Screening Room: ‘Paterson’


One of the most surprising and rewarding movie treats of 2016 is Jim Jarmusch’s quirky yet heartfelt Paterson, about a poetry-writing bus driver in New Jersey. It reminds you not just how great Jarmusch can be but renews your faith in a particular brand of American independent filmmaking.

Paterson is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Proudly reinforcing the at-times under-siege notion that there is great, grasping life yet in American filmmaking, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is a simple story told with power, complexity and vision. Like many of the Frank O’Hara or William Carlos Williams poems that the film’s namesake protagonist (Adam Driver) reads and re-reads, the film is a poignant portrait of the mundane, a singing symphony of the everyday. It’s also a comedy, a romance, a paean to American post-industrial resilience, and a sublimely enjoyable work of art about a bus driver who writes poems that he doesn’t seem to care if anybody ever reads. There’s a lot here, folded like tightly coiled wires under the seemingly placid surface…

Here’s the trailer.

Reading for 2017


Screening Room: ‘I, Daniel Blake’


In Ken Loach’s searing new drama, an out-of-work carpenter fights to keep his humanity and a shred of dignity after being thrown into the Kafkaesque world of the UK’s social services bureaucracy.

I, Daniel Blake is playing now in limited release and is worth seeking out. My review is at PopMatters:

In many ways, I, Daniel Blake is as shamelessly manipulative as the most reductive romantic comedy or melodrama. Daniel might be the single most decent and loveable human being to grace a movie screen during the whole of 2016. At his side is a similarly decent single mother whose tearful travails are the stuff of a 19th-century immigrant’s saga. Together they contend with petty bureaucrats who never miss an opportunity to let their rulebooks and prickly egos keep them from doing their jobs. It’s David versus Goliath, only David doesn’t use a slingshot because he’s just too nice a bloke…

Here is the trailer.

Writer’s Desk: Type, Just Type

typewriter1For the last bit of writing advice in the year 2016, when many of us are thinking of nearly anything else than getting back to the keyboard, here’s something simple.

Famous editor Robert Gottlieb—who nurtured books by authors ranging from Robert Caro to John Le Carre and Toni Morrison—finally got around to writing his own book this year. It took some doing:

In moments of despair, when he felt incapable of setting down words, Mr. Gottlieb took his own advice, which he has doled out to countless blocked authors over the decades: Don’t write, type.

With that as your guiding principle, you’ll never be blocked again.

Remember, you can always edit later.

Screening Room: ‘Silence’


A spiritual epic of the kind he hasn’t tried since Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese’s Silence is playing now in limited release and should be expanding nationwide soon. My review is at PopMatters:

…with his long-gestating adaptation of Shūsaku Endō‘s 1966 novel Silence, Scorsese returns to a scenario where souls are lost and seeking answers. Set in 17th-century Japan, a world distant from his usual contemporary American settings, the movie presents characters who willingly undertake punishments as brutal as anything experienced by the great martyrs of his early work, from Jake LaMotta to Jesus Christ…

Here’s the trailer.

Weekend Reading: December 23, 2016


Screening Room: ‘Fences’


Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s award-festooned play Fences essentially reconstitutes the cast of the rapturously received 2010 revival and transforms it into one of the year’s great films—not to mention a strong standard to follow for future dramatic adaptations.

Fences is playing now in limited release, and should open wider later in the month and also in the new year. My review is at PopMatters:

August Wilson’s Fences tells the tale of a black family in ‘50s Pittsburgh, centering on the clan’s domineering patriarch. It also resonates with a host of grandly American themes, from the bloody swell of history and race to the yawning gaps separating rhetoric and action, dreams and reality. It’s a big play, in other words, and requires considerable energy to bring it to life, on stage or screen…

Here’s the trailer.

Screening Room: ‘Jackie’


For all the films that have been made about JFK, his presidency, his assassination, and the aftermath and legacy, relatively little attention has been paid to Jacqueline Kennedy. Pablo Larrain’s haunting Jackie goes a long way to address that shortage.

