In Books

It is these people–the broadband-connected and YouTube-addicted ones who think nothing of blasting psychotic anonymous profanities at some blogger who had the gall to present an opinion they disagreed with–whom Lee Siegel rages, froths, and fulminates against in his slim little attack volume, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. And it is the fact that his book is motivated more by his irritation with today’s online addicts than any serious intellectual engagement with the effects of online culture on our society, that ultimately keeps it from being anywhere near the call to arms that Siegel seems to believe it to be.

Against the Machine went on sale last week. You can read the full review at PopMatters.

In Theaters

A nervy love-quadrangle story that contains much less than the sum of its attractive parts, Lost in Beijing is just the kind of lost generation film that a country entering the full throes of a yuppie consumer crisis would be expected to make. Unfortunately, the government didn’t see its creation as quite so necessary, and purportedly due to some explicit sex scenes, the film was banned in China and its makers prohibited from making films on the mainland for two years. It’s just as likely, however, that the film was kept from theaters due to its uniformly grim and unromantic view of modern-day China, one that seems to be blazing at full and unreflective speed into an unattractively modern future with nary a glance to the past.

Lost in Beijing (aka Ping Guo), is now in limited release. You can read the full review at filmcritic.com.

In Theaters

It would be wonderful if this review of the newest cyber-torture-stalker-thriller could begin with the words “Untraceable is unwatchable,” but sadly that would be a lie. Our tastes have very simply become too degraded over the years for us not to have become used to it as studios have continued to shove out purposeless dreck like this. Call it a formula inoculation, as the films keep coming, with only the slightest noticeable tweaks to their dependable structure (as necessitated by the latest spasms in popular culture that allow a soupcon of relevancy to creep in), we very simply get used to it, no matter how awful.

Untraceable is now in distressingly wide release. Read the full review at filmcritic.com.

In Theaters

Films like Doc crop a few times a week on one’s local PBS affiliate, and they’re generally welcome. It would be difficult to find a developed Western nation that holds its intellectuals in lower esteem than America, and so it is usually nice to see them feted in whatever way possible, even if it is just for an hour or two on a Tuesday evening. It’s a good thing for Doc, Immy Humes’ pocket-sized documentary about her father Harold L. “Doc” Humes—who co-founded the Paris Review and wrote a couple of well-received novels before slipping into itinerant insanity—that as much as it resembles the well-meaning but often shallow gleanings of those works in style, it goes beyond them in substance…

Doc is currently playing at the Film Forum in New York and should be broadcast later in the year on PBS’ Independent Lens. You can read the full review in Film Journal International here.

In Books

If we take for granted the idea that there are, by definition, no good wars, we can at least entertain the theory that some wars are at least worse than others. To that end, it seems particularly clear that among recent conflagrations, the one named at the time with an unconscious but bitter irony The War To End All Wars deserves to rank up there with the worst of all time. In their thoughtful, studied illustrated novel Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, novelist Christopher Golden and Hellboy scribe Mike Mignola (who also did the hundred-plus shadowy and expressionist illustrations that liberally pepper the text) make full use of World War I’s carnival of cruelty to foreground their tale of lost love and massacred innocence. Not to mention vampires—lots of vampires.

You can read the full article about Baltimore at PopMatters.

The Year in Film – 2007

Without as much fanfare as some years, and very few instances of mass, shared audience/critical attention, 2007 still turned out to be not so bad in the end, when all was said and done, cinematically speaking. Filmcritic.com just posted the year’s Top Ten lists of its senior writers; you can link to the full lot of them here, and my annotated listing is reproduced below.

The Top 10

1) This is England – In anybody else’s hands, this would have turned into a cautionary tale. But writer/director Shane Meadows’ semi-autobiographical story of a boy (the moon-faced and pugnacious runt, Thomas Turgoose) growing up with no friends and the memory of a dead father in depressed Falkland War-era northern England, who falls in with a multi-racial band of friendly skinheads, achieves instead a certain sort of sublime art. The deadening post-industrial landscape and classic ska soundtrack are a potent backdrop, while the critical push-pull between the boy’s new adoptive friends, and the seductive pull of their white-power counterparts makes for a classic struggle for the soul of a child.

2) There Will Be Blood – Greed, religion, oil, misanthropy, capitalist as ravening beast, preacher as power-mad charlatan – this is the year’s ultimate love-it-or-hate-it film, and one that finally puts Paul Thomas Anderson into the ranks of the all-time greats.

3) Persepolis

4) No Country for Old Men – Every author should be as fortunate as Cormac McCarthy. To have his 2005 Texas drug war noir adapted with such fidelity by the Coen bros. – known better for plundering the style of everyone from Dashiell Hammett to Tex Avery, without credit – that they even had the bravery to leave intact the book’s dreamlike, poetic and inconclusive conclusion, shows that McCarthy has better luck than 99% of authors who enter Hollywood’s adaptation meatgrinder. That the result would be such a beautiful but tense thriller that also contained people resembling actual humans (something the Coens haven’t managed for a few years), showed that for once, audiences got lucky as well.

5) The Devil Came on Horseback

6) Wristcutters: A Love Story – The most welcome surprise of 2007 came in the form of this brilliantly unassuming little comedy about a guy, despondent over his lost love, who commits suicide, only to end up in an afterlife that’s less like hell and more like a run-down suburb of Fresno. Based on the surreal writing of Israeli author Etger Keret, Wristcutters is like that dream you had one time which was terrifying but sort of funny at the same time … and then Tom Waits showed up.

7) Once – It’s been a great year for musicals, with both Hairspray and Sweeney Todd showing that once again it is possible to make big, brassy film versions of Broadway plays that both do justice to their source material and can also play in Peoria. But this easygoing sleeper is like the gypsy offspring of those big-budget extravaganzas, and slightly more rewarding in the end. The slimmest of premises (two street musicians in Dublin start a low-key musical flirtation) makes little effort to lay on extra plot devices, preferring rather to stick with the most basic of plots (hey, let’s make an album!) and focus on the soulful, lo-fi songs of stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. This is a film people become obsessed with, and for good reason.

8) Zodiac – Somehow this one got lost, and it’s hard to see why. David Fincher has been working at below his abilities for a few years now (Panic Room?), but finally seems back in shape with this long-form, creepy essay on the art of investigation, disguised as a detective story about the Zodiac Killer. People expecting another slash-em-up from the director of Se7en were probably disappointed at the low body count, but this is Fincher’s most mature and least gimmicky work since the underrated The Game.

9) The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters – Sometimes, real life actually resembles underdog sports movies. Thankfully, that was the case with the high-tension competition a few years back for the title of Donkey Kong world champion, captured beautifully by director Seth Gordon, who manages to cover this tiny world of obsessive-compulsives without a hint of condescension. Something to tide us over until the next Errol Morris.

10) In the Valley of Elah

Miscellaneous Award-Giving

Worst films: Across the Universe, Beowulf
Most beautiful, in every possible sense: The Darjeeling Limited
Guiltiest pleasure: Mr. Brooks
Scariest: The Last Winter
Most overrated: I’m Not There
Debut filmmaker: Andrea Arnold, Red Road
Worst accent: John Travolta, Hairspray
Performance/moustache of the year: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War
Saddest, most cynical attempt by washed-up director to regain relevance: Redacted

The Year in Review

I’ll be following in the next week or so with best-of lists for 2007 in film and books. If I don’t get around to a list for graphic novels, here’s a shortcut. I took part in Publishers Weekly Comics Week’s second annual best of poll, and although sadly showed my weaknesses for not having read the two which received the most votes (Exit Wounds and Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together), a number of books I loved (Shortcomings, I Killed Adolph Hitler) did show up nonetheless.

The full, delightfully annotated list of the most enjoyable graphic novels published in the previous twelve months (so we say) can be found here.

In Theaters

It’s generally a bad sign when, in a Woody Allen film, one can’t quite decide whether or not it’s supposed to be a comedy. If it can’t be determined which Allen has shown up—the Greek dramaturge or Borscht Belt shtick-meister—then the film that follows is bound to be a tedious affair. In a nutshell, this is the first and most serious problem with his newest London effort, Cassandra’s Dream, an alternately portentous and trivial drama about a couple of scheming brothers who get in over their heads when a morally compromised relative makes them an offer they can’t refuse.

Cassandra’s Dream is playing now. You can read the full review at Film Journal International.