Mentions | Issue 11 ​


The Sweet East |


It’s been accused of “treating taboos with the flippancy of an eye-rolling teenager” (The New York Times), called “a display of cavalier cynicism” (The New Yorker), and slammed for the protagonist’s gratuitous use of the R-word (everywhere else). Does Sean Price Willliams’s directorial debut, written by the film critic Nick Pinkerton, approach liberal pieties as just another set of ideological convictions ripe for scorn? Guilty. But its primary objective isn’t courting controversy so much as satirizing post-Trump American zealotry in all its forms — from Antifa “artivists” to a Muslim militia-cum-EDM cult, from a neo-Nazi (Simon Rex) nostalgic for a less “degraded culture” to a filmmaking duo (Ayo Edebiri and Jeremy O. Harris) performing their own brand of historical revisionism via a nineteenth century period piece about “what happens when these like tight-ass religious fanatics decide to reimagine society in their own image but also in a new image.” In Williams and Pinkerton’s thoroughly inventive picaresque, high school senior Lillian (Talia Ryder) goes down the rabbit hole — literally, via a secret tunnel built under a karaoke establishment that’s under attack for Pizzagate-related reasons. As she journeys up the Eastern Seaboard, collecting and escaping a series of colorful companions, Lillian gets a sharply observed and, against all odds, undidactic education in the fractured state of American political life. All she can do, before she clicks her metaphorical heels and returns home to South Carolina, is laugh.


After Hours |


Released halfway between Raging Bull and Goodfellas, this minor masterwork of black humor is often treated as an afterthought of the Scorsese canon. In July, it finally got the Criterion treatment. Starring Joan Didion’s nephew and shot by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cinematographer, it features Cheech and Chong, a pre-Perfect Strangers Bronson Pinchot, the parents from Home Alone, and a beehived Teri Garr. Scorsese made After Hours after funding fell through for his dream project, The Last Temptation of Christ, which he’d rile some Christians with a few years later by depicting a Jesus who imagines for Himself an alt life as an everyman. There are traces of that film here. At one point, a despairing Paul (the data entry drone at the film’s center) falls to his knees and looks up to the heavens that vault over SoHo. “What do you want from me?” he implores, evoking Jesus’s most human moment. “I’m just a word processor!”


“Molly White” |


This eponymous Substack is the remedy for the lazy “both sides” formula of mainstream crypto coverage, where news of regulatory crackdowns includes promoters’ unchallenged whining about how such reforms might “stifle innovation.” White, a researcher and software engineer, has become the most authoritative reporter and jargon-translator on the techno-hustler frontier, and her approach is best summed up by her website’s name and tagline, “WEB3 IS GOING JUST GREAT… and is definitely not an enormous grift that’s pouring lighter fluid on our already smoldering planet.” Consider her takedown of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s Worldcoin, a crypto project that doles out digital tokens in exchange for individualized eyeball scans (taken via a notably HAL 9000-like orb). Altman pitched the currency as an expensive CAPTCHA: a way to distinguish human intelligence from artificial, in a world where that’s becoming increasingly hard. Many outlets ran with Worldcoin’s intentionally dystopian marketing, but White pointed out what should have been obvious — that Altman himself hawks A.I. She wrote, “He is selling the antidote to the poison he is, coincidentally, also selling.”


Indraguzik |


Lost among the many pieces of trivia about Yevgeny Prigozhin — hot-dog seller, troll-farm operator, doomed leader of an abortive armed rebellion — is the fact that he was credited as the coauthor and illustrator of a whimsical children’s book that evokes the work of Maurice Sendak and Tomi Ungerer. Written with his own two kids and published with a small press, this text by the recently deceased head of the Wagner military force follows the adventures of a tiny, elf-like people who tumble out of their home — a giant chandelier — and try to find their way back. Eventually, the chandelier is revealed to have magic powers: it can make little people big, sometimes much too big, with painful results. The king accidentally becomes a giant and begs to be re-shrunk. “Please make me the same king I was,” he pleads. “Only a small king can rule the Indraguziks.” As the book reminds its readers, it is dangerous to fly too high.


Afire |


Had this vacation-house drama been released the same year the mainstream media caught wind of the term “anthropocene,” critics might have felt obligated to name-check our geological era in their reviews. As it is, most devote more words to the unlikable protagonist’s solipsism and the simmering love quadrangle. Perhaps that’s because it’s difficult, these days, to create or consume anything that feels completely untouched by environmental doom. But with Afire, Christian Petzold achieves on screen what much of today’s climate fiction aims for. It’s a masterfully paced chamber piece that tackles, without moralizing heavy-handedness, such sweeping questions as how to live, work, make art, grieve, and be together while the forests burn — all rendered with a lightness that makes the heavy blows that much harder to take. For maximum impact, watch it on a 100+ AQI day.


“Euro Summer” |


From a world-historical perspective, the collapsing of the entire continent of Europe, especially by zoomers, into a bland backdrop against which to wear linen shirts and complain about scarce tap water is fascinating, following, as it does, in the footsteps of such tropes as “picture hugging the children of Africa” and “gap year in Southeast Asia.”


“Silicon Chip” |


When Basil Kirchin, the talented if idiosyncratic British big band drummer, produced this one-off single in 1979 , no one expected he’d come to influence artists like Brian Eno and David Byrne. Kirchin was an artist of aural fixations — from swing to rock to found audio recordings of autistic children — and this track, an out-and-out disco funk romp about the coming influence of technology made seemingly for no larger album or E.P., sits smack in the middle. It was virtually unknown until it surfaced, forty-plus years later, during the end credits of the horror-comedy hit M3GAN.


Cocksucker Blues |


This vérité documentary of the Rolling Stones’s 1972 American tour, filmed with unusual access by famed photographer Robert Frank, has been hounded by legal challenges essentially since its completion. Suppressed and circulated as samizdat for the last half-century, in part because Mick Jagger allegedly didn’t want to be seen snorting coke on screen, the film can now be found on YouTube. The garbled sound of the online cut in particular suits the hazy period it records, as the saturnine Stones drift in and out of humdrum hotel rooms, nod off, throw a TV out of a window, discuss sock hygiene, and field questions from clueless reporters. And their pursuit of pleasure hits surprising limits: as the band struggles to order the right kind of fruit platter from room service, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” takes on new meaning.




These six grunge-y Brit-pop tracks from Frank Belcourt, alias Tiberius b, are wise and naive, propulsive and droning, butch and flamboyant. Perhaps more impressive than any single song is Belcourt’s visual storytelling. In one music video, the singer pisses on the sidewalk, then peers into their self-made pool, a Narcissan portal to alternate worlds. The album’s cover art literalizes gone-too-soon trans producer Sophie’s lyric “my face is the front of shop”: in the photograph, a window postered with Belcourt’s face opens onto the street. Out of the gap stretches an arm, as a pigeon flies away. At first it looks like the bird was shooed off the sill, but the posture of the flung hand suggests the bird was held, then let go. Symbols of urban grime become glamorous escapes; a pigeon is, taxonomically, no different than a dove.


Oppenheimer |


Christopher Nolan’s apparent desire to tell the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer the way his protagonist sees it, as a drama of Promethean genius and wrenching moral deliberation, rubs up against the fact that the creation of the atomic bomb is not a story of individual decision-making at all. It is a story of its absence –– its expurgation by bureaucratic process and instrumental rationality. These take center stage during Oppenheimer’s audaciously boring final hour, as Cillian Murphy’s Oppie is punished by the forces of military-institutional inertia for failing to realize that it doesn’t matter what he thinks about anything except the laws of physics. Here Nolan takes a characteristically convoluted path to a destination reached with considerably greater economy in Jon Else’s 1981 documentary The Day After Trinity, recently excavated by the Criterion Channel. Again and again Else’s subjects express just how undramatic the moral lives of the Manhattan Project scientists really were. (“The machinery had caught us in this trap and we were anxious to get this thing to go,” says Oppenheimer’s brother Frank, explaining why no one he knew considered leaving Los Alamos even after the Nazi surrender. “Our lives had been directed to do one thing,” his colleague Robert Wilson concurs. “It’s as though we had been programmed to do that and we, as automatons, were doing it.”) Nolan’s braided narrative, alternating, like The Wizard of Oz, between full-color fantasy and black-and-white reality, gives us the android-in-chief dreaming: not of electric sheep, but of having a conscience to be troubled by.


