New in Theaters: ‘War Witch’

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war-witch-posterThere has been plenty written about the tragedy of child soldiers in the African wars, but little that has been put on film that wasn’t a documentary. Kim Nguyen’s blistering, Oscar-nominated War Witch uses the subject as the basis for a haunting, unforgettable film about a lost girl trying to put some kind of a life together.

My full review is at Film Journal International:

In some sub-Saharan African country where wars ebb and flow in a constant, blood-dimmed tide, a teenage girl with the eyes of a traumatized warrior tells the story of how she became a soldier. She wants her child to know what happened, even though she believes her evil deeds are not forgivable. The girl, Komona (Rachel Mwanza), relates everything in a numbed voiceover as though narrating a nightmare. With all its talk of witches and gris-gris and the many ghosts walking around like flesh-and-blood people, War Witch is more like a fairytale from long ago than an of-the-moment topical drama…

War Witch opens in limited release on Friday. Seek it out.

You can see the trailer here:

Screening Room: The Academy Awards Are Decadent and Depraved

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So, the Oscars happened. It was difficult to decide what was the more depressing element of the evening: The laceratingly dull ceremony of Tolstoyan length or the fact that Life of Pi took home so many awards?

I try to answer these questions (and many, many more!) in “The Academy Awards are Decadent and Depraved,” now available for your reading pleasure at Short Ends & Leader; here’s some of it:

…Seth MacFarlane was not going to save this year’s Academy Awards from itself.  Nobody could. There is something about the event’s bulldozer quality these days that crushes, folds, and spindles any host who puts themselves in the cross-hairs. A production featuring a reanimated Bob Hope, jokes from Woody Allen and the entire Simpsons staff, 5D special effects by James Cameron, and an original score performed live by the ghost of Bernard Herrmann, would still come off as stiff, unfunny, desperate, and cheap.

That being said, MacFarlane—an exemplar of the having-my-cake-and-eating-it-too school—didn’t help…

But at least the evening featured sock puppets performing their version of the Denzel Washington flick Flight. Enjoy!

New on DVD: ‘The Master’

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themaster1One of the greatest, weirdest films of 2012 was Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Synopses don’t quite do it justice; just find it and watch it (the DVD and Blu-ray are available as of today).

My full review is at Film Journal International:

The Master makes what should have been long obvious now utterly clear: Paul Thomas Anderson can lay claim to being one of the era’s few American writer/directors afflicted with greatness. It is hard to think of another home-grown filmmaker who so consistently brings such psychologically astute scripting, and ability to coax nakedly revelatory performances from actors—that classically trained eye for widescreen framing—to each film he makes. The Master may not match the level of artistry or thematic intensity seen in There Will Be Blood, but it is Anderson’s most approachable film in years, not to mention his most vividly realized characters to date…

You can see the trailer here:

Trailer Park: ‘Library Wars’

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There’s a series of Japanese novels by Hiro Arikawa (already turned into manga and animated series and film) about a dystopian future where the Japanese military has been instructed to remove all “objectionable” printed material from libraries. In response, a group called the Library Force is formed to battle said censorship with full Wolverines-style mayhem, if necessary. The live-action film version is called, you got it, Library Wars! Much bookish awesomeness is guaranteed.

Library Wars is being released in Japan later this spring. Who knows if this will ever make it to the States … but one can hope.

Trailer is here:

New in Books: ‘Going Clear’: Lawyers, Guns, Money and Scientology

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L. Ron Hubbard conducting a Dianetics seminar in Los Angeles, 1950.

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Last month, Lawrence Wright published Going Clear, his sprawling history and examination of the Church of Scientology. It’s a massive and thoughtful piece of work that could end up being the go-to work on Scientology for years to come, in the same way that Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven has been for the Mormon religion.

My essay on Wright’s book, “‘Going Clear': Lawyers, Guns, Money and Scientology,” was published this week at PopMatters. Here’s an excerpt:

[L. Ron] Hubbard gathered followers to his self-improvement cause through the ‘50s and ‘60s, and money poured in. Then came the Sea Organization, or Sea Org. Starting in the late ‘60s, an increasingly disconnected from reality Hubbard became convinced that the British, American, and Soviet governments wanted to harness Scientology’s psychological insights for their own uses. With three ships under the 57-year-old Hubbard’s command, Sea Org cast off in 1967 with “no destination or purpose other than to wander” the high seas, free from government control.

Hubbard roamed the world like some maddened commodore, exciting rumors that he was an operative for the CIA, drinking heavily, fantasizing about taking over Rhodesia, and searching for a lost underwater city that only he knew about. Crewing the ships were a youthful band of believers who had signed contracts pledging themselves to Sea Org “for the next billion years.” (The last is one of many details Wright seeds the book with that beg to be taken as comedy, but ultimately can’t.)…

In addition to the history of Hubbard and the Church’s founding, Wright also digs into its celebrity aspect, particularly via the experience of Paul Haggis, writer/director of everything from Crash to various episodes of The Facts of Life.

You can read an excerpt from Going Clear about Haggis’s experiences here.

Comics Corner: Hippies Hate Superman!

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As one of the longest-surviving comics publishers in the business, DC Comics did so (like everyone else who made it) through a combination of quick turnaround, constant reinvention, and relentlessly squeezing every last penny out of their comics. In one of their less-inspired moves, in the 1950s, DC created a spinoff to their tentpole property Superman that came with the highly prosaic title Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.

hippieolsen1So far, so bad. However, in one of those granular moments of surreality that comes when publishers chase every cultural trend and damn the logic, that series produced one bona fide classic. We give you: 1969’s fabulous freakout Hippie Olsen’s Hate-In!

