Screening Room: ‘This is Congo’

One of the year’s most gorgeous, emotional, and harrowing movies, This is Congo, is opening this week in limited release. Make sure to find it.

My review is at Film Journal International:

“To grow up in Congo,” says a man at the start of Daniel McCabe’s lacerating new documentary, “is to grow up in paradise.” This comes as McCabe’s camera swoops over lush green hills and deep forests that do indeed seem paradisaical. But the turn comes soon, as we see rough roads jammed with refugees, children cowering at the unearthly roar of rocket launchers and artillery. Being raised in this place, the voice points out, is also “to grow up in misery.” Why the life of the average Congolese is that of misery and not joy is the question that this inquisitive movie asks…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: Black Lit on ‘Luke Cage’

Those who track the ever-evolving ecosystem of Marvel series on Netflix have been generally pleased with the current season of Luke Cage, following the further exploits of the superhuman-strong fugitive just trying to build a quiet life in Harlem.

At least one watcher has noted the prevalence of call-outs to works of black literature. Some of the books noticed on screen by BlackNerdProblems:

  • Charcoal Joe – Walter Mosley
  • Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
  • The Souls of Black Folk – W.E.B. Du Bois

Screening Room: ‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’

Isabela Moner and Benicio Del Toro (Columbia Pictures)

Sicario: Day of the Soldado opens this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

The portentously named follow-up to Denis Villeneuve’s moody and murky 2015 cartel thriller starts with a pair of bombings and a declaration of war. A Muslim man blows himself up in Texas after being caught by the Border Patrol while stealing into the country. Then several other men walk into a supermarket in Kansas City and detonate more suicide bombs … In the news business, they would call this confluence of scarifying and adrenaline-charging events Fox News Bingo. In the movie business, it’s just Sequel Maintenance…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The King’

The new documentary from Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) tries to figure out the legacy of Elvis and turns into a big, messy and overheated but fascinating metaphor for America.

The King is playing now. My review is at The Playlist:

Jarecki isn’t the first artist to turn a pop culture icon into a metaphor for America — there are whole phalanxes of culture critics who make a living doing just that. But usually, those metaphors, while complicated, are ultimately positive. By the time Jarecki is done with Elvis, the lanky, and projects-raised, rockabilly kid just one generation removed from sharecroppers has been cast as everything from an opportunist and grasping capitalist to addled addict to just plain sucker. If he ever was the King, the movie suggests, it’s long past time to retire the crown…

Writer’s Desk: Listen to Obama’s Guy

Jon Favreau—the other one, not the actor/director/occasional Tony Stark wingman—spent years as President Obama’s director of speechwriting. He distilled much of what he learned in that highly precise and pressurized job into “Five Rules of Storytelling.” They are:

  1. The story is more important than the words
  2. Keep it simple
  3. Always address the arguments against your position during your presentation, not after
  4. Empathy is key
  5. There is no persuasion without inspiration

Not all of these may be applicable to those of us not writing for the world stage, but Favreau’s rules are solid reminders to keep thinking about what you’re writing, how you’re going to get to your point, and what is the best way there. That applies whether you’re writing a murder mystery or white paper on fiscal policy.

Remember your reader, always.

Writer’s Desk: Anthony Bourdain Said Stop Complaining

In honor of the (sadly) late great Anthony Bourdain, here’s a little reminder from him about just how great it is to be a writer:

Cooking professionally is hard work. Writing is a privilege and a luxury. Anybody who whines about writers block should be forced to clean squid all day.

As some of us can also testify, writing beats the hell out of washing dishes, too.

Reader’s Corner: Beckett and Terror

With his bleak sketch fictions and disembodied existential plays, Samuel Beckett feels about as removed from the muck and mire of daily human life as you could get. That’s why it’s fascinating to read this opening to Fintan O’Toole’s piece in the New York Review of Books about Beckett’s political conscience:

In April 1962, Samuel Beckett sent a clipping from the French press to his lover Barbara Bray: a report of the arrest in Paris of a member of the Organisation armée secrète. The OAS was a far-right terror gang whose members were drawn largely from within the French military. It had carried out bombings, assassinations, and bank robberies with the aim of overthrowing the government of Charles de Gaulle and stopping the concession of independence to Algeria. Among its targets had been Beckett’s publisher and friend Jérôme Lindon, whose apartment and office were both bombed by the OAS.

Then there’s the punch line:

The press clipping detailed the capture of an army lieutenant who would be charged with leading an OAS attack on an arms depot outside Paris and a raid on a bank in the city. His name was Lieutenant Daniel Godot.

Always good for a laugh, that Beckett.

Writer’s Desk: Read to Write

Like all the greats, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an unrepentant bookworm. As she told Stylist:

Read, read, read. I’m not sure that one can be a good writer without being a good reader. If you’re going to build a desk it’s very good to see what other carpenters have done.

It seems obvious, but you would be surprised how many writers forget to take the time to see what great new books are out there. It’s not just good research, it’s also helpful to scope out the competition. See what you’re up against and that will push you to do better.

(h/t: LitHub)

Screening Room: ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’

Daniel Striped Tiger and his handler, Fred Rogers (Focus Features)

The truly heartwarming new documentary from Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) explores the unlikely phenomenon that was Fred Rogers.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? opens this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

It says something about the oddball uniqueness of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” that almost nowhere in Morgan Neville’s magnetic, soulful documentary about Fred Rogers does anyone talk about what great television he made. In fact, one of his collaborators sardonically notes that the show was almost like a compilation of every element good television was not supposed to have…

Screening Room: ‘First Reformed’

Ethan Hawke in ‘First Reformed’ (A24)

In Paul Schrader’s latest, First Reformed, a minister finds more to believe in an eco-activist’s radicalism than his own pulpit.

My review is at PopMatters:

Ethan Hawke at his most pained plays the Reverend Toller. Minister for a tiny museum of a church in upstate New York that’s about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, he’s at the tail-end of a years-long spiritual crisis. By the time the movie catches up to this nearly cadaverous penitent, Toller has already lost his son to the Iraq War, his wife to divorce not long after that. He writes in a journal each night, bottle of whiskey at his side…

Screening Room: ‘One Sings, the Other Doesn’t’

A new restoration of Agnes Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t from 1977 is in limited release now. Check it out while you have the chance. There’s absolutely nothing else like it playing at any theater anywhere near you.

My review is at The Playlist:

When Agnès Varda’s delightfully gonzo song-studded paean to sisterhood “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” opened the 1977 New York Film Festival, it landed in the middle of a differently fraught world for women’s rights issues. Abortion, which is a recurring theme in this newly restored and re-released classic, had only been legal in the United States for five years and in Varda’s native France, for just two. The campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment was grinding to a halt in the face of conservative opposition. Female directors were still essentially unheard of in the movie industry. Expectations were high…

Writer’s Desk: It’s Like Fishing

Here’s how Eric Idle—novelist, doggerelist, once and forever Python—described the act of writing:

Writing and doing. It’s still what I love to do. To go to your chair first thing in the morning with a blank piece of paper and a pencil and find what is lurking in the depths of your unconscious. It’s fascinating. I always compare it to fishing. You never know what you’re going to catch but you must go regularly to the river bank and wait…

He’s right, of course, you do never know what’s going to come out. It could be that paragraph you’ve been honing and teasing and searching for for weeks. Or it could be five more pages of What The Hell Am I Going to Do With This? You never know.

But keep casting your line. The fish will bite. Eventually.