New in Theaters: ‘Our Nixon’


Ournixon-posterEvery now and again, you’ll hear something about how a certain politician couldn’t make it if they ran today. Venal, conspiratorial, and far too fond of late-night drunk dials, Richard Nixon was one of those never-again guys.

The fascinating new documentary Our Nixon, constructed out of hundreds of hours of home movies shot by Nixon staffers, aired earlier this month on CNN and opens Friday in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

For those raised on The West Wing and stories about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most surprising thing about President-focused documentary footage is always how good-natured everybody seems to be. That’s because, while the White House might be the most singularly powerful political office in the world, it’s still an office like any other. You can’t deal with issues of detente and Congressional brinkmanship 24 hours a day; occasionally even the most dedicated wonks need to gossip, play pranks, and complain about coworkers. This workaday domesticity is one of the reasons Penny Lane’s absorbing home-movie documentary Our Nixon so inexplicably fascinating…

You can watch the trailer here:

DVD Tuesday: ‘The Great Gatsby’

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, hidden somewhere in the set decoration like the rest of the cast.

greatgatsby-dvdThe first and biggest movie spectacle of the 2013 summer movie season had nothing to do with IMAX superheroes, but a genre-blending half-musical Baz Luhrmann adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Sound like a refreshing change of pace? It should have been. Unfortunately the result was more like a feature-length trailer for a movie that never quite arrived.

The Great Gatsby hits DVD and Blu-ray. My review is at Short Ends & Leader:

Luhrmann’s take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age fable is all about trying to make it seem as “modern” as possible; a story gambit that makes sense, given the current economic climate. Of course, the one percent’s current Gilded Age just kept on trucking after the Great Recession, unlike the excesses of the 1920s fantasized about so lovingly in Gatsby, which were put on ice by the Great Depression. To that end, Luhrmann comes to the story armed not with a respectable screenplay, great location scouts, and the best actors he could find but a war chest of whizbang computer graphics, some pretty faces, and executive music producer Jay-Z. It’s gonna be a show, kids!…

Here’s the trailer:

Readers’ Corner: ‘This Town’ and the Gilded Trough

this town-coverAlmost the best thing about Mark Leibovich’s new Washington, DC tell-all This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital is what’s not in it. He didn’t include an index, thusly avoiding the tendency of Beltway types to cruise into bookstores and flip instantly to the index for any reference to themselves. Given the high-pitched response to his book from the corridors of power, a surprising number of those people have actually been reading the thing. It’s worth it.

My review is at PopMatters:

Mark Leibovich’s This Town is angry but funny, hitting big targets with ease while somehow avoiding the shrill tone of the screed. As the New York Times’ chief national correspondent, he has spent more time covering politics in the American capital than any human being should have to, unless serving time for a horrific crime. After 16 years covering the circular grip n’ grin of Washington politics, Leibovich has served up a heaping platter of disgust, but he’s done it with a smiley-face emoticon. After all, he’s still got to work in the place he calls “a city of beautifully busy people constantly writing the story of their own lives”…

You can watch Leibovich on The Daily Show here.

Writers’ Room: Elmore Leonard on Writing Well


Elmore Leonard died last week at the age of 87. He wrote dozens of books and innumerable short stories in a variety of genres, but was best remembered for his best-selling crime novels. He was a master of clean prose and a mechanic of plot; so much so that his justly famous “10 Rules of Writing Well” should be checked out by any writer, crime or not.

Here you go:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Always, always follow the last one. Read the original piece here for his explanations of the various rules. (“You are allowed no more than two or three [exclamation marks] per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”)

Now Playing: ‘Drinking Buddies’

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson get all twisted up in 'Drinking Buddies'.
Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson get all twisted up in ‘Drinking Buddies’.

drinkingbuddies-posterThere’s not much to say about the Chicago microbrewery-set romantic comedy Drinking Buddies, which opened in limited release yesterday, other than you should probably go see it. Four great actors playing inside a comic quadrangle of lies, booze, and lust twisted all up with friendship. It’s achingly beautiful in that elegant French manner while remaining bruisingly down-to-earth.

My review is at Film Racket:

As the sole woman working at a Chicago brewery with a tribe of bearded, vaguely hipster guys in Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, Olivia Wilde’s Kate seems to be that unicorn creature that every won’t-grow-up dude can’t believe exists outside the pages of Maxim. Resolutely non-girly in dress and attitude, she slams down beers with the guys and chows french fries at lunch. Come night-time, all she wants to do is play pool, joke around, and do yet more drinking. At no point does she look happier than when holding a full pint of beer and a mammoth tub of pretzels; this being a movie, she still looks phenomenal in a bikini…

Here’s the trailer:

Now Playing: ‘The World’s End’


the-worlds-end-posterHaving gone after the zombie movie and the cop action flick previously, the writing/acting duo of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg (the new Star Trek‘s Scottie, for those of you who don’t get out as much) has now made a movie in which the pair go on an epic bender and end up facing down the apocalypse. The inspiration lies in a particular brand of postwar British sci-fi (think Village of the Damned and Dr. Who) which will be less obvious to American audiences than their earlier works like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Still, good inebriated fun.

