New in Books: ‘Comandante: Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela’


book-comandante-rorycarroll-cvr-2001In 1992, a paratrooper named Hugo Chavez took part in a failed coup to overthrow the government of Venezuela. He was jailed but soon released, much to the chagrin of the nation’s oil-powered oligarchs. In 1999, he swept to power as a pseudo-socialist populist who promised to solve everybody’s problems and be a Simon Bolivar for the new millennium. By the time of his death in 2013, Venezuela was a near-collapsed, crime-ridden basket case, where years of empty rhetoric had failed to paper over catastrophic declines in nearly every institution.

My review of Rory Carroll’s excellent new book on Chavez and his cult of personality, Comandante, ran in PopMatters. Here’s part of it:

Blessed with a subject like Chávez, Carroll writes in Technicolor, his prose splashed with remarkable detail. He shows a ruler obsessed with image and symbol, but incapable at following through on an even the most mundane details of his job. Carroll captures the quiet and determined hum of activity in Miraflores and the hub of surrounding ministries known as “El Silencio”. which looks busy to the casual observer but actually obscured a government in which every decision funneled through one man and nothing was ever followed through on. (Chavez loved to create ministries; nobody could ever keep track of how many there were, much less what they were supposed to do.) …

You can read an excerpt of the book here.

Quote of the Day: Veterans’ Edition

vietnam1To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not.

– Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried


New in Theaters: ‘Frances Ha’

frances ha1
Mickey Sumner and Greta Gerwig live the perfect friendship in ‘Frances Ha’

film-francesha-poster-200Greta Gerwig co-wrote and stars in Frances Ha, the new black-and-white pseudo French New Wave comedy from Noah Baumbach, whose Greenberg served as Gerwig’s calling card to Hollywood. It’s a dark-ish comedy, but with plenty of romp and play that should make it a solid summer offering for those less interested in checking out Fast & Furious 6.

Frances Ha is playing now in limited release, and should expand around the country over the summer.

My review ran at PopMatters; here’s part of it:

If life were like school, and grades were actually assigned in this manner, than the titular star of Noah Baumbach’s fresh-faced and spirited black and white comedy Frances Ha would get an “A” for effort. As played by Greta Gerwig, one of the most intriguing and effortless performers on the current American film scene, Frances is a flailing wipeout at life. She’s a dancer who can’t quite dance and a 27-year-old who doesn’t possess furniture, much less any clue as to where her life might lead…

You can watch the trailer here:


New in Books: ‘The Unwinding’


(Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $27)

Back in 2005, George Packer published The Assassin’s Gate, the near-definitive account of how the American invasion of Iraq devolved from poorly-planned adventure to hallucinatory nightmare. His newest book, The Unwinding, is about another kind of disaster that should have been foreseen: The unraveling of the institutions, standards, and norms of American society. It’s a sprawling oral history of the empty promises of consumerist individuality (the suburban sprawl of the mind) that pulsates with rage and sadness but also stabs of optimism.

My essay on Packer’s book, “Free to Be Depressed and Alone,” was published today at The Millions. Here’s part of it:

That keen sense of loss and cloudy chaos rings chime-like through The Unwinding. Packer starts each chapter with a cacophony of voices plucked from a particular year’s media stream. Then the oral histories themselves show people thrashing about as they always have — for careers, for love, for purpose, for the damn rent — only increasingly without any help from a larger society. Unions decline, families fall apart, executives break the company apart for a stock dividend, and politicians cower in terror of the almighty bond market…

The Unwinding went on sale this week. NPR has an excerpt of the book here.

New in Books: ‘A Delicate Truth’

delicatetruth1John le Carré‘s 23rd novel, A Delicate Truth, is a tiring piece of work. Not that it’s not a perfectly good read, because it hums along at a swifter clip than some of the master’s classic older works. But it has a sense of moral outrage embedded in the scandal-espionage plotline, about a rogue mercenary operation that goes south, that feels just plain worn out by the modern world’s venality.

My review was published at PopMatters, here’s a bit of it:

Le Carré has long operated as a shadow Ian Fleming. For all the lone-man heroics of the Bond stories, with their (of late) painted-on world weariness, le Carré‘s men and women operated in murkier territories. They root about in cavernous bureaucracies where the deadly game of spying, information-trading, and executive actions are handled by committee meetings no more dramatic than a gathering of insurance sales executives. The only glamour came from the occasional grim satisfaction of a task well handled. In A Delicate Truth, there’s even less for the characters to hang on to, or readers. The world has gone foggy…

A Delicate Truth is currently on sale just about everywhere. Here’s an excerpt.


New on DVD: ‘Side Effects’

Rooney Mara in Soderbergh’s ‘Side Effects’

side-effects-dvd-cover-30Steven Soderbergh’s pharma-thriller Side Effects —out today on DVD and Blu-ray—appears to be the polymath filmmaker’s last feature film. (His apparently truly last film, the Liberace biopic, Beyond the Candelabra, premieres on HBO this weekend, since no studio had the imagination or spine to release it even to a few theaters.)

