Department of Weekend Reading: October 31, 2014

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New on DVD: ‘Snowpiercer’ is Revolution on a High-Speed Train

'Snowpiercer': We'd like a seat in first class, please (Anchor Bay)
‘Snowpiercer’: We’d like a seat in first class, please (Anchor Bay)

snowpiercer-dvdBong Joon-ho is a South Korean director who isn’t a household name in the States but by all rights should be. In his newest film, Snowpiercer, he imagines a quasi-steampunk post-apocalyptic thriller that’s also a handy little morality tale about class inequality.

Snowpiercer is available now on DVD and Blu-ray. My review is at PopMatters:

The physics of Snowpiercer’s futuristic plot are as stripped-down as the backstory is convoluted. Every human being left alive is on board one train snaking across the frozen wasteland. First class is up front, replete with late Roman Empire consumption and a mindset best described as rave-club Borgia. Everybody else is crammed cheek-to-jowl in the filthy back of the train. Those in back want to get up front. All that stands between them are many locked doors, squads of malevolent guards, years of social conditioning, and Tilda Swinton acting like a toothy Margaret Thatcher after one too many gin and tonics…

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘The Great Invisible’

'The Great Invisible' (Radius-TWC)
‘The Great Invisible’ (Radius-TWC)

thegreatinvisible-posterThe Deepwater Horizon oil-rig explosion was just about the worst environmental catastrophe the country has ever seen. Margaret Brown’s new documentary explores how it happened and what has been done (or more properly, not been done) to ensure it never happens again.

The Great Invisible is opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

The hot lowlands sprawling around where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico seem both disaster-prone and fated to be ignored when it comes time for clean-up. When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010, 11 workers were killed and millions of gallons of oil dumped into the gulf. It was the biggest oil spill in American history. That was horrific enough. But then came the investigations, the lawyers, and the intransigent power of a massive industry apparently powerful enough to devastate an entire coastal economy and yet still convince people that punishing it would only hurt themselves…

You can see the trailer here:

Writer’s Corner: Getting to Work

train1Now that the dream of the Amtrak writers’ residency is over and done with, it’s time for the rest of us to get back to the business at hand: crafting words and pages from nowhere out of nothing. Place matters; thusly the desire for inspiring places to put fingers to keyboards.

But there’s always that unfortunate reminder that, dream though we may of the perfect place and time to do one’s writing (cabin, nice view of the lake, maybe a dog who only wants to be walked at convenient 3- to 4-hour intervals), at some point one does have to get past inspiration and put one’s tender nose on that unforgiving grindstone.

Per Doreen Carvajal, who wrote about using the TGV train ride south from Paris as a way to unblock a long-dormant book proposal:

I settled into a cushioned seat by the window, thinking of my own family’s love affair with trains and the basic writing lesson they knew better than me. There is no better way to craft a book than to toil like a railroad worker, every day, all day.

Department of Weekend Reading: October 24, 2014

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Quote of the Day: In Defense of Idleness

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Like most of my generation, I was brought up on the saying “Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do.” Being a highly virtuous child, I believed all that I was told and acquired a conscience which has kept me working hard down to the present moment. But although my conscience has controlled my actions, my opinions have undergone a revolution. I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached … I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

—Bertrand Russell, “In Defense of Idleness,” Harper’s Magazine (October 1932)

Readers’ Corner: Taking Books to the Street

bookmobileMost people who read as children have fond memories of the bookmobile. One had normally thoroughly ransacked the age-appropriate shelves at the local public library and the thin offerings in the school itself. So having an RV pull up with an appropriately stern librarian with some new offerings (or at least the old offerings newly presented) was manna from heaven.

In Portland, Oregon, a phenomenal little nonprofit group is taking that idea in an entirely different direction. Street Books is a small band of dedicated booklovers who spend a few hours each week bicycling books around to the city’s homeless population. From the Times writeup:

The Street Books project is nothing if not messy. The librarians — the three salaried employees, including Ms. Moulton, are paid $60 a week for a three-hour shift — fill their carts based on their tastes and their patrons’ tastes.

Diana Rempe, 48, a community psychologist who recently completed her Ph.D. and pedals the bike one afternoon a week, stops at a day-labor assembly site on the city’s east side, where many Mexican and Latin American men gather, waiting to be hired. So she loads up on books in Spanish. (Her proudest book coup, she said, was getting a hard-to-find book on chess moves in Spanish for two Cuban players.)

You can donate money here, or email them and ask about donating books that people have been asking about.

Now Playing: ‘Birdman’ Goes Mega-Meta

Edward Norton and Michael Keaton in 'Birdman' (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Edward Norton and Michael Keaton square off in ‘Birdman’ (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

In Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Michael Keaton plays a onetime action-hero star whose grip on reality becomes a touch, well, fragile after his career falls on hard times and he tries mounting a Broadway play with a hot-shot theater actor (Edward Norton) to prove his relevance.

film-birdman-poster-200Birdman opens this week in limited, stoke-the-Oscars release; it’ll go wider around the country later in the fall. My review is at PopMatters:

Part backstage melodrama and part screed in the name of art, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is nearly as frazzled as its protagonist, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton). Back in the pre-Marvel movie era of the ‘90s, Riggan was the winged superhero Birdman. He made three movies that grossed billions and then chucked it all away. And, like many other actors blessed with the role of a lifetime, he is both embarrassed by his legacy and eager to regain its mantle of fame….

You can see the trailer here:

Department of Weekend Reading: October 17, 2014

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Now Playing: ‘The Overnighters’ Shows the Dark Underbelly of the Oil Boom

A church becomes a sanctuary in 'The Overnighters' (Drafthouse Films)
A church becomes a sanctuary in ‘The Overnighters’ (Drafthouse Films)

The oil boom in the Bakken shale of North Dakota has had a broader effect than just the local economy. Because of the Wild West boomtown pressures, rents have skyrocketed in the small prairie towns nearest the fields, leading to homelessness among the many workers flooding here from around the country. A fascinating new documentary about one town describes the struggles between a Lutheran minister who opens his church to those jobhunters without a place to sleep, and a town and congregation who are nervous about the new arrivals.

The Overnighters is now playing in limited release and should likely be broadcast on public television next year. My review is at Film Journal International:

The prospect of plentiful jobs paying $100,000 has brought a Wild West mentality to this spare and abstemious high-plains town, with all the economic pressures and outer-world decadence that entails. Rents have tripled and quadrupled, forcing out longtime residents and leaving the new jobseekers nowhere to stay. Concordia, the local Lutheran church, has become something of a temporary shelter for some of those migrants. They bed down on the pews, on the floor, in their cars in the parking lot. This strikes some of the parishioners as excessive. Some say they feel uncomfortable or unsafe in their own church. Referring most likely to the uptick in crime that the oil rush of new money brings, one refers to the men as outsiders “who rape and pillage and burn.” Their tenor varies from quiet to loud, but overall the response is: Stay away….

You can see the trailer here:

Now Playing: ‘The Judge’

Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall in 'The Judge' (Warner Bros.)
Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’ (Warner Bros.)

In The Judge—aka the movie that most people will assume was based on a John Grisham novel but wasn’t—Robert Downey Jr. plays one of those smart-ass big-city lawyers who has to finally use his sleazy skills for good when he is forced to defend his father (Robert Duvall) on a murder charge.

The Judge is playing now in wide release. My review is at PopMatters:

The Judge offers little that feels like an original movie. It has actors and dialogue, conflict and locations, but it’s so vaguely familiar at every turn that watching it is like trying to decipher a blurred Xerox copy…

You can see the trailer here:

Department of Weekend Reading: October 10, 2014

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New in Theaters: In ‘Evolution of a Criminal’ the Director Tells How He Became a Bank Robber

Bad decisions in 'Evolution of a Criminal' (Independent Lens)
Bad decisions in ‘Evolution of a Criminal’ (Independent Lens)

Darius Clarke Monroe was a straight-A student from a tight-knit family in Houston; the last kid anybody would have picked to become a criminal. But nevertheless, he and two friends left high school one day to rob a bank. Evolution of a Criminal is Monroe’s confident, morally astute documentary about what led up to and followed that life-changing decision.

Evolution of a Criminal is opening this week in very limited release and will be broadcast on PBS in the near future.

My review is at Film Journal International:

As in Night of the Gun, where journalist David Carr reported his past history as a violent drug addict as though he were covering any other story, Monroe approaches the bank robbery that changed his life with a similar degree of distance. The background he paints through closed-framed, emotional interviews shows a vibrantly family-filled childhood in a quiet Houston neighborhood. His mother and father and other relatives describe a bifurcated existence, where his lively confidence was shadowed by worry about the family’s severe financial problems. After a robbery leaves the family devastated—the thieves actually broke through his bedroom ceiling—Monroe’s jokes to his mother Sigrid about robbing a bank to help her out take on a more insistent edge. Like just about everybody else Monroe talks to, she can’t believe that her friendly, outgoing, well-behaved boy would ever do anything of the sort….

You can see the trailer here:

Now Playing: ‘Bird People’ Perches Between Rapture and Oblivion

'Bird People' (Sundance Selects)
Anaïs Demoustier and friends in ‘Bird People’ (Sundance Selects)

birdpeople-posterTwo people, one hotel next to an airport, an atmosphere of rootlessness, a little bit of magic, and lots of sparrows. Those are the ingredients of Pascale Ferran’s gorgeously odd Bird People, which has almost everything going for it but a story. Plus Bowie.

Bird People is playing in very limited release now and deserves to be sought out. My review is at PopMatters:

Airports are all about promise. Springboards to the great elsewhere, they are also, for passengers en route, a comfortingly null zone wherein the normal rules of adult life are suspended. The promise of airports can be intoxicating. But the reality is more often deadening, not transportive.

In Bird People, Pascale Ferran’s ode to the in-between, Charles de Gaulle airport takes on both qualities. It’s at once an escape and a trap for the unwary…

You can see the trailer here:

Reader’s Corner: Banned Books

We’re a week late on this, but in case you hadn’t heard, Sept. 21–27 was Banned Books Week. Below is the current list of the 10 most frequently challenged books in school libraries. Some of them make a certain sense (50 Shades of Grey, for instance), but Bone?

  1. bone-cover1Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
    Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence
  2. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
    Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
  3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
    Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James
    Reasons: Nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
    Reasons: Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
  6. A Bad Boy Can Be Good for A Girl, by Tanya Lee Stone
    Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit
  7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green
    Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
    Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  9. Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
    Reasons: Occult/Satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
  10. Bone (series), by Jeff Smith
    Reasons: Political viewpoint, racism, violence