Now Playing: ‘Fruitvale Station’

Ariana Neal and Michael B. Jordan in 'Fruitvale Station'
Ariana Neal and Michael B. Jordan in ‘Fruitvale Station’

fruitvalestation-posterNearly every year there’s a scrappy indie flick that comes into the Sundance Film Festival and blows everyone away. All too often, though, once the film itself comes down from the high mountain air, it seems markedly less unique. Fortunately, with Ryan Coogler’s devastating Fruitvale Station, that is not the case. It plays just as well in a multiplex alongside The Wolverine as it does in the rarefied festival air.

My full review is at Film Racket; here’s part:

Nothing about the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant makes sense. For his keen, impassioned debut, writer/director Ryan Coogler avoids one of the most common mistakes seen in based-on-a-true-story movies, he doesn’t try to make it make sense. It shouldn’t, because one version of what actually happened is the first thing shown in the film. A grainy cellphone video taken from the open door of a BART train car paused at an Oakland station shows a few young black men being held down by a few white transit police; there’s a minor-looking scuffle and then a shot goes off. The momentum of those shaky images,  is stuttering and randomized. When the tragic moment happens, it doesn’t feel right to happen like that. Not yet…

You can watch the trailer here:


Screening Room: Dennis Farina (1944-2013)

Not sure where that knife is destined to go.
Not sure where that knife is destined to go.

All appreciators of the great and usually unsung character actors who make so many good movies great and so many lousy movies watchable took a hit last week when news came out of Dennis Farina’s passing.

crimestory1My piece on Chicago’s own Farina (Get ShortyCrime Story, Saving Private Ryan, and others) ran today at Short Ends & Leader:

Farina, who died on July 22 at the age of 69, was a detective in a Chicago Police Department burglary unit when he was introduced to Chicagoan Michael Mann, who was making his first feature, 1981’s Thief. Farina was hired as an advisor for the film and even got himself on screen for a few seconds; he gets shot rather unceremoniously at the film’s end along with some other anonymous henchmen. He worked some small roles for the next few years, mostly TV, but also polishing his craft on the Chicago stage with the likes of Steppenwolf vets like Terry Kinney. Supposedly, he even left the CPD a couple years before making his pension in order to pursue acting. It was a gutsy move, but one that paid off long before he ended up donning a trenchcoat and storming the streets of Manhattan on Law and Order

And now, Crime Story:

Readers’ Corner: The New Book House

bookhouse4Located in a rambling, 150-year-old Victorian just off Manchester Road in Rock Hill, a quiet old suburb not far from downtown St. Louis, The Book House is one of those rare bookstores that actually looks, feels, and is just like the great bookstore of your imagination. Smart staff, killer selection, drop-dead prices, and genially messy, it’s a bookworm’s paradise. Plus, like any good bookstore, over the years there’s always been a cat skulking around in a proprietary fashion.

There was some consternation recently in the area when word got out that the store was being served with eviction papers. Since no charm or history may be allowed to mar the modern American landscape, a developer has decided to get rid of the Book House (there is a possibility that the Victorian could be moved intact to a new location) and a couple other quaint houses tucked back there to make way for … a storage facility. Exactly what suburban St. Louis needs more of.

bookhouse8The good news is that the Book House folks have found a new space over in nearby Maplewood. The former department store likely won’t have much of the old charm at first (owner Michelle Barron told Publishers Weekly “It will be pretty barebones and bohemian for a while”) but will eventually have many times the capacity of the old location. Which means they’ll be able to carry even more of the great titles they’ve been known for. They should be open for business in October, make sure to stop by if you’re in the area.


New in Theaters: ‘Blue Jasmine’

Cate Blanchett teetering on the brink in 'Blue Jasmine'
Cate Blanchett teetering on the brink in ‘Blue Jasmine’

SONY-JUOS-01_Onesheet_Layout 1Woody Allen’s newest comedy of social status and anxiety, Blue Jasmine, had a quiet launch this week, almost as though the studio thought that it would sell itself. It might not be his funniest movie in some time but it does feature the best lead performance that he’s directed in years. That would be Cate Blanchett, stepping out of Galadriel’s diaphanous glow and tackling a real-world character with an almost frightening intensity.