Sound of Freedom |


Across America, fortysomething dads who use steroids are demanding a new character to fantasize about murdering — MS-13 and Antifa are old news. Fortunately, ex-Homeland Security field agent Tim Ballard has answered their troublingly sweaty prayers with a new variation on that old right-wing bogeyman, the beady-eyed child-flesh trader. This film — based on Ballard’s real-life rise as a globetrotting figurehead of the anti-trafficking movement — was shelved by Fox in 2019, then salvaged by a Christian indie distributor in time to become the surprise blockbuster of the July 4 weekend. Jim Caviezel plays Ballard, staging heroic rescues of child sex slaves by (how else?) bankrolling the South American cartels that enslave them. Delusions of grandeur onscreen accompany more sinister ones offscreen, where both Ballard and Caviezel have seeded promotional appearances with morsels about adrenochrome harvesting, a dog whistle for the QAnon algae-mind. The resulting complex of persecution and paranoia has yielded a frothy bit of crowdfunded business — and presumably a windfall for retailers of stain-resistant tactical gear.


H.R. 1586, Forest Protection and Wildland Firefighter Safety Act of 2023 |


During a slow wildfire season in the American West, legislation concerning firefighters has flared up instead, making it all the way to the House of Representatives this session. The Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, an advocacy group, doesn’t want fire retardant used close to waterways, as it suffocates fish; the Forest Service wants to keep using retardant however it damn well pleases. The dispute has distracted from the firefighters’ own living conditions. (Two different bills seeking to permanently raise federal firefighters’ meager base pay have floundered for months in Congress.) Faced with unrelenting flames, firefighters often make a simple risk calculation; chemical contaminants feel less hazardous than a scorched forest. In almost every fire, someone gets “painted” by retardant. At least the public can be comforted knowing their firefighters wouldn’t do something to fish they don’t also do to themselves.


King Salmon Lodge |


Since 2008, when Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito cashed in free offers for a luxury three-day Alaskan vacation from his super-rich benefactors Paul Singer and Robin Arkley, the King Salmon Lodge has become notably less exclusive. Arkley, then its owner, gave Alito a room, full facility access, and fishing and sightseeing trips on small seaplanes — a package that went for a little over $1,000 a day at the time. The bigger ticket item was a private flight to the nearby “King Salmon Airport” provided by hedge fund billionaire Singer, which would have cost the justice $100,000. Alito justified his failure to recuse himself from cases involving Singer by claiming ignorance. It seems the justice had not heard of Singer’s connection to Elliott Investment Management, which he founded and controls, and which has come before the court at least ten times in the past decade and a half. In one of those cases, Elliott earned a $2.4 billion payout. The Lodge’s motto seems apt: “FISH STORIES MADE HERE.”


My Little Loves |


This quasi-autobiographical Bildungsfilm is perhaps unjustly overshadowed by Jean Eustache’s previous feature, the logorrheic epic of post-May ’68 disenchantment The Mother and the Whore. (It is, after all, a poster of Mother that Anna Paquin’s character compliments in The Squid and the Whale.) Here Eustache takes as his humble subject the growing pains of Daniel, a mid-century adolescent whose grandmother shunts him away from his idyllic Bordeaux childhood to go live in the big, bad city of Narbonne with his estranged mother, an impoverished seamstress played by Fassbinder muse Ingrid Caven. The inimitable Spanish cinematographer Néstor Almendros — known for his collaborations with Rohmer and Truffaut — steeps the film in his characteristic natural light and vibrant color. As in Mother, Eustache viciously excises all traces of kitsch and sentimentality, a rejection that better suits a movie about wilting adolescence than one about dyspeptic twentysomethings ménage-à-trois-ing around Paris.