Firstly, there’s the issue that Jimmy Olsen looks here more like a bearded dandy from the Edwardian era than hippie (details). Then there’s Jimmy’s tendency throughout the entire series to want to kill Superman. Blog into Mystery notes:

…You don’t have to be Freud or Jung or whoever to see that he has some issues with the most important people in his life. He has no problem with dreaming about punching them, tripping them, or KILLING THEM, without a whole lot — let’s be honest – of provocation for any of those deeds.

This strikes me as a problem.

It seems that Superman has always had this problem. Unlike some superheros—Batman, Spider-man—whose enemies have wanted to do away with them for interfering with their dastardly plans, Superman’s very existence appears to be the driving force behind the hatred, from friend and foe. The very indestructibility that makes him so powerful a force for good and (unfortunately) so uninteresting as a character also engender some very mixed feelings in the all-too-weak people (villains and not) who surround him.

Must make for a lonely life.

New on DVD: ‘Anna Karenina’

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Anna-Karenina-DVD-CoverJoe Wright’s electric, Tom Stoppard-scripted take on Anna Karenina didn’t quite get the attention it deserved in theaters last fall. Here’s hoping that it can have a second life on DVD and Blu-ray (available today).

My full review is at Film Journal International:

All the world’s a stage in this highly self-aware yet free-flowing take on Tolstoy’s great novel of doomed romance and the thorny collision of ideals with the world of real humans. Joe Wright’s exciting take will divide audiences, but for those who go along for the ride, they’ll thrill at how it blows their hair back. Instead of moving from one stately mansion to the next, Wright sets most of his scenes inside the same grand but vaguely decrepit theatre, with obvious backdrops and stage props, adding music and elaborate choreography to further stylize the action. It can be read as a statement on the highly artificial world that the Russian aristocracy had entrapped itself in, circa 1874, or a device heightening the novel’s already potent melodrama…

You can see the trailer here:

 

Reader’s Corner: Sci-Fi Goes to War

slaugherhouse5The military has ever been one of the structural supports of much American science fiction. Whether they’re heroically battling off alien invaders or corrupting scientific research for their nefarious and war-mongering needs, the boys in green have a long history in the genre.

That’s why it’s particularly interesting whenever you run across a science-fiction writer who actually served in the military and then brought that sensibility to their writing. The responses can vary widely, from the jingoistic Reagan-era militarism of Jerry Pournelle to the ironic action of David Drake to the highly satiric and jaundiced Kurt Vonnegut.

Over at i09, Charlie Jane Anders does a superb job of studying all of the ways these authors brought their experience of war to bear in their fiction, as well as other fantasy and sci-fi authors who were less vocal about their military service (from Tolkien to Clarke).

Now on Sale: ‘Eyes Wide Open 2012′

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It’s only about a week to go before the Oscar Awards broadcast. In and of themselves, they don’t matter, even for serious movie fans. Not a bit. Given the wild richness that can be found in just one year’s worth of American studio and indie (for whatever that distinction is still worth making), identifying one particular film or performer as the “best” is an exercise in futility.

Eyes Wide Open-coverSo why do we care? If nothing else, the Oscars (like the Golden Globes) serve as an excuse to look over a year’s worth of cinema and determine what was most noteworthy about it. Or, more commonly, to argue about what those out-of-touch types in the Academy foolishly considered the best.

To help continue that argument, we offer for your consideration: Eyes Wide Open 2012: The Year’s 25 Greatest Movies (and 5 Worst). It’s a compilation of some 100-odd pages’ worth of material that I wrote over the past year (as well as some new pieces written for this book) about the films of 2012—the good, the bad, the preposterous, and the utterly forgettable.

In addition to the best and worst lists (The Hobbit made one list, and Cloud Atlas made the other; try guessing which), there’s also some essays, DVD reviews, and even some awards lists of my own (because, why should the Oscars have all the fun?). It covers everything from the strange genius of the late Tony Scott to the yawn-inducing mediocrity of The Avengers and the stark political attack contained in Brad Pitt’s Killing Them Softly.

You can get the ebook here and here; there’s also a print-on-demand paperback here.

If this works out, it might become an annual thing. Let me know what you think.

Department of Services: ‘Going Postal’

postofficeworkers1So amidst much hue and cry, Americans are now going to forego the pleasure of receiving bills, bills, charitable solicitations, and hand-painted thank-you notes from far-flung nieces and nephews on Saturday. This is due in part to just the higher costs of delivering mail six days a week as opposed to five and the exponential increase in electronic communication, but also because of some sublimely foolish decisions made by Congress. According to the New York Times:

…post office officials say the cuts, rate increases and staff reductions are not enough to make up for the two reasons it is losing money. One is a requirement that it pay nearly $5.5 billion a year for health benefits to future retirees, a mandate imposed on no other government agency.

Their decision to sponsor a certain well-known bicyclist might have not been the most prudent use of government funds, either.

Although most people are fine with ending Saturday delivery of letters, they are also opposed to closing local post offices. There’s a good reason for that, as it’s one of the most dependable points of government contact in many neighborhoods. The lines might be long, and the service not always the greatest, but you know it’s there.

goingpostal-pratchettIn the face of some of the usual suspects calling for out and out privatization of the mail service, it’s worth looking back at one of Terry Pratchett’s novels from his great Discworld series, Going Postal. It starts off as a comedy about a man being reprieved from a hanging and then moves into a broadly satirical and optimistic social comedy about the importance of the public sphere and the dangers of turning everything over to the marketplace.

Also, it has one of Pratchett’s better openings:

They say that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully; unfortunately, what the mind inevitably concentrates on is that, in the morning, it will be in a body that is going to be hanged.