Quote of the Day: Feeding the Poor

From James Carroll’s thoughtful profile of Pope Francis in the end-of-year New Yorker, discussing his coming of age politically in Argentina during the “Dirty War” of the 1970s and ’80s:

The anti-Soviet paranoia of the era made it easy to see [liberation theology] as influenced more by Karl Marx than by Jesus Christ. Archbishop Hélder Câmara, of Brazil, famously captured the tension, saying, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.”

Readers’ Corner: Every Book, Ever

You always hear people complaining about there being just not enough time to read all the books out there. Just too much on the shelves to get to in this lifetime. Not the worst thing to have to complain about, of course, but still, frustrating—even if you’re not Burgess Meredith after the apocalypse.

So here’s the question: Has that always been the case? Was there a time at which one could have actually read every single book that had been written? (For the sake of this exercise, we’re limiting it to English-language titles.) Fortunately, there’s always a numbers guy out there working just about any conceivable problem, so now we may have an answer:

According to the site what if?:

If we estimate that during their active periods, writers are producing somewhere between 0.1 and 1 word per minute, then one dedicated reader might be able to keep up with a population of about 500 or 1,000 active writers … the date at which there were too many English books to read in a lifetime—happened sometime before the population of active English writers reached a few hundred. At that point, catching up became impossible.

The magazine Seed estimates that the total number of authors reached this point around the year 1500 and has continued rising rapidly ever since. The number of active English writers crossed this threshold shortly thereafter, around the time of Shakespeare, and the total number of books in English probably passed the lifetime reading limit sometime in the late 1500s.

So there you have it. It’s been a few centuries since reading everything out there was even possible. So if you can’t finish the complete works of Joyce Carol Oates in this lifetime (and, honestly, who could—as she publishes at the rate most people read), well, just hope for reincarnation.

New in Theaters: ‘Lone Survivor’

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Lone_Survivor_PosterWith a resume that includes everything from Battleship to Friday Night Lights, Peter Berg isn’t the first guy you would think of to have made one of the modern era’s great combat films. But nevertheless, there he is with a directing and writing credit on Lone Survivor, a tough and emotionally draining film about a doomed Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan in 2005.

Lone Survivor opens in limited release this week, rolling out more broadly in January. My review is at Film Journal International:

If not for the real-life footage that bookends Peter Berg’s adaptation of Marcus Luttrell’s nonfiction bestseller, Lone Survivor would come close to tipping right into another hero-worshipping chronicle of the special-operations soldiers so beloved by today’s Xbox-playing couch warriors. But the story hasn’t even begun and already Berg has you immersed in images of SEAL trainees getting systematically broken down to the point of tears. Before the choppers rev up and the men fly off into the Afghanistan mountains to go Taliban-hunting, you’ve already witnessed the limits they have been pushed to…

Here’s the trailer:

Department of Post-Holiday Reading: December 27, 2013

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‘If you really hate music, you’ll love the show.’

New in Theaters: ‘August: Osage County’

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Julianne Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and Julia Roberts in ‘August: Osage County’

august-osage-county-poster1Tracey Letts’ play August: Osage County was a sprawling, Eugene O’Neill-esque slab of all-American dysfunctionality that played like gangbusters on the stage. It’s just about the last thing that you would want to see Harvey Weinstein and a pack of Oscar-festooned actors get their hands on; but somehow the truncated film adaptation plays pretty smartly. It opens up the material without lessening too much of the story’s darker impact. Also, Julia Roberts shows up in a Meryl Streep movie and actually leaves a stronger impression.

August: Osage County opened on Christmas Day, go find it! My review is at Film Racket:

This wasn’t supposed to happen. August: Osage County features Meryl Streep lording it over a fractious family as a red-eyed, pill-popping, malicious, cancer-stricken, Eric Clapton-loving matriarch with a black wig that looks a small dog flopped onto her head. But somehow Julia Roberts ends up being the one who sticks with you. She doesn’t do it by trying to reinvent herself. This character is in the same ballpark with the other flinty types Roberts has specialized in over the years. But what makes her stand out from the lesser films that Roberts has wasted most of her time on is her desire to push the limits of unlikeability. During an explosive family dinner scene that violently jerks into a half-thought-out intervention, Barbara Weston (Roberts) turns on her suddenly terrified mother Violet (Streep) like an unleashed animal, bellowing at her and everyone else within a half-mile radius, “I’m in charge now.” It’s more an admission of doom than triumphant declaration…

Roberts and Streep in 'August: Osage County'

Here’s the trailer, which makes the film look like some sassy Southern heartwarmer that Roberts would have starred in back in 1996:

Department of Holiday Cheer: Edition 2013

It’s been an eventful year, not necessarily in a bad way. But nevertheless the start of 2014 is welcome. Any day now.

In the meantime, a bit of holiday doggerel from Calvin Trillin:

I’d like to spend next Christmas in Qatar,
Or someplace else that Santa won’t find handy.
Qatar will do, although, Lord knows, it’s sandy.

Also, one shouldn’t get through the holiday season entirely without anything from David Sedaris‘s memories of working as a store elf:

The woman grabbed my arm and said: You there, elf. Tell Riley here that if he doesn’t start behaving immediately, then Santa’s going to change his mind and bring him coal for Christmas.

I said that Santa changed his policy and no longer traffics in coal. Instead, if you’re bad, he comes to your house and steals things. I told Riley that if he didn’t behave himself, Santa was going to take away his TV and all his electrical appliances and leave him in the dark.

The woman got a worried look on her face and said: All right. That’s enough. I said, he’s going to take your car and your furniture, and all of your towels and blankets and leave you with nothing. The mother said, No, that’s enough – really.

Go on, take a Snow Day; you all deserve it:

New in Theaters: ‘The Invisible Woman’

Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones gaze across the abyss of longing in 'The Invisible Woman'
Ralph Fiennes and Felicity Jones gaze across the abyss of longing in ‘The Invisible Woman’

invisiblewoman1When Charles Dickens was alive and writing, there was hardly a more famous person in the Western world. Ralph Fiennes’ second film as a director stars himself as the frequently mobbed and phenomenally insecure author who spent his private time chasing the affections of a much, much younger woman.

The Invisible Woman opens on Christmas Day and should be playing at an arthouse near you. My review is at Film Racket:

The tragedy of director/star Ralph Fiennes’ uneven literary period drama The Invisible Woman isn’t so much that his Charles Dickens is an arrogant swot who can’t stop himself from swooning over a young woman who is not his wife. What gets your attention instead is the sparking charge that comes in the few close dialogue scenes between Fiennes’ Dickens and the young woman’s mother, Frances Ternan (Kristin Scott Thomas). She’s an itinerant actress, he’s a gadfly author who also loves putting on plays of his own work and, where possible, acting in them; all to hoover up as much acclaim as possible. The two share an easy understanding of artifice, the need to play a role. This knowledge creates a titillating electricity between the two. For a minute, you wish they could just run off and have an extravagently bad affair like the two actors did with The English Patient

Here’s the trailer:

Readers’ Corner: Peter O’Toole (1932-2013)

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Although he will go down in cultural history as the incarnation of Lawrence of Arabia (not so much the real-life one, but the fascinatingly cinematic variation thereof), Peter O’Toole had his literary side as well. When he passed away last week, most obituaries mentioned one of the hellraising actor’s more memorable lines of poetry:

I will not be a common man.

I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.

For more O’Toole greatness, check out Gay Talese’s rattlingly good profile on the man from Esquire in 1963. Among other snappy lines, it includes this bit:

All he knew was that within him, simmering in the smithy of his soul, were confusion and conflict, and they were probably all linked somehow with Ireland and the Church … a former altar boy, a drinker who now wanders streets at night buying the same book (“My life is littered with copies of Moby Dick”) and reading the same sermon on that book (“…and if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves…”)…

New in Theaters: ‘The Past’

Berenice Bejo and Ali Mosaffa in 'The Past'
Berenice Bejo and Ali Mosaffa in ‘The Past’

thepast-posterLike the writer said, The past is never dead, it isn’t even past. In Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi’s newest drama, a French woman (Berenice Bejo, from The Artist) invites her ex-husband back from Iran supposedly to finalize their divorce only to ensnare him in her tangled new relationship.

The Past opened this week in limited release but should roll out around the country over the next couple months. My review is at Film Racket:

Asghar Farhadi’s powerful but unraveled film starts as a domestic drama and then shifts into a mystery. Strangely, the further it pushes the mystery angle, with secrets peeling off like onion skin from the knotted core of the past, the less engaging it becomes. Farhadi’s greatest strengths lie in the parsing of intra-family conflict, where expectations and resentments bubble all around like a musical score. He’s on less sure footing when it comes to building tension by way of soap-operatic revelation. But give the man a husband and wife and a kitchen sitting between them as though it were the battlefield of their lives, and he’s in his element…

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Pauline Burlet as the daughter caught between her battling parents in ‘The Past’

Here’s the trailer:

In Movies: National Film Registry

'Decasia'; now, and for eternity
‘Decasia’; now, and for eternity

Every year, the Library of Congress selects another 25 films “deemed to be culturally, aesthetically or historically important” for adding to the National Film Registry, in order to preserve them for future generations. The 2013 list is nice and eclectic, ranging from Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) to musicals (Mary Poppins), short documentaries, and experimental one-offs (Decasia, a found-footage compilation showing the decay of film stock over time).

Here’s the new list:

  • “Bless Their Little Hearts” (1984) – Billy Woodberry’s UCLA thesis film about a working-class African American family.
  • “Brandy in the Wilderness” (1969) – Stanton Kaye’s experimental semi-autobiography.
  • “Cicero March” (1966) – Short film recording a civil right march in an all-white Chicago suburb.
  • “Daughter of Dawn” (1920) – Recently rediscovered drama with hundreds of Native American cast members, the first shot in Oklahoma.
  • “Decasia” (2002) – Found-footage compendium using decomposing images from old nitrate film stock.
  • “Ella Cinders” (1926) – Silent comedy about a girl trying to become a star.
  • “Forbidden Planet” (1956) – Classic sci-fi adventure semi-based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
  • “Gilda” (1946) – Brilliant film noir with Rita Hayworth
  • “The Hole” (1962) – John and Faith Hubley’s Oscar-winning animated short about the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Judgment-at-Nuremberg-Poster“Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) – Star-studded Stanley Kramer drama about the Nazi war crime trials.
  • “King of Jazz” (1930) – Early Technicolor music revue with Bing Crosby.
  • “The Lunch Date” (1989) – Award-winning student film about a chance meeting between a woman and a homeless man in a train station.
  • “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) – John Sturges’ western remake of “The Seven Samurai” will never grow old.
  • Martha Graham Early Dance film (1931-44) – Four films documenting the choreography of these influential dancers.
  • “Mary Poppins” (1964) – That movie which Saving Mr. Banks is about.
  • “Men & Dust” (1940) – Documentary about Midwestern miners.
  •  “Midnight” (1939) – Comedy with Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche and John Barrymore.
  • Notes on the Port of St. Francis” (1951) – Vincent Price-narrated short about San Francisco.
  • “Pulp Fiction” (1994) – Quentin Tarantino’s epic blend of crime and comedy that supposedly changed everything in Hollywood.
  • “The Quiet Man” (1952) – A big wet kiss to Ireland from John Ford, starring John Wayne.
  • “The Right Stuff” (1983) – Philip Kaufman’s rousing adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s account of the early space program.
  • “Roger & Me” (1989) – Michael Moore tries to get answers from the head of GM.
  • “A Virtuous Vamp” (1919) – Silent romantic comedy.
  • “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966) – Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton go to war in Mike Nichols’ film of the Edward Albee play about marital discord, and other things.
  • “Wild Boys of the Road” (1933) – Social drama about teens on the road during the Great Depression.

New in Theaters: ‘Her’

'Her': Loving what's not there
Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Her’: Loving what’s not there

her-posterEveryone always says that they just love this phone or that gadget. So it makes sense that Spike Jonze’s visionary but powerfully naive new sci-fi rom-com Her would take that romantic displacement to its ultimate conclusion by having a guy (Joaquin Phoenix) fall in love with his new operating  system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

Her opens this week. My review is at Film Racket:

In the future, computers will be not only our friends and lovers, they’ll also help us discover our better selves. That seems to be the message of Spike Jonze’s partially genius, often infuriating yuppie sci-fi fantasy about love and meaning in the post-smartphone era. It’s a film that spends so much effort perfecting the sun-dappled look seen in digital-tech commercials, and squinting to see how technology will operate a few years hence, that it doesn’t have much energy left over for its humans. Jonze seems more truly engaged by Samantha, who is the most well-rounded character in the film. Notably, she’s not human…

'Her': Happiness is an advanced operating system
‘Her’: Happiness is an advanced operating system

Here’s the trailer, soundtrack by Arcade Fire:

New in Theaters: ‘Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues’

'Anchorman 2'! Is back!
‘Anchorman 2’! Is back!

Anchorman2_PosterThe rule of comedy sequels is not a strong one; witness everything from Ghostbusters 2 to The Hangover 3. Nevertheless, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell dared the fates by going back to their 2004 cult oddity Anchorman, the single most surreal comedy to hit American theaters since Monty Python, and seeing if they could resuscitate the magic. This time, instead of 1970s local-news, they’re doing an extended riff on early CNN.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues opens everywhere tomorrow. My review is at Film Journal International:

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is so busy resting on its laurels it never gives the audience a solid reason for having shown up. The original was anarchic parody on a near-operatic scale, with the feel of several comedy greats throwing it all out there as though they would never get another shot. But the second film is clearly a franchise, it reeks of work

You can see the trailer here; just part of the film’s Super Bowl-like marketing campaign that’s been swamping the nation for weeks now:

Department of Awards: Online Film Critics Society

Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave'
Chiwetel Ejiofor in ’12 Years a Slave’

The Online Film Critics Society, an international group of cinematic scriveners who are kind enough to count me in their number, today announced our awards for the best films of 2013. Not surprisingly, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity took the lead, with five and three wins, respectively, and Cate Blanchett deservedly took another best actress win for her work in Blue JasmineVariety reported it here.

Cate Blanchett in 'Blue Jasmine'
Cate Blanchett in ‘Blue Jasmine’

We also gave a special posthumous award to the late, great Roger Ebert, “whose decades of work in criticism helped to popularize serious film appreciation to a wider audience, and whose tireless persistence in the face of cancer was as inspiring as any of the films he championed.”

Here’s the full list:

  • Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
  • Best Animated Feature: The Wind Rises
  • Best Film Not in the English Language: Blue Is the Warmest Color
  • Best Documentary: The Act of Killing
  • Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron – Gravity
  • Best Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
  • Best Actress: Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
  • Best Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
  • Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
  • Best Original Screenplay: Her
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave
  • Best Editing: Gravity
  • Best Cinematography: Gravity

 

Writers’ Corner: James Baldwin and Preaching

baldwin1James Baldwin didn’t start out as a writer; but then, none of us do. Before he put pen to paper, he had a different calling: preacher.

In this interview from The Paris Review, he explains the difference:

When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.

It’s all communication, one way or the other.

New in Theaters: ‘American Hustle’

Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper strut in 'American Hustle'
Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Bradley Cooper strut in ‘American Hustle’

americanhustle-poster1After last year’s wildly popular but kinda underwhelming mental-illness romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell changes things up with the sprawling, polyestered, multi-Golden Globe-nominated, 1970s scam flick American Hustle. Not a bad switchup, all things considered

American Hustle opens this weekend in limited release and goes wide on December 20. My review is at Film Racket:

Somehow there’s never been a big movie about Abscam, the ambitious late-1970s FBI corruption probe that convicted six Congressmen and one Senator for taking bribes from fake Arab sheikhs. Although it plays with a few shards of the real story, David O. Russell’s highly imitative but gung-ho drama American Hustle is not really about Abscam. What you have here, amidst all the science-fiction hair and byzantine deals cut in rooms lined with cheap wood paneling, is an epic power ballad of a story about love, friendship, and the high costs of each…

The ladies of 'American Hustle'
The ladies of ‘American Hustle’

Here’s the trailer, which reveals absolutely nothing about the plot; dig it: