Writer’s Desk: Get It Down


This series has been visited by the great Neil Gaiman more than once. There’s a reason for that. In between all his other work, the guy manages to keep up a regular torrent of thoughts and advice on the witchy craft of writing that are rarely short of inspirational.

Recently, he’s been doing this on Tumblr. Here’s his response to a question from a fan who’s been having a hard time getting their “amazing ideas” down on paper:

Write the ideas down. If they are going to be stories, try and tell the stories you would like to read. Finish the things you start to write. Do it a lot and you will be a writer. The only way to do it is to do it.

Gaiman goes on to tell the real way to write; it involves five golden berries, five white crows, and reciting the whole of Fox on Sox. Who knows? Maybe that way works, too.

(h/t: Galley Cat)

Oscar Guide: ‘Eyes Wide Open: 2015’


  • So which film is going to sweep the Oscars on Sunday?
  • Will Chris Rock remind us of why he used to be America’s greatest and most biting comedian?
  • Is everyone watching going to wish that they served booze in the theater so that by the end of the evening, all those getting awards can be nice and sloshed?
  • Is there any reason to think any of it will matter?
  • Is there a book in which I can read about (nearly) all of the films nominated?

Right now, there is only a definite answer to the last question, and that of course is yes.

Eyes Wide Open 2015:

The Best (and Worst) Movies of the Year

Available now in paperback and ebook

Eyes Wide Open 2015-cover 1st


Screening Room: ‘Triple 9’

In the latest star-packed teeth-gritter from John Hillcoat (LawlessThe Road), a gang of crooks and bad cops plot a heist that involves murdering a copy. Things go badly.

Triple 9 opens today. My review is at PopMatters:

Gruesomely violent and often idiotic, Triple 9 demonstrates the latest stage of decline for once promising director John Hillcoat. His previous films display a potent gothic sensibility: The Proposition and The Road, both explore the dark limits of human behavior, but even in showing extreme violence, they never acknowledge the complexities of loss. The focus of 2012’s Lawless is less clear, as a rote bootleggers’ story is enlivened only by the contrast between Guy Pearce’s flamboyant campiness and Tom Hardy’s rock-like stoicism.

With Triple 9, it’s hard to spy even a glimmer of Hillcoat’s earlier inclination. Just about any director could have shot this film…

Here’s the trailer:

Weekend Reading: February 26, 2016

ppmscd 00084u, 10/17/08, 9:08 AM, 8C, 5924x7318 (40+200), 100%, Custom, 1/100 s, R61.0, G47.4, B72.8

Rewind: Bill Murray’s Moonage Daydream in ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’


As the first in an occasional set of posts that look to some great (or even not so great) films from years or even decades ago that are worth going back to revisit, let’s start off with a real gem: Wes Anderson’s Bowie dream of a Bill Murray acid trip, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

“Bill Murray’s Moonage Daydream in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” is at Medium:

Murray ambles through his performance as oceanographer Steve Zissou, whose longtime partner was just eaten by a rare species of shark (“which may or may not exist”) and is determined to set off on an expedition to find the shark and kill it. When asked what scientific purpose this would satisfy, Zissou gives an almost imperceptible shrug and says, “revenge”…

Here’s Seu Jorge in the film, covering Bowie’s “Life on Mars”:

Writer’s Desk: Writing Advice from Antonin Scalia


Although the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was best known for his strident dissents from not only his fellow liberal judges on the bench but even occasionally his conservative allies, he always prided himself on not just the slashing wit contained in his decisions but on his readable and provocative style.

A few years back, Scalia co-authored a book, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges. Some of its advice on presentation — dress to impress, and “Maintain a dignified and respectful countenance”— is not too helpful for the average writer, who we can probably agree are a (albeit proudly so) slouchy and indifferently attired lot.

But the tips from Scalia (a grammar nerd who bonded with his co-author over a David Foster Wallace essay titled “Tense Present”) on writing presentation are worth heeding:

There’s a myth abroad that you should never begin a sentence with a conjunction. But look at any species of reputable writing—whether it’s a good newspaper, journal, novel or nonfiction work—and you’re likely to find several sentences per page beginning with one of those little connectives. You can hardly achieve a flowing narrative or argument without them…

Banish jargon, hackneyed expressions and needless Latin…

People tend not to start reading what they cannot readily finish…

Remember, many lawyers write for a living. The better ones do it well.

Weekend Reading: February 19, 2016


TV Room: ‘Vinyl’ Misses a Step With Punk


The newest Martin Scorsese/Terence Winter series Vinyl is in many ways like their last one, Boardwalk Empire: A pulpy concoction of jagged historical anecdotes thrown into the HBO antihero blender. This time, instead of bootleggers and crooked politicians conniving during Prohibition in a glitzed-up Atlantic City, it’s an origin story for punk (and potentially hip-hop) set in a rotting 1973 New York.

vinyl-posterVinyl is running Sunday nights on HBO. My review of the two-hour Scorsese-directed premiere is at PopMatters:

It’s easy to see what’s grabbing the attention of cocaine-dusted record exec Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) at the concert that bookends the two-hour premiere episode of Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger’s HBO series Vinyl. First, he’s watching the New York Dolls, slashing and burning their way through “Personality Crisis” at the downtown firetrap Mercer Arts Center before a crowd of rangy and be-glittered kids with the look of fervent religious converts. Second, although his company, American Century, seems to have once had a few hits, it’s now a creatively irrelevant laughingstock (nickname: “American Cemetery”) that he’s trying to unload to a cabal of clueless Germans before they realize just how cooked the books really are. His life is unraveling, and his juices are dry (more on that in a minute). The guy needs a fix. Rock and roll is there to save him, for the first time in far too long..

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Embrace of the Serpent’

'Embrace of the Serpent' (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

In Embrace of the Serpent, the partially real, highly imagined stories of two white explorers in the Amazon rain forest are threaded into a kaleidoscopic journey into the last days of a pre-modern civilization.

Embrace of the Serpent opens in limited release this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

Further research would be needed to prove this theory. But it’s probable that nowhere in the writings of Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872–1924) and Richard Evans Schultes (1915–2001) would you find evidence of a cultish colony fixated on flagellation and crucifixion. Ciro Guerra’s ambitious bolting together of imagined quests by these two real-life explorers adds a lot of that kind of sinister, quasi-Conradian color, but it’s mostly to positive effect. Even though Embrace of the Serpent’s sometimes violent and frequently otherworldly journey up a jungle-bounded river can’t help but echo Coppola and Herzog, Guerra pursues his own path in striking fashion…

You can see the trailer here:

Screening Room: ‘The Witch’


thewitch-posterA period creep-fest, The Witch dives into the surprisingly rarely-tilled soil of Puritan-era New England for its tale of possession, madness, and magic afflicting one isolated family.

The Witch opens this week in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

A shiver machine that runs cool and low with spiritual trepidation and darkly sexual undercurrents, The Witch makes a daring choice. Set in 17th century New England, it wraps primary-sourced dialogue and folklore into a horror story. Writer-director Robert Eggers’ audacious debut imagines that the period’s harum-scarum fright tales about witches are all true. That is, the movie is true to how its subjects perceived their world, assuming that witches and their animal familiars worked as Satan’s agents on Earth, bringing ruination and uncertainty to the faithful…

You can see the trailer here:

TV Room: ‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution’


If your PBS affiliate shows the series Independent Lens, one of the better non-cable televisual outlets for documentaries right now, tune in tonight for The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. It’s directed by the great Stanley Nelson (Jonestown, Freedom Riders), who turns his gaze to the story of the country’s last great radical movement, and how it was destroyed just before falling apart.

My review of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which played in theaters last fall, is at PopMatters:

At some point, revolutionaries have to decide what else they want to be. Too often, they can’t. That’s why so many successful insurrections end up emulating the very same oppressive regimes they overthrow: fighters are often miserably bad peacemakers. That’s why Che Guevara ran off to die stupidly in Bolivia rather than figure out sugar cane production back in Cuba…

If you’re in the mood, they even put together a Black Panthers mixtape (Bill Withers, Public Enemy, Nina Simone).

Here is the trailer:

Writer’s Corner: Kill Your Cliches

nightwomenMarlon James, the Booker Award-winning author of The Book of Night Women and A Brief History of Seven Killings, has some advice on cliches, presented as a series of questions to the struggling writer.

A few selections:

  • “How many times can the sun kiss you before it gets inappropriate?”
  • “If noise keeps assaulting your ears can you file a complaint?”
  • “Why are pipes always leaking, heat always sweltering, breezes always gentle, rain always soft, eyes always blue, streets always busy, holes always gaping, horses always wild, wind always gusty, and nails always rusty?”

Cliches are ever lurking in your mental toolbox, ready to jump onto that page without your even noticing. Be alert, be aware.

Screening Room: ‘Mountains May Depart’

mountainsmaydepart1Now that the Chinese stock market is whipsawing from highs to lows and the permanent growth cycle appears to be broken, it’s probably the perfect time for a state-of-the-nation drama from one of the great modern Chinese directors: Jia Zhangke.

mountainsmaydepart-poster1Mountains May Depart is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

Whatever is left of China at the start of Jia Zhangke’s epic triptych Mountains May Depart, it isn’t a place for which anyone will feel nostalgic. The first scene, set in 1999 in the small northern city of Fenyang, seems shrouded in grey. The crumbling brick buildings and bare landscape denote the only work that seems on offer here, at a coal mine.

Still, this is a time of economic boom, when China is transforming into an industrial powerhouse the likes of which had never been seen before. The film goes on to reveal the costs of that era’s sky-high promises of prosperity and accompanying irrational exuberance…

You can see my review of Jia Zhangke’s last masterpiece, A Touch of Sin, here.

Here’s the trailer for Mountains May Depart:

Weekend Reading: February 12, 2016