New on DVD: ‘Promised Land’

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promisedland-dvdOne 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…

You can see the trailer here:

Trailer Park: ‘The Grandmaster’

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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.

Here’s the trailer:

 

Tribeca Film Festival 2013: Dire Things

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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.

More to come.

Writer’s Room: The Tricks We Use

I'm telling you, this chapter is killing me...
I’m telling you, this chapter is killing me…

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.

New on DVD: ‘Repo Man’

Emilio Estevez gives his best punk-rock face in 'Repo Man'
Emilio Estevez gives his best punk-rock face in ‘Repo Man’

repoman-dvdAt 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.

From my review at Film Racket:

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:

New in Theaters: ‘In the House’

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Everyone’s watching everyone in ‘In the House’

in_the_house-posterIn 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.

In the House opened this week in limited release.

My full review is available at Film Racket.

Here’s the trailer:

 

 

Now Playing: ‘The Angels’ Share’

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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.

My review ran in Film Journal International.

Here’s the trailer: