New in Theaters: ‘Maps to the Stars’

Robert Pattinson looks properly mystified in 'Maps to the Stars' (Focus World)

Robert Pattinson looks properly mystified in ‘Maps to the Stars’ (Focus World)

It was probably only a matter of time before director David Cronenberg and novelist Bruce Wagner found some way to work together. Cronenberg’s love of festering wounds (both physical and psychological) and Wagner’s bleak and blackened comedies of Hollywood soul-deadness would seem somehow made for each other. That’s how we, unfortunately, ended up with Maps to the Stars.

After a short, awards-qualifying run late last year, Maps to the Stars is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

There is a moment when satire turns into pure spleen. That moment comes pretty early in David Cronenberg’s disjointed Maps to the Stars. Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a child star with the dead but predatory eyes of a middle-aged addict, lashes out at his manager. Benjie lets loose a stream of insults notable for being not just petty but anti-Semitic and homophobic to boot. It’s a terribly clumsy moment (see how awful actors can be), the satirical equivalent of a punch to the nose. Much of the film that follows is played in much the same key of bilious hate, the only variant being the talent of those spitting out the lines…

Here’s the trailer:

Department of Weekend Reading: February 27, 2015

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Writer’s Corner: Michael Connelly

When you’re looking for advice on writing, the masters are of course always reliable. But it might be wiser to just dive right into the ranks of those who spend their lives toiling in the fields of pulp. After all, it’s the creators of genre fiction who are more likely to have to work with brutal deadlines and for fiercely judgmental audiences.

Michael Connelly, 2013 (Brian Minkoff)

Michael Connelly, 2013 (Brian Minkoff)

So, here’s Michael Connelly, of the Harry Bosch series of novels, as well as The Lincoln Lawyer, talking to Writer’s Digest about his three favorite bits of writing advice. They’re all gold:

The best crime novels are not how cops work on cases; it’s how cases work on cops. — Joseph Wambaugh

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. — Kurt Vonnegut

When you circle around a murder long enough, you get to know a city. — Richard Price

Department of Awards: ‘Whiplash’ Gets Bloody

Miles Teller drums and J.K. Simmons berates in 'Whiplash' (Sony Pictures Classics"

Miles Teller drums and J.K. Simmons berates in ‘Whiplash’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

A brutal and (literally) bloody musician’s tale that’s about many, many other things besides music (surprise), Whiplash was the little awards film that could. While never quite making a splash along the lines of a Boyhood or The Imitation Game, it plugged along for months on little more than sheer word of mouth. Just like movies used to do.

Whiplash, which was ultimately nominated for five Oscars, will be available next week on DVD and Blu-ray. My review is at Film Racket:

In Damien Chazelle’s steam-heated pressure cooker, socially maladroit student Andrew (Miles Teller) is determined to be a brilliant jazz drummer. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the demon-teacher at a New York music conservatory who Andrew thinks guards the entrance to greatness, sees potential in this student but won’t let him past without a serious flaying. From the second Andrew steps into Fletcher’s studio band, the insults and cutting remarks fly from Fletcher’s lips. The only question seems to be how long Andrew can tough it out. But since he and Fletcher have a surprising amount in common, the story then becomes more about who will outlast the other…

You can see the trailer here:

Department of Weekend Reading: February 20, 2015

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New on DVD: ‘Life Itself’

The writer at rest: 'Life Itself' (Magnolia Pictures)

The writer at rest: ‘Life Itself’ (Magnolia Pictures)

One of the better documentaries that ever-so-briefly graced screens in 2014 was Life Itself. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and based in part on Roger Ebert’s memoir, the film is a fascinating and curiously life-affirming story about ambition, creativity, and getting on with things.

lifeitself-posterLife Itself is available on DVD today; my review is at Film Racket:

James takes Ebert’s 2011 memoir as his source document. From there we get Ebert’s memories of growing up as a precociously verbal only child in downstate Illinois. (“My mother supported me like I was the local sports team.”) He describes himself as not just a born writer but a born journalist. This was not a kid who wanted to just write for high-brow publications. He wanted to be read and heard by as many people as possible. Thus the career that arced from working-class daily paper to syndicated TV show and appearances on Carson and Letterman. When called upon he could pen a learned piece for Film Comment (as he did in response to a Richard Corliss piece that called him out as an egregious “thumbs up/thumbs down” simplifier and bottom-racer). But as much as he admired the Pauline Kaels and Andrew Sarrises of the world, that was never going to be him…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Corner: Keeping It Going

(c. 1942, Library of Congress)

(c. 1942, Library of Congress)

Like any other type of advice, there’s writing advice you want to hear that’s not terribly helpful, and writing you don’t want to hear that’s also probably what you need to hear.

Solidly in the latter category comes this bit of second-hand advice from Nicholson Baker:

Once or twice I got a chance to work with [Atlantic editor] Bill Whitworth on a piece or two — and I was just kind of struggling to support myself and, you know, life is busy and I wasn’t writing that much. He just said very simply, “Are you writing every day?” and I said, “Ummmm,” and I sort of mumbled because I couldn’t say yes.

It was a horrible feeling, and the day after that, I started writing every day … I fudge a lot where I think, “OK, did you write anything, did you write a text? Did you write an email? Did you write just notes on a scrap of paper? Did you write something?” So that’s how I get around it sometimes, by stretching the definition.

Let’s face it, there’s almost always something more fun to do than write on any given day. I mean, those socks aren’t going to organize themselves, are they? But if you get in the every-day habit, eventually it will become hard to break.