Trailer Park, Halloween Edition: ‘The Bay’

Being that it’s Halloween time, movie theaters should be packed with scary movies. But this year, the fright-fest seems a little light, with the fourth Paranormal Activity and Sinister being about all there is. It’s a positive development, with studios having finally moved away from the endless slasher sequels, 1970s remakes, and torture-porn trash that typified horror films for so many years. The trend now, and it’s a good one, seems to be towards found-footage frights of the post-Blair Witch variety and amped-up variations on the old haunted house stories. Then you’ve got your zombie movies.

Now there’s The Bay, something of a genre-stew that comes courtesy of Paranormal Activity producer Jason Blum and, oddly enough, director Barry Levinson. Better known for Baltimore-set character studies and Homicide, Levinson this time helms a conspiracy- and ecological horror-tinged story (supposedly told via found footage confiscated by the federal government and then leaked) about mysterious events in an idyllic Maryland oceanside town. Flesh-eating somethings, zombies, and plague quarantines look to be just part of the queasy, blood-spattered mayhem.

You can see the trailer below; just wait for the scene with the man holding a fish by the mouth:

New on DVD: ‘First Position’

Some months it feels like every third documentary out there is a chronicle of some kind of contest or another—call it the Survivor/Dancing with the Stars Syndrome. While certainly dramatic and pleasing to dance fans, Bess Kargman’s First Position over-indulges in that kind of competitive mindset.

My full review is at AMC Movie Database:

Like any good competition documentarian, Kargman first shows viewers her contestants and then gives an idea of the stakes involved in the run-up to the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix. The half-dozen or so young dancers that Kargman follows are the tiniest fraction of the 5,000 or so children competing around the world. Just about every one of Kargman’s stars seems to have the makings of a famous ballet dancer–the problem is that pretty much every other dancer captured by the camera seems as good or better. There’s a cliff-like ratio here in that the surplus of young talent dwarfs the precious few jobs and scholarships out there…

Final Position is being released on DVD today.

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Nobody Walks’

With much less fanfare than greeted her HBO show Girls, Lena Dunham worked on Nobody Walks, a kind of lo-fi hipster / L.A. trash bed-hopping melodrama that gets creepier the closer you look at it. My full review is at PopMatters:

At the start of Nobody Walks, 20something New York artist Martine (Olivia Thirlby) gets off a plane in Los Angeles and promptly gets into a heavy make-out session with the handsome man putting her bags in his car. Right there in the parking garage, he begins unbuckling his belt and she puts her hand on his chest and tells him that it was really great talking to him on the plane, but…. He cocks a “can’t blame a guy for trying” look at her, and then gives her a lift. It’s an innocuous and seemingly funny scene, the kind of fumbling comedy you would expect from cowriter Lena Dunham…

Nobody Walks is already playing in limited release.

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Cloud Atlas’

David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas is one of those books that has been long assumed to be unfilmmable. But then the Wachowskis apparently noticed Natalie Portman reading it while they were shooting V for Vendetta and decided, why not? For good measure they brought on Run Lola Run‘s Tom Tykwer for additional directing help. The result is a nearly three-hour karmic sci-fi epic that just keeps hitting crescendo after crescendo.

My full review is at PopMatters:

Eager to entertain and suffused with nervous energy, Cloud Atlas spans many continents and about half a millennia of human history. As faithful to David Mitchell’s novel as any $100 million enterprise could be, it’s the most daring, thrilling, satisfying, swiftly churning engine of big screen adventure to come along in some time. It even works in a halfway decent Soylent Green joke, which one would imagine wasn’t possible anymore. And oh yes, Hugh Grant plays a bloodthirsty cannibal…

Cloud Atlas opens tonight in wide release; check it out in IMAX if possible.

You can see the extended trailer here:

Reader’s Corner: Four Hours a Day

Getting a look at somebody’s reading habits is always interesting. Not because it reveals particular traits that may lie dormant—though people with very persnickety reading tendencies (I must read everything from the New York Times bestseller list; I can only read one book at a time) are likely to be not the most relaxed types in their everyday life—but because it lets you see something of their inner self.

And sometimes it’s fascinating just because it reminds you exactly what an important part of life the daily habit of reading books is. Take Joe Queenan’s piece from last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, “My 6,218 Favorite Books.” In it, Queenan writes affectionately of his lifelong addiction to the daily pursuit of printed words on bound pages, and of the somewhat hopeless nature of it:

I’ve never squandered an opportunity to read. There are only 24 hours in the day, seven of which are spent sleeping, and in my view at least four of the remaining 17 must be devoted to reading. A friend once told me that the real message Bram Stoker sought to convey in “Dracula” is that a human being needs to live hundreds and hundreds of years to get all his reading done; that Count Dracula, basically nothing more than a misunderstood bookworm, was draining blood from the necks of 10,000 hapless virgins not because he was the apotheosis of pure evil but because it was the only way he could live long enough to polish off his extensive reading list. But I have no way of knowing if this is true, as I have not yet found time to read “Dracula.”

