the series, and some people even think it’s the best sequel (I see that the ever detestable “Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus” summary blurb makes this claim). I could not disagree more strongly. Yes, it does get back to the series’ roots in certain ways, but Halloween purism is off the table as far as I’m concerned, since literally none of the sequels do the original justice. Once you let go of the purist impulse and embrace the absurdity of IV-VI, H20 just looks tepid. It’s technically an R but at heart this is bloodless PG-13 horror. Not one kill stands out and we see Michael Myers doing very un-Michael things like stealing someone’s keys at a rest stop and just taking off when he could have easily murdered their entire family. I’m only being negative because I find the claim that this is better than IV-VI so irksome. Even with its flaws, it’s still delightful to see Jamie Lee Curtis again and her performance makes this worthwhile.

 10) Halloween Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)

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I find it agonizing to rank Resurrection so low, because IT RULES. People hate it, but they are wrong. It’s great. The premise is that none other than Busta Rhymes has a reality webseries called Dangertainment (!) where he live-streams people doing something dangerous. (NB, given that this was made in 2002 it looks pretty prescient about the direction the internet was going.) A bunch of teenagers agree to spend the night in the abandoned Myers house. Of course, Michael himself shows up.

The problem that Resurrection does have (which I find easy to overlook) is that the abandoned house doesn’t have any lights and so there ends up being way too much stumbling around in the dark. It gets repetitive. But this is easily the funniest Halloween movie and it has no delusions about its own limitations. It’s having fun with itself. I suspect that some of the humor actually went over the heads of the Tomato critics who haughtily panned it. For example, there’s a scene where the Smart Girl is about to hook up with the Meathead Guy in the cellar. In a moment of escalating passion, he requests, “say something smart!” and she blurts out, “existence precedes essence!” I frickin’ lost it.  Also, you better believe Busta Rhymes attempts to use kung fu against Michael Myers.

9) Halloween (Green, 2018)

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The Blumhouse Halloween (written by David Gordon Green and Danny McBride) reboots the series, discarding the narrative developments of all the sequels. The first act is a pleasantly acrid satire of true crime podcasts and then we meet up with Laurie Strode, who has become a sort of Sarah Conner 40 years after the events of the original. Michael has been incarcerated the entire time.

I did not much care for this the first time I saw it, but watching it again after a fresh rewatch of the rest of the franchise changed my opinion. My original complaint was that it felt like mostly lazy rehash. I realize now that while it is indeed rehash, it is far from lazy. This movie is extremely dense fan porn. While it discards the narrative of the sequels, it makes at least one reference to every single one of them. By the end I had noticed allusions to every installment except IV and I started to despair “am I just missing the reference to IV? what kind of horror geek am I??” but then the final shot is a pitch perfect Halloween IV nod. I’m generally not into Easter Eggism, but this movie is so hardcore about it that I’m impressed. For example, there’s a scene in the original where they couldn’t afford rights to music so they just had Laurie and John sing a made-up song “I wish I had you all alone…”  Green had a frickin’ band record this song and then played it on the radio in a parallel scene. And the sets are packed full of props from the other entries.

The finale very closely mirrors certain aspects of the finale of the original and the first time I saw it I was annoyed by this. I realized on my second viewing that it’s actually doing something much more precise and purposeful than I thought. It reenacts all the most iconic moments from the original’s finale, but with the power dynamics between Michael and Laurie swapped. This sort of thing doesn’t exactly blow my mind (we are up to our ears in gender-swap remakes) but as a fan porn exercise it’s pretty cool.

My overall opinion is that this is decent as fan service but also limited by the modesty of its ambition. On the plus side, the opening is *amazing*, the random bits of writing where Danny McBride’s sense of humor shines through are bizarre and delightful, and I welcome the brutality of many of the kills. I appreciate the way the rest area scene deliberately corrects the tepidness of H20. This is a movie that should please franchise fans, and I’m looking forward to the sequel. At the same time, it can play as reasonably effective jump-scare horror for multiplex audiences who won’t catch all the geeky references.

8) Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Little, 1988)

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There’s a lot to love about IV: some great kills, funny jokes, excellent Loomis, and terrific child acting from Danielle Harris. I have a pretty low threshold for annoyance at child protagonists in horror movies, but Harris doesn’t register as even slightly annoying. In fact, her performances in this and V are among my very favorite child acting performances. On the downside, though, IV is the least imaginative of the original timeline. It’s pretty straight rehash of the original, but with a cheekier tone that reflects the direction the genre had gone in the 80’s. But also, the ending is amazing. Some people discount this consideration because V takes it back, but I don’t see it that way. Taken on its own, the ending is great, but then it had to be undone so that part V could do an incompatible thing that’s also great.

7) Halloween (Zombie, 2007)

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I go with the director’s cut for both this and the sequel. It’s more important for the sequel. I love Rob Zombie’s Halloween, though it clearly could have been better. I especially love the gritty, grimy first half, with William Forsythe’s glorious performance as the abusive stepdad and all the Gummo-esque adolescent nihilism. The second half, where the story of the Carpenter original is rehashed, is a big letdown (though hurray for casting Danielle Harris!). Zombie didn’t want to do this part and it shows. Also, his style here is immature compared to the sequel. He’s still doing Hellabilly-infected Tobe Hooper karaoke at this point.

6) Halloween 2 (Zombie, 2009)

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This movie was a huge leap forward for Zombie. Here he developed a very distinctive style that he further elaborated in 2012’s Lords of Salem (which I think is his best film). He shot this on 16 mm and it looks awesome. Grindhouse meets arthouse. The director’s cut is absolutely mandatory here; anyone who just saw the theatrical version is missing out. Zombie picks up from the end of his remake and takes the story in a totally different direction, much more like The Devils Rejects than the original 1981 Halloween II. With respect to mise-en-scène, this towers above most contemporary horror. Many people, including my brother Josh, consider this to be one of the best Halloween movies overall. While I agree that it’s great, I don’t think it’s that great. I miss the aggressive grime of the first Zombie movie and I think the Loomis arc here is just straight bad. Malcolm McDowell is a fine choice, and while he’s no Donald Pleasence he does a good job with the first movie. The turn the character takes here totally loses me, though. He becomes a vain wannabe true crime celebrity and we lose all sense of his obsession with Michael, which is absolutely essential to the character (I guess we’ve found a place where I am indeed a purist). When he does confront Michael and seek redemption it feels hollow. Also, the title card explaining how to interpret the symbolism of the white horse is a bit on the nose.

5) Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)

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“I shot him SIX TIMES!!! SIX TIMES!!! SIX TIMES!!!” Halloween II is all about the Loomis factor. There is so much Donald Pleasence waving a gun around and raving like a lunatic. Also, Rosenthal directs the ever living shit out of this. There are some seriously dope tracking shots. This does have some pacing problems and goes for more rehash than I would have preferred, but overall it’s a tremendous delight.

4) Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers [part VI] (Chappelle, 1995)

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Producer’s cut mandatory! Here my opinions admittedly get a bit… eccentric. Let me emphasize again that the producer’s cut is the only version that counts here. It bombed with test audiences and some new footage was shot and cut into the movie. The new footage is crap quality (though it does include what would be the movie’s most memorable kill), and the theatrical cut seriously tones down the best aspect of the movie: the DRUID INCEST CULT. The purist complaint about this movie is that what makes Michael Myers so compelling is that he lacks a motivation beyond pure evil, and so any more detailed mythology can only detract. This is correct in principle, but that ship has sailed 10 times over. If Michael is going to get a richer mythology, I don’t think you could do any better than druid incest cult. Also: grown up Tommy Doyle is played by *Paul Rudd* and it is one loopy performance.

3) Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Wallace, 1982)

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This is the only entry after the original that looks and feels like a John Carpenter movie. He did the music and it was directed by his right hand man. This is a sui generis entry, without Michael Myers, and it was an abject box office failure, with the result that Carpenter’s anthology idea was abandoned. As mentioned above, this has benefited from reappraisal and is now rightly considered a classic. I think the series is clearly better for containing this oddball installment. I mean c’mon, the plot revolves around Stonehenge and secretly nefarious masks for children (it actually does very loosely connect with some of the druid lore that is alluded to in II and developed later in VI).

2) Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (Othenin-Girard, 1989)

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This is an indefensible opinion, but it is very much my opinion. I accept that I am out on my own here (even Josh thinks this is ridiculous), but I am a total stan for part V. First of all, you’ve got Danielle Harris back for an even better performance than part IV, because now she’s gone all The Fury and has TELEPATHIC SEIZURES whenever Michael kills someone. But what really sends this over the moon for me is PEAK LOOMIS. Pleasence was totally shitfaced while filming this and his performance is truly spectacular. Also, there’s a mysterious and pivotal Man in Black and we get zero idea of what his deal is. They just left this for part VI to explain, which didn’t happen for six years. They had no plan. I love it.

1) Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)

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Perfect in every way. You can safely dismiss the opinions of anyone who ranks the Halloween movies and doesn’t put this number 1.


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.