Faust |


In F.W. Murnau’s 1926 adaptation of this classic German folktale, the devil recoils from churches, crosses, and the Madonna; in short, he’s terrified of icons. But I’m not, so I went to see Mary Gaitskill introduce the movie at Light Industry. She pointed out that Murnau hewed closer to the early versions of the legend, in which Faust goes to hell, than did Goethe, who sent him to heaven. In Murnau’s fallen world, which appears to consist of nothing but dry ice and dust, even the intertitles are corrupt — they are backgrounded by rough, senseless smudges of charcoal instead of by solid black. In one magnificent flyover shot, we witness the city as Mephisto must have: sooty roofs silhouetted against the gray sky. Murnau’s visual signature became an icon itself — Wim Wenders, titan of New German Cinema, gave us the same view from the perspective of an angel gliding over Berlin in his magnum opus, Wings of Desire, 61 years later.


1973 |


When it comes to epoch-shaping years of the latter half of the twentieth century, 1968 gets a lot of attention. Consider, instead, this alternative. It marks the end of postwar prosperity in the West, when the OPEC oil crisis suddenly interrupted three decades (les trente glorieuses) of economic growth in the U.S., U.K., and France, and with them, the golden age of the liberal welfare state. This hard stop is why, today, the New Deal, a social safety net, stable jobs, and mid-century community all feel so distant; we ricocheted from near-social-democracy to neoliberalism, and it’s the latter that defines our lives today. 1973 is also when the Bretton Woods system collapsed and currencies started to float independently around the world. And it’s the year the formerly obscure nation of Saudi Arabia, suddenly enriched by the oil crisis, became a real ideological force in the Muslim world, pouring millions of dollars into a global missionary project. The subsequent explosion of Salafism laid the groundwork for groups like Al Qaeda and (in due time and with dialectical logic) the all-consuming War on Terror. Will we live in the world forged in 1973 forever? Of course not. Just look at its most famous legal decision: Roe v. Wade.


Charles Portis: Collected Works |


Published this spring by the Library of America, this 1,105-page compendium contains the deadpan travelogue Norwood, the western classic True Grit, the down-home odyssey The Dog of the South, and fifteen other works by the acclaimed author, whom Tom Wolfe once described as the “original laconic cutup.” One can easily imagine Portis, who died in 2020, banging out a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the high-brow critics hailing his collected works. “Anything I set out to do degenerates pretty quickly into farce,” the self-effacing, publicity-avoiding Portis said in a rare interview. “I can’t seem to control that.”


The Bear Season Two |


If you came to this Hulu breakout series hoping to see bears then you were probably disappointed. Apart from a brief glimpse of a CGI grizzly in the first minute of the first episode of the first season, there is a dispiriting dearth of bear imagery. The Bear’s bear is primarily a metaphorical one, a stand-in for both the destructive and unruly impulses of the individual and the all-consuming nature of work within the restaurant industry. But by the start of the second season, The Bear has also become the name of the restaurant itself, which happens to be located in Chicago, a city that is a veritable Matryoshka doll of ursine signifiers, its baseball and football teams two houses within a single grizzled empire, the signifieds themselves having been eradicated from the state some 150 years ago.


Mystic Pizza |


In this 1988 portrait of friendship among waitresses in the off-season of a New England tourist town, the three protagonists distinguish themselves from the start by the way they style their “A Slice of Heaven” t-shirts: brainy Kat tucks hers in; beautiful Daisy cuts her neckline; Jojo, the restaurant’s heart, rolls up her sleeves. While their looks evolve later in the movie, their love interests’ remain steadfast. Jojo’s lobsterman radiates warmth in plaid flannel and a wool watch cap. Daisy’s ne’er-do-well Yuppie telegraphs wealth in his camel coat and perpetually popped collar. Kat’s married Yalie leers at her through untinted aviators, and in the end, he can only hide behind a leather checkbook. 



Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One |


This fun sequel straightforwardly stands with the WGA strike in its opposition to artificial intelligence and the cheap studio execs who want to use it. Tom Cruise again jumps off stuff; Tom Cruise again appears before the movie starts to thank audiences for seeing it in theaters; the antagonist is a literal A.I. called the Entity. But if there’s one thing we could let A.I. do in the writers’ room, perhaps it’s writing A.I. characters. The Entity is surprisingly cringe: represented by screensaver-style visuals, infiltrating embarrassing steampunkish parties, and allowing its own supposedly nuclear bomb to be disarmed by popsicle stick riddles. (What gets bigger the more you take from it? A hole… ) ChatGPT could render itself better. And anyway, isn’t Hollywood, as Pamela Paul has observed, beholden to the doctrine of “lived experience”?


