Screening Room: ‘Anomalisa’

Anomalisa_posterA bleak, Up in the Air-like story about a depressed businessman’s wanderings through an anonymous American heartland, the stop-motion animated film Anomalisa is the newest boundary-blurrer from Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). It’ll be the one that anti-Pixar Grinches in the Academy will be voting for in the animation category against the Inside Out majority.

Anomalisa opens in limited release this week and wider in January. My review is at PopMatters:

In today’s America, you must have money for your disaffection to be interesting. At least this is the case in Charlie Kaufman’s downbeat stop-motion animation film, Anomalisa. Like some slim and semi-acclaimed allegorical novel recently translated into English, it’s a story about a man alone in a strange city having dreamlike encounters while wrestling with his inner demons. Along the way, he meets a variety of people lower down the socioeconomic ladder than him, and treats them terribly…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Working in Bookstores

books-theidealgiftIt’s not a prerequisite for writers to have worked in a bookstore. But just as a director needs to occasionally watch their movie with an actual audience instead of by themselves, it’s handy for writers to have spent some time out there in the literary trenches with the folks who buy and sell these things.

Even George Orwell spent some time flogging the printed word. He wrote a decent essay on the experience, so there’s another reason to do it: Research. A few observations of note:

In a town like London there are always plenty of not quite certifiable lunatics walking the streets, and they tend to gravitate towards bookshops, because a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.

Modern books for children are rather horrible things, especially when you see them in the mass.

…it is always fairly easy to sell Dickens, just as it is always easy to sell Shakespeare. Dickens is one of those authors whom people are ‘always meaning to’ read.

…[the dear old lady] who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the title or the author’s name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover.

Just overlook the racial terminology (“oriental students haggling over cheap textbooks” George?) and much of this would apply just as well today.

Holiday Reading: December 25, 2015

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Quote of the Day: Hitch’s Humbug

christmasshoppingEvery holiday season, words reliably flow from columnists’ keyboards about good will toward men, “this holiday season…,” and whatnot. We are also treated to an ever-increasing barrage of manufactured outrage over the supposed “War on Christmas.”

It’s the time of year for American Christians, already swaddled by a culture and government that cheerfully stomps all over the Establishment Clause, to kvetch about how their holiday has supposedly been stripped of its religious intent and symbolism.

Back in 2005, before this annual flurry of fury had even reached the apotheosis of silliness—Starbucks Christmas cups, and so on—the late, great Christopher Hitchens penned one of his many columns about the tawdry consumerist spectacle and oppressive state-religion aspect of Christmas: “…it was exactly this paganism and corruption that led Oliver Cromwell—my own favorite Protestant fundamentalist—to ban the celebration of Christmas altogether.”

Hitch delivers a further response to the outrage that erupts whenever some municipality decides that they should actually respect the Constitution—not to mention all of their non-Christian constituents—by not erecting Christian displays on public land with public money:

… there are millions of well-appointed buildings all across the United States, most of them tax-exempt and some of them receiving state subventions, where anyone can go at any time and celebrate miraculous births and pregnant virgins all day and all night if they so desire. These places are known as “churches,” and they can also force passersby to look at the displays and billboards they erect and to give ear to the bells that they ring. In addition, they can count on numberless radio and TV stations to beam their stuff all through the ether.

It’s not precisely an argument for banning Christmas ala Cromwell. But it is a healthy reminder that freedom of religion in today’s America doesn’t always include freedom from religion.

Screening Room: ‘The Hateful Eight’

hateful8posterIt’s the holiday season, which must mean one thing: Time for another Quentin Tarantino throwback genre bloodbath. This year, it’s a snowy Western—one that Tarantino almost decided not to make after the script got leaked.

The Hateful Eight opens on Christmas Day. Some theaters are showing it in glorious 70mm UltraPanavision. My review is at PopMatters:

A locked-room mystery masquerading as a Western, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight at first looks a lot like his precious Christmas release, 2012’s Django Unchained. Fans of that exploitation abattoir might be forgiven for wondering, as they hit the intermission in the close to three-hour new movie, just when the fireworks are going to start…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Where to Invade Next’

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For his newest film, agitprop documentarian Michael Moore uses the anthology approach instead of going after one problem. This time out, he’s pretending to be on a mission from Pentagon to go “conquer” various other Western nations, steal all their best ideas on topics America is having trouble with (education, health policy, law and order), and bring them home for us to profit from. This would never happen, of course, because this is America and if the idea didn’t originate here then, well, it clearly couldn’t be any good. Moore knows that, thusly the quixotic nature of this serio-comic broadside.

Where to Invade Next is opening later this week. My review is at PopMatters:

Moore starts in Italy. There, hanging out with a pair of serious vacationers, he does a good job of making just about every employed American in the audience sick with envy by pointing out the weeks and weeks of paid leave the average Italian gets just by dint of being Italian. The look of disbelief on the Italian man’s face when Moore tells him how many weeks of legally paid vacation Americans are entitled to (“None”) is so profound it is as though he has been told Americans still believe that the world is flat…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Stop Waiting

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We have all books we love that could have been just a little bit better. Plenty of time and energy has been wasted on arguing over how to improve an existing work of art. Marlon James, the Macalester College professor and Man Booker-winning author of A History of Seven Killings, has been there. He told a magazine that:

I realized how sick and tired I was of arguing about whether there should be a black hobbit in Lord of the Rings.

historyofsevenkillings1So what is James going to do about it? He’s writing his own multi-part fantasy series set in Africa. He calls it “an African Game of Thrones“:

African folklore is just as rich, and just as perverse as that shit. We have witches, we have demons, we have goblins, and mad kings. We have stories of royal succession that would put Wolf Hall to shame. We beat the Tudors two times over…

The first book will be called Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Watch for it.

And in the meantime, take James’s advice: If you see something that needs to be written, why not write it?

Screening Room: ‘The Revenant’

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant' (20th Century Fox)
Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘The Revenant’ (20th Century Fox)

The Revenant, the new film from Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Gravity, Birdman), is a revenge epic based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel and starring Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The_Revenant_2015_film_posterIt’s opening on Christmas Day in limited release and will expand wider in January. My review is at PopMatters:

A spiritual view of the natural world clashes with the animalistic drives of a fallen humanity in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s operatic wilderness survival tale,The Revenant. This freewheeling adaptation of Michael Punke’s novel about fur trappers, Indians, and soldiers tangling in primal ways on the Western American frontier in the 1820s stretches the limits of endurance in more ways than one. Inarritu’s film pushes against known boundaries of art, suffering, and revenge tale…

Here’s the trailer:

Weekend Reading: December 18, 2015

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Screening Room: ‘Joy’

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in 'Joy' (20th Century Fox)
Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in ‘Joy’ (20th Century Fox)
Every holiday season now seems to come with a David O. Russell picture starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. This time out Lawrence plays Joy, a semi-fictionalized variation on the inspirational true story of Joy Mangano, a housewife-turned-inventor who became a multi-millionaire by creating the Miracle Mop and shilling them on QVC.

JoyfilmposterJoy opens, appropriately enough, on Christmas. My review is at Film Journal International:

David O. Russell’s newest ode to the multifaceted pluck of Jennifer Lawrence,Joy announces right off that it is “inspired by true stories of daring women.” Between that message and a bait-and-switch trailer, hyped up with a glowering Robert De Niro and shots of Lawrence blasting away with a shotgun, audiences may settle in thinking they’re about to be swept away by another American Hustle-like story of nervy outsiders working the system. But really, the film is about a mop…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

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So there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out, in case you hadn’t heard. This is Episode 7 for those keeping track. Everybody apparently already has their tickets, so good luck getting a seat.

starwars-poster1Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens everywhere this week. And no, there is no Jar-Jar cameo. My review is at PopMatters:

Arriving on screens with a strategic, not half bad recasting, Star Wars: The Force Awakens almost feels new. But as the TIE fighters and X-Wings tangle in their familiar dance and scrappy heroes cut down stormtroopers with their blasters, the echoes of earlier films can’t be ignored. It’s a pattern for J.J. Abrams, who has made a career out of ransacking the attics of more creative artists like Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) and Steven Spielberg (Super 8)…

Here’s the trailer:

Online Film Critics Society: Best Picture of 2015 is ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Tom Hardy and a one-armed Charlize Theron in 'Mad Max: Fury Road'
Tom Hardy and a one-armed Charlize Theron in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’
Challenging the critical consensus that’s been gathering around The RevenantSpotlight, and Carol for best film of the year, Online Film Critics Society—which includes yours truly among its members—voted yesterday that the year’s best film was in fact … Mad Max: Fury Road. One could theoretically argue that George Miller’s action film had just as much to say about the human condition (folly, greed, short-sightedness, environmental collapse) as those other films, only with the added bonus of explosions and many, many crashing cars. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Herewith the full list of awards:

  • PICTURE: Mad Max: Fury Road
  • ANIMATED FEATURE: Inside Out
  • FILM NOT IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE: The Assassin
  • DOCUMENTARY: The Look of Silence
  • DIRECTOR: George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)
  • ACTOR: Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs)
  • ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett (Carol)
  • SUPPORTING ACTOR: Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina)
  • SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Rooney Mara (Carol)
  • ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Spotlight (Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy)
  • ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Carol (Phyllis Nagy)
  • EDITING: Mad Max: Fury Road (Margaret Sixel)
  • CINEMATOGRAPHY: Mad Max: Fury Road (John Seale)

Writer’s Desk: Every Damn Day

If you’re a writer with an unusually generous bent, it’s great to hear about those writers who can just hurl the stuff out, like Ray Bradbury tossing off Fahrenheit 451 in just nine days on a rented typewriter. But the rest of us have to work at it, and it’s hard then to be generous of mind when you’re on your fifth day in a row of absolutely nothing.

waltermosley1Still, that doesn’t mean there’s any way around it. As Walter Mosley said, writing is an everyday avocation. That’s particularly true if you’re trying to get that novel done:

This is the first important lesson that the writer must learn. Writing a novel is gathering smoke. It’s an excursion into the ether of ideas. There’s no time to waste. You must work with that idea as well as you can, jotting down notes and dialogue.

The first day the dream you gathered will linger, but it won’t last long. The next day you have to return to tend to your flimsy vapors. You have to brush them, reshape them, breathe into them and gather more.

It doesn’t matter what time of day you work, but you have to work every day because creation, like life, is always slipping away from you. You must write every day, but there’s no time limit on how long you have to write…

And try to remember, it was probably hard even for Bradbury at times.

Screening Room: ‘The Big Short’

thebigshort1When the housing market bubble started to implode back in 2007 and 2008, precipitating the latest financial crisis, it came as a surprise to much of the world. Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short tells the story of the analysts who saw the implosion coming and discovered that nobody wanted to hear about it. Adam McKay’s film adaptation is an awesomely angry screwball satire of the apocalyptic and short-sighted stupidity that lead to the crisis.

Big-short-inside-the-doomsday-machineThe Big Short opens in limited release today, then everywhere Christmas week. My review is at PopMatters:

So who blew up the economy back in 2007? One answer that’s often shouted on talk radio and social media is a moralistic tale about how poor (minority) folks took out mortgages they couldn’t afford, which caused the financial collapse, after which sober-minded middle-class (white) taxpayers had to pay for all those bad mortgages by bailing out the banks. It’s the Ant and the Grasshopper fable re-engineered with Tea Party fury.

Adam McKay’s blistering, righteously funny The Big Short offers another answer…

Here’s the trailer:

Weekend Reading: December 11, 2015

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