New in Theaters: “Bones Brigade: An Autobiography”

The best sports-as-life documentary of the year, and a great story to boot, Stacey Peralta’s Bones Brigade: An Autobiography is playing now in pretty limited release. It should come to DVD and cable soon and is well worth seeking out.

My review is at PopMatters:

Stacey Peralta’s bright and curiously lovely new film takes up not longer after Dogtown and Z-Boys ends, with the dissolution of the Z-Boys. This time, the filmmaker puts himself front-and-center in the interviews that provide a spine for a stream of old VHS skate footage and faded photographs. As he tells it, Peralta refashioned himself as the ringleader for a new crew of bright young skateboarders. After co-forming the skate equipment company Powell-Peralta, which would serve as munitions factory for the sport’s underground resurgence in the 1980s, Peralta put together a squad of improbably talented and driven pre-teens he could mold into stars. Given that the roster included guys like Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, and Lance Mountain, the feat that Peralta accomplished is something akin to discovering the entire Dream Team before they had even entered high school…

You can see the trailer here:

At the Movies: ‘Skyfall’

If you’ve already seen Lincoln and aren’t quite yet ready to jump into the awards-race movie derby currently racing through cinemas, it might be time to check out the new Sam Mendes Bond flick:

Whatever romanticism was left in the hoary old Bond franchise, in Skyfall Judi Dench’s M does her best to put a bullet in it. The standard opening chase sequence sends James Bond (Daniel Craig) on a motorbike over the roofs of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul before putting him onto the top of a speeding train to do battle with an assassin who gunned down an MI6 agent and stole a datafile holding the identities of covert agents. First, M instructs Bond to leave his wounded cohort behind. Then, since agent Eve (Naomie Harris) can’t get a clear shot to take out the assassin without also risking hitting Bond, M tells her to fire away anyway. Result: one big bloody hole in Bond’s trim suit coat and one escaped assassin…

Skyfall is playing everywhere now; you can read my full review at PopMatters.

You can see the trailer here:

Trailer Park: ‘On the Road’

There are just under a million ways that a film of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road could go wrong. And not just wrong but bad in an eye-rollingly painful manner. That being said, there are few people one would trust more on such a windy and spacious piece of work than Walter Salles, who showed with The Motorcycle Diaries how to turn the personal and rambling into something epic and transformative.

So: on the plus side: Salles directing, Coppola producing, and Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs, who the ever-tricky and extra-literate Viggo seems born to play). On the con side: the appearance of the ever one-note Kristen Stewart, and a previously quite morose Sam Riley playing the ebullient force-of-life Sal Paradise.

In any case, the film opens late in December and we’ll see then. Good luck, folks.

You can see the trailer here:

At the Movies: Don’t Talk, Really

As anybody who has gone to a movie in the theater in the last few decades can attest, the whole “no talking” thing has never been completely adopted by the larger population. Some people, in fact, seem to view exercise of going to the movie theater as no different from watching TV at home with family and friends. Different strokes.

All theaters make some pretense of telling people to be quiet and turn off their phones. But nobody is as hardcore about it as the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. The Alamo (which is now starting to expand around the country) has long been an oasis of film fandom, with their mix of deep repertory selections, cult classics and smartly curated second-runs—not to mention a great menu and beer selection.

They also really don’t like talkers and texters, bless their hearts. As can be attested to here:

New in Theaters: ‘Anna Karenina’

Having detoured from tasteful literary adaptations like Pride & Prejudice into techno-scored mayhem with last year’s killer Hanna, Joe Wright is now back in the classics biz, with a Tom Stoppard-scripted take on Anna Karenina, which opens Friday.

My 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:

DVD Tuesday: ‘Brave’

The newest Pixar film doesn’t have much in the way of cute animals, toys, or Randy Newman songs, but it does feature witches and some fancy archery, so that’s something. My review of Brave is at Film Journal International:

With a sterling roll call of British Isles vocal talent and some of the most lush and limpid animation to be found on screens this year, Pixar’s Brave is a feast for the eyes and ears, if not always the mind. Aimed more squarely at the younger set than many of their more adventurous fantasy outings like Wall-E, it’s a just-clever-enough take on an age-old and very classically Disney setup about a child and parent’s estrangement and rapprochement…

Brave is available today on DVD and Blu-ray.

You can see the trailer here:


Things That Are Terrible: Big Wheels, Redux

Since apparently Gen X, Gen Y, and possibly even Millennials didn’t have enough childish things to be getting obsessively retro about, now there is actually something of a market for adult-sized Big Wheels. According to the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Armbruster, 44 years old, is the founder and sole employee of High Roller USA, a manufacturer of adult-size low-riding trikes that he runs out of his Lafayette, Colo., home. Unlike the plastic trikes of his youth, the High Roller has a steel frame, costs $600 and is designed for people who change diapers instead of wear them.

…In addition to High Roller, there are at least two other upstart companies making adult versions. One of them, Urbantrike, makes several adult trikes including a model that has a textured tire for riding in dirt and a lowrider that has shiny aluminum wheels that are perfect “for tailgating parties.”

There has been an annual Big Wheel race down Lombard Street for a few years now. This makes sense in a way, because A) It’s San Francisco, and B) It happens maybe once a year. After all, even unicycling is acceptable when done once a year and likely under the affects of alcohol.

But when companies are advertising high-end “trikes” for the adult market (featuring racers in helmets no less) that retail for hundreds of dollars, something seems to have gone horribly awry. It calls to mind The Onion headline from a few years back about the bar-owner who couldn’t believe he actually sponsored an adult kickball team.

Judging Books by Their Covers

To some extent, we all place judgments on a book’s contents based on the cover design. It’s inevitable and expected—if it wasn’t the case, then publishers would just print books with plain bindings with the titles laid out in sans-serif type. (Sometimes they do just that and it’s called minimalist, so go figure.)

Another pleasing aspect of book cover design is that they allow one to painlessly peruse the works of many authors without having to actually, you know, read anything.

To that end, the good folks at Jacket Copy put together a nifty gallery of some of their favorite new book covers. Some of the selections are less than inspired (the cover for Daniel Smith’s Monkey Mind seems far too obvious, for one), but at least three or four are nothing short of incredible.


New in Books: ‘The Story of America’

Those truisms quoted today from Ben Franklin? Not meant to be taken seriously. Voting anonymously with paper ballots at polling places free of violence? Unheard of in America until 1890. This and more discussed in Jill Lepore’s new book The Story of America:

When in doubt about your thesis, cover the spread and present everything as a variegated tapestry of humanity. Sometimes this can serve as a neat dodge for a potentially failed project, better than trying to shoehorn everything into an explanation that doesn’t quite hold water. Depending on the richness of your material, this can be either a rag-and-bone shop of leavings (usually subtitled “sketches” or “impressions”), or a rich panoply of story that rattles and bursts with humanity. Even though it should fall in the former category, being mostly a collection of New Yorker articles, Jill Lepore’s wonderful The Story of America fits snugly into the latter…

The Story of America is on sale now at finer (and not so fine) bookstores everywhere; my review is at PopMatters.

Weekday Reading: Pre-Election Edition

New in Theaters: ‘A Late Quartet’

Sneaking into theaters in a surprisingly clandestine manner—for a film starring the likes of Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken, and Philip Seymour Hoffman—is the quiet melodrama A Late Quartet:

[The film] looks like one of those November films that speak to audiences interested in the finer things. Set on the Upper West Side in the deep chill of winter, it offers a seeming checklist of somber elements, from a teacher reading T.S. Eliot to his students to the onset of a dread disease. It even includes an initially odd bit of unexpected casting in Christopher Walken as a quiet paterfamilias. But the checklist turns into an outline for the film that could have been, an echo of class, taste, and meaningful art instead of the real thing…

A Late Quartet opened Friday in limited release, and features some superb acting, if not much in the way of a thoughtful script. My full review is at PopMatters.

You can watch the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Holy Motors’

There is some wild cinema playing in the theaters right now, from the big-star, big-money extravaganza that is Cloud Atlas (Tom Hanks! Halle Berry!) to the no-money, odd-star meta-film weirdness (Kylie Minogue?) that is Holy Motors:

Are the movies life or is a life a movie? There are few more tedious questions a film night ask. Still, Léos Carax’s new movie asks it in a way that leaves open a range of answers, its focus on the how the question might be posed and whom it might address. Holy Motors may even be proposing that the line between life and movies has dissolved to the point of being academic. And it may be saying the life has become such a production—such a staged production—that it might as well be a movie…

Holy Motors is playing now in very limited release; make sure to check it out. My full review is at PopMatters.

You can see the trailer here:

Reader’s Corner: Jacques Barzun (1907-2012)

Last week, the academic and writer Jacques Barzun passed away at the age of 104. Born in France, he came to the United States in between the world wars and found a perch at Columbia University in New York, from where he was able to survey and critique his adopted country with the dispassionate eye that so few of the native-born ever manage.

His most popular work, From Dawn to Decadence, an imposing-looking but compulsively readable work, was nothing less than a review of the past 500 years of Western civilization. He published that when he was a mere 92 years old.

Although Barzun’s sometimes baleful beliefs about the decline in Western culture were echoed by some conservatives, he didn’t have much truck with the right-wing suspicion of a non-specialized and nonutilitarian education. From the New York Times obituary:

Mr. Barzun may have been most influential in his arguing for a form of Romantic liberalism in American education. He believed that the mission of the university should have nothing to do with professional training or political advocacy. The university, he wrote, should not be a “public utility”; rather it should be a “city of the mind” devoted to the intellectual currents of Western civilization.

That being said, Barzun also had little patience for the politicking and insulated views of his fellow academics. In his 1959 book The House of Intellect, he opined that:

 The intellectuals’ chief cause of anguish are one another’s works.

One of the better appraisals of Barzun’s life and work—whose reputation suffered in intellectual circles as it was written for a popular, if still learned, audience, instead of fellow intellectuals—as well as our dangerous lack of broad-interest intellectuals, comes from Joseph Epstein:

[Barzun’s death] is a reminder that a great model of the life of the mind has departed the planet. Not many such models left, if any.