Slow Burn |


Sustainability — long the food world’s lexical vehicle for greenwashing — is overdue for a critical examination, and chefs Tiffani Ortiz and Andy Doubrava’s latest venture is a study of its outer limits. The traveling dining series is a study in what the pair call “closed-loop cooking,” meaning that they integrate every scrap, bit, and bob (caloric or not) of each ingredient into their recipes with a maniacal devotion. The model will appeal to affluent gourmands (see: the biodegradable sticker depicting the Michelin Man running out of gas, available for sale on the duo’s site). But it remains to be seen whether this approach can realize Ortiz’s professed end goal: that their food won’t be “financially out of the realm of possibility for the working class.”


Asteroid City |


There’s a bizarre frame story, affectedly blasé casting that treats A-listers like bit players, and a Hollywood backlot as contrived as a Smithsonian display, but no brain activity is detectable in Wes Anderson’s latest. The auteur’s by-now conventionally unconventional dialogue moves at a Shakespearean clip, while the audience laughs steadily, about once an hour. Set in a charming diorama of orange buttes and travelers’ lodging, the whole endeavor is powered by a kind of grotesque obstinance: Anderson’s trademark insincere sincerity, a comedic Todestrieb reminiscent of bad stand-up. Call it deadpan.


Meditation with Michael Imperioli |


In these sessions — hosted on Zoom by Michael Imperioli and his wife and advertised on Instagram via screenshots of his Sopranos character, Christopher Moltisanti, covered in blood — participants are led through enlightening weekly discussions of Tibetan Buddhism. Ever the actor, Imperioli urges his students not to dig into the “cast” and “plot” of their worries, but to recognize the “genre” of bad thoughts and push them away. He demonstrates, using his own anxieties: does he come across like an image-obsessed actor who wants to seem “spiritual”? The thought floats in, but he ushers it away and thanks his producer.


But Not the Armadillo |


This small board book by Sandra Boynton avoids the impulse — displayed by its insipid 1982 predecessor, But Not the Hippopotamus, about a hippo too shy to “cavort in the bog” or “hurry out for a jog” with his friends — to identify uncomfortable emotions as problems to be solved. Instead, 2018’s Armadillo invites the young reader to embrace the lean comforts of solitary routine: picking cranberries, napping in grass, and watching a newly emboldened hippo sprinting past to some far-off destination. At only sixteen sparsely illustrated and even more sparsely worded pages, it is concise enough for an efficient bedtime read followed by an hour of cleaning in a dimly lit kitchen, contemplating, as the Armadillo does, the enchantment of a distant song.


Cremaster Cycle |


Merely to learn of the existence of Matthew Barney’s paean to the rise and fall of the male gonads is to catch a whiff of the artist’s superhuman self-love. Narcissism is the art world’s stock-in-trade, after all, and this surreal, seven-hour, five-film epic is a skeleton key to the golden boy of the Gen X gallery system’s symbolically bulging ego. But give yourself over to its four-night theatrical showcase (recently hosted by Metrograph for its first New York exhibition since 2015) and discover a strange, obsessively plated abundance: demons, giants, mermen, murderers. Chorus lines. Norman Mailer. Apiary pornography. Otherwise, it’s hard to find a copy of this saga of scrotum’s progress in the wild: in 2007, a single episode sold on bespoke-packaged DVD for $571,000.


Bang energy drinks |


This beverage company claims its product is “not your typical sugar-filled soda masquerading as an energy drink,” which is true in the sense that most soft drinks do not taste like Sour Patch Kids left to marinate in a soda bath, and do not leave a leathery, silicone-like residue on the tongue. Bang’s other claims to fame include having lost $239 million in a false advertising lawsuit for boasting that its cans contained “Super Creatine” (they did not), and the marketing prowess of its CEO, Trump supporter Jack Owoc, a prolific poster and tireless proponent of loud shirts. Energy drinks were arguably born in 1886, when Coca-Cola was brewed with cocaine, and reached adolescence in the 2000s, when Monster Energy and Red Bull began to sponsor extreme sports. In recent years, Owoc has accelerated the industry toward its clumsy midlife crisis by enlisting TikTokers and Turning Point USA influencers to hawk his soda to teenagers. His “body-rocking fuel” promises to let you “experience the beautiful taste of the American dream through every sip.” As of August, Bang has certainly tasted one kind of American dream: a corporate takeover by Monster.


