One of the more overlooked films of 2012 was the Matt Damon and John Krasinski-scripted Promised Land, possibly because it was marketed as a film about the gas-fracking controversy, when in fact it’s a smart and sensitive drama-comedy about the broader state of the nation.
It hit DVD and Blu-ray last week, here’s part of my review:
“You’re the natural gas people.” That’s how folks identify Steve (Matt Damon) and Sue (Frances McDormand). There’s a lot to unpack in that assessment, and Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land is smart enough to take most of its running time to do so, spinning a clever moral comedy at the same time. In those few words are contained just about every element, from hope to greed to fear and anxiety, that makes up the emotive froth of American malaise, circa 2012…
It’s been a few years, but the inimitable Wong Kar Wai is back with a new film. Eschewing the fashion-plate romanticism of In the Mood for Love that made him en vogue with the culturati, he’s now returning to the impressionist wuxia films of his earlier career (Ashes of Time and such). The Grandmaster looks to be a full-on period martial-arts blowout, starring Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, last seen on this side of the Pacific in John Woo’s epic Red Cliff.
Weinstein Company is planning for an August 2013 release, but don’t be surprised if that gets pushed back when the director decides to do some more editing or shoot additional footage.
The 2013 edition of the Tribeca Film Festival, which runs through this weekend, is starting off well. The planners are continuing their trend of paring down the offerings and focusing more on their strengths (on-point documentaries, the occasional high-profile indie drama or comedy) than trying to appeal to everybody with a scattershot program overly reliant on marquee names and red-carpet events. The result is many stories about grim things, from Oxycontin abuse in Appalachia to the 1985 Philadelphia police’s fatal bombing of a radical group’s rowhouse.
I’ve been covering some of the first weekend’s films for PopMatters, here’s some of what was on offer:
The Project and Big Men — Mercenaries stumble in creating an anti-pirate militia in Puntland, while American wildcatters confront pitfalls aplenty in Ghana and Nigeria, in two documentaries examining crises in Africa.
Let the Fire Burn and The Kill Team — Two documentary autopsies of violent tragedies, the first in Philadelphia and the second in Kandahar, show the results of systematic dehumanization.
Oxyana and Bottled Up — A gritty documentary and fluffy comedy bring a similarly hardheaded sensibility to the invisible epidemic of pain pill addiction.
There are writers who don’t need a system to get their work done. They can go with what one could term the Stephen King method: Read a lot and write a lot. Sometimes, though, that straight-out approach doesn’t hack it. You’re blocked, you’re uninspired, you just don’t want to do it. That’s when writers resort to tricks and hacks to force themselves into productivity. Some need solitude, some need noise, some use a particular kind of writing software, some have a program on their laptop that doesn’t let them waste time on the Interwebs… The ever-precious Jonathan Franzen writes with:
noise-canceling headphones, on which I can blast frequency-shifted white noise (“pink noise”) that drowns out even the most determined woofing of a neighbor’s television set…
It goes on.
One other thing writers like to do (besides procrastinate and read their own reviews while claiming they never do so) is read or listen to more successful writers go on about their methods. The idea being, well, if it worked for Joyce Carol Oates, maybe I should try it out.
Novelist Ben Dolnick has a sharp essay about this in the New York Times called “Stupid Writer Tricks,” where he talks about his not-exactly helpful obsession with gleaning tips from writer interviews. Reading that Philip Roth likes to write at a standing desk or Hemingway always kept a small notebook on him seems like the sort of thing that might work out … until it doesn’t:
I had, for a long time, a profound vulnerability to hearing about these sorts of routines. Of course I knew that writing was terrifically hard work, and that there was no secret code, as in a video game, that would unlock Tolstoy-mode, enabling me to crank out canon-worthy novellas before lunch. But I persisted in believing that I might one day come upon some technique, some set of tricks, that would vault me irreversibly onto the professional plane. I didn’t have a working printer, but I agreed wholeheartedly with Joan Didion that I needed to be sleeping in the same room as my manuscript, so as never to lose touch with it. It would be years before I’d written so much as a single chapter of a novel, but I knew that when I finished a book, I would, like Anthony Trollope, begin my next one on the very same day.