My review is at Film Racket:

For all Simon Pegg’s happy chaotic lunacy as Gary, The World’s End doesn’t seem promising at first. There are scads of fine performers on hand, and a good jolt of energy, but the latter comes almost entirely from Pegg’s overanxious mugging. Without much preamble, Gary (first seen delightedly recounting that night of epic drunkenness in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting) explodes back into his friends’ comfortable yuppie lives and convinces each of them to follow him back to their small home town and start that pub crawl over again as an epic tribute to old times…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: Gore Vidal to African Death Metal

'Hank and Asha'
‘Hank and Asha’

Gore-Vidal_posterThe 2013 Rhode Island International Film Festival ran from August 6–13, with films playing mostly in Providence. It was a somewhat sparsely attended but extraordinarily well-curated event; nothing that a little more publicity couldn’t help.

My overview of some of the films that played ran in PopMatters, here’s some highlights:

Keep your eyes peeled for them to come to a fest or high-number cable channel near you soon.


Now Playing: ‘In a World…’



Everybody remembers Don LaFontaine, or at least that voice of his which for years rattled through seemingly every movie trailer in existence with his hyperdramatic trademark opening: “In a world…” His legacy hangs over Lake Bell’s debut as writer/director/star of the same title, an unlikely comedy that succeeds where it by all means should not.

My review is at Film Racket:

Voice actors might not be the unsung heroes of the movie world but they are partly responsible for why many people go to see one movie or another. In the end, Lake Bell’s chaotic but assured comedy doesn’t really have much to do with the artistry or even the business of the voiceover, but it makes for a good enough hook to hang her various sketches from…

In a World… is playing now in limited release; check it out.

Here’s the trailer:


Quote of the Day: Cash by Johnny Cash

They're here to make you feel bad about your choices: the record-store clerks of 'High Fidelity'.
They’re here to make you feel bad about your choices: the record-store clerks of ‘High Fidelity’.

high_fidelity-posterIn the eternal classic High Fidelity, John Cusack plays Rob, a happily embittered record-store owner who spends a lot of time talking to the camera, when he’s not grousing about women, his employees, life. While his particular angle is music and the collecting rare examples thereof, many of his ruminations about that habit (“fetish properties are not unlike porn”) could apply equally to most any other art form. For instance:

What really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films — these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the fuckin’ truth.

Anybody out there who doesn’t believe deep down that there isn’t some truth to what he’s saying? Shallow or not, doesn’t bonding over the shared love of a particular cultural object (book, film, whatever) stand as its own unique and valid type of connection?

cashbook1Here’s Rob on books:

I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m certainly not the dumbest. I mean, I’ve read books like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Love in the Time of Cholera, and I think I’ve understood them. They’re about girls, right? Just kidding. But I have to say my all-time favorite book is Johnny Cash’s autobiography Cash by Johnny Cash.

Note the obsessive’s need to add the wholly unnecessary “Cash by Johnny Cash” there, just in case you didn’t get what he meant with “Johnny Cash’s autobiography.”

And here, just for kicks, the Top 5 Records scene from High Fidelity:


Readers’ Corner: The English Major

reading1Many will disagree with Mark Edmundson’s popular essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “The Ideal English Major.” Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, argues that college students should choose the English major over the pecuniary rewards of degrees in econ or business.

In a weak job market, where the crushing burden of student debt makes attending college an increasingly fraught choice, it’s welcome to see somebody beating the drum for the English degree as path towards becoming an educated person.

There may, however, only be so much one can take of Edmundson’s soaring, hard-to-choke-down conclusion:

To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you’ve passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you’re ready to take up something else.

One imagines there are a few M.B.A.’s out there who vaguely resemble people (frequent evidence to the contrary).

But Edmundson’s essay remains a worthy defense of reading, study, and all-around curiosity (“Love for language, hunger for life, openness and a quest for truth: Those are the qualities of my English major in the ideal form”) in an ever-more mercantile and results-oriented age. He understands the transformative nature of reading in its most ecstatic form:

There are people who read to anesthetize themselves—they read to induce a vivid, continuous, and risk-free daydream. They read for the same reason that people grab a glass of chardonnay—to put a light buzz on. The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people.

Now Playing: ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’

Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck fiercely in love in 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints'.
Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck fiercely in love in ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’.

aintthembodiessaints-posterThe award for this year’s least likely to be remembered movie title goes to David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a Terence Malick-inflected story of a young Texas couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara) separated by prison after a crime spree. Keith Carradine and Ben Foster also star in this gorgeously photographed but rambling film.