The Most Secret Memory of Men |


A young Senegalese writer sets off on the trail of a missing novelist modeled after the Malian author Yambo Ouologuem, who stopped publishing after a plagiarism scandal in the 1970s. Mohamed Mbougar Sarr’s literary mystery (now translated by Lara Vergnaud) unspools over three continents through a collection of fictional diaries, interviews with writers, and French book reviews that parody typical critiques of African literature: too African, not African enough, stolen from folklore, stolen from Western writers. It’s a playful defense of Ouologuem, one laced with rage at a literary establishment obsessed with identity. What would the lost writer do if he came back today? “He’d kill everyone,” one character declares. “Then he’d kill himself.” The real Ouologuem died in 2017 after decades of silence; his most famous work was banned in France for thirty years. In 2021, Mbougar Sarr’s act of imaginative recovery won the Prix Goncourt, the nation’s most prestigious literary award.


British Cooling Towers — Sculptural Giants |


These iconic structures look like wide chimneys, or water jugs for giants. Built across England in the twentieth century to cool steam from coal-fired power plants, they operate according to the same evaporative principles as those of ancient Egyptian and Persian “windcatcher” towers — natural draft, passive cooling in the age before HVAC. Though the sculptural towers have gradually disappeared from the British countryside, in tandem with the phaseout of coal, the London Festival of Architecture has memorialized them with a photo exhibit in a Margaret Howell clothing store. Now, they are less emblems of active industry than artifacts of a past toward which the country is ambivalent. The sculptor Antony Gormley once compared the cooling tower to a “man-made volcano,” a “memorial to our 200-year-long romance with the second law of thermodynamics” — a romance which may prove to be its own kind of Vesuvius. There is a name for the small clouds of vapor that escape from the tops of active towers: the drift.


Umberto Eco: A Library of the World |


This recent Italian documentary seems primarily interested in the novelist not for his bibliophilic erudition or prescient leftism but because he was a goofy oldster who hated cell phones. Gems of Eco’s contrarian humor — his astronomy collection excluded Galileo (correct, boring) but featured Ptolemy (wrong, interesting) — flicker amid interminable stretches of old footage and interviews that paint him as the type of kindly grandfather who asks you to close out his tabs when he visits for the holidays. Worse still are the cutely staged, tonally jarring readings of select Eco works, which raise important questions like — are these actors famous in Italy? Viewers are repeatedly teased with lurid library shots that border on pornographic, perhaps to remind us that this is supposed to be about books. As Eco himself says in the documentary, don’t expect anyone to talk about The Name of the Rose.


Tom Verlaine book sale |


“Prices will be LOW and discounts HEAVY,” read Better Read Than Dead’s Instagram post announcing the sale of 50,000 of the recently deceased Television lead singer’s books. Some of the Brooklynites who descended on a Bed Stuy garage on Greene Ave in late August for the first of many clearances love books; some love Tom Verlaine; most love both. On the pay-what-you-wish table lay limp stacks about Christian spirituality and alternative medicine — the selection on U.S.-China relations spilled over from the garage onto the driveway. As a grizzled man said into a cell phone while waiting on the sidewalk, “I’ve been out here in the sun on this fucking line for thirty minutes to look at these books, and you know, most collectors they have a theme, but this guy? He seemed to collect books just in order to have them.”