Dolnick doesn’t chuck the whole idea of writing techniques, finding them to have their purpose. But he decides it’s ultimately more about how you approach writing than your technique; calmness is key:
If, though, you can reach out from a position of calm, as a swimmer reaches out for a kickboard before turning to begin his next lap, then you might find yourself feeling what all the tricks and tips are finally pointing toward: freedom. You might surprise yourself — roll onto your back, do a flutter kick, or just float for a while. The water, after all, is the point, and not how you scratch away at it.
Some of us might at times write more lucidly and energetically in a state of great agitation and nerve. But in the end, doesn’t it flow better when you’re actually enjoying the process? Write with joy, in other words. Unless you’re blocked, in which case, do whatever you must to make the words come.
At first it might seem strange that the folks over at Criterion would bother putting out an edition of Repo Man. After all, isn’t it really a film meant to be watched on a bad $2 bargain-bin DVD or a miserably grainy VHS tape from a decades-old cable broadcast? Possibly, but on new viewing, this is one of those cult films that actually deserves getting this treatment, brand-spanking new transfer, deleted scenes and all.
The scuzz-punk doom comedy of Alex Cox’s 1984 underground touchstone makes for a creepy visitation from a fracturing society. Released at the midpoint of the Reagan era’s celebration of suburban consumerism, it had a gutter-level view of Los Angeles’ bleached-out sprawl and social entropy. Its characters tend toward the feral: repo men who hunt the cars whose owners can’t pay up, shotgun-toting punks, cold-eyed federal agents, or bugged-out cult followers. Hints of an oppressive police state are everywhere, and the scent of nuclear apocalypse is on the land. In the middle of all the science-fiction-tinged end-times bleakness, though, Cox mines a catchphrase-studded seam of absurdist humor that’s one of the film’s most durable qualities…
Here’s the trailer, in all its grotty gloriousness:
In Francois Ozon’s pitch-perfect comedy In the House, a cynical schoolteacher who’s also a failed writer becomes obsessed with a student’s supposedly autobiographical essays about stalking a friend’s family. It’s a sharp piece of work, knowing and cynical without being obvious, and possibly too smart for its own good.
For a film that starts with a young Glaswegian man getting arrested for public intoxication and includes plenty of fighting-drunk altercations, Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share curiously puts a lot of faith in the power of careful and professional imbibing of spirits, particularly whiskey.
It’s a mostly tolerable and uplifting story with a few descents into the expected makwishness, but possible worth your time if you can seek it out at the local arthouse.
Neil Gaiman gave the keynote talk at the start of the 2013 London Book Fair, where—after, before, and while doing the actual business of publishing—everybody will again go through many rounds of amateur and professional prognostication about where the industry is going.
Gaiman declined to make any grand pronouncements on the issue of whither-digital, noting that it will continue to change the landscape in many dramatic and unexpected ways. He did share a conversation he had with the late, great Douglas Adams years before e-books were a reality (remember that Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide was really just the sci-fi prototype for the iPad) where they talked about what would happen once that came about:
“I asked him if he thought the inevitable e-book would mean the end of the physical book,” Gaiman said. Adams replied by noting that sharks existed alongside dinosaurs, and yet sharks are still around. “That’s because nothing has ever come along that was quite as good at being a shark as a shark is,” Gaiman said, adding that books, too, are very good at being books.
So the wise folks over at the Pulitzer committee gave out their 2013 awards and there was a nice surprise there in the fiction column. The winner was Adam Johnson’s brilliantly perverse black comedy of North Korean mind tricks, The Orphan Master’s Son.
