Reader’s Corner: Living in the Worst Place in America

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One of the year’s more interesting books is Christopher Ingraham’s If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home By Now. A data reporter for the Washington Post, Ingraham became the  focus of some viral blowback after publishing a story in 2015 about how federal government-compiled data showed that Red Lake County in Minnesota was supposedly the worst place in America to live.

The residents were not happy. He went to visit, ended up moving his family there, and wrote a book about the experience.

My interview with Ingraham ran in Publishers Weekly.

Reader’s Corner: Summer Graphic Novels

I reviewed three new graphic novels—well, a graphic memoir of self-discovery and heartache by Ulli Lust, one immersive graphic biography about Stephen Hawking, and George Takei’s internment-camp memoir, to be precise—in a summer roundup for this weekend’s book section of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

They’re all smart, absorbing reads and well worth your time.

Check out the reviews here.

Screening Room: ‘Sword of Trust’

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(IFC Films)

In the new comedy from Lynn Shelton (Humpday), podcaster, comic, and Glow star Marc Maron plays a disgruntled pawn shop owner who gets sucked into a screwball plot about Civil War truthers when he comes across a rare sword.

Sword of Trust opens this week. My review is at PopMatters:

Sword of Trust is in many ways a quintessentially Southern movie. But that sensibility is primarily expressed in the laconic humor and slippery slides from bonhomie to violence. Shelton expends little effort on a cinematic sense of place, aside from some melancholic insets of faded storefronts around the Birmingham, Alabama pawn shop where the action takes place. That is, except for the obsession with the Civil War, or as some characters might characterize it, “Thuh Wah of Nawthun Aggression”…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: A Little ‘Venom’ Goes a Long Way

Tom Hardy in Venom (2018)

A hybrid superhero-antihero misfire that wastes Tom Hardy in a should-have-been great role, Venom is somehow even less fun than when he played both Kray twins a few years back in the London gangster epic bomb Legend.

Venom is playing now pretty much everywhere. My review is at Film Journal International:

There are plenty of characters from the Spider-Man universe who could manage having a movie all to themselves. Eddie Redmayne as the Green Goblin. Maybe Tilda Swinton as a gender-reversed Doctor Octopus; just imagine the goggles. In theory, Venom should be perfectly able to handle a story all on his own. Despite serving as a somewhat weak anti-Peter Parker in the mostly forgotten Spider-Man 3, the ravening parasitic alien being seems like a perfectly good villain to set loose on an unsuspecting world…

Screening Room: ‘Joy’ at the Venice Film Festival

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Sudabeh Mortezai’s Joy, which screened at this year’s Venice Film Festival, is a harrowing story about a Nigerian woman trapped in a cycle of dependency as a sex worker in Austria.

My review is at The Playlist:

At the start of Sudadeh Mortezai’s downbeat trafficking tragedy “Joy” there’s some reason to think that one is about to see a story of power and independence. A young Nigerian woman sits in the hut of a juju man while he wrings the blood from a chicken’s slashed neck over an altar and leads her in the recitation of charms. “Protect her from the living and the dead,” he says about her upcoming trip to Europe. “No man will harm me!” He has her shout like a young warrior heading off to battle…

You can check out the trailer here.

Writer’s Desk: Stay Curious About Everything

There are writers—some, but certainly not all—whose eyes will glaze over at the mere mention of topics like “science.” (See also: “401K,” “Retirement Planning,” “Job Security,” and “Deadlines” for other unpopular topics.) But stay with me with for this.

A couple weeks back, the great George Will turned away from deftly skewering members of his former party for bowing and scraping before the president and turned to the topic of curiosity. In “America is Sacrificing the Future,” Will talks about a 1939 essay by Abraham Flexner with the glorious title “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Will approvingly highlights Flexner’s thesis, which is that many of the greatest inventions sprang not from diligent and targeted effort, but rather the application of discoveries made in the process of research for research’s sake.

Will uses Flexner to buttress his central argument that the administration’s push to cut general research budgets is a phenomenally short-sighted endeavor, not uncommon in these STEM-obsessed times: “America is eating its seed corn.”

But the point goes beyond that. Per Will:

It has been said that the great moments in science occur not when a scientist exclaims ‘Eureka!’ but when he or she murmurs ‘That’s strange.’ Flexner thought the most fertile discoveries come from scientists ‘driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.’

Writing is not that different. Of course, when working on that novel about the blind detective from Johannesburg, you better make sure you figure out a few things first (what’s Afrikaans for “You’re under arrest”?).

But writers, like scientists, should never stop following the urge to satisfy their often random-seeming curiosities. You never know what you might come across.

Nota Bene: The New Canon

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The Washington Post‘s Ann Hornaday has just addressed an obvious lacuna in movie criticism by declaring first that not only has the Great Movie Canon remained stubbornly fixed for too long (Vertigo, Citizen Kane) but that there are many movies post-2000 that stand up alongside all the greats of yesteryear.

Hornaday’s article “The New Canon” is an absolute must-read. She also selected a fairly unassailable list, excepting maybe Spike Lee’s adventurous but uneven 25th Hour and Kenneth Lonergan’s solid but somewhat unremarkable You Can Count on Me. Her list is here but it’s best reading her arguments are each of them as well:

  • Children of Men
  • 25th Hour
  • The Hurt Locker
  • Michael Clayton
  • Pan’s Labyrinth
  • There Will Be Blood
  • Boyhood
  • 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days
  • Old Joy
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • Hunger
  • You Can Count on Me
  • No Country for Old Men
  • I’m Not There
  • Minority Report
  • Dunkirk
  • Mudbound
  • Spotlight
  • Son of Saul
  • Stories We Tell
  • The Fog of War
  • The Royal Tenenbaums
  • Spirited Away