Soundbooth: Lou Reed, circa 1966

velvetunderground1The ultimate success of the late Lou Reed (1942–2013) as a musician and writer was, like with most great artists, never a sure thing. Although he went from obscurity to rock legend in a few short years, he started out pushing an idiosyncratic style of literary talk-singing and mixing old doo-wop harmonies with discordant sheets of noise that was never guaranteed to win him entry to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, he put his whole life into it: “My God is rock ‘n’ roll,” he supposedly said.

For an example of how the music of Reed’s early years was received, check out this notice from the New York Times in 1966. The story was a society piece about a dinner for the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry. The evenings entertainment? Something called “The Chic Mystique of Andy Warhol.” On the program was the Velvet Underground:

The high decibel sound, aptly described by Dr. Campbell as “a short-lived torture of cacophony,” was a combination of rock ‘n’ roll and Egyptian belly-dance music.

Most guests voted with their feet and streamed out early. Reed and the Velvet Underground were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, Egyptian belly-dance music (did they play “Venus in Furs,” perhaps?) be damned.

Here’s Reed performing one of his best post-Velvet songs, “Halloween Parade”:

New in Theaters: ‘The Square’

Khalid Abdalla (star of 'The Kite Runner') and Ahmad Hassan, two of the Tahrir Square activists profiled in 'The Square'
Khalid Abdalla (star of ‘The Kite Runner’) and Ahmad Hassan, two of the Tahrir Square activists profiled in ‘The Square’

thesquare-poster1Jehane Noujaim’s incandescent documentary about the Tahrir Square revolution first played Sundance back in January; she went back to Egypt to shoot later developments. The version of The Square that just opened in limited release now has a dramatic arc, from the 2011 resignation of Mubarak to this summer’s coup that toppled Morsi. It’s an elegantly put-together and passionate story of the tragedy of revolutions and the resilience of ideas.

My review is at Film Journal International:

The film is thick with dense collages of tear gas, gunfire, and seas of people leaping and shouting in unison. But it also cuts away to zoom in on a few of these people who would otherwise just be specks in a pointillist portrait. What Noujami has captured is not just a protest, but a diagnostic of the different emotional and political struggles which protesters like Khalid, Ahmed and Magdy are having in the street or on the phone because they don’t live in a country where those arguments can yet be honestly had at the ballot box. 

The trailer is here:


Writers’ Corner: Worst Opening Ever

darkstormy1Is it possible that to learn how to write something grand you should also practice penning something so abominably wretched it should never see the light of day? Probably not, the art of writing probably comes down to something as dreary as trying every single day to hone your craft to a sharp, chisel-like point.

So, if you were going to attempt to write horrendous prose, there’s really no other reason to do it except for a giggle. Because, after all, as  more than one person has noted, somebody already wrote 50 Shades of Grey. So anything you do will be at best, second-worst writing ever.

Herewith one of the many preternaturally horrible opening lines culled from submissions to the Bulwer-Lytton Prize:

When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday, his children packed his bags and drove him to Golden Pastures retirement complex just off Interstate 95.


It was such a beautiful night; the bright moonlight illuminated the sky, the thick clouds floated leisurely by just above the silhouette of tall, majestic trees, and I was viewing it all from the front row seat of the bullet hole in my car trunk.

And, a personal favorite:

The professor looked down at his new young lover, who rested fitfully, lashed as she was with duct tape to the side of his stolen hovercraft, her head lolling gently in the breeze, and as they soared over the buildings of downtown St. Paul to his secret lair he mused that she was much like a sweet ripe juicy peach, except for her not being a fuzzy three-inch sphere produced by a tree with pink blossoms and that she had internal organs and could talk.


New in Theaters: ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in 'Blue is the Warmest Color'
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’


The winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival is finally getting its American release after months of controversy, hype, and speculation. That’s what will happen with a sexually explicit, NC-17, three-hour romance about two young women who literally seem to fall in love at first sight. Blue is the Warmest Color is opening this week in limited release and should be expanding around the country through the fall; at least to those theaters that agree to screen NC-17 films.

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

Unabashedly romantic in the grandest, tear-stained way, Blue is the Warmest Color is also a strangely empty epic of the heart. Abdellatif Kechiche’s extravagant film is an indulgently overlong romance of long pauses, watchful glances, and infatuated lovemaking. It features two glowing performances from Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulous as the young women bound up in a relationship whose minefields and fireworks they can barely comprehend, let alone control. This old-fashioned, love-at-first-sight view of romantic attraction is not exactly en vogue these days, so it’s even more frustrating that Kechiche botches it…

The film is based very loosely on Julie Maroh’s gorgeous graphic novel, which is one of the best things to hit bookshelves this year. The author herself had some criticisms of the (male) director’s take on her story here.