“Anagram” |


Theater producer Jack Viertel defines “conditional love songs” as musical theater numbers in which two characters sing about love but are unaware of their inevitable romance. In an essay for HowlRound, the dramaturg Amanda Prahl argues this genre is a dying breed: in the Rodgers and Hammerstein era, conditionality came from coyness, and today “we don’t really do coy anymore.” In the Tony-winning musical Kimberly Akimbo, coyness is replaced by teenage awkwardness. For high schoolers Seth Weetis and Kim Levaco, as for so many of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s protagonists, love unfolds cautiously. Sitting together in the school library but lost in their own worlds, Kim sings to herself of her growing feelings for Seth (“I like your point of view. A little sly, a little strange, a little bit askew”), while Seth — an enthusiastic member of the Junior Wordsmiths of America — methodically anagrams Kim’s name: “Oh, I just found ‘mackerel!’”


Luann & Sonja: Welcome to Crappie Lake |


Bravo’s latest is like the mid-aughts classic The Simple Life if instead of Paris and Nicole you had a 59-year-old woman who, notoriously unable to sell the townhouse she once inhabited with a J.P. Morgan heir, jets off to an ailing Illinois town, where she is joined by her 58-year-old countess-turned-cabaret singing best friend to do six weeks of voluntary community service. In Benton, Illinois, Sonja Morgan and Luann de Lesseps find a cash-strapped former coal mining town abandoned by its one-time benefactors and searching for a way forward. In Sonja and Luann, who were both unceremoniously dropped from The Real Housewives of New York in 2022 when the show moved on to younger, more diverse talent, Benton residents find two women in the same predicament. The difference? The latter brought a camera crew.


Past Lives |


The protagonist of this A24 flick, a millennial Korean emigrant, stumbles on her childhood crush while simultaneously chatting on a smartphone and scrolling through Facebook. A few clicks lead to a momentous Skype call, followed by many more. We see lots of romance-by-montage at the movies, but in this case, viewers are not the only ones forced to watch through a screen; the would-be lovers are trapped behind their laptops, thousands of miles apart. This really is what lots of love looks like these days, but is it what art should look like, too? I’ll confess at times I wanted to tell the woman on screen — like the woman in the seat next to me, covertly texting — to put her phone away. Then again, maybe the screen is the crucial symbol for this particular film, which at its best is a subtle portrait of just how much romantic connection turns out to be pure projection.


Master Gardener |


The final installment of writer-director Paul Schrader’s late-career trilogy about disturbed men journaling alone at night — following First Reformed (2017) and The Card Counter (2021) — is a vexed dialogue between the auteur’s demons. As a white Boomer, Schrader agonizes about judgmental young people and America’s inability to just get over the whole “race” thing. But as a Calvinist, Schrader is convinced that the weight of original sin is inescapable, for societies as well as individuals. In working out this tension, Master Gardener defies the rules of satisfying narrative. By the end, its protagonist, a former neo-Nazi gang member in witness protection, has found salvation, at least in the eyes of his much younger black girlfriend. But he has done little to earn it. He’s still an asshole; even his haircut remains conspicuously fashy. There is something simultaneously tasteless and radical in Schrader’s parable, where white supremacy is so ontologically evil that its agents can never fully atone — and yet for that precise reason redemption can arrive anyways, as a free, unmerited gift. In its paradoxicality the film mirrors its swastika-tattooed protagonist: flaws impossible to conceal, it comes to its audience asking for a forgiveness it knows it doesn’t deserve.


And Just Like That... |


This Sex and the City reboot began with the death of Mr. Big on his Peloton — a fate presaging that of the contraption’s maker and marking the end of an erratic love story that spanned six seasons, a movie, and a sequel one Letterboxd user referred to as “the longest recruitment video ISIS ever made.” This season, the core four’s reduction to three, allegedly due to beef between Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall, was assuaged by the latter’s promise of a brief cameo and increased screen time for the friends’ variously diverse new companions. Nevertheless, the first season’s reactionary attempts at intersectionality are compounded, in the new episodes, by a preponderance of bizarre, utterly extraneous storylines, including Charlotte’s obsession with a high school “MILF List” and a phallic pun-off featuring Drew Barrymore. Fan-favorite character Bitsy von Muffling’s advice to Carrie about grief also applies to the show: “Honey, the second year is worse than the first.”


Hamlet in the Park |


This play, as you may have learned in high school English, is about (among other things) the gap between what people seem to be and what they are underneath. It’s fitting, then, that Kenny Leon’s underbaked directorial choices in a recent production for Shakespeare in the Park seem to be saying so much, but actually communicate so little. A half-buried Stacey Abrams 2020 sign, flitting instances of characters with Covid-19 masks, and the actress in the role of Gertrude, as Leon told a critic for The Atlantic, “playing it like Michelle Obama” — all amount to a bid for cultural relevance as meaningful as set dressing. Hailed in the headline of the same Atlantic review as “A Hamlet for Our Age of Racial Reckoning,” Leon’s production merely demonstrates how well the Bard anticipated our modern moral exhibitionism: sometimes much ado really can be about nothing.


Talk to Me |


The first great movie about TikTok succeeds because it isn’t about TikTok at all, at least not directly. This Australian horror flick revolves around a cursed sculpture that possesses anyone who holds it — but the picture deviates from the well-worn “cursed-monkey-paw” trope in the way its teenage cast members, without a second thought, take turns letting tortured souls infect their minds and twist their bodies into grotesque contortions, all for an audience of livestreaming phones. While a lesser (or older) filmmaker might present all this as a moralizing tale about the dangers of technology, twin directors Danny and Michael Philippou simply take it for granted that social media is woven into the fabric of teenagers’ lives, even if that fabric includes summoning the dead. This casual, disinterested acceptance makes it a more realistic blend of digital culture and horror than Black Mirror. It’s just too bad a movie this clever had the misfortune of coming out the weekend after “Barbenheimer,” ironically making Talk to Me itself a victim of a social media phenomenon.


First Two Pages of Frankenstein |


The National, the quintessentially melancholic band comprising a quintet of America’s saddest fathers (four of whom are, somewhat confusingly, pairs of brothers), has long teetered on the edge of self-parody. The buildup for the band’s latest album found them again on that brink, releasing a line of literal New Order t-shirts, which emulate the latter band’s 1987 tour tees, to accompany the single “New Order T-Shirt” (and existing “Sad Dads” hoodies). But the album itself pulls them back from the edge, with wistful paeans to New York nostalgia and rousing anthems redolent of their headlong earlier work. Features from Phoebe Bridgers and Taylor Swift suggest the band has made peace with its present as much as its past: part of being middle-aged is setting fire to old dignities and hanging with pop queens half your age.


Fast X |


In an act of traffic engineering, the city of Los Angeles fired shots at both the Fast & Furious franchise and its fans. Timed with the spring release of Fast X, the city installed short posts called traffic bollards, which define vehicle lanes, bringing bright yellow order to the intersection in front of Bob’s Market. In the first film, Bob’s is used as the tuna sandwich-serving “Toretto’s Market & Cafe,” but in reality it’s a standard East L.A. corner store which draws daily visitors in Hot Wheel-esque rentals. Now doing donuts around the intersection — a scourge on the neighborhood — is nearly impossible. But if we learned anything from the latest film, which includes gravity-defying chase scenes in everything from an ’03 Lamborghini to a ’67 El Camino, nothing is impossible behind the wheel of a fast car.


The Idol |


The questions raised by this persistently misunderstood series are not so different from those present in post-Code screwball films, as philosopher Stanley Cavell elucidated them: “the issue of who is following whom,” why “the vaunted pleasures of sexuality [are] so ludicrous and threatening,” and how a woman can distinguish real versus “counterfeit happiness,” given that “there is pain in this decision, whichever way she turns.” Would that we could have had a second season to work all of this out.


Beau Is Afraid |


Grand trauma narratives scaffold most popular American media today, including Ari Aster’s latest excavation of head wounds both physical and psychic. A24’s most expensive and possibly most tumescent movie to date kicks off entertainingly enough with elaborate set pieces of urban squalor, suburban repression, and psychosexual gibberish. Yet there’s little sign of relief for quivering sad-sack Beau (Joaquin Phoenix) and his hardened neuroses. An interlude with a forest-dwelling, pregnant naif offers some hope for healing, but when a PTSD-suffering vet sprays her theater troupe with bullets, Beau’s angst plummets from existential to erectile. By the climax of a grueling run time, even Patti LuPone’s ejaculative rage can’t stop this exercise in frustration from withering prematurely. That’s just another dick joke; the movie is three hours long.