There is never enough time in the day to read even a fraction of what you want to. So what are you doing here? Get cracking. That pile on your bedside table isn’t going to get any smaller the longer you waste on the Internet.

New on DVD: ‘Take This Waltz’

Earlier this year, Sarah Polley’s heartsick love triangle melodrama Take This Waltz came out and was summarily and quite unfairly ignored by audiences. It’s out today on DVD, make sure not to miss it. My review is at PopMatters:

Somewhere inside this full-tilt lovesick blur is the kernel of a wildly uninteresting story. Woman in cozy relationship sans fireworks becomes attracted to new fella, with whom she has fireworks galore, but a dubious future. What to do: stay with husband or fly off with fling?  Play the good wife or bad mistress? There’s a spinning galaxy of clichés for writer/director Polley to choose from here, but somehow she skips past them (well, almost all) and delivers a shimmering and raw ode to the ferocity of desire and the heartbreak that so often follows it…

You can see the trailer here:

In Media: ‘Newsweek’ Going Web-Only

In one of the less surprising media announcements of late, Newsweek said last week that they were ceasing publication of their print magazine at the end of 2012. The magazine, which has already been merged of sorts with Tina Brown’s web site The Daily Beast, will go to an online-subscription model next year. According to Paid Content:

…the magazine is slated to lose $40 million this year and has seen its subscribers fall from 3 million to 1.5 million in the last decade. More broadly, the company faced a more existential problem in that a “weekly news” magazine has become an anachronism in the digital world.

It makes sense ultimately, as Newsweek hasn’t really been able to keep up with the relevance of publications like The Economist,  Time or The Atlantic, which have shown the ability to keep a very vibrant web presence while not damaging the print product. Brown has tried to tart up the magazine of late, with dubious results:

Readers and media analysts have been puzzled by some of the covers Ms. Brown had chosen in an effort to distinguish Newsweek from other magazines and make it a talked-about publication again. Last November, she featured a cover story about sex addiction, and in May President Obama was shown wearing a rainbow-colored halo with a headline that read ”The First Gay President.”

And while Daily Beast is an interesting creature, mostly for its mix of rehashed news and original opinion plus the handy daily Cheat Sheet aggregator, the design is somewhat atrocious, navigation a pain, and the writing, well….

Founded in 1933 or not, this is a magazine whose time may have passed. See the cover shown at right for proof.


New in Theaters: ‘Brooklyn Castle’

The fresh new documentary Brooklyn Castle has an unlikely band of protagonists—a record-breaking and mostly minority chess team from an unassuming Brooklyn neighborhood—and a welcome, optimistic take on the modern school. My full review is at Film Journal International:

When documentaries take on schools as a subject, the film is either a lament for a nation’s crumbling educational edifice or a feel-good film about a band of plucky upstarts defying the odds. In either event, the assumption is generally that things are fairly horrendous, school-wise, and that only particularly lucky or unique groups can hope to win out. What makes Katie Dellamaggiore’s Brooklyn Castle so wonderful and fresh-feeling in many ways is how it neatly skirts those preassigned roles for the students, parents and teachers it follows around…

Brooklyn Castle is playing now in very limited release.

You can see the trailer here:

Music Break: Rodriguez

The story of Sixto Rodriguez—the Detroit singer-songwriter with the Phil Spector soar to his music and the dark Dylan grit to his lyrics—and how he was rediscovered by a world that was shocked to find out somebody of his talents had lived in the shadows for so long, is one of those rare tales that’s astonishing not just for its oddity but its beauty.

Malik Bendejelloul shot an incredible documentary about Rodriguez, Searching for Sugar Man (much of it using an iPhone with a $1 Super 8 app), that’s well worth seeking out—check out the trailer here.

Ebert was not far off when he wrote:

I hope you’re able to see this film. You deserve to. And yes, it exists because we need for it to.

60 Minutes did a segment on Rodriguez recently (“The Rock Icon Who Didn’t Know It“) that gives you the bare bones of the story.

