New in Books: ‘The Way of the Knife’

Predator drone operators at Balad Air Force Base in Iraq, 2007
Predator drone operators at Balad Air Force Base in Iraq, 2007

Suddenly, about midway through the twelfth year of the post-9/11 conflicts, America decided to have a conversation about drones and the forever war. Books and op-eds were written, opinions voiced. Then all that was forgotten.

book-wayofknife-mazzetti-cvr-200In April, though, Pulitzer Prize-winner Mark Mazzetti delivered The Way of the Knife, a precise little guidebook to all the secretive ways that America has been waging war without borders or oversight just about anywhere in the world we darn well please.

My full review is at PopMatters; here’s part:

When people of the future look back on America’s first wars of the 21st century, they will study the flash-bang invasions and slow-death occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq in the decade-and-a-half following 9/11. Lessons to be learned are many and complex, though occasionally quite simple. Don’t invade countries without an exit strategy, for example. Avoid using vengeful locals or untrained and unsupervised National Guardsmen to run prisons; that would be another. Train at least a few guys to speak something besides English—preferably the langue of the country they’re occupying.

It’s less clear what lessons will be gleaned from America’s third undeclared and so-far nameless war; since we’re still right in the middle of it…

You can buy The Way of the Knife anywhere. Here’s an excerpt.

New in Theaters: ‘Byzantium’

Saorise Ronan deals with bloody eternity in 'Byzantium'
Saorise Ronan deals with bloody eternity in ‘Byzantium’

BYZANTIUM-PosterIt’s been a while since Neil Jordan tried his hand at the vampire game. With his newest, Byzantium, he is working on a smaller and more intimate scale than in Interview with the Vampire (Saorise Ronan and Gemma Arterton inside of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise). It’s gloomy and capital “R” Romantic; Keats, not Meyer), which could explain the limited distribution.

Byzantium opened in limited release Friday. My full review is at Film Racket; here’s part:

Just when werewolf armies, zombie hordes, and Stephenie Meyer’s affectless prose seemed to have done in the poor old vampire film, along comes this gloomy, glossy little oddity about the deathless from Neil Jordan. Like in his elegant take on Interview with the Vampire, Jordan’s vampires are a study in dichotomy; either happy to bury themselves in the bloody necessities of their survival or morally indecisive. In the meantime, they have eternity to deal with, and not a whole lot of money or options for living it…

You can watch the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘How to Make Money Selling Drugs’


A few times every year, journalists, artists, and filmmakers try to make the case to end America’s war on drugs. Expensive, ineffectual, corrupting … the list of reasons is legion. Yet nothing ever quite seems to change.

The latest salvo in this effort in Matthew Clarke’s compelling if overly jokey documentary, How to Make Money Selling Drugs, which is playing now in limited release after a number of successful festival screenings. Filled with interviews with dealers themselves (from “Freeway” Rick Ross to 50 Cent), as well as DEA agents, narcotics officers, and the random user (Eminem) and commentator (The Wire‘s David Simon), it’s got something for just about everyone.

My full review is at Film Journal International; here’s part of it:

… Cooke means the title to be taken quite seriously…sort of. Setting itself up as a kind of instructional video for would-be drug dealers, the film is structured as a step-by-step “training guide” to making it to the top of a viciously competitive but highly lucrative (albeit illegal) industry. Cooke advances his film level by level through the various layers of criminal enterprise (“Level One: Getting Started” to the top level: Cartels), examining all the operational hazards and institutional hypocrisies encountered along the way…

You can watch the trailer here:

On Writing: Scare Yourself

When zombies attack.
When zombies attack.

Hard as it might be for viewers of the new World War Z to believe, the book that it was based on was neither meant to be tongue-in-cheek or horror. Its author, Max Brooks (the very lucky son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft), intended for the book to examine some extremely real concerns about pandemics and modern society, just as its predecessor The Zombie Survival Guide was inspired by the world’s long inattention to the AIDS plague.

worldwarz-bookcoverIn this profile for the New York Times magazine, Brooks lays out a few things that he believes differentiates himself from your run of the mill zombie writer. For one, his zombies are slow (not like in the very loosely adapted Brad Pitt film): “Brooks is an ardent believer in slow zombies. He doesn’t even want to try to comprehend how we’d deal with fast ones.” Also, he’s just normally a very scared person:

What he can’t understand is the horror fans.

“I’m not a horror fan,” he said. “I’m an anti-horror fan. I think horror fans feel deep down in the pit of their souls, they feel safe, and therefore bored. And therefore they want to be scared. I already have a baseline level of just anxiety about the world I live in,” he continued, metaphorically pushing the horror genre away from him on the table. “I don’t need to go seeking it out.”

No, his books aren’t horror, and he’s relieved that his books aren’t in the horror section. But he’s miffed that they’re in the humor section. “I would have put it in self-help. Or how-to.” He shakes his head. “I can’t think of anything less funny than dying in a zombie attack.”

The lesson here for aspiring writers of horror, zombie or otherwise, could be this: Try to terrify yourself first with what already scares you about everyday life. Don’t go looking for something absurd and unbelievable. Then worry about scaring your audience.

Trailer Park: ‘Salinger’

SALINGER_FINALThe theories that have swirled around the reclusive J.D. Salinger over the decades since his disappearance are many and mostly ridiculous (a personal favorite being that he actually still walks among us … writing as Thomas Pynchon). It’s what happens when you write a defining novel like The Catcher in the Rye and then just drop off the face of the earth.

It will be interesting to see what Shane Salerno’s award-potential documentary Salinger is going to be able to come up with when it opens this fall. What pops up in the trailer looks to be a mix of biography, adulation from various literary types and actors, and wildly imaginative speculation—the most enticing of which being: Is there a new book in the offing?

You can check out the trailer here:

Writers’ Corner: The Grammar Cops

sherman-alexieOne of America’s more multitalented fictionalists (is that a word? Why not?), Sherman Alexie, contributed mightily to the sanity of many struggling writers the other day when he delivered the following tweet:

Grammar cops are rarely good writers. Imagination always disobeys.

You could argue that this attitude is just plain laziness, a disinclination on the part of frazzled scriveners already overburdened with dicta from various seminars (“Show, don’t tell,” and so on) who don’t want to be bothered with yet more rules impeding their creative flow. Clearly, there are many writers who scrupulously follow their Strunk & White and turn out some damn good books.

When it comes to writing, particularly fiction, rules are there for a reason: to guide to less-talented (or just less successful) of us through the mires of our own procrastination and indecision. But when you’re good enough, it all goes out the window. In other words, if you are going to disobey, disobey well.

GalleyCat has some of the better responses to Alexie here.

Now Playing: ‘Something in the Air’

Lola Creton and Clément Métayer look for meaningful revolt in 'Something in the Air'
Lola Creton and Clément Métayer look for meaningful revolt in ‘Something in the Air’

somethingintheair-posterIn Olivier Assayas’ newest film, French teenagers dive headlong into the ferment of political and cultural revolt, circa 1971. Something in the Air doesn’t have the adrenaline rush of Assayas’ crime epic Carlos but it shares that film’s interest in what makes idealists tick.

Something in the Air is still playing in limited release around the country. Try and catch it on the big screen if possible. My review is at PopMatters; here’s part:

Quiet and mop-haired Gilles  spends half of his time churning out paintings and sketches and the other half selling underground magazines and trying to help the broad-based struggle. Like any teenager, he’s brimming over with romance and can’t decide what to do with it all. He has one girlfriend, the enigmatic Laure, who gives him thoughtful critiques of his work and also her own poetry chapbooks. After she heads off to London with her family, he is drawn toward the more serious-minded Christine, who takes a different view of the arts, that they should exist to further the revolution. All else is just bourgeois nonsense…

You can watch the trailer here:


New on DVD: ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’

James Franco (the one in the hat) in ‘Oz the Great and Powerful’

oz-dvd1L. Frank Baum’s fantastical Oz series gets turned into another CGI spectacle with Sam Raimi’s pretty but pretty unremarkable Oz the Great and Powerful, which hit shelves today on DVD and Blu-ray.

My review is over at Film Racket; here’s part of it:

Sam Raimi’s big and splashy but tin-eared prequel Oz the Great and Powerful turns the spirit of the 1937 The Wizard of Oz inside out. Oz is no longer the place where misguided Earth youths like Dorothy can discover how special home really is. This time, Oz — with its expensively imagined rainbow- and candy-colored vistas of cold, computer-generated wonderment — is all things to its titular human interloper. For Oz the man, he would never think to say there’s no place like home, since dreary old black-and-white Kansas offers no home for him. They never appreciated his act back there anyway. The land of Oz, on the other hand, provides the greatest audience he’s ever seen…

You can watch the trailer here:

On Cinema: ‘Frances Ha’ in IMAX!

THRILL to Greta Gerwig's dancing in 'Frances Ha' in IMAX!
THRILL to Greta Gerwig’s dancing in ‘Frances Ha’ in IMAX!

It’s been nice to see The Onion spicing up their pages with the addition of some bold-faced names lately. Check out, for example, Joyce Carol Oates’ recent advice to aspiring young writers trying to get published (“A good writer should always be curious, constantly looking around for new and more powerful people to sleep with”).

Almost better, though is this satirical piece from director Noah Baumbach (or an Onion staffer doing a nice impersonation of his dry style that’s been used for a few “Shouts & Murmurs” essays in the New Yorker) about his new talky black-and-white micro-budget comedy, Frances Ha; now helpfully providing summer counter-programming for all those who don’t feel like seeing anything with The Rock in it. In short, Baumbach says, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen this sucker in 3D:

I just went all out when I was writing it, tailoring every character and scene for maximum impact on a six-story IMAX screen in a 601-person amphitheater…. And the effect, to be honest, is simply stunning. Through the magic of IMAX, every social faux pas, every quiet epiphany, every dinner party, and every awkward conversational exchange practically jumps off the screen. You feel as though you can almost reach out and touch the glass of white wine that a character is drinking. Simply put, no celluloid version of Frances Ha could provide the same visceral impact as witnessing a 30-foot-tall Greta Gerwig towering above the audience as she negotiates her relationship with her best friend or tries to find an apartment, all displayed in vivid black-and-white.

Now, if only it were true; the possibilities are nearly endless.

New in Theaters: ‘Violet and Daisy’

Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan get all giggly before their next hit in 'Violet and Daisey'
Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan get all giggly before their next hit in ‘Violet and Daisey’

VIOLETDAISY_FINAL_POSTER1A few years back, Geoffrey Fletcher wrote the screenplay for Lee Daniels’ scorching tale of family dysfunction Precious. Now Fletcher is directing his own script for another wildly over-the-top story, only this time it’s supposed to be an archly ironic assassin comedy.

Violet and Daisy is playing now in very very limited release. My review ran at Film Journal International; here’s part:

Fletcher starts off strong, with a pair of teenage-looking girls staring despondently at a poster announcing the cancellation of a concert by their hero, Barbie Sunday. Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) go to work anyway. We next see them walking down the street carrying pizza boxes and dressed up as nuns. Chattering brightly, they knock on an apartment door. Once it’s opened, the two start blazing away with semi-automatic pistols. Several dead guys later, the two are revealed to be hit-girls-for-hire working for some never-seen crime boss who apparently needs people rubbed out just about every other day…

You can watch the trailer here:

Reader’s Corner: Abraham Lincoln in His Day

Lincoln giving his address at Gettysburg -- he's the one in the tall black hat.
Lincoln giving his address at Gettysburg — he’s the one in the tall black hat.

Given the lionization and demonization that certain political figures attain after their death, it’s hard to remember that in their time, very few leaders are seen in such black-and-white terms. In England, Neville Chamberlain was not universally reviled, and Winston Churchill had enough detractors that he was quickly escorted from office after the war ended.

lincolnalife1In America, our most sainted president after George Washington is likely Abraham Lincoln. There is good reason for this, of course, but it’s always healthy to keep in mind that in his time there were more than a few who thought the man little more than an idiot.

Mark Bowden’s recent piece on Lincoln in the Atlantic points this out. Quoting heavily from Michael Burlingame’s 2008 biography Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Bowden highlights the criticism that Lincoln received while in office, the likes of which makes modern-day cable-news shouters seem tame by comparison:

His ancestry was routinely impugned, his lack of formal learning ridiculed, his appearance maligned, and his morality assailed…. No matter what Lincoln did, it was never enough for one political faction, and too much for another. Yes, his sure-footed leadership during this country’s most-difficult days was accompanied by a fair amount of praise, but also by a steady stream of abuse—in editorials, speeches, journals, and private letters—from those on his own side, those dedicated to the very causes he so ably championed. George Templeton Strong, a prominent New York lawyer and diarist, wrote that Lincoln was “a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla.” … Other Northern newspapers openly called for his assassination long before John Wilkes Booth pulled the trigger. He was called a coward, “an idiot,” and “the original gorilla” by none other than the commanding general of his armies, George McClellan.

This doesn’t prove that today’s climate of commentary has advanced any from the mid-19th century; far from it. But Bowden’s article is worth thinking of when trying to assess exactly how a sitting president will be judged by history. This applies to Barack Obama, both Bushes, Clinton, and possibly even back to Reagan and Carter; their true reckoning may still need decades of perspective and multiple historical tomes to truly emerge. Remember what Zhou Enlai (1898–1976) supposedly said when asked about the French Revolution of 1789: “It is too soon to tell.”

Bowden again:

Imagine all those critical voices from the 19th century as talking heads on cable television. Imagine the snap judgments, the slurs and put-downs that beset Lincoln magnified a million times over on social media. How many of us, in that din, would hear him clearly? His story illustrates that even greatness—let alone humbler qualities like skill, decency, good judgment, and courage—rarely goes unpunished.


Now Playing: ‘Before Midnight’

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, still romancing each other in 'Before Midnight'
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, still romancing each other in ‘Before Midnight’

before_midnight-posterIn 1995, Richard Linklater impressed with Before Sunrise, a sharp, talky piece about Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a traveling American who meets Celine (Julie Delpy), a beguiling young French woman, on a train. Nine  years later, in Before Sunset, the two meet again, nine years older. Both films were redolent with romantic longing and possibility. Now in Before Midnight, the two are married, and it doesn’t seem like mere love is going to cut it anymore.

Before Midnight is playing now around the country. My review is at Film Racket; here’s part of it:

Before Midnight turns out to be a bright, good-humored, and painfully combative love story that stings more than it soothes. In it, modern cinema’s most enduring couple discovers what life is like after peeling back the veil of conjoined love and discovering the specters of selfishness lurking behind. Every moment of this swift yet relaxed film (time-compressed like the first two, it all happens over just one sunny day and moonlit evening) feels like a negotiation or a skirmish, viciously fought…

You can watch the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

Alexis Denisof  and Amy Acker play Benedick and Beatrice in Joss Whedon's 'Much Ado About Nothing'
Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker play Benedick and Beatrice in Joss Whedon’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

much-ado-about-nothing-posterWhen Joss Whedon finished with his 2012 megahit The Avengers, he had some time off. How to fill that time? Well, obviously, make another movie! He brought a passel of actors over to his Spanish-style mansion and spent a few weeks filming a modern-dress, black-and-white adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing on his own dime. The result is a superbly fresh and winsome comedy that opens on Friday.

My full review is at Film Journal International; here’s part of it:

While cleaving away some of Shakespeare’s more dragging plot points, Whedon hews to the original text. He also lets the plot breathe and move at its own quick pace, trusting the audience not to require the anxious pushiness of Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version. This refusal to juice the material with gimmickry pays out handsomely, as Whedon’s crackerjack cast, drawn mainly from his troupe of TV actors, spins as fine a web of delicate comedy as will grace movie screens this year…

My interview with Whedon ran last year; you can read that here.

You can watch the trailer here: