With the nation and the world weathering the current storm of economic turbulence and the possibility of a full-blown recession—due at least in part to the ticking time-bomb that was America’s Wild West of a subprime mortgage market—many will view Laura Dunn’s mesmeric documentary The Unforeseen with a mixture of fascinated dread and I-Told-You-So self-righteousness. Although it seems initially a limited-focus story about how a planned housing development in Austin, Texas, threatens to pollute the much-loved Barton Springs swimming hole, the film quickly opens its narrative much wider. By the time The Unforeseen is done, it’s proven to be nothing less than an eye-opening lesson in much of what’s wrong about how we live today.
The Unforeseen played the festival circuit last year but will be opening in limited release tomorrow. You can read the full review at Film Journal International.
Even in the heart of Potsdamer Platz — that clutter of wind-swept plazas and tightly-packed hotels, shopping malls, and high-rises near the confluence of east and west Berlin that looks like a modern American urban anywhere (only packed with Europeans) and serves as the de facto center for the Berlinale International Film Festival — where the past roared loud and clear amidst the din of international cinema’s hustling and bustling. Granted, a good part of film festivals’ raison d’etre is displaying what’s new and upcoming, and so it was that from February 7th to 17th, Berlinale introduced a host of works from new and little-seen filmmakers hailing from all (well, most) corners of the planet.
At the same time, festivals like Berlinale are almost as much about the business end of things, such as the aggressive scheming happening over in the buzz-laden conference rooms of the concurrent European Film Market (EFM) — the hive of distribution dealmaking that’s arguably more important than anything happening at the open-to-the-public screenings. It was there that the business of getting films made is reported on so feverishly by the daily trades, the announcement of Scorsese’s Bob Marley project, deals rumored for Sam Raimi’s Ellen Page-starring horror film Drag Me to Hell and Oliver Stone’s film about George W. Bush, and early footage being screened from Steven Soderbergh’s first of two Che Guevara films, The Argentine.
You can read my coverage of this year’s festival, including reviews of the Philip Roth adaptation Elegy and the amazing restoration of the lost 1961 neorealist American classic The Exiles, at filmcritic.com.
One of the first of many vividly expressed moments of honesty in Frederik Peeters’s autobiographical graphic novel, Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story, comes very early. Cati, the thrilling and beautiful woman the somewhat glum Peeters has just fallen for, tells him that she is HIV positive. A trio of panels follow in which Peeters’s shrinking figure is surrounded by a rush of his “most extreme feelings”—outpouring of thick, blackly lettered emotions that range from passion and pity to desire, flight and sadness. First published in 2002 in Switzerland, Blue Pills is an off-kilter and moving account of Peeters and Cati’s relationship, which undergoes trial after trial at the hands of her invisible but frightening condition.
The full article on Blue Pills was published in Publishers Weekly.
Writer/director McDonagh has dabbled in fairy tales before, in his grimly funny and ultraviolent stage plays like the Tarantino-esque The Lieutenant of Inishmore and, particularly, The Pillowman, which knocked Broadway audiences for a loop back in 2005 with its mix of bloody, Grimms-like Germanic storytelling and anonymous, Kafkaesque modernity. With his feature directorial debut In Bruges, McDonagh takes his particular theatrical affinity for finding cockeyed laughs in horrendous situations and creates a precisely structured and knock-you-down hilarious comedy of violence with a film that (hopefully) announces a great new cinematic talent.
In Bruges is playing in arthouse release right now. Read the full review at filmcritic.com.
A random sampling of the citizenry would most likely (if years’ worth of polling, and a general lack of public outrage, can be believed) come up with a good number of people who may not like torturing all them Middle Easterners, but hey, it’s an ugly world…. It’s for those people in particular that Alex Gibney’s deeply unsettling documentary Taxi to the Dark Side should be required viewing, though just about any citizen should feel the film worthy of their time. Gibney, who did a smart job of untangling the tortured and headache-inducing mess that was the Enron case with 2005′s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, does similarly swift work here cleaving through the morass of obfuscation and half-truths that have veiled the country’s involvement in torture and extralegal detention since 9/11.
Taxi to the Dark Side is still hanging around in limited release; check it out while you can. The full review is at filmcritic.com.
The Year in Books – 2007
There’s a big round-up feature over at PopMatters that I contributed to which casts a great wide net over the books of 2007 and tries to put them in some sort of order. Following is an excerpt from the main introduction, then a list of the books which I thought deserved inclusion. You can read the feature in its entirety here. Not a bad year, all things considered…
On reflection, book-wise, 2007 is going to be a hard one to put into easily digested perspective. Although it was the year that Oprah helped turbo-charge Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece The Road into mainstream immortality, the book had actually been released the previous fall. As for other books of note, there were no real popular/critical breakouts whose success would ring down through the years. There was also, with James Frey rapidly receding into the distance and HarperCollins having already kicked Judith Regan to the curb, a disturbing paucity of controversies for the blogs to carp about. So what are we left with? A lot of lousy books, a number of good ones, and a very small number of great ones, which (sad to say) fit no real model.
Whether it’s New Orleans, Sri Lanka, Chile, or Iraq, there is money to be made by companies specializing in the fiendish mutation that agitprop hellraiser Naomi Klein terms “disaster capitalism” in her book The Shock Doctrine (Metropolitan). The ideologies may change, but the implements of the shock (“elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations, and skeletal social spending”) don’t ever seem to change, nor does the ever-yawning gulf between the wealthy few and the poor and powerless many. Klein convincingly argues in this crushingly pessimistic but magisterial work that the future could well be a “cruel and ruthlessly divided” place where “money and race buy survival”.
- Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner (Random House)
- Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776-present by Michael Oren (W.W. Norton)
- Kafka by R. Crumb (Fantagraphics)
- God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (Twelve)
- Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb by Mike Davis (Verso)
- Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat (Knopf)
- Thick as Thieves: A Brother, a Sister–a True Story of Two Turbulent Lives by Steve Geng (Henry Holt)
In between popping out more baroque, jokey space operas (Feersum Endjinn, Use of Weapons being two good examples), Iain Banks returns to the real world with books only marginally simpler and more based in reality. Like with his fantastic satire The Business, Banks’ newest novel, The Steep Approach to Garbadale (MacAdamCage) finds a protagonist ensconced inside a fantastically powerful and wide-ranging private enterprise of the kind that fares far better inside novels than in the modern-day business climate. For decades, the Wopuld family has made its fortune off the proceeds from the fantastically successful board game, Empire!, which sounds like some addictive mixture of Diplomacy and Axis & Allies. On the eve of their selling out to the evil American Spraint Corporation, prodigal Wopuld son Alban is dug up out of his purposefully shabby council-state existence, hosed off, dragged to the grand Scottish estate and given the business by family members who want to sell and make themselves a mint. Although Banks ultimately vents one too many tiresome rants—his satiric lashings against the cartoonish Americans would have some sting if they weren’t so obvious and misplaced—for the most part this is a shrewdly observed and wincingly funny comedy of manners from an author who knows that behind every great wealth lies a great crime, but also that greater crimes can always be avoided in the future.
- Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin)
- Forgive Me by Amanda Eyre Ward (Random House)
- Harm by Brian Aldiss (Del Rey)
- The Headmaster’s Dilemma by Louis Auchincloss (Houghton Mifflin)
- On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (Random House)
- Percy Gloom by Cathy Malkasian (Fantagraphics)
- The Year of Endless Sorrows by Adam Rapp (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)