If you listen to him sing “Sugar Man,” you get some idea of what the fuss is all about and how unfathomable it is that we haven’t been listening to this song on classic-rock radio for the past four decades:

Reader’s Corner: National Book Awards

The finalists were announced last week for the 2012 National Book Awards. The list of fiction finalists overlooked some big-name releases this year from Michael Chabon (Telegraph Avenue) and Tom Wolfe (Back to Blood), not to mention some pulpier (but nevertheless deservedly critically beloved) books like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The list also drew attention to a couple of novels about the current wars (Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Yellow Birds), which seems appropriate as this is the first year books on that subject have finally started filtering into stores. Here are the five:

  • This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz
  • A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers
  • The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
  • Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
  • The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers

It’s a strong list, overall, but the smart money has to be on Diaz to win. Not only has the wait for a new work been excruciating (his astounding novel Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao came out five years ago) but the man just won a MacArthur “genius” grant.

Winners will be announced on November 14, 2012.

New in Books: ‘What’s the Matter with White People?’

The new book What’s the Matter with White People? falls prey to the desire for clever/provocative titles that don’t necessarily have much to do with the subject matter at hand; it’s not quite the racial jeremiad that one might imagine. My review is up now at PopMatters:

Salon editor-at-large and MSNBC analyst Joan Walsh grew up a working-class Irish Catholic on Long Island in the ‘60s, with plenty of cops and firemen and construction workers in her extended family. It was a good vantage point to study what she terms the “destruction” of that decade. Walsh was perched on the verge of a rapidly imploding city, surrounded by relatives who fled the boroughs’ increasing crime. She uses her relatives as examples of what were once termed “white ethnics”, taking shelter from the societal chaos in the assurance of something that felt more concrete and protecting than the wispy liberalism that they blamed for it all. In other words: Nixon…

What’s the Matter with White People? is now available in finer bookstores everywhere.

New in Theaters: ‘Seven Psychopaths’

The new Martin McDonagh movie, Seven Psychopaths, opened yesterday, with a cast ranging from a murderous Woody Harrelson to a bunny-stroking Tom Waits. You can read my review at PopMatters:

At one of the quieter moments in Seven Psychopaths, Hans (Christopher Walken) tells his friend Marty (Colin Farrell) that the female characters in his screenplays are horrendous. Each gets only a few minutes of terrible dialogue before ending up dead. “It’s a tough world for women,” Marty stammers.

This is a multifaceted joke for Seven Psychopaths’ screenwriter and director, Martin McDonagh, who indeed makes sure that none of his female characters speaks an intelligent line or escapes suffering grievous bodily harm. One could argue that purposeful clichés are only worth citing if they help to unpack some of the prejudices or lazy thinking that gave rise to those clichés. Otherwise, it’s just the same old garbage with a smirk…

Seven Psychopaths is playing everywhere. For all its problems, it’s ultimately worth checking out—unless you haven’t seen McDonagh’s In Bruges, in which case, watch that immediately.

You can watch the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Split’

Just in time for the election comes Split: A Deeper Divide, a documentary about the nation’s partisan divide. My review is running now at Film Journal International:

The nation is hopelessly divided; Washington is broken; people only listen to news pre-slanted to their ideology; there is no room left for even-tempered discourse. We have heard all this before, which doesn’t mean that Split: A Deeper Divide, a film about the state of American political partisanship, doesn’t tackle a worthy subject. (That would be like saying that since we have already been told war is hell, every war film after All Quiet on the Western Front has been a waste of time.) But it also doesn’t mean that this film brings anything new to the topic.

Split: A Deeper Divide is playing now in limited release and will be expanded to other markets later in the month.

You can watch the trailer here:

New in Books: ‘Dead Stars’

My review of Bruce Wagner’s novel Dead Stars is up now at PopMatters:

It’s actually possible to think, upon finishing Bruce Wagner’s Dead Stars — his first novel since 2006’s majestic Memorial — that things have somehow managed to get worse in Hollywood over the past few years, vis a vis the human soul. Wagner’s writing has always worked that seam of grandiosely disaffected Tinseltown ennui pioneered so darkly by Nathaniel West.

But as crepuscular as Wagner’s view of humanity and the modern world had been in the past, little compares to his new novel’s phantasmagoria of pain and desire, where if it isn’t Tweeted, isn’t YouTubed, isn’t continually riding the wave of the eternally cresting Now, then it isn’t worth a damn…

Dead Stars is on sale now.

You can see Wagner talking to the Los Angeles Review of Books (yes, there does seem to be some inherent contradictions in that publication’s name) about his novel here:

Quote of the Day: Lauren Leto

Lauren Leto, author of Texts from Last Night: All the Texts No One Remembers Sending and Judging a Book By Its Lover,  was asked how she—being one of those voracious social media creatures and founder of a viral website—ended up writing books.

Her response, in part:

I am a voracious reader, because I like to not deal with reality very often.

Hear, hear.