Department of Weekend Reading: January 30, 2015

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New in Theaters: The Oscar Nominated Short Films

Ireland's Oscar-nominated short film 'Boogaloo and Graham' (ShortsHD)
Ireland’s Oscar-nominated short film ‘Boogaloo and Graham’ (ShortsHD)

Every year at the Oscars, the same four or five feature films are mentioned over and over again. Then they come to the shorts category and everybody looks confused since there was never anywhere to see the things. That’s changed in recent years with the increasing popularity (in arthouses, at least) of the Oscar nominated short film programs.

Oscar shorts-posterAll three programs (Live-Action, Documentary, and Animation) open in limited release this Friday. My reviews of the first two ran this week in Film Journal International.

You can read the review of Live-Action here:

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences votes each year for their favorite live-action short films, it can often seem as if they’re aiming for a smorgasbord appeal: something serious, something off-the-wall, a couple of snippet comedies, and at least something in black-and-white. The 2015 program, now a reliably audience-pleasing fixture on the art-house circuit, chucks that template in favor of more thought-out offerings that for once downplay the quirk…

The Oscar-nominated short 'White Earth' (ShortsHD)
The Oscar-nominated documentary short ‘White Earth’ (ShortsHD)

And Documentary here:

There are some years when the nonfiction shorts nominated for the Academy Awards can be realistically seen as a menu of the world’s problems: short dispatches of despair and terror, war and its consequences, from far-flung countries and ignored communities. This year’s program has some of that quality to it as well; there is, after all, something about the form that seems to necessitate the choice of uncomfortable topics. But more than most years, this time the problems at hand are more personal than geopolitical…

You can see the trailer here.

In Books: ‘All the Light We Cannot See’

German soldiers march through Paris, June 1940 (German Federal Archive)
German soldiers march through Paris, June 1940 (German Federal Archive)

allthelightwecannotsee1Sometimes it can just take you a while to get around to that book that everybody has been reading. Anthony Doerr’s fairly beloved novel All the Light We Cannot See has been hanging around on the bestseller lists pretty much since it was published last summer, and for good reason. It’s not just the France-during-the-occupation setting or the gorgeous language, though both of those attributes help, of course. It has a magic to it, plain and simple.

All the Light We Cannot See is available in hardcover everywhere, with a paperback edition scheduled for this December; my review is at PopMatters:

Like many great novels of the Second World War and other epic clashes of civilizations, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is a story of the grandeur of terror. At least it begins that way. It’s August 1944 in Saint-Malo, a venerable seaside town on the northwestern coast of France. The Allies have landed and are steadily punching their way out of Normandy. The war is nearing another crescendo of death…

Writer’s Corner: Getting Under the Skin

Sometimes you write a piece, a poem, a scribble, a book, and that’s all it is. Just the thing there, no more and no less. There is of course, absolutely nothing wrong with that. The world would be far too complex to live in if we spent our time looking for nuance in every bit of text that we came across.

fahrenheit451But there’s writing and then there’s writing. It’s that second kind which some of us are aiming for. That’s the kind that acts like glue, or a song you can’t get out of your head, an itch under the skin.

As Neil Gaiman wrote in his introduction to Bradbury’s ode to the written word and the life of the mind, Fahrenheit 451:

If someone tells you what a story is about, they are probably right. If they tell you that that is all the story is about, they are probably wrong.

Something more that goes beyond the words on the page. That’s the key to sticking in the reader’s mind. How to do it? Aye, there’s the rub.

Screening Room: ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ Deserves to Win It All

Ralph Fiennes lives it up while he can in 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' (Fox Searchlight)
Ralph Fiennes lives it up while he can in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ (Fox Searchlight)

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was nominated for nine (count ’em) Academy Awards. There’s no guessing exactly how it will fare up against the competition from Birdman and Boyhood, but it’s easy to say that whatever awards those films don’t get, should be sent Budapest‘s way.

grand_budapest_hotel-posterMy article about the film is at Short Ends & Leader:

Wes Anderson isn’t our greatest living filmmaker; his style is too narrowly defined for such a grand title. We tend to think of our greatest directors as both having a signature style but also being flexible enough to tackle many styles: Howard Hawks could move from urbane comedies to Westerns and epics, Martin Scorsese from urban grit to musicals and children’s’ fantasias, and so on. By contrast Anderson has one style, and each of his films simply refine it. All those twee little trinkets and fussy outfits could drive you mad, were one to watch too many in a row. But as perfectly Andersonian a spectacle as The Grand Budapest Hotel is, it also expands his reach in surprising ways. Being one of the year’s most unique spectacles, it’s also the first Anderson film made up of tragedy as much as it is comedy…

Here’s the trailer:

Department of Weekend Reading: January 23, 2015

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Writer’s Corner: Do the Work

Roddy Doyle (photo by Jon Kay)

When an author’s resume includes such masterpieces as the Barrytown trilogy (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van), it’s generally best to listen to what they have to say…at least when it comes to writing.

Herewith some rules for writers from the great Roddy Doyle about calming down and getting on with it when you’re blocked:

Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph — Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety — it’s the job.

Department of Herzog: The Minnesota Declaration

Werner Herzog (photo by Erinc Salor)
Werner Herzog (photo by Erinc Salor)

Back in 1999, the always forward-looking Walker Art Center in Minneapolis hosted a career retrospective for the Quixote-like filmmaker Werner Herzog. He was years past his early narrative successes like Aquirre, the Wrath of God and yet to hit the later bumper crop of documentaries that started with 2005’s Grizzly Man.

Still, Herzog came bristling with ideas, like the intellectual guerrilla he is. As part of the event, he issued his “Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema.” It’s a unique 12-point manifesto, particularly coming from the man who regularly admits to fictionalizing parts of his nonfiction films. In between the snark, however, you can see his fiercely individualistic stance on life, art, and purpose threaded through.

A few worthy callouts:

  • “Fact creates norms, and truth illumination.”
  • “Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.”
  • “Each year at springtime scores of people on snowmobiles crash through the melting ice on the lakes of Minnesota and drown. Pressure is mounting on the new governor to pass a protective law. He, the former wrestler and bodyguard, has the only sage answer to this: ‘You can’t legislate stupidity.'”

This may be the only time in history Werner Herzog and Jesse Ventura occupied the same theoretical space.

Department of Weekend Reading: January 16, 2015

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Screening Room: Tom Hardy in ‘Locke’

Tom Hardy in 'Locke' (A24)
Tom Hardy in ‘Locke’ (A24)

In the summer of 2014, a little film named Locke came and went from a few cinemas in an eyeblink. It’s not hard on the surface to see why: The secretive trailer promises only a one-man show: Tom Hardy in a car for about an hour-and-a-half, grousing and pleading on the phone. Just as audiences failed to find it, the Golden Globes also ignored the film, as most likely the Oscars will too.

Do yourself a favor and check out Locke, which is available on DVD and VOD now. My review is at Short Ends and Leader:

The prospect of spending an hour and a half with an actor in a car while they sweet-talk and argue with people on the phone would normally be straight tedium … But when the actor is Tom Hardy, it’s a different story. In Steven Knight’s spellbinding Locke, Hardy darts through the tense screenplay with such graceful ease that his work feels more like something lived than performed. By the time this downbeat nail-biter is done, it feels justified to finally go ahead and say that Hardy is easily one of the greatest actors of his generation…

Here’s the trailer:

Quote of the Day: Golden Globes edition

Recreating the march in 'Selma' (Paramount Pictures)
Recreating the march in ‘Selma’ (Paramount Pictures)

In Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s monologue at the start of last night’s more anti-climactic than usual Golden Globe Awards, they referenced the film Selma (which, again, tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s leading the dramatic civil rights march through what was essentially enemy territory in Alabama in 1965).

It starts with a mediocre gag and follows up with one of the most pointed lines of any recent awards show:

… in the 1960s, thousands of black people from all over America came together with one common goal: To form Sly and the Family Stone [some laughter] … But the movie Selma is about the American civil rights movement that totally worked and now everything’s fine.

Writer’s Corner: Finding Out What You Don’t Want to Know

jamesbaldwin1By the time James Baldwin gave this interview to The Paris Review in 1984, his time was past as one of the writers whose voice was loudest in the great postwar arguments over what America would and should be. He was living in semi-exile in France at the time of the interview, heading into his 60s, but still full of burnt truths and hard-fought advice. Such as:

  • “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.”
  • “Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.”
  • [On starting out reviewing books for small change] “I had to read everything and had to write all the time, and that’s a great apprenticeship.”
  • “I doubt whether anyone—myself at least—knows how to talk about writing.”
  • “I do a lot of rewriting. It’s very painful. You know it’s finished when you can’t do anything more to it, though it’s never exactly the way you want it.”

In Books: The Best Nonfiction of 2014

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(image by pepo)

After PopMatters published their best fiction of 2014 feature earlier in the week, they ran the (perhaps more serious in tone, but still somehow more fun) compilation of the awesomest (yes, that’s a word) nonfiction titles that came out last year.

greilmarcus1Doing my part, I wrote about:

  • Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond
  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Pikkety
  • The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, Greil Marcus
  • The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Rick Perlstein
  • The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, Olivia Laing

You can find the feature here.

Department of Weekend Reading: January 2, 2015

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In Books: The Best Fiction of 2014

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redployment1Now that we’re fully into January 2015, it’s time to think about all the books we never got around to reading in 2014. To that end, the book staff at PopMatters have compiled their annual list of the Best Fiction of 2014, with short writeups of all the year’s most notable novels and collections of poetry and short fiction.

I wrote about:

  • The Peripheral, William Gibson
  • The Book of Strange New Things, Michael Faber
  • Redployment, Phil Klay

You can find the feature here.