Screening Room: ‘Detroit’

A true-crime white-knuckler set in the chaos of the 1967 Detroit riots, Detroit is playing now in limited release and will be opening wider on Friday.

My review is at Film Journal International:

Set in the chaos of the 1967 Detroit riots, Mark Boal’s screenplay dramatizes and expands on a little-remembered episode of police brutality that crystalizes the violence of a country wrenching itself apart. In that crucible, Krauss (Will Poulter), a casually sadistic police officer who earlier in the riot shotgunned a man for running with looted groceries, ringleads a bloody interrogation whose methods fulfill all the worst fears of black Detroit residents…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Get Fired

Even writers need money. It helps, after all, if one wants to keep the coffee pot full and the Wi-Fi humming along. There are writers who can work full jobs and still create masterpieces (Graham Greene and T.S. Eliot come to mind.) But then there are some who need to get kicked out of the world of the gainfully employed before they can really put their nose down and start knocking out pages.

Take Raymond Chandler (1888–1959), whose birthday was last week. According to The Raymond Chandler Papers, the creator of Philip Marlowe was first a shop clerk, tennis racket-stringer (?) and accountant before going off to fight in France in 1917 (volunteering with a Canadian regiment), returning to America and working his way up in the California oil business before getting sacked in 1932.

Chandler stopped drinking, moved with his wife into a cheap place in Santa Monica (still possible back then) and started submitting stories to crime magazines. His first and possibly best novel, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. That same year, in a letter to Alfred Knopf, Chandler groused about the reactions by some to the depraved nature of his criminal characters. His explanation?

My fiction was learned in a rough school.

All the better.

Screening Room: ‘Ghost in the Shell’

The Scarlett Johansson live-action remake of the classic 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell hit DVD and Blu-ray this week. My review is at PopMatters:

For a movie ostensibly about uniqueness and what makes us human, Ghost in the Shell doesn’t make a strong argument for either. This is a story in which the technology fascinates and the people bore. Sense memories of other movies proliferate until you forget quite what it was you were watching in the first place. That’s the sort of thing bound to happen when the star (Scarlett Johansson) is playing a role she can sleepwalk through and the story was only groundbreaking when first filmed over 20 years ago…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Do Your Thing

The great Chester Himes was born in Jefferson City, Missouri in 1909 and died in Spain in 1984. In between he went to prison for armed robbery, worked for the WPA, lived as an expatriate writer in Paris, and published some of the century’s best American crime fiction (Cotton Comes to Harlem, in particular).

Since his metier was hard to classify, ranging from black crime fiction to memoir and beyond, Himes’ work has been subject to less critical scrutiny than other posthumously praised writers. One of the few critics to turn their eye to Himes was Stephen F. Milliken, who noted that Himes didn’t need much help, and didn’t want it:

Chester Himes has always been above all else a man who does not take advice. His work is totally innocent of the smooth, professional polish of the writer who has been told … that you simply cannot do everything at once … His work is ferociously idiosyncratic.

When in doubt, be like Himes. Listen to your voice. Follow advice if it helps you get there. But if not, go your own way.

Writer’s Desk: Write Like Westlake

Donald Westlake (1933–2008), whose birthday was last week, was one of America’s most prolific writers, publishing over a hundred novels. Like a more creatively flexible Elmore Leonard, he published mostly in crime. Like any good overproducer, he concocted a number of pseudonyms, most famously Richard Stark, and even got an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters for film in 1991.

In 2006, Westlake was interviewed by The A.V. Club, and dispensed some great notes from a productive career:

  • “Years ago, I heard an interview with violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The interviewer said, “Do you still practice?” And he said, “I practice every day.” He said, “If I skip a day, I can hear it. If I skip two days, the conductor can hear it. And if I skip three days, the audience can hear it.” Oh, yes, you have to keep that muscle firm.”
  • “I know people who have suffered writer’s block, and I don’t think I’ve ever had it. A friend of mine, for three years he couldn’t write. And he said that he thought of stories and he knew the stories, could see the stories completely, but he could never find the door. Somehow that first sentence was never there. And without the door, he couldn’t do the story. I’ve never experienced that. But it’s a chilling thought.”
  • On who reads his books: “…back in the ’60s and ’70s, the criminal class was still literate, so I would get letters from people in prison; they thought that I was somebody whom they could shop-talk with, and they would tell me very funny stories. I got a lot of those.”

Reader’s Corner: ’10 Things I Learned About Literature from Monty Python’

My article ‘Proust, Hardy, and Spam: 10 Things I Learned About Literature from Monty Python’—including many handy and time-wasting YouTube links and a plethora of literary goodies—was just published at The Barnes & Noble Review:

As many gawky teens discovered in their misspent youths, there was comedy and then there was Monty Python. Exploding penguins, a crime-fighting bishop, and Karl Marx struggling to answer questions about soccer on a TV quiz show; it was all surreal grist for their mill. Fully embodying the high culture/low humor synthesis that produced the better countercultural artifacts of the 1970s, their TV series, films, concerts, and books embedded arch literary references inside a dense framework of Dada performance art-pieces, cultural satire, and broadly silly skits in a classically comedic idiom…

And don’t forget Monty Python FAQ, in finer bookstores now.

TV Room: Jason Bateman’s new Missouri Noir ‘Ozark’

In the new Netflix family crime series Ozark, Jason Bateman plays a Chicago financial adviser forced to uproot his family’s entire life in order to save their lives.

Ozark premieres on July 21. My review is at The Playlist:

There are a few things guaranteed to strike terror into the heart of your average Chicagoan. High on that list would be having your family threatened with a cruel and slow death by a drug cartel, as happens to Jason Bateman in the first episode of his new Netflix culture-clash crime series “Ozark.” Nearly as frightening, and definitely more relatable, is the solution that Bateman’s character improvises to save his family: pack up and move to the Lake of the Ozarks in southern Missouri. Set against relocating to the shores of the artificial lake resort region that one character tartly terms “Redneck Riviera,” there would probably be at least a few Chicagoans who would look at the cartel gunmen and decide, nah, let’s play the odds…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Edit Like Hemingway

Everybody knows you’re supposed to kill your darilings. But sometimes that’s easier said than done.

It’s summer. Shortcuts are nice. So, next time you’re having a hard time hacking your way out of the verbal underbrush, maybe just use the Hemingway Editor.

You never know. It might get rid of everything you like, and turn your beloved short story into a forlorn piece of faux-Papa prose.

Or, it could show you that less can be more and you didn’t need all that guff to begin with.

Either way, it’s free. What do you have to lose?

Weekend Reading: July 7, 2017

Screening Room: ‘City of Ghosts’

The latest documentary from the director of Cartel Land, City of Ghosts is opening this week in limited release and expanding wider later. Expect a push for the Oscars later in the year for this incredible story.

My review is at Film Journal International:

The heroes of this riveting account are the brave men—they have woman in their number, but none are onscreen for their safety—of the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). These are mostly middle-class guys, including a math teacher and a film buff, who started documenting what was happening to “our forgotten Syrian city on the Euphrates that has become a city of ghosts…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Big Sick’

For The Big Sick, comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon turned the story of their on-off romance and the intensive-care crisis that brought them back together, into probably the best romantic comedy of the summer.

The Big Sick is playing now in limited release and expanding soon around the country. My review is at PopMatters:

At the story’s beginning, Kumail is a typical sort for a Judd Apatow-produced romantic comedy. A standup comic who spends most of his time in career anxiety with his comic buddies, Kumail is hoping for the big break and making ends meet as an Uber driver. This is all highly upsetting to his parents. For them, as one of Kumail’s better gags in the movie goes, the hierarchy of employment for a good Pakistani son runs in descending order: doctor, engineer, lawyer, “hundreds of jobs, ISIS”, and then comedian…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘A Ghost Story’

In A Ghost Story, Casey Affleck plays a ghost who haunts the house he once shared with his beloved, Rooney Mara.

It opens this weekend in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

A good rule of cinematic thumb is that when a ghost movie isn’t trying to scare you: Watch out. Hijinks or romance are sure to follow, and not with good results. It’s also generally best to avoid movies whose specters are visible, since what one can’t see is almost always more terrifying than what you can see; invisibility just leaves open too many possibilities. Somehow, David Lowery has aggressively flouted these rules in A Ghost Story—by first not caring a whit whether you are scared and then giving his ghosts highly unusual corporeal form—and come out the other side with a truly spectacular movie…

Here’s the trailer:

Quote of the Day: Patriotism

From Howard Zinn:

If patriotism were defined, not as blind obedience to government, not as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather as love of one’s country, one’s fellow citizens (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy, then patriotism would require us to disobey our government, when it violated those principles.