My full review is at Film Racket; here’s part:

Woody Allen knows that sometimes it’s best just to throw characters into the deep end and see if audiences want to swim with them. By the time we meet his newest creation, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), she’s in full meltdown, barely holding it together with Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and enough self-delusion to power a third-party presidential campaign…

You can see the trailer here:

DVD Tuesday: ‘Ginger & Rosa’

Alice Englert and Elle Fanning in 'Ginger & Rosa'
Alice Englert and Elle Fanning in ‘Ginger & Rosa’

The newest film from Sally Potter (Orlando) is something of a departure for her. Straightforward stylistically, it’s a beautifully-shot story about two girls growing up in fractured families and learning how to navigate the stresses that the outside world and inexplicable, irresponsible adults put on their friendship.

gingerandrosa-dvdMy review ran at PopMatters:

In Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa, two girls are linked by disaster at birth and have a hard time dodging it during their lives. As the film begins, the 17-year-olds are wrapped around each other like young kittens looking for a warm place to sleep. But soon enough, even joyful experiences (political activism, young love) lead to frustration and rage.

The setting is 1962, London. It’s a grey place, barely rebuilt after the Second World War: people keep their coats on indoors because the heating is no good. Here Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) find solace in one another and in jazz records. These bohemians have been best friends since childhood. Their mothers gave birth in adjoining hospital beds just as an atomic bomb was blasting Hiroshima off the planet’s surface. As the film juxtaposes the mushroom cloud and its aftermath with the mothers screaming in childbirth, we get the idea that the girls are born into a world of destruction…

It’s available today on DVD and Blu-ray.

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Only God Forgives’

Ryan Gosling, staring his way through ‘Only God Forgives’

OnlyGodForgives-poster1Two years ago, Nicolas Winding Refn blew some people away with Drive, his mannered homage to 1980s’ crime films. Starring Ryan Gosling as a stoic getaway car driver, it didn’t have much of a story, but the cool and moody style was something to behold. Refn and Gosling’s blood-soaked, Bangkok-set followup, Only God Forgives, takes the impulses of that earlier film and pursues them to the nth degree; it may as well be a silent for the lack of dialogue.

Only God Forgives opens tomorrow in limited release. My full review is at Film Racket:

Ryan Gosling doesn’t say much in his second collaboration with Drive filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn. He’s busy looking into the middle distance like a wounded child and occasionally erupting into violence. “Wanna fight?” is about the extent of his verbal skills. For all his cut-from-granite movements and dead-eyed staring, he may as well be Jean-Claude Van Damme. Of course, if played by the Muscles from Brussels, Gosling’s character might have gotten out of a few of the scrapes that leave him looking like a pit bull’s chew toy by the end of this slow-motion surrealist horrorshow dressed up like an arthouse crime story…

You can see the trailer here:

Readers’ Corner: J.K. Rowling and Pseudonyms

jprowling-popupThere’s a piece of mine that published at PopMatters today about the recent kerfuffle over J.K. Rowling being unmasked as the real author of the little-noticed mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Clock, previously credited to one “Robert Galbraith.”

It’s called “What’s in a Pseudonym?“:

It’s not as though Rowling hadn’t branched out from her Harry Potter success. Last year’s novel, The Casual Vacancy was set in real-world Britain, with nary a spell to be found. Why would she put that out under her own name and not The Cuckoo’s Calling? The easy answer probably goes back to the old literary / genre divide that one would have thought had disappeared in a time when people aren’t embarrassed to be seen reading Fifty Shades of Grey on the train and adults happily own up to reading YA fare like The Hunger Games

Previous to this news being broken, The Cuckoo’s Clock (well-reviewed, by the way) had sold 1,500 copies when attributed to Galbraith. The publisher just ordered a rush printing of 300,000 copies.

Now Playing: ‘Israel: A Home Movie’

israel a home movie - 3

israelhomemovie-posterSometimes, it’s best to just let the people tell the history. That’s the idea behind the fascinating new documentary Israel: A Home Movie. It throws together home movie footage shot by Israelis from the 1930s up through the mid-’70s, layers in narration (everything from nostalgic to carping) and lets the flood of imagery tell the story of a young nation.

Israel: A Home Movie is playing now in limited release, should pop up in a few theaters around the country eventually. My full review is at Film Journal International:

The footage begins in black-and-white, in a land that looks positively medieval despite the 20th century already being a third over with. Over these images of strangers in the streets or family members eagerly waving in kitchens or yards, the filmmakers layer audio clips from the people who shot the footage, and their relatives. As a result, the film can move with the ebbing tides of family disagreements over what they’re actually looking at. The doc proceeds as the viewing of any home movie does, with relatives jumping in to point out a person or some fact (one man joking that his father was “the worst cameraman in the world,” a woman pointing out a young boy who was later “murdered by the Arabs”), haggling over what means what…

You can see a short clip here:

Readers’ Corner: Summer Books

Summer reading: Did you forget your Michael Crichton?
Summer reading: Did you forget your Michael Crichton?

What is it about summer that turns everyone’s expectations of art to slush? Think of it: “summer movie” implies something gargantuan in scope and pea-sized in intellect. Adam Sandler saves Earth from aliens by making stupid faces, say. The end of the school year comes with breathless anticipation of the first summer movie ruining the sub-woofers at your multiplex.

puck-bookwormIt’s the same thing with books. The lists of great summer or “beach” reads is an annual tradition for most of those publications that still bother covering books at all. It’s the usual fluff. A mystery about a woman who goes missing. A woman finds love in Tuscany. Another serial killer from James Patterson.

Speaking of summer reading, the Times asked a number of known novelists to opine on their planned books for the beach. Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin) wins hands-down for honesty:

Whenever summer rolls around I begin to realize that I’m a complete and utter book snob. In relation to reading, I have absolutely no guilty pleasures at all. No graphic novels. No murder mysteries. No “milky-white thigh” stories. No fifty shades of anything.

ulyssesWhile you might take issue with him throwing all graphic novels in with “guilty pleasures,” how many of us would admit to the same thing? The society as a whole  is so anti-literate these days that those readers who just don’t see the point in reading junk are seen as being somehow out of touch. McCann again:

So, my guilty pleasures are my original pleasures. I read “Ulysses,” or at least a part of it, every summer for Bloomsday. It’s hardly a beach read, and I understand that Molly Bloom might not be very content with me, as a reader, carting sand into her bed, but that’s life. The great thing is that she has no say about it. Sorry, Molly, but you are in with the suntan lotion.

This summer I’m reading “Lolita” again. The book seems constantly split open with sunlight. I find it one of the funniest and most poignant books I have ever read. I suppose there’s a certain amount of guilty pleasure in the novel, especially if, like me, you’re even older than Humbert Humbert. Unveiling the book at your neighbor’s barbecue might raise a few eyebrows, but again that’s life, or rather literature.

lolita1(As an aside, not enough people realize that Lolita is a comedy. Tragic, to be sure, but a comedy nonetheless.)

There’s no reason to avoid trash entirely; every now and again you need a book that you can zip right through in two or three hours and toss aside; like a movie. But the implication that you must read something inane just because you’re at the beach or the weather is hot, feels like a strange and onerous cultural imposition.

None of that.

New in Theaters: ‘Pacific Rim’


Guillermo del Toro’s robots vs. monsters movie Pacific Rim is now playing just about everywhere. The writing is superfluous and the characters thin, but at least when the audience laughs it’s with the film and not at it.

pacificrim-posterMy review is at Short Ends & Leader:

In the case of Pacific Rim, what del Toro wanted to do was create a scenario in which giant robots get to slug it out with monsters. In the ocean. With swords and plasma cannons. The setup is handled somewhat clumsily at the start by a narration that continually emphasizes the “we” of humanity (the film is a throwback to the old style of kaiju and disaster films, where people put national differences aside and work together). Long, scaly, Cloverfield-type beasts are crawling out of a hellish interdimensional gash on the ocean floor and laying waste to coastal cities around the Pacific Rim. They’re actually called kaiju, in case you didn’t get what del Toro was going for.

To fight back, huge Robotech-styled vehicles called Jaegers (German for hunter or fighter) were built. The Jaegers are directed by two pilots who sit inside the giant head, stuck in a mind-meld virtual reality that’s made that much more effective when the two have some emotional connection. The film’s putative hero, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam, a study in blankness), loses his co-pilot and brother in the opening battle scenes, and only reluctantly returns to fight at humanity’s last stand in Hong Kong…

Check out the trailer:


On the Media: What’s a Journalist?

Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

—Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer

The trick for being a journalist, of course, is knowing that what Malcolm says above is absolutely true and yet, still being to have a great time at your job. As they say: messy business, but somebody’s got to do it.

New in Theaters: ‘A Band Called Death’

Detroit's Death: The first punk band?
Detroit’s Death: The first punk band?

bandcalleddeath-poster1It might deserve to be this year’s Searching for Sugar Man. They share many things: redemption, great personalities, greater music, Detroit. But since A Band Called Death is not about an engagingly Dylan-esque folk singer-songwriter but a black punk band who might well have invented the genre before anybody was aware of it, the film faces an uphill climb.

In any case, A Band Called Death is playing in limited release now. My review is at Short Ends & Leader, here’s part of it:

There were four Hackney brothers who grew up in the still-thriving Detroit in the 1960s and ‘70s. Three of them (David, Bobby, and Dannis) fused the spirituality of their Baptist preacher father and their mother’s love for music by creating a band that broke boundaries as well as their neighbors’ eardrums. Being black kids in the home of Motown, they started out playing R&B as the beautifully and all-inclusively monikered Rock Fire Funk Express. But then Alice Cooper and The Who came to town, and David, their guitarist/singer and driving force, decided that rock was going to be it. Based on some fuzzy theological musings, he renamed the band Death and soon the sounds coming out of the Hackneys’ spare bedroom was driving everybody crazy with that “white boy music”…

Some media linkage:

Lastly, you can watch the trailer here:

Writers’ Corner: The ‘Lost’ Monkey and Ambrose Bierce

Why not in a church? The non-ending of 'Lost'.
Why not in a church? The non-ending of ‘Lost’.

Lost did not end well, to put it mildly. Televised at roughly the same time as the similarly-controversial and anti-dramatic finale of The SopranosLost took all of its seemingly carefully constructed mythology and kicked it out the window in favor of a squishy purgatorial non-conclusion. (As opposed to The Sopranos, which ended rather brilliantly exactly as it had begun: with characters who could not and would not change.)

In the case of Lost, was it bad writing or a failure of will to pull all the pieces together? In this “On Story” interview at the South by Southwest Film Festival, show co-creator Damon Lindelof argues he doesn’t like stories where everything is spelled out. He wants there to be space in the margins for viewers to interpret things. Fair enough. But there’s a difference between spelling everything out as a writer and simply punting.

The best part of the interview comes about eight minutes in, when Lindelof talks about the running joke they had on the show about what would happen if they were canceled prematurely and had to wrap up all the show’s plot tendrils in a matter of weeks. The idea they came up with was brilliant: There was a monkey on the island named Joop; have him do it:

We would just cut to this well-appointed library and this leather chair would spin around and there would be a monkey in a smoking jacket [who would say] “Hello, my name is Joop. I suppose I have some explaining to do.” He would talk for however long we needed to explain things. But Joop actually stood for everything I don’t want to do in storytelling.

An-Occurrence-at-Owl-Creek-Bridge-imageGiven how things did turn out, though, having a talking monkey in a smoking jacket (preferably with a refined Oxbridge accent) show up for a lengthy exposition dump would have been highly more enjoyable than the turgid mess than resulted. By not choosing a dramatic or even philosophical angle for their story to take, the writers of Lost went for a muddled middle, which will never result in successful storytelling.

Elsewhere in the interview, Lindelof references Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” as an example of how he didn’t want to craft the show. It’s actually hard to come up with a more apt example of everything that Lost ultimately did do.

“Occurrence” was made into an Oscar-winning short film back in 1962, you can watch all of it here and judge for yourself:

Department of Adaptations: Guillermo Del Toro’s ‘Slaugherhouse Five’?

Guillermo Del Toro ponders one of his 'Pan's Labyrinth' beasts.
Guillermo Del Toro ponders one of his ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ beasts.

After many years of nothing much, horror/fantasy wunderkind Guillermo Del Toro is finally getting back into the game. His long-in-gestation R-rated take on H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness never quite came to fruition for the usual reasons (detailed in a 2011 New Yorker profile of Del Toro here) and he ultimately left The Hobbit to make room for Peter Jackson; an arguably poor choice either way.

Now, Del Toro’s got a massive monster mashup movie coming out, Pacific Rim, wherein alien monsters battle giant Robotech-like mechas for the survival of humanity. Could be like Godzilla (the lamentable remake) meets The Transformers or it could be honest-to-God bang-up summer fun. There’s also Crimson Peak, a The Shining-esque British haunted house story starring Benedict Cumberbatch, coming out later this year.

slaughterhouse5-coverIn even more intriguing Del Toro news comes this tantalizing note via an interview with The Daily Telegraph, that not only is Del Toro looking to film Slaughterhouse-Five  but he’s interested in having Charlie freaking Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Kaufman write the thing.

Granted, Kaufman is more exciting to hear about here than Del Toro (Vonnegut’s concept of being “unstuck in time” would appeal perfectly to Kaufman’s sensibilities, while Del Toro’s maybe too creature-feature for this tonally complex a book), but this is still potentially great news.

Not knocking George Roy Hill’s 1972 version (trailer below), but this is one book that might be worth knocking the dust off and introducing to a new generation, and Del Toro would hopefully take some risks on it that other more award-ready filmmakers wouldn’t.

Readers’ Corner: Teddy Roosevelt

teddyrooseveltBooks are almost as individual as friends. There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another…. I am speaking of books that are meant to be read. Personally, granted that these books are decent and healthy, the one test to which I demand that they all submit is that of being interesting…. Personally the books by which I have profited infinitely more than by any others have been those in which profit was a by-product of the pleasure; that is, I read them because I enjoyed them, because I liked reading them, and the profit came in as part of the enjoyment.

—Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography