Department of Weekend Reading: February 28, 2014


New on DVD: ‘The Grandmaster’

Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung compare styles in 'The Grandmaster'
Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung compare styles in ‘The Grandmaster’

dvd-grandmaster-cvr-200The great Hong Kong romantic Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love) hadn’t completed a feature film since 2007’s misfire My Blueberry Nights. So it was pretty good news to hear that his latest film was going to be a classic martial-arts extravaganza, reuniting Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi with The Matrix choreographer Yuen Wo Ping.

The Grandmaster, which received well-deserved Oscar nominations for cinematography and costume design, will be released on DVD and Blu-ray next Tuesday. My review is at PopMatters:

“Don’t tell me about your teacher,” says Ip Man (Tony Leung) at the start of Wong Kar Wai’s dreamlike heartbreak of a kung fu film, The Grandmaster, “or brag about your style.” Using that same steady humility flecked with a hint of the sardonic that’s made Leung such a crucial counterweight to the Hong Kong school of overkill filmmaking, he preemptively bleeds the hot air out of what’s to follow. This is a good thing, because that scene is intercut with the already-legendary scene in which Ip Man faces down a dozen or so adversaries in pouring rain. He dispatches them all with practiced ease but not a whiff of arrogance, just as the real Ip Man’s student Bruce Lee would do on film decades later…


Here’s the trailer:

Department of Cocktails: The Faulkner Recipe

William Faulkner said a lot about drinking; which makes sense, given how much he wrote while drinking. As he once noted:

You see, I usually write at night. I always keep my whiskey within reach; so many ideas that I can’t remember in the morning pop into my head.

For all those wanting to know what the man’s favorite tipple was, it’s simple: Whiskey. Any kind. And here’s his preferred way of taking it (your basic mint julep, simple):

  • whiskey
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • ice
  • mint
  • served in a metal cup

(h/t The Migrant Book Club)

Quote of the Day: LBJ’s Rules of Life


A few select items from Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Rules of Life:


  • Remember the CIA is made up of boys whose families sent them to Princeton but wouldn’t let them into the family brokerage business.
  • Never trust a man whose eyes are too close to his nose.
  • The fact that a man is a newspaper reporter is evidence of some flaw of character.
  • When things haven’t gone well for you, call in a secretary or a staff man and chew him out. You will sleep better and they will appreciate the attention.


These rules might be tough to follow for those of us who are not leaders of the free world, but many are just plain good sense.

(h/t Conor Friedersdorf)

Writer’s Corner: The Devil Procrasination


Every writer knows the pain of procrastination. Just about none of them know the answer to this question: Why do we put ourselves through it? By and large writers know exactly when they have to turn in their article/book/whatever and nearly everything about it (word count, tone, subject). And yet, time after time, deadlines are treated as little more than tissue paper-thin suggestions to be brushed aside at the last minute when work has finally (maybe) begun.

It’s a ridiculously neurotic cycle, and apparently impossible to break out of.

Megan McArdle’s “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators” tries to make some sense of this fundamentally illogical and self-defeating behavior. One anecdote she provides seems a fairly typical scenario:

I once asked a talented and fairly famous colleague how he managed to regularly produce such highly regarded 8,000 word features. “Well,” he said, “first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.”

McArdle’s article spins off (too little, too late) into theories about overpraised millennials not being able to cope without constant feedback and structure. But before she gets to that, her theories about the roots of this procrastination—mostly rotating around the idea that many writers have an uncommonly intense fear of being unmasked as frauds, thus adding to the fear of actually writing something that could give evidence for that—are sound.

Not that that will do anything to help somebody finish that article on time. There’s always email to check, friends to write, drinks to make…

Department of Weekend Reading: February 21, 2014


New in Theaters: ‘Omar’

Training to kill in 'Omar'
‘Omar’: Terrorists or freedom fighters?

Omar-posterIn the Oscar-nominated thriller Omar, a young Palestinian man in the West Bank is faced with two challenges: First, how to convince his friend that he’d be a good bet to marry the friend’s little sister? Second, and more importantly, how does he escape the law after helping to murder an Israeli soldier?

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

For such a razor-sharp thriller, the West Bank-set Omar smuggles a dense packet of ambiguity into its compact running time. This shouldn’t be a rarity, given how many stories there are about the conflict between occupiers and occupied, the dueling taxonomy of “freedom fighters” and “terrorists.” But too often these clashes are related in absolutes, where one narrative is bought into more than another. Hany Abu-Assad’s skillful story wrestles with those grey moralities without spoon-feeding one or the other to the audience. It’s a story about people, not ideologies, but it knows how inextricably the former intertwine with the latter…

Between a rock and a hard place.
Between a rock and a hard place.

Here is the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Child’s Pose’

Luminita Gheorghiu schemes in 'Child's Pose'
Luminita Gheorghiu schemes in ‘Child’s Pose’


Winner of the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, Child’s Pose is playing now in limited release, and is worth seeking out. My review is at Film Racket:

“A mother’s love” has rarely felt more dagger-like or malevolent than in the chilling morality thriller Child’s Pose. Part anatomy of a villain and part crime procedural, Calin Peter Netzer’s film follows what happens after a domineering upper-class Bucharest mother finds out her coddled son has been accused of running down and killing a young boy from the outskirts of town. It’s another in a series of European films (Italy’s The Great Beauty, in particular) that have served as X-rays of societies riddled with corruption like mold veined through a hunk of old cheese. What makes Child’s Pose even more affecting is that many of its characters come off as spiritually corrupt as the society at large. And the rot comes from the top…

Here is the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: Ice-T Goes Fantasy

After having gone from being the rare gangsta rapper who had actually lived the life instead of just rapping about it to loud monotone fixture on Law & Order: SVU and too many horrendous movies to count, Ice-T has a new gig: Recording audiobooks. It makes sense, given his clear, bottom-heavy voice. But according to Paste, he talked on a recent podcast about running into some trouble recording an unnamed Dungeons & Dragons novel. Just realizing the depths of nerd-dom that he’d gotten into (“They were talking about ‘pegasuses’ and ‘pegasi.’ That’s horses with wings”) was an education in itself:

It took Ice three-and-a-half hours to record 25 pages of the book, whose title he does not reveal. But, he added, he will slay the fantasy-lingo dragon and let fans know when the audiobook goes on sale.

“It’ll be a treat to watch me, with my South Central-educated ass, trying to read some Dungeons & Dragons shit,” he promises.

The O.G. further notes that “Considering the way music is right now, you’re better off listening to a book … Honestly, it’s more entertaining.”

Now Playing: ‘Gloria’

The sublime daffiness of Paulina García in 'Gloria'
The sublime daffiness of Paulina García in ‘Gloria’

gloria-poster1Chile’s submission for this year’s Foreign Film Academy Award, Gloria, doesn’t have the most instantly engaging of storylines: single woman tries to find love. But with deftly rambunctious storytelling and one of the greatest, most soulful performances you’re likely to see all year, it achieves tragicomic greatness.

Gloria is playing around the country right now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

…[The film] is shaded with both a dark melancholy and a bright, getting-on-with-it playfulness. Gloria endures more than her share of spirit-crushing moments, but these appear in between glimmers of joy that buffet her relentless persistence, her will not to sink into a sinkhole of near-retirement surrender. There’s no certainty that she will find any kind of new love again, or forge some new kind of bond with children. If she’s going to carve out a happy life, it will be in her hands, not dependent on approvals from her family, friends or lover…

Here’s the trailer:

Readers’ Corner: Vasconcelos Library

One of the most amazing libraries in the world isn’t in some European capital and it doesn’t date from the 18th century. The 125,000-square foot Vasconcelos Library was built in Mexico City in 2006 and resembles nothing less than a space-age ark for reading.

As you can see in the images here, it’s an astonishing space with an atrium several stories high and about a block long, with blocks of shelves arranged like cubes and all of it cross-sectioned by frosted glass.

Over at BookRiot, they termed it the Borg Library, which works except for one problem: The Borg don’t need to read, they just assimilate.


New in Books: Roddy Doyle’s ‘The Guts’

book-guts-roddy-doyle-cvr-200 Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments was one of the great music novels of the past few decades. Published in 1989 and serving as the start for Doyle’s unofficial “Barrytown Trilogy” (also comprising The Van and The Snapper), it followed knockabout Dubliner Jimmy Rabbitte’s attempt to put together a great soul/R&B band with nothing but Irishmen. Doyle’s newest novel, The Guts, picks up with Jimmy many years on, still working with music but saddled with middle-aged responsibilities and a new problem: Cancer.

My review of The Guts is at PopMatters:

Jimmy’s reflexive fear of sentiment is a powerful force in the book, and it works both for and against what Doyle is trying to achieve. In refusing to turn Jimmy into some sad, caterwauling victim baying at the moon, Doyle keeps the book from being just another sickness story. It’s Jimmy’s story through and through. Within a few dozen pages, he has pushed on past the cancer and is concerned more with the other matters that will not wait; family, the bills, what to do about that old female friend he just ran into who seems keen. Most problematic is work at the small excavatory Irish music site he started (“Finding old bands and finding the people who loved them”) whose fortunes were as bitterly unforgiving as any 21st century creative enterprise…

Department of Weekend Reading: February 14, 2014


New in Theaters: ‘The Monuments Men’

Matt Damon and George Clooney in 'The Monuments Men'
Matt Damon and George Clooney in ‘The Monuments Men’

monumentsmenposter1During the latter part of World War II, as the Allies were advancing across Western Europe, special detachments of experts known as the Monuments Men fanned out with lists and a mandate to keep their own soldiers from demolishing cultural artifacts and finding those works that the Nazis had tried to keep for themselves. George Clooney’s attempt at turning that sliver of history into a cool, guys-on-a-mission film sadly falls apart almost before the opening credits begin.

The Monuments Men is playing now. My review is at Short Ends & Leader:

The film assembles a dream assemble and then abandons them without a story to work from. Clooney’s lack of control over his material is evident from the beginning. Playing team leader Frank Stokes, Clooney gets his presidential assignment (a bungled, laughable scene with one of the more comical FDR impressions seen on film since Annie) and starts getting the band together. Chicago architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), art restorer James Granger (Matt Damon), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), and the just generally artsy Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). (Later on, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin join the gang for some Continental color.) This should be basic stuff, a few character-establishing moments and team-building quips, plus the easy comedy of watching the academics struggle through basic training before their mission. But Clooney muffs almost everything from the start…

A couple of the actual Monuments Men with a stolen Rembrandt found in a German salt mine.
A couple of the actual Monuments Men with a stolen Rembrandt found in a German salt mine.

The trailer is here: