Screening Room: ‘The Handmaiden’

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This Halloween, skip Madea and check out The Handmaiden. It’s playing now in limited release and is just about the best chance out there for a good time at the theater: chills, shocks, romance, secret perversions, period outfits, it’s got it all.

My review is at PopMatters:

Nothing is as it seems in The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi). Park Chan-wook’s victorious return to the Korean filmmaking scene after his American debut, 2013’s Stoker, is rife with pungent physicality and nearly overwhelmingly aesthetic surfaces. We saw Park pay that same level of attention to each detail in Stoker, all those burning glances and insect closeups laid over a stifling plot. This time, he has a story that more than justifies his flagrantly overripe style…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Start Your Novel Now

November is only a couple days away. And you know what that means: time for National Novel Writing Month!

Pretry simple: 50,000 words in 30 days. Easier said than done, of course, but therein lies the challenge. 

So get started! That sci-fi romance series or timely political satire you’ve been pondering won’t write itself…

Reader’s Corner: What the President Read

the_power_broker_book_coverRecently, Barry told Wired about the books that have shaped him over the years. They broke down his syllabus in typical efficient-nerd fashion, by how long it would take to read. Predicting one could get through Robert Moses’s 1,300-odd page The Power Broker in 19 hours seems dubious unless you’re a speedreader.

Still, this list is nonetheless a fascinatingly mixed one, jumping from fiction (a surprising Steinbeck selection) to urban studies (Caro, the book that explains New York City) and environmentalism (Kolbert’s terrifying study of climate change and mankind-caused extinctions):

  • The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln
  • Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–63, Taylor Branch
  • The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert Caro
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
  • Andy Grove, The Life and Times of an American, Richard S. Tedlow
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kaheman
  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert
  • In Dubious Battle, John Steinbeck
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo

Weekend Reading: October 28, 2016

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Screening Room: ‘Inferno’

Felicity Jones;Tom Hanks

Well, another year, and another Dan Brown thriller comes to the screen. That would be Tom Hanks on the left as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, and Felicity Jones on the right as his latest brunette sidekick. This time out, Langdon’s hot on the trail of a genocidal madman who loves Dante and wants to destroy humanity. To Florence!

Inferno opens wide this weekend. My review is at Film Journal International:

“It’s good to have you back, Professor,” says Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) to Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) as they dash toward another stage in the latest Ron Howard-directed Dan Brown symbological scavenger hunt. She’s right. Hanks may not be exactly “America’s dad,” as he spoofed in a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit (“How ya doin’, champ?”), but there remains a reason that he’s one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. As Langdon, the Harvard symbologist (still not a real job) who gets sucked into world-changing conspiracies with the regularity of “Murder, She Wrote”’s Jessica Fletcher, he’s usually the smartest guy in the room but only broadcasts it when there’s a need for some expository lecturing…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Shakespeare Wrote on Deadline, Too

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For his essay on the somewhat nonsensical tendency for modern authors to keep reinterpreting the plays of Shakespeare, Adam Gopnik pointed out this about the Bard:

Shakespeare grabbed his stories more or less at random from Holinshed’s history of Britain and Plutarch and old collections of Italian ribald tales. As the “ordinary poet” of a working company of players, he sought plots under deadline pressure rather than after some long, deliberate meditation on how to turn fiction into drama. “What have you got for us this month, Will?” the players asked him, and, thinking quickly, he’d say, “I thought I’d do something with the weird Italian story I mentioned, the one with the Jew and the contest.” “Italy again? All right. End of the month then?” These were not the slow-cooked stories and intricately intertextual fables of the modern art novel.

In other words, we would all do well to remember that even Shakespeare had to write on deadline, for money, and while keeping an eye toward putting asses in seats. He was a great writer, one of our greatest, but a working writer, too.

Weekend Reading: October 21, 2016

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Screening Room: ‘Keeping Up With the Joneses’

Wonder Woman and Don Draper aren't sure why they're here, either.
Wonder Woman and Don Draper aren’t sure why they’re here, either.

Don’t you hate it when your humdrum suburban life is upended when a couple fabulously exotic super-spies move in next door? That’s the problem faced by Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher when confronted by their new neighbors Gal Gadot and Jon Hamm.

Keeping Up With the Joneses opens this week, for better or (much, much) worse. My review is at Film Journal International:

A subpar knockoff of the kind of tired action-comedy hybrid that Paul Feig’s suddenly made a career out of, Keeping Up with the Joneses is no Spy. It’s not even Spies Like Us. Like just about every other comedic spy film out there, its plot is just another one of those getting-out-of-your-comfort-zone devices. You know the drill, familiar in everything from True Lies to Date Night: ordinary person or couple gets accidentally mixed up in espionage shenanigans and along the way discovers reservoirs of strength, ingenuity and courage they didn’t realize were there…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Moonlight’

In the sumptuous melodrama Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-favored film explores the three stages of a young man’s life in a rough Miami neighborhood.

Moonlight is opening this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

It’s safe to say that after his last feature, 2008’s romantic talkfest Medicine for Melancholy, few people would have expected Barry Jenkins to be starting off his newest film with a do-rag-wearing drug dealer rolling through a rough-and-tumble Miami. The characters of the more extravagantly emotional and romantic (in all sense of the word) triptych Moonlight are on the surface light years removed from the urbane hipsters of that earlier film. But really, they’re still dealing with the same issues: namely, identity, their place and purpose in the world, and the search for love…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Aquarius’

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In the newest film from Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds), Sonia Braga plays a retired writer trying to fight off the developers who want to demolish her cozy beachside building and all the memories it contains.

Aquarius, which was part of the just-concluded New York Film Festival, is playing now in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

The heroine of Aquarius sees the whole world as a stage for her to command. It’s a testament to Sonia Braga’s control that she doesn’t turn this character into a domineering bore, even as she’s at the center of an overly spacious and repetitive narrative with too little to occupy herself…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: ‘Strangers in Their Own Land’ – Fury and Crisis in Trump’s America

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(photo: Gage Skidmore)

It’s hard to look at today’s chaotic political and cultural landscape and not wonder—among many, many other things—in deference to Joan Walsh’s book from a couple years back: “What’s the matter with white people“?

strangers_in_their_own_land_finalA part of the answer can be found in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s fantastic new book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. It came out last month and is necessary reading to understand what is and has been going on in America for the past couple decades.

My review is at PopMatters:

When Arlie Russell Hochschild set out in 2011 to research her perceptive ethnography of the frustrated white American conservative, Strangers in Their Own Land, she didn’t realize how many of her subjects would later be driving off a cliff in a fume- and insult-spewing conveyance with “Trump 2016” stenciled on the side. How could she? Few of us knew it would come to this…

Here’s an interview with Hochschild from Vox. where she talks about spending five years among the people who would form the base of Donald Trump’s nationalistic insurgency.

Writer’s Desk: Dylan Says

bob_dylan_-_the_freewheelin_bob_dylanSince Bob Dylan has been honored with a Nobel Prize for Literature, we may as well welcome the man into the community of those practiced in the art of belles lettres. Good to have you, Bob!

Here’s some advice from Mr. Zimmerman contained in Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting, which could apply to most any writers:

It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. And block yourself off to where you can control it all, take it down…

If you follow his often stream-of-consciousness lyrics, that approach makes sense. It’s harder to do, of course, than it sounds. Be open to the muse, but direct it.

Weekend Reading: October 14, 2016

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Screening Room: ‘The Accountant’

THE ACCOUNTANT

In The Accountant, Ben Affleck puts on glasses and his serious face to play … an accountant … who’s not really just an accountant. See? It’s like one of those twist things.

Directed by Gavin O’Connor (Warrior), The Accountant opens this week wide. My review is at Film Journal International:

In what could serve as the year’s most preposterous mainstream release, Affleck plays Christian Wolff, an accountant who works out of a strip mall in downstate Illinois, finding deductions for local farmers. Or does he? We know that he’s a high-functioning autistic after an opening scene with a child whose tics and inability to deal with small talk or inconsistency seem remarkably like Affleck’s dour-faced pocket-protector of a glowering adult. We also know that he’s more than he claims to be, after being fed into a parallel storyline in which Treasury Department honcho Ray King (J.K. Simmons) details Agent Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), easily cowed due to her secret dark past, to uncover the identity of a mysterious man who has been doing forensic accounting for everyone from terrorists to cartels…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: No Poor or Unimportant Place

rilke1Time to hear from Rainer Maria Rilke on the what and the how of writing:

Depict your sorrows and desires, your passing thoughts and beliefs in some kind of beauty—depict all that with heartfelt, quiet, humble sincerity; and use to express yourself the things that surround you, the images of your dreams and the objects of your memory. If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor or unimportant place…

Consider that last part in particular. Anything and anywhere can be worthy of your attention as a writer.