New in Books:
The Orphan Master’s Son

Christopher Hitchens once referred to North Korea as a “slave state”, and there is little that has been revealed since about the curiously stunted upper half of that peninsula which would belie this definition. The night-and-day surveillance, the famines, the mind games and brainwashing, the at-gunpoint groupthink; it all conjures an image of a people who are bound to their overlords in every sense of the word. All of the Korean characters in Adam Johnson’s hyperbolic and icily rapturous novel are indeed slaves to the world-encompassing propaganda from the leadership’s impregnable underground bunkers. It’s like atmosphere, they don’t seem able to live without it. More terrifyingly, it’s not even clear that they would necessarily want to… 


The Orphan Master’s Son is on sale now; check it out. You can read my full review at PopMatters.

New in Theaters:
The Forgiveness of Blood

Most teenagers assume that their life is inherently unfair: those chores are too much given the meagre allowance, their parents always take their siblings’ sides in arguments, and so on. In the case of Nik, an Albanian teen who’s confined to the house after his father either sparks or gets swept up in a bloodfeud with a nearby family, he may actually have a case for life treating him unfairly. Not that filmmaker Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace) turns this astutely calibrated, quietly wrenching drama into any kind of moping lament for Nik’s situation. Instead, Marston’s wide-angle take on Nik’s predicament gives his choppy frustrations that much more heft — he might be angry like a child, but no more so than the supposed adults who surround him…


The Forgiveness of Blood is playing now in limited release, make a point of seeking it out. You can read my full review at filmcritic.com.

New(ish) in Books:
The Best Non-Fiction of 2011

The first installment of the PopMatters annual “Best of” books feature launches today, chronicling what the site’s writers thought were the most memorable titles of the year. I contributed the introduction and a few of the individual writeups. In short, it was as good a year as most, in that there was plenty of dross, but fortunately more than enough phenomenal works to celebrate that there was not even enough time to contemplate the lesser titles that didn’t make the cut. 


Here are a few of the non-fiction books that made me green with envy in 2011 (some I wrote up in the article, some not):

  • The Age of the Warrior by Robert Fisk
  • The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem
  • Civilization by Niall Ferguson
  • Malcolm X by Manning Marable
  • Townie by Andre Dubus III
  • What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes

You can read the complete piece here

New in Theaters: 
Bullhead

Although billed as a crime thriller from Belgium, Michael R. Roskam’s Oscar-nominated feature debut is truly more of a character showcase for a deeply physical, lacerating performance by the hood-eyed, glowering Matthias Schoenaerts. Bringing the bruising physicality of a young Robert De Niro to his many wordless scenes, Schoenaerts practically gives Bullhead a reason to exist. Without his dour, amped-up presence, Roskam’s underwritten yet overcomplicated film would hardly register…


Bullhead is playing now in limited release. You can read my full review at filmcritic.com.

New in Theaters:
Safe House

In a better world, things would be different. Ryan Reynolds would realize that comedy is his true calling, no matter how much fun it is to tear around the place in a torn T-shirt waving a semiautomatic. Denzel Washington would remember that he needn’t always be the eye of the hurricane, and maybe some character work would find him. Producers would stop trying to copy the Tony Scott look and just hire the guy. Screenwriters would realize that when writing certain kinds of thrillers about the CIA, the audience is always going to assume there’s one or more moles at the top of the organization, and that revelation of said mole is rarely dramatic…


Safe House opens wide on Friday. You can read my full review at Film Journal International.