I reviewed the book for PopMatters when it first came out in early 2012, here. It’s available now in paperback.
And since we’re in that brave new world of video book publicity, here’s the novel’s trailer:
Quentin Tarantino’s Christmas 2012 genre mashup bloodbath Django Unchained gets released on DVD and Blu-ray today. It’s no classic by any measure (that writing Oscar wasn’t exactly earned), but at least half of it is better than just about anything else out there right now.
Tarantino works fast in these early sections, delivering several loose riffs on typical western showdowns and balancing them out with a couple of comic scenes that land in a pleasing middle somewhere between Blazing Saddles and (particularly in a “Who’s on first?”-type routine with a masked lynch mob hunting Django and Schultz) O Brother, Where Art Thou? A high point of bafflingly hilarious absurdity comes when Don Johnson appears as a plantation owner given to Colonel Sanders suits and prolix verbosity. The humor plays well throughout (Django even gets a catch-phrase: “The ‘D’ is silent”) but at the disadvantage of dulling the edge of the script’s visceral portrayal of the savagery of slavery—a problem that gets more pronounced by the film’s gory climax…
So how long has everyone known about Louis C.K.? You try to be a culturally aware person, up on the latest things, familiar with the trending performers, and so on and so forth. But every now and again one or more slips through the cracks and you just … miss it. Then, you’re behind the curve, and the more people go on about him or her, you figure, well, I’ll get around to it eventually. And then you do. And then you realize … what took me so long?
Case in point, Louis C.K.’s latest special, Oh My God. If you read my review of it that ran on PopMattersyesterday, you might be forgiven for thinking that this particular writer had been following this guy’s career for years, when in fact it was a very recent development, and long overdue.
Anyways, it’s a great hour of comedy, here’s part of my review:
Whenever Chuck Klosterman gets tired of writing the New York Times’ “Ethicist” column, the editors there should consider throwing out a feeler to Louis C.K. They might have to put up with a few gags about the Holocaust and child murder, but he’s actually a good fit for the position. His media profile is that of the controversial shock-comic who leaps into territory that might daunt Sarah Silverman. But what’s always been most interesting about C.K. is his quaintly earnest examination of morality and life’s purpose, with the occasional joke about cannibalism…
Almost perfectly designed to come and go quickly from theaters, leaving mostly silence but a few nattering and persistent fans in its wake, It’s a Disaster is a tart comedy for chilly times. From my review at Film Journal International:
The current vogue for apocalypse stories gets a refreshing redo in Todd Berger’s nimble comedy about a miserable brunch that turns only mildly more sour after the realization that everyone is just hours away from death. The lack of both zombies and stars, not to mention the inside-out mockery of genre tropes, will keep wider audiences at a distance. But strong word of mouth could result in a small cult hit, at least among those who don’t mind a film whose attitude toward its doomed characters is simple and damning: Good riddance…
It’s a Disaster opened yesterday in very limited release; find it however and wherever you can.
When Terence Malick visited The Tree of Life on the world, it was something of a revelation. Whether viewers found it masterful and meaningful or grandiose and just plain silly, it left an impression. His newest, To the Wonder—in which Ben Affleck wanders around France and Oklahoma looking almost as lost as his female co-stars—draws from the same themes and stylistic template but to much lesser effect.
Almost a decade ago, Shane Carruth made a tight little puzzler of a science-fiction film called Primer about engineers who accidentally create a time machine; the results make Inception look as easy to decipher as a Michael Bay film.
For his second film, a just-as-puzzling but wider-ranging psychological experiment going under the name Upstream Color, he broadened his scope and palette, throwing a love story into the midst of a mesmerizing thriller about a bizarre kidnap plot. The result is obfuscating, but in a gorgeous and possibly life-illuminating way.
Upstream Color just opened in limited release; it should be sneaking into smarter cinemas around the country over the next couple of months. Expect it to show up on a lot of most-loved and most-hated lists at the year’s end.