My full review of Side Effects originally ran at Film Journal International, here’s part of it:

The film’s ad campaign hinted at something vaguely related to Contagion, playing up the fact that both movies share a director (Soderbergh) and screenwriter (Scott Z. Burns), and that they are structured around a specific modern-day fear. While that pandemic film was more a fully realized, flesh-and-blood fictional story than it was a docudrama, Side Effects is really a sleekly constructed noir where the pharmaceutical topicality is mostly backdrop…

You can watch the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Stories We Tell’

Sarah Polley films the film in ‘Stories We Tell’

storieswetell-posterWith her films Away From You and Take This Waltz, Sarah Polley has proven to be a ridiculously sharp and gimlet-eyed young filmmaker—who’s also an accomplished actress, should she ever want to return to it.

In her newest, Stories We Tell, Polley digs into the not-so-hidden secrets of her family history using a variety of methods: self-aware techniques, contradictory stories, re-created “home movie” footage, and plenty of dry humor. It’s a wonderful piece of work all things told, honest and playful and curiously wise.

Stories We Tell opens on Friday. My review is at Film Racket, here’s part of it:

To understand how memory is fluid, just ask two relatives to recall the same incident. More often than not, their recollections will have major discrepancies. Next, throw in more family members from different generations, and layer onto that a mealy mix of secrets; pretty soon a simple story turns into a Russian novel. That’s what Sarah Polley comes up with in her engrossing documentary exploration of how the bricks of memory are untidily piled together to create messy and incomplete personal stories, and out of those stories comes a life. Or a version thereof…

You can check out the trailer here:

New on DVD: ‘Cloud Atlas’


cloudatlas-dvdDavid Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas is one of those books that has been long assumed to be unfilmmable. But then the Wachowskis jumped into it, bringing on board 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 and made for one of 2012’s most memorable, if under-seen, epics.

Cloud Atlas is available today on Blu-ray and DVD. My full review is available at PopMattershere’s part of it:

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…

You can watch the extended trailer here:


New on DVD: ‘Not Fade Away’

Bella Heathcoate and John Magaro in 'Not Fade Away'
Bella Heathcoate and John Magaro in ‘Not Fade Away’

not-fade-away-dvdIt wasn’t the most obvious project for David Chase to take on after The Sopranos—many thought he should just do a crime movie—but his 1960s garage band comedy Not Fade Away has some of the same roots of the TV show (dysfunctional family, Jersey) while striking into new territory (a lighter, satirical touch).

For everyone who missed Not Fade Away in theaters (which was most everybody, given how short its run was), you can now check it out on DVD and Blu-ray.

My full review is at PopMatters:

If it weren’t for the playful sense of fantasy and satire that licks through Not Fade Away, the weight of its pop cultural nostalgia would be almost overpowering. Every TV seems to be playingThe Twilight Zone and most of the young people are listening to the circa 1960s brash new music or aping the mannerisms of the bands themselves. The walls of these suburban New Jersey homes feel like those of small prison cells. Everybody’s either resigned to living inside them forever or itching to bust out…

The trailer is here:


Writer’s Room: Make It Hard on Yourself

The scarecrow was made of straw ... so it applies

Ta-Nehisi Coates posted a piece in The Atlantic a few days back about how to be the best kind of political-opinion journalist. His advise is well-suited for those many who make their livings opinionating throughout the Beltway mediaverse and blogosphere, but is also a good rule of thumb for writers in general:

…To paraphrase Douglass, a writer is worked on by what she works on. If you spend your time raging at the weakest arguments, or your most hysterical opponents, expect your own intellect to suffer. The intellect is a muscle; it must be exercised.

He’s talking about the bad habits of political writers, who tend to pick the most obvious strawmen to go after as a way of formulating their own beliefs. This is an attractive way of operating, but ultimately lazy.

But everybody who puts pen to paper or key to blog is well served with this advice: Don’t do what you’ve always done. This isn’t to say that all writers shouldn’t identify their areas of strength, but to never venture outside those safer realms is to risk creative calcification.


New in Theaters: ‘The Iceman’

Michael Shannon plays ‘The Iceman’

iceman_posterRichard Kuklinski was a hitman for a branch of the New Jersey mob up through the 1980s, though he also had a sideline in killing for his own pursuits or just plain kicks. In one of the more obvious casting choices ever, Michael Shannon plays Kuklinski as a stone-faced monolith in The Iceman, a film that might be based on true events but feels as false as a dozen other mob flick knockoffs (complete with energetic but wasted Ray Liotta performance) from the past couple decades.

The Iceman is playing now, here and there. My review is at Film Racket.

The trailer is here:

New in Theaters: ‘Love Is All You Need’

Pierce Brosnan and Trine Dyrholm consider whether ‘Love Is All You Need’

loveisallyouneed-posterThere’s nothing about the premise of Susanne Bier’s Love Is All You Need that sounds promising. A young couple plans their wedding in a sumptuous Italian villa while their newly-single parents strike up a potential romance of their own. Add some comic relief annoyances and the stage is set for wacky misunderstandings and love under the lemon trees. The result, while not spectacular, is fortunately much more satisfying than expected.

Love Is All You Need opens today in limited release. My review is at Film Racket.

Here’s the trailer:

Media Room: The Boys Clubs


Have you heard about how the glass ceiling has been shattered by women moving into positions of power across American industry? No? Neither has New Republic reporter Lydia DePillis, whose new Tumblr 100 Percent Men does nothing but highlight all the “Corners of the world where women have yet to tread.” Some highly sarcastic selections:

So some are more surprising than others (NASCAR). As snark goes, it’s a handy flashlight on the unspoken biases still permeating a society that has supposedly moved beyond such things.