Jackie is playing now. You won’t find a better acting job than seen in its star Natalie Portman. My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

Watching Natalie Portman inhabit Jacqueline Kennedy in Pablo Larrain’s post-assassination fugue piece Jackie is as wrenching and unforgettable as the film itself. Portman’s ability to live the role comes not just from acutely inhabiting Jackie’s particularly affected mid-Atlantic tones and breathy pauses. She plays the First Lady as strenuously poised, to be sure. That was the Jackie the country was familiar with. But Portman threads her performance with the elements country wasn’t allowed to see in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination: Her glassy shock at the killing itself, the terror and fury that boiled up behind the shock, and the steel-tempered force of will that clamped everything back together…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Make the World a Better Place


From an essay that Andrew Solomon wrote last year for the New Yorker, in which he cautioned patience as a virtue for impatient young writers, he also articulated an incredibly overarching and idealistic view of the craft:

Despite every advancement, language remains the defining nexus of our humanity; it is where our knowledge and hope lie. It is the precondition of human tenderness, mightier than the sword but also infinitely more subtle and ultimately more urgent. Remember that writing things down makes them real; that it is nearly impossible to hate anyone whose story you know; and, most of all, that even in our post-postmodern era, writing has a moral purpose … If you can give language to experiences previously starved for it, you can make the world a better place.

Empathy, hope, and action—hard to keep in mind if you’re just trying to crank out a couple more blog posts or polish off the third novel in your humorous allergic detective trilogy. But nevertheless, that is what we all need to be mindful of.

Words matter.

Weekend Reading: December 16, 2016


Screening Room: ‘Neruda’


In the newest film from Pablo Larrain (whose Jackie just opened), Gael Garcia Bernal plays a cop hot on the heels of the titular Chilean poet.

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

Pablo Larraín has said flat-out that he didn’t want to make a biopic of Chile’s hero poet Pablo Neruda. And that’s a wise decision. Compressing Neruda’s incident-packed life, which whipsawed from writing yearning and experimental poetry to traveling the world in the diplomatic service to pursuing a career in domestic politics and spending years on the run as a political exile, into a single film would have produced fatigue, confusion, or at the very least severe neck injuries…

The trailer is here:

Screening Room: ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’


After last December’s palate-cleanser of a Star Wars reboot from J.J. Abrams, the franchise machine is cranking up with Rogue One, an in-betweener that fills in some plot gaps from the first trilogy without being burdened by so much baggage. That’s the hope, at least.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens this week. My review is at PopMatters:

Rogue One is initially set apart from J. J. Abrams’ Episode VII by the loudly deployed subtitle, “A Star Wars Story”. This leaves open the possibility for endless semantic wrangling over the difference between “Story” and “Episode”. Are Wookies confined only to the former? How come Darth Vader appears in both? Are we destined to see Rogue Seven: A Star Wars Bedtime Lullaby?…

Here’s one of the trailers.

Writer’s Desk: Write for Yourself, First

catcher-in-the-rye-red-coverIn 1974, J.D. Salinger broke 20-plus years of silence to talk to a reporter about, in part, unauthorized editions of his work that had been appearing. One of the literary world’s most famous curmudgeons, Salinger didn’t have much use for the apparatus of publicity and publishing. And why should he? Catcher in the Rye and his short stories had made him famous and wealthy at a relatively early age.

He told Lacey Fosburgh:

There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy.

That’s to be expected from the man many saw, unfairly or not, as a not-so-grown-up Holden Caulfield.

Less so is what followed:

I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.

It’s not a bad piece of non-advice. After all, if you don’t like what you’re writing, it’s more than likely nobody else will, either.

Screening Room: ‘La La Land’

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling kick up their heels in 'La La Land'
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling kick up their heels in ‘La La Land’
Damien Chazelle’s first film, Whiplash, was a taut and vicious melodrama about perfectionism. His second is a giddy musical about hopes, dreams, and Hollywood. Somehow they make sense together.

La La Land is opening this week, and it’s just about the best thing in theaters right now. My review is at PopMatters:

It starts on a car-choked overpass and ends in a kind of heartbreak. But in between those moments, Damien Chazelle’s giddy La La Land conjures up much the same exuberant yet melancholic fizz evoked by the Golden Era musicals it harkens back to. Fortunately, it doesn’t feel constricted by the rules of those old studio vehicles…

Here’s the trailer.