Screening Room: ‘Us’

Lupita Nyong’o in ‘Us’ (Universal Pictures)

In the latest horror/satire/commentary from Jordan Peele (Get Out), a family on vacation faces a terrifying threat: themselves, only not. It’s early, of course, but there is already some, likely justified, award buzz for star Lupita Nyong’o.

Us opens wide this week. My review is at PopMatters:

Us takes pieces from a few different genres, particularly home-invasion thrillers and subtext-laden George A. Romero-esque zombie movies, and stitches them together into a uniquely weird and hammer-intense experience….

Writer’s Desk: Let Your Characters Talk

Occasionally some notable literary discussions take place in less-notable places. Take, for one example, the MidAmeriCon, 34th World Science Fiction Convention, which took place over a few days in 1976 at the (historic) Muehlebach Hotel in downtown Kansas City. There, the great science-fiction author Alfred Bester (The Demolished Man, The Stars My Destination) was doing the sci-fi-con circuit that kept the genre afloat and buzzing in those pre-Internet days.

Bester took some time to talk to an eager fan for the noted genre magazine The Tangent about writing:

You know, Robert [Heinlein] said to me once—we were talking shop, writing techniques and stuff like that—and Robert said I’ll tell you what I do, Al. What I do is get a bunch of characters together and I get them into difficulties, and by the time I can hear them talk they’ve solved their difficulties and I’m finished.

I was absolutely flabbergasted! I can’t even start a story until I can hear my characters talking. I’ve got to know who they are, what they are…I’ve got to identify with them completely…

“I’ll tell you what to do Al…”

It’s likely that more writers are like Heinlein than Bester. For some of us, characters are stubborn things. If you waited around for them to talk, you might never get anything written.

Screening Room: ‘The Inventor’

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Drew Kelly)

The latest documentary from the ever-prolific Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Going Clear) digs into the dark, weird, and ultimately all-too-familiar story of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who promised a miracle.

The Inventor premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will be broadcast this Monday on HBO.

My review is at Slant:

Elizabeth Holmes, the Steve Jobs-aping wunderkind who launched the radically innovative and radically deceptive blood-testing company Theranos when she was just 19, claimed to have a thing for Thomas Edison. Most inventors do. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This Edison quote is one that director Alex Gibney puts on the screen in his substantively hard-edged, if somewhat generically constructed, documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, to remind his audience of at least one source from which the dogged Holmes drew her inspiration…

Screening Room: ‘Ash is Purest White’

(Cohen Media Group)

The latest release from the great director Jia Zhang-Ke (A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart) is an ambitious modern-day Chinese crime epic.

Ash is Purest White opens this week in limited release. My review is at PopMatters:

When Qiao (the everyday elegant Tao Zhao) sweeps into the grey and smoky mahjong parlor at the start of Jia Zhang-Ke’s downbeat epic Ash Is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü) she’s greeted by the thronged kibitzers and gamblers as both a being apart and yet just one of the guys…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: It’s Work, Not Inspiration

Marlon James, 2014 (Larry D. Moore)

According to Black Leopard, Red Wolf author and Macalester College professor Marlon James, the only way he can get anything put down on paper is seeing it as work:

When I sit down with my laptop, I go to work. To me, writing is work: that’s part of my process, that it’s a job. I’m a big believer in that if you establish a routine, the muses show up. I love when people say they write when they’re inspired. I’m like, “Oh my God, I haven’t been inspired to write since the Carter administration. How does that work?” I’ve got to pay bills. I can’t wait on inspiration to write a novel. I’d never write anything…

James is far from strictly pragmatic, though. Although writing might be work, it’s also practice, and it’s through practice that the magic happens:

It’s a vocation. It’s practice. Dancers, musicians, and actors know what I’m talking about—I don’t have to convince them. But writers will say things like, “I couldn’t write today because I didn’t feel inspired.” And I’m like, “That’s lovely.” It’s about doing the work—and knowing that inspiration or creativity will show up once they realize you’re serious…

Screening Room: ‘Captain Marvel’

The latest Marvel comic movie, Captain Marvel, opens this weekend pretty much everywhere.

My review ran at Slant:

As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)—like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before her—getting her own series. But if not, then, hey, she’s at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody else’s franchise down the road. Based on what’s on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera…

Writer’s Desk: Make Mistakes, Don’t Be Afraid

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

The author Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic, the forthcoming Spying on the South) has ranged all over the world before settling back in America (sort of) to write books. Because most writers are rightly in awe of foreign correspondents (yes, it is a romantic occupation), it’s generally worth listening to what they have to say about the craft.

Here’s some notes from his interview in Writer’s Digest:

I think you’re much more likely to find the interesting stories if you take risks and do stories other people aren’t doing. In that way, you have to trust your own instincts, not follow the advice that everyone else is giving you, your parents, your editor, who encourage you to stay on the straight and narrow. And that’s a lot more fun…

You quickly discover as a writer that the worst experiences make for the best copy. I wouldn’t know how to write about a beautiful place. I couldn’t write a story on Hawaii. I sort of try to write about bleak places and frightening events. I find that’s more compelling to write about than, say, a nice vacation in France…

I tend to notice the absurd contradictions in my reporting. Like when I’m in a biker bar and some guy’s threatening to beat me up and I notice they’re watching male figure skaters on TV. Life is tragic and funny at the same time and I think that to tell a story in just one note or the other is too monotone. I don’t like one-note books…