TV Room: ‘The Underground Railroad’

In Barry Jenkins’ 10-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, the famed abolitionist rescue network is made into an actual railroad that spirits enslaved people out of the South.

The Underground Railroad will be streaming on Amazon Prime starting May 14. My review is at PopMatters:

Jenkins is generally more experiential than plot-driven, and so the show ripples with the kind of silently evocative and luxuriantly filmed moments that gave Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Speak much of their power. But still, even though the series also has its share of sinking-gut horror and hairbreadth escapes, Jenkins ultimately delivers a subtler and yet grander impact by telling the story as a unified whole rather than a string of attention-grabbing peaks and valleys to jolt viewers out of pandemic streaming torpor…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Vast of Night’

The Vast of Night is playing now in some drive-in theaters, and streams on Amazon this Friday. My review is at The Playlist:

A head-snapper of a debut from Andrew Patterson, “The Vast of Night” is one of those eerie indies that uses the trappings of genre (alien invasion in this case) as a launchpad into its own brand of American weird. Located somewhere to the left of a lost “X-Files” episode set in the UFO-haunted 1950s, it unspools over the course of one night in a flyspeck New Mexico border town. Mysterious events are afoot and nobody seems aware of it at first except for two meddling teenagers…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Blow the Man Down’

My review of the new movie Blow the Man Down — which starts this Friday on Amazon — ran at Slant Magazine:

Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s Blow the Man Down starts on a literally self-aware note. The opening sequence shows the fishermen of a coastal Maine hamlet not just hard at work netting, spiking, and chopping up their catch, but also singing a rousing rendition of the 19th-century sailors’ song that gives the film its title. Full-throated and haunting, the piece is sung right to the camera as though it were a music video for some Americana band. But even though what follows is shot through with a keen understanding of genre necessities and an impatience for wasting more time on them than is necessary, the film never veers into wink-wink self-consciousness that its opening might have suggested…

Here’s the trailer:

Nota Bene: Skip Prime Day?

Next Monday and Tuesday, Amazon is having its annual Prime Day sale (shouldn’t that be Prime Days?).

For many, this provides an opportunity to load up on all the consumer goods they want and don’t need (100″ TV, voice-operated device that records everything you say and sends it back to Amazon’s server farms for future use by…?). For others it’s an understandably good time to save a few well-needed dollars buying essentials they actually need (diapers, clothes for the kids, food).

But of course, it’s not so simple as a great deal. John Oliver recently broke down what it’s like to work at an Amazon warehouse, where things get particularly Dickensian during the run-up to Prime Day(s):

And now some workers at Amazon’s facility in Shakopee, Minnesota are planning a strike to protest working conditions.

Over at Moby Lives, Ryan Harrington—who noted that some white-collar Amazon workers are flying to Shakopee to join the strike—used the situation to make a helpful suggestion for what to do come Prime Day: Maybe shop somewhere else that day(s).

That applies particularly to books. The American Booksellers Association noted a number of things that your local indie store provides that Amazon, whatever your feelings about them, simply cannot (union labor, drag queen storytime, a cute place to get engaged).

One thing not on their list that absolutely should be: Bookstore cats.

Screening Room: ‘Embrace of the Serpent’

'Embrace of the Serpent' (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

In Embrace of the Serpent, the partially real, highly imagined stories of two white explorers in the Amazon rain forest are threaded into a kaleidoscopic journey into the last days of a pre-modern civilization.

Embrace of the Serpent opens in limited release this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

Further research would be needed to prove this theory. But it’s probable that nowhere in the writings of Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872–1924) and Richard Evans Schultes (1915–2001) would you find evidence of a cultish colony fixated on flagellation and crucifixion. Ciro Guerra’s ambitious bolting together of imagined quests by these two real-life explorers adds a lot of that kind of sinister, quasi-Conradian color, but it’s mostly to positive effect. Even though Embrace of the Serpent’s sometimes violent and frequently otherworldly journey up a jungle-bounded river can’t help but echo Coppola and Herzog, Guerra pursues his own path in striking fashion…

You can see the trailer here:

New Books: In ‘California’ the World Has Gone to Hell for No Good Reason

Earlier this summer, first-time novelist Edan Lepucki caught a lucky break. Just as her debut book California was due to come out, her publisher and Amazon got into a pricing dispute that caught the eye of Stephen Colbert. In an attempt to help out authors caught in the crossfire, Colbert chose Lepucki’s book as a title to champion. In his show’s appeal, he asked viewers to buy the book in droves—from anywhere but Amazon.

Now we can appreciate the novel itself, and not the furor around it.

California-cover1My review of the post-apocalyptic California is at PopMatters:

The setting is almost a generation after a slow-motion apocalypse has ground the modern age into dust. Lepucki’s two narrators, a young couple who unhurriedly trade off chapters, remember some of the earlier age’s technological glories. They’re of the last generation that experienced things like broadband and daily showers and refrigeration. By their childhoods, the world was already collapsing. They just managed to be there for civilization’s dying embers.

A more naïve writer might have made us think that they were unlucky to have these memories, that the ones who follow them would be happier without that knowledge. But that’s not the way Lepucki plays it: There is a Dark Age on the wing, and it will be savage and bleak, not a return to some pre-modern Edenic state…

You can read an excerpt here.