My review ran in Film Racket:

Sunsets flood David Lowery’s soulful robber-on-the-run story, lens-flaring the screen and painting everything in a rustic ochre patina. It’s beautiful but gets in the way, as though distracting writer/director Lowery from getting to the business at hand. The cinematography is by Bradford Young (Pariah), whose patient lens captures the dusky halo of tree-shaded Texas streets and grassy fields under a humbling sky. What it can’t do is transform Lowery’s stretched-out short of a piece into a full-fledged story…

Here’s the trailer:

Now Playing: ‘Paranoia’

Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman wonder what they’re doing in ‘Paranoia’.

paranoia-poster1Opening tomorrow with a near-complete lack of fanfare is the techie-thriller Paranoia; which is perfectly made for folks who get interested when somebody says the words: “Liam Hemsworth.” You’re out there, somewhere.

My review is at Film Journal International:

It’s not that the director of Legally Blonde, Robert Luketic, couldn’t direct a decent thriller. But the director also responsible for 21 and Monster-in-Law (which one was that, you say? The one you didn’t bother to see because it looked so horrendous, that’s what) most certainly cannot. This is particularly the case when he’s saddled with an empty-eyed lead like Liam Hemsworth and a techie plot that would have seemed cutting-edge right around the time that the World Wide Web was trying to kill Sandra Bullock in The Net. Seeing the likes of Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman skulking around the premises just adds insult to injury…

Here’s the trailer, enjoy!


Now Playing: ‘The Canyons’

Lindsay Lohan and James Deen (yes, that's a stage name) confront an exhausted, post-film landscape in 'The Canyons'.
Lindsay Lohan and James Deen (yes, that’s a stage name) confront an exhausted, post-film landscape in ‘The Canyons’.

thecanyons-posterA couple of enfant terribles (Lindsay Lohan and writer Bret Easton Ellis), a director with a good grasp of the lengths people will go to in destroying themselves (Paul Schrader), a clutch of blank-faced performers, abandoned movie theater ruin-porn photography, and a bed-hopping Hollywood melodrama make up the cracked camp quasi-classic that is The Canyons.

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

Everyone is exhausted in The Canyons. But even as Paul Schrader’s and Brett Easton Ellis’ wickedly unnerving satire offers the usual Southern California power games, it also shows how soul-sapping this constant contesting can be. Everyone knows the machinery is lubricated by tainted money, but this is all that anybody seems to know. Even the allure of Hollywood fame seems to have disappeared, leaving nothing in its wake. Terrified of standing still, the characters just keep pushing back the night. The frightening thing is, soon all they can see is more night…

The Canyons is playing now in very limited release, and is also available on VOD, where Schrader and company think most people will end up seeing it. The hope is that their micro-budgeted indie will get some free publicity out of Lohan’s still-considerable tabloid profile. Given that big-budget movies have crashed and burned with regularity all summer, and anything that’s not big budget can barely get released, The Canyons could serve as a harbinger for a new kind of movie future. One with a lot fewer theaters to overpay for popcorn at.

One of the many stills of closed movie theater facades that Paul Schrader scatters throughout 'The Canyons'.
One of the many stills of closed movie theater facades that Paul Schrader scatters throughout ‘The Canyons’.


Quote of the Day: Loathsome Exercise

Satchel Paige, in his St. Louis Browns uniform.

Are baseball players smarter than other athletes, or just more quotable? The Negro Leagues (and later Major League Baseball) great Satchel Paige is a case in point. In 1948, at the supposed age of 42—nobody really knows when he was born—he became the oldest man ever to start in the major leagues.

How did Paige remain a viable athlete into middle age? That’s obvious:

Avoid running, at all times.

—Satchel Paige

Who are we to argue with the guy that Joe DiMaggio called the best and fastest pitcher he ever faced and who titled his autobiography Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever?

Now Playing: ‘Terraferma’


terraferma-posterTerraferma is the second movie that’s in theaters right now which digs into the tragic drama of the refugee crisis. The other one is Elysium—you can tell them apart easily since Terraferma is the quieter one in Italian that won several awards at the Venice Film Festival and features beautiful Mediterranean scenery and many fewer gun-toting androids.

My review of Terraferma ran in PopMatters; here’s part:

What happens to an island fishing village in the Mediterranean when the only things the Italian fishermen seem to be pulling from the sea are drowned or near-drowned African refugees? The economic, cultural, and personal effects of this shift shape Emanuele Crialese’s story of stark choices and uncertain futures. In this elegantly structured film, everybody’s concept of home is in flux, their eyes fixed either stubbornly on the ground beneath their feet or hopefully on the horizon…

You can watch the trailer here: