New in Theaters: ‘Maps to the Stars’

Robert Pattinson looks properly mystified in 'Maps to the Stars' (Focus World)
Robert Pattinson looks properly mystified in ‘Maps to the Stars’ (Focus World)

It was probably only a matter of time before director David Cronenberg and novelist Bruce Wagner found some way to work together. Cronenberg’s love of festering wounds (both physical and psychological) and Wagner’s bleak and blackened comedies of Hollywood soul-deadness would seem somehow made for each other. That’s how we, unfortunately, ended up with Maps to the Stars.

After a short, awards-qualifying run late last year, Maps to the Stars is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

There is a moment when satire turns into pure spleen. That moment comes pretty early in David Cronenberg’s disjointed Maps to the Stars. Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a child star with the dead but predatory eyes of a middle-aged addict, lashes out at his manager. Benjie lets loose a stream of insults notable for being not just petty but anti-Semitic and homophobic to boot. It’s a terribly clumsy moment (see how awful actors can be), the satirical equivalent of a punch to the nose. Much of the film that follows is played in much the same key of bilious hate, the only variant being the talent of those spitting out the lines…

Here’s the trailer:

Department of Weekend Reading: February 27, 2015

reading1

Writer’s Desk: Michael Connelly

When you’re looking for advice on writing, the masters are of course always reliable. But it might be wiser to just dive right into the ranks of those who spend their lives toiling in the fields of pulp. After all, it’s the creators of genre fiction who are more likely to have to work with brutal deadlines and for fiercely judgmental audiences.

Michael Connelly, 2013 (Brian Minkoff)
Michael Connelly, 2013 (Brian Minkoff)

So, here’s Michael Connelly, of the Harry Bosch series of novels, as well as The Lincoln Lawyer, talking to Writer’s Digest about his three favorite bits of writing advice. They’re all gold:

The best crime novels are not how cops work on cases; it’s how cases work on cops. — Joseph Wambaugh

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. — Kurt Vonnegut

When you circle around a murder long enough, you get to know a city. — Richard Price

Department of Awards: ‘Whiplash’ Gets Bloody

Miles Teller drums and J.K. Simmons berates in 'Whiplash' (Sony Pictures Classics"
Miles Teller drums and J.K. Simmons berates in ‘Whiplash’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

A brutal and (literally) bloody musician’s tale that’s about many, many other things besides music (surprise), Whiplash was the little awards film that could. While never quite making a splash along the lines of a Boyhood or The Imitation Game, it plugged along for months on little more than sheer word of mouth. Just like movies used to do.

Whiplash, which was ultimately nominated for five Oscars, will be available next week on DVD and Blu-ray. My review is at Film Racket:

In Damien Chazelle’s steam-heated pressure cooker, socially maladroit student Andrew (Miles Teller) is determined to be a brilliant jazz drummer. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the demon-teacher at a New York music conservatory who Andrew thinks guards the entrance to greatness, sees potential in this student but won’t let him past without a serious flaying. From the second Andrew steps into Fletcher’s studio band, the insults and cutting remarks fly from Fletcher’s lips. The only question seems to be how long Andrew can tough it out. But since he and Fletcher have a surprising amount in common, the story then becomes more about who will outlast the other…

You can see the trailer here:

Department of Weekend Reading: February 20, 2015

reading1

New on DVD: ‘Life Itself’

The writer at rest: 'Life Itself' (Magnolia Pictures)
The writer at rest: ‘Life Itself’ (Magnolia Pictures)

One of the better documentaries that ever-so-briefly graced screens in 2014 was Life Itself. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and based in part on Roger Ebert’s memoir, the film is a fascinating and curiously life-affirming story about ambition, creativity, and getting on with things.

lifeitself-posterLife Itself is available on DVD today; my review is at Film Racket:

James takes Ebert’s 2011 memoir as his source document. From there we get Ebert’s memories of growing up as a precociously verbal only child in downstate Illinois. (“My mother supported me like I was the local sports team.”) He describes himself as not just a born writer but a born journalist. This was not a kid who wanted to just write for high-brow publications. He wanted to be read and heard by as many people as possible. Thus the career that arced from working-class daily paper to syndicated TV show and appearances on Carson and Letterman. When called upon he could pen a learned piece for Film Comment (as he did in response to a Richard Corliss piece that called him out as an egregious “thumbs up/thumbs down” simplifier and bottom-racer). But as much as he admired the Pauline Kaels and Andrew Sarrises of the world, that was never going to be him…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Keeping It Going

(c. 1942, Library of Congress)
(c. 1942, Library of Congress)

Like any other type of advice, there’s writing advice you want to hear that’s not terribly helpful, and writing you don’t want to hear that’s also probably what you need to hear.

Solidly in the latter category comes this bit of second-hand advice from Nicholson Baker:

Once or twice I got a chance to work with [Atlantic editor] Bill Whitworth on a piece or two — and I was just kind of struggling to support myself and, you know, life is busy and I wasn’t writing that much. He just said very simply, “Are you writing every day?” and I said, “Ummmm,” and I sort of mumbled because I couldn’t say yes.

It was a horrible feeling, and the day after that, I started writing every day … I fudge a lot where I think, “OK, did you write anything, did you write a text? Did you write an email? Did you write just notes on a scrap of paper? Did you write something?” So that’s how I get around it sometimes, by stretching the definition.

Let’s face it, there’s almost always something more fun to do than write on any given day. I mean, those socks aren’t going to organize themselves, are they? But if you get in the every-day habit, eventually it will become hard to break.

Department of Weekend Reading: February 13, 2015

reading1

Department of Shameless Self-Promotion: ‘Eyes Wide Open: 2014’

Eyes Wide Open coverFor the third year running, I’ve published an annual guide (sort of) to the year that was, cinematically speaking.

The 2014 Eyes Wide Open is collected like the last couple of editions, in that it starts off with pieces covering each of my 25 favorite movies of the year, then laying into the year’s 5 worst films, rounding it all off with some shorter honorable mention pieces, DVD reviews, and other ephemera.

It’s available as a paperback here and an ebook here.

New in Theaters: ‘Ballet 422’

Ballet 422-1
Justin Peck directs his dancers in ‘Ballet 422’ (Magnolia Pictures)

In the new documentary Ballet 422, one of New York City Ballet’s dancers is given the opportunity to choreograph the company’s 422nd original ballet. Only he also has to dance a different program the night that his ballet premieres, and he’s got just two months to pull it all together.

Ballet 422 is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

There is no such thing as a permanent piece of art. Paper yellows, paint cracks, celluloid burns, memories fade. But compared to those ephemeral forms, dance is even more transitory. The choreography can be recorded, but not the swing of limb and flair of line that exists for a moment on stage and then only for those who happen to witness it. Jody Lee Lipes’ sinuous documentary about a dancer at the New York City Ballet who’s given two months to choreograph an original ballet would seem to be an attempt to capture that fleeting sensation on film. But instead, it highlights the vast gulf between the great expanses of time given to creating an artwork and the finger-snap speed with which it can be delivered, and possibly forgotten …

Here’s the trailer:

On TV: ‘The Jinx’

'The Jinx': Kathleen and Robert Durst (HBO Films)
‘The Jinx’: Kathleen and Robert Durst (HBO Films)

Tonight, HBO is premiering the first episode in its six-part true-crime documentary The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. It’s a stranger-than-fiction tale from director Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans) who first tried to tackle the curious case of Durst with 2010’s fictional film All Good Things, where Ryan Gosling played Durst, heir to a massive Manhattan real-estate fortune, who was accused of killing his first wife Kathleen, who disappeared in 1982.

thejinx-posterMy review of the first two episodes is at PopMatters:

There’s no straight line through Robert Durst’s story. Instead, there is a curlicue leading from a privileged Manhattan childhood to Dynasty-style power struggles, a lengthy stretch of cross-dressing, and potential connections to three murders. The baffling particulars of Durst’s case and his resolute odd-man-out nature come with the added coating of unreality provided by a life of extreme wealth. It’s a captivating story, and a difficult one to tackle without succumbing to its and his Sphinxian spell. Fittingly, the first two episodes of Andrew Jarecki’s six-part documentary, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, don’t reveal whether or not it will succumb…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Just Like Baseball

(c. 1924, Library of Congress)
(c. 1924, Library of Congress)

Forget plotting or sounding out your dialogue. Half the time, the greatest struggle with writing is the fight to just keep going. To that end, anything can potentially help.

Greta Gerwig, who’s adding a sideline of screenwriting to her acting career, gave this advice to the New York Times Magazine:

I have gotten into baseball recently, and whenever I have trouble writing, I think about the pace of baseball. It’s slow. You strike out a lot, even if you’re great. It’s mostly individual, but when you have to work together, it must be perfect. My desktop picture is of the Red Sox during the World Series. They aren’t winning; they’re just grinding out another play. This, for me, is very helpful to have in my mind while writing.

Keeping up spirits matters. Be your own cheer squad if need be. Whatever it takes to grind it out.

New in Theaters: ‘Jupiter Ascending’

'Jupiter Ascending': Check it out, hover boots! (Warner Bros.)
‘Jupiter Ascending’: Check it out, hover boots! (Warner Bros.)

A preposterously silly and overbudgeted space opera from the Wachowskis, whose Cloud Atlas was one of the more exciting sci-fi/fantasies of recent memory, Jupiter Ascending would seem to have it all: Laser battles, baroque outer-space architeture, Eddie Redmayne in full camp mode, Channing Tatum with wolf ears. Disappointingly, such is not the case.

After a poorly-considered surprise screening at Sundance (wrong crowd), Jupiter Ascending opened wide on Friday, for a likely very brief run; my review is at PopMatters:

There was a time when beautifully begrimed working-class movie heroines would be delighted to discover they had royal blood coursing through their veins. While those Cinderella stories focused on the romance between girl and prince,Jupiter Ascending changes the stakes. Here, the princess must save the world and the prince has had his DNA spliced with that of a wolf.

Ah, love, Wachowski-style…

Here’s the trailer:

Department of Weekend Reading: February 6, 2015

reading1

New in Theaters: ‘Mad as Hell’

Cenk Uygur getting ready for his closeup in 'Mad as Hell' (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Cenk Uygur getting ready for his closeup in ‘Mad as Hell’ (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Never heard of Cenk Uygur? Well, at one point, his two-fisted shouter of a program was the most watched news-ish program on the Internet. Then, a few years back, when MSNBC was looking for new faces, they tried him out. Things didn’t work out so well.

Mad as Hell, the documentary about Uygur’s unusual rise to media sort-of stardom, opens this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Cenk Uygur doesn’t have a typical biography for an online news sensation. Brought to America by his Turkish parents at the age of eight, Uygur started down a path that would make many immigrant parents delirious with pride: first getting his business degree from Wharton, and then a law degree from Georgetown, before moving into corporate practice. According to Uygur’s many friends interviewed in Andrew Napier’s chummy documentary Mad as Hell, in college he was “annoying” and a “loudmouth” who loved spouting off and starting fights with his in-your-face opinions. The Uygur who appears in the film, a forward-thrusting type with a casual approach to fact-checking and a bullying-football-coach approach to debate, fits that description to a tee. A love-or-hate kind of guy, in other words…

Here’s the trailer: