Screening Room: ‘Wonder Woman 1984’

The sequel Wonder Woman 1984 opens in some theaters and on HBO on Christmas. My review is at Slant:

Calling Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman 1984 a perfectly acceptable comic-book adventure might sound more negative than intended. But in a time when the genre is more typically given to the kind of world-building that seems primarily committed to spinning off corporate cinematic widgets (Avengers: Endgame, extended Snyder cuts, and the upcoming onslaught of new-universe-spawning Marvel flicks), a standalone story more engaged with its characters than series continuity is almost refreshing…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Art is Not Therapy

Art Spiegelman created some of the greatest literature of the 20th century by translating his and his family’s history into indelible art.

At the same time, he thinks it is more complicated than simply putting one’s thoughts, worries, and pain on the page. As he told Vulture:

Therapy is vomiting things up. Art is about eating your own vomit. There’s a therapeutic aspect to all making, but the nature of working is to compress, condense, and shape stuff, not to just expunge it. It’s not just an exorcism…

There can be nothing braver than coming clean in your writing.

But bravery is just the starting point.

Reader’s Corner: Year’s Best Graphic Novels

Publishers Weekly just published its annual poll of the year’s best graphic novels, at least as determined by its crew of critics (including myself). A strong favorite for the top selection, a choice that I strongly stand behind, is Derf Backderf’s stunning work of impassioned history, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio.

You can read the full article here at Publishers Weekly.

Here are some of the other top favorites:

Screening Room: ‘The Father’

Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his play The Father is one of the year’s best-acted movies, thanks to Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins.

The Father is opening soon wherever movies play these days. Go find it. My review is at Slant:

A quietly terrifying drama about dementia, The Father starts off inauspiciously as a simple chamber piece in which a daughter spars in semi-comic exasperation with her retired father over his inability to live on his own anymore. Set in a tony London flat, the drama initially appears to take place inside the kind of tastefully cinematic milieu where nothing earth-shattering ever seems to happen. But before long, Zeller upends expectations by revealing the true depths of the father’s problems through dramatic perspective shifts that undermine any sense of cozy remove…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: Literary Datebook

If you are looking for a holiday gift for a literary-minded friend, how about a fancy desk calendar?

Check out the 2021 Barnes & Noble Desk Diary. Besides being a handsome hardcover edition with David Levine art throughout, it also has a wealth of short pieces about authors written by yours truly tied to the month or year a particular writer was born. There are also some longer profiles, like this one for the great Ursula K. Le Guin:

Get ’em now while they last.

Writer’s Desk: Follow the Scent

Here is Louise Glück telling Poets & Writers about her process:

When I’m trying to put a poem or a book together, I feel like a tracker in the forest following a scent, tracking only step to step. It’s not as though I have plot elements grafted onto the walls elaborating themselves. Of course, I have no idea what I’m tracking, only the conviction that I’ll know it when I see it.

One might imagine it’s actually better for the writer when they have no idea what they will find.

Screening Room: ‘The Midnight Sky’

George Clooney’s adaptation of the Lily Brooks-Dalton novel Good Morning, Midnight is a beautiful but bleak look at the end of the world.

The Midnight Sky lands on Netflix December 23. My review is at The Playlist:

Knowing that what we imagine is more terrifying than what we see, “The Midnight Sky” plays the end of the world pretty close to the vest, with nary a devastated cityscape to be seen. It is a canny move for a movie that pivots around an apocalyptic disaster, and one that pays off at times by refocusing the story from the spectacle of loss to its rending emotional reality. But while less-is-more tends to be a smart play when trying for awards season credibility, there are times when George Clooney’s latest directorial effort trips up on its own earnestness…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Use Your Memories

In his essay “So What Shall I Write About?” Haruki Murakami talks about his memories as a capacious warehouse filled with odds and ends which he can draw upon for his fiction:

We are─or at least I am─equipped with this expansive mental chest of drawers. Each drawer is packed with memories, or information. There are big drawers and small ones. A few have secret compartments, where information can be hidden. When I am writing, I can open them, extract the material I need and add it to my story…

He goes on to evoke Steven Spielberg’s E.T.:

There’s an umbrella, a floor lamp, pots and pans, a record player … [E.T.] manages to throw all those household items together in such a way that the contraption works well enough to communicate with his home planet thousands of light years away. I got a big kick out of that scene when I saw it in a movie theater, but it strikes me now that putting together a good novel is much the same thing.

Pack your head with memories and ransack them at will. Don’t worry if they do not seem to make sense together at first. They will.

Screening Room: ‘Mayor’

In David Osit’s new documentary Mayor, the titular official in the Palestinian city of Ramallah must find a way to navigate the challenges of running a city under occupation.

Mayor is playing now in virtual cinemas. My review is at The Playlist:

As a purposeful push-back against the cliches of Israel-Palestinian conflict coverage, “Mayor” succeeds to a degree. Osit intentionally loads the film with serene montages of city life that have nothing to do with the occupation, war, or terrorism. Instead, we see Parisian-style cafes, streets strung with holiday lights, a strobe-lit nightclub, a music-synchronized water fountain that looks like a mini-Bellagio, a knockoff coffee shop called Stars and Bucks, a meeting about municipal branding, and what appears to be a generally prosperous and quiet middle-class city…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Mank’

In David Fincher’s Mank, Gary Oldman rips up the screen as Citizen Kane screenwriter and generally drunken roustabout Herman Mankiewicz. It’s a grand piece of filmmaking, all things told.

Mank is playing now on Netflix. My review is at PopMatters:

Mank, a rattling conveyance stuffed with gags, asides, and anecdotes, is less concerned with how viewers feel about Citizen Kane than they do about its hero, who cannot decide whether he loves writing, spinning tales, gambling, or drinking more, and decides to try them all…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Prom’

Now that the only way to see Broadway is on TV, it’s a good thing that Netflix is getting in on the theater game. Next week sees the release of the star-heavy adaptation of the 2018 musical The Prom.

My review is at PopMatters:

Turning a high school dance into a crucible for a showdown about acceptance and homophobia via some high-kicking dance numbers and tongue-in-cheek humor feels like a reimagining of Ryan Murphy’s Glee. Now that Murphy has adapted the musical for Netflix, the process has come full circle, though not always in a good way…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Start Small

Nobody would ever accuse Mark Helprin of avoiding the big topics. His better novels (Winter’s Tale, Refiner’s Fire) rope in war time, global adventure, and magic realism, all of it written in grand leaping prose.

But when he talks about his inspiration for writing, he talks instead about going smaller:

We create nothing new — no one has ever imagined a new color — so what you are doing is revitalizing. You are remembering, then combining, altering. Artists who think they’re creating new worlds are simply creating tiny versions of this world…