You can watch the trailer here:

Readers’ Corner: Fall Football Edition


It’s that time of year when attentions get torn between the World Series and the ever-growing all-encompassing athletic-entertainment complex that is football. Being that the latter has almost definitely overtaken the former as America’s game, there’s no end to commentary and opinion about the gridiron spectacle.


One of the month’s more intriguing notes on football, though, comes from an unexpected source: Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch. Here’s a short excerpt (noted by James Wood in the New Yorker) in which the narrator is talking about the ritual of watching Sunday football games out in Las Vegas:

On game day, until five o’clock or so, the white desert light held off the essential Sunday gloom — autumn sinking into winter, loneliness of October dusk with school the next day — but there was always a long still moment toward the end of those football afternoons where the mood of the crowd turned and everything grew desolate and uncertain, onscreen and off, the sheet-metal glare off the patio glass fading to gold and then gray, long shadow and night falling into desert stillness, a sadness I couldn’t shake off, a sense of silent people filing toward the stadium exits and cold rain falling in college towns back east…

Never mind that college games happen on Saturday for the most part; you still have here a beautifully gloomy little snapshot of that autumnal bleakness that always seems to hover around the game.


New on DVD: ‘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’

beforemidnightdvd1In 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 available today on DVD and Blu-ray. 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:


Readers’ Corner: Prolific Icelanders

Somewhere in Reykjavik, thousands of people are writing their first (or fifth) mystery novel.

There is apparently no more literate or book-mad place than little Iceland. Even without the benefit of trees, the island nation of some 300,000 people apparently has more writers, published books, and readers per capita than anywhere else in the world. According to the BBC:

It is hard to avoid writers in Reykjavik. There is a phrase in Icelandic, “ad ganga med bok I maganum”, everyone gives birth to a book. Literally, everyone “has a book in their stomach”. One in 10 Icelanders will publish one.

“Does it get rather competitive?” I ask the young novelist, Kristin Eirikskdottir. “Yes. Especially as I live with my mother and partner, who are also full-time writers. But we try to publish in alternate years so we do not compete too much.”

So get busy everybody, or Icelandic fiction will take over the world before you know it.

New in Theaters: ‘All is Lost’

Robert Redford and his lonely yacht in 'All is Lost'
Robert Redford and his yacht in ‘All is Lost’

all-is-lost-posterJust a few weeks after Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity showed astronauts struggling to keep from floating off into the void, J.C. Chandor’s one-man-against-nature drama All is Lost shows up, starring Robert Redford and nobody else. It’s him against the elements, in a damaged 39-foot yacht deep in the Indian Ocean.

My review is at PopMatters; here’s part:

“I think you would all agree,” Robert Redford narrates over the start of All Is Lost, “that I tried.” But for a couple muttered curses and some dry-throated shouts, this sentence plus a few others spoken to unknown persons are the sum total of what Redford’s unnamed character says during J.C. Chandor’s movie. Like his Margin Call, the new film shows the filmmaker’s precision and calculation. Although the story of All Is Lost might be quickly summarized as a man sailing a yacht in the middle of the ocean runs into trouble, the film doesn’t play with form or pad out its running time. There is greatness in this simplicity. If only Redford had been up to the challenge…

The trailer is here:

New in Theaters: ’12 Years a Slave’

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in '12 Years a Slave'
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in ’12 Years a Slave’

12yearsaslave-poster1In 1853, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, was freed from the Louisiana plantation where he had been sent twelve years earlier after being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Steve McQueen’s forceful adaptation of Northup’s autobiography is as beautifully detailed and riven with pain as the book.

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

There are horrors aplenty in Steve McQueen’s blistering, cold-eyed epic of slavery. But amidst the cringe-inducing scenes of torture, McQueen pinpoints acts of cruelty so casual they almost hurt more. The plantation owner’s wife who tells her husband’s newest purchase, a woman just separated from her children, not to worry, “They will soon be forgotten.” Another wife, jealous of her husband’s attraction to a slave woman, raking her fingernails across the woman’s face with no more thought than she’d give to swatting an animal. In a world where people can be treated as property, humanity disappears almost as quickly from the owners as from the owned. The difference is, the owned are trying to hang on to theirs…

Here is the trailer:

Now Playing: ‘Kill Your Darlings’

Daniel Radcliffe (left) as Allen Ginsberg and Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr in ‘Kill Your Darlings’

Kill-Your-Darlings-PosterIn 1944, Arthur Rimbaud-worshiping Columbia University student Lucien Carr was charged with stabbing to death David Kammerer, an older man Carr had known back in St. Louis who had been allegedly stalking him all across the country for years. The resulting murder scandal roped in Carr’s friends Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Kammerer’s St. Louis cohort William S. Burroughs.

The spry new film Kill Your Darlings — featuring Daniel Radcliffe as a bright-eyed young Ginsberg still unsure about his outlaw sexuality — tells an evocative, tortured romantic version of this story.

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

The Allen Ginsberg played by Daniel Radcliffe in the audacious but underachieving Kill Your Darlings is far from the brazen, bearded libertine who bridged the Beats to the hippies in one exulting Whitman-esque guffaw. This Ginsberg is an owl-ish college freshman overflowing with desires both literary and romantic. His eyes fairly gleam with all that he is not doing or writing or saying. The war is still on, and such a regimented society has little interest in such yearning young artistes. At least until the murder…

The trailer is here:

Readers’ Corner: The 2013 Man Booker Prize

harvest-194x300In case you were curious about where to place your money when betting on which book is going to win this year’s Man Booker Prize, the gambling quants over at Ladbrokes have done the math and proclaimed that Jim Crace is going to win this time, for his novel, Harvest. Here’s the odds rundown for the six shortlisted novels:

  • Jim Crace, Harvest — 11/8
  • Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries — 11/4
  • Colm Toibin, The Testament of Mary — 4/1
  • Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being — 8/1
  • Noviolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names — 9/1
  • Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowlands — 9/1

The announcement comes tomorrow.

UPDATE: Looks like the Ladbrokes lads were a tad off: the prize was won by Eleanor Catton’s 832-page epic The Luminaries. Which apparently she started writing when she was 25.

Readers’ Corner: Bowie’s Books

bowie1Yes, even rock stars read. One of the lesser appreciated elements of the hit exhibition “David Bowie Is” — running now at the Art Gallery of Ontario after a smash run at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum — was its inclusion of the Thin White Duke’s reading list.

Bowie’s Top 100 books is really just a smashing collection. He hits many of the cool-minded modernist writings of the 20th century, from T.S. Eliot to Yukio Mishima and John Cage, as well as a heavy stocking of music-oriented books.

wasteland1But there’s some great newer choices in here as well, from Junot Diaz to Michael Chabon, and some agitprop from Howard Zinn and Christopher Hitchens.

David-Bowie-and-William-B-slideIt doesn’t quite make sense that there’s no William S. Burroughs here, given how influential the old man’s work was on Bowie’s early polymorphous phase.  But maybe Naked Lunch or Junky made Bowie’s Top 200 list…

Screening Room: Review Roundup

Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck wonder what 'Runner Runner' means
Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck wonder what ‘Runner Runner’ means

With awards season just around the corner, studios big and small are finishing their late summer/early fall product dump. Here’s a quick rundown of reviews I’ve written on some other releases that have mostly gone unnoticed:

Runner Runner — Justin Timberlake plays Princeton math geek who goes to Costa Rica to be seduced into Ben Affleck’s sinister, high-stakes world of online gambling. Ridiculous as it sounds. Review here.

Bounty Killer — A post-apocalyptic, Mad Max knock-off with tongue planted firmly in cheek. C+ for effort; not as funny as it thinks it is. Review here.

Symphony of the Soil — Ever wonder what the difference is between soil and dirt? No? Review here.

The Dirties — Intriguing faux-documentary story about a kid making a movie about taking revenge on the school bullies. Starts off as gimmick, turns into uncomfortably close-to-home comment on violent media saturation. Worth seeking out. Review here.

New in Theaters: ‘A Touch of Sin’

Zhao Tao in ‘A Touch of Sin’

It’s hard to know what to make of Jia Zhangke’s newest film A Touch of Sin. On the one hand, it’s a docudrama that links together four based-on-reality stories about Chinese people taking desperate measures in horrendous circumstances. But as much as it reminds one of great novels about people caught in the capitalist machinery of the 19th century (Balzac and Dreiser, in particular), it’s also a stylized revenge film with some surrealism thrown in for good measure. Whatever it is, this is not a film to miss.

Winner of the best screenplay award of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, A Touch of Sin is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International; here’s part:

The closest you’ll come to a happy person in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin is the grim-faced loner Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang). Unfortunately, he’s probably a psychopath. The film’s three other major characters are all eventually thrust into a type of insanity, but Zhou is the only one who seems to have both already crossed over and be content with it…

You can watch the trailer here:

New on DVD: ‘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’

muchadoaboutnothing-dvdThe best of this week’s DVD releases comes to us courtesy of Joss Whedon. His bright and sparkling black-and-white adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing differs from most other takes on Shakespeare’s comedies for actually being…funny.

My full review is at Film Journal International:

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…

You can watch the trailer here: