Writer’s Desk: Be More Than a Writer

There are people who have known all their lives that they wanted to be a writer. That’s a lot of us, to some degree. Then they tend to face that chasm between the want and the real. Is it a book deal? Getting an agent? Self-publishing and hoping a publishing house notices it? Being one of those strange tables at the publishing convention selling just one book that everyone stays away from?

The comparison between filmmaking and writing isn’t exact, of course. The former is far more collaborative and way more expensive. But filmmaker Mark Duplass made a worthwhile point when he said this:

It’s really hard, and particularly hard for screenwriters, because nobody wants to read your script. It just sucks. Until you’ve made something, until you’ve proven yourself, you’re basically a nuisance to everyone that you’re trying to get your script to, so you have to find a way to make yourself valuable. I know the first response is, “Well, I’m not a director, and I’m not an actor. I’m just a writer.” And my basic response is, “Then you’re going to be stuck.” I’m sorry, if that’s the way you think about it, you’re kind of going to go nowhere…

Don’t be afraid to be a nuisance. Get out there. Bring your book everywhere. Show it to anybody who will glance. Do what you have to do.

Unfortunately, being a writer takes more than writing.

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: ‘I, Tonya’

In 1994, the world of professional skating was hurled into the burgeoning tabloid TV landscape when an assailant clubbed skater Nancy Kerrigan and suspicion fell on another skater, Tonya Harding. The resulting media firestorm was like a runup to the O.J. trial.

Margot Robbie stars as Harding in the inside-out comedy I, Tonya, which opens next week. My review is at PopMatters:

“This is bullshit. I never did this,” Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) assures viewers in the meta-comedy I, Tonya just after she is seen unloading a blast of buckshot at her fleeing husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Not that most of us would blame her. At that point, we already saw Jeff beat her for saying the wrong thing, or just for being there. Before that there was a long stretch of verbal and emotional abuse from LaVona (Allison Janney), Tonya’s cold-eyed villain of a mother. So this is somebody who had good reason to pick up a shotgun and let fly…

 

Screening Room: Outrages and Miracles at DOC NYC

The eighth DOC NYC film festival continues through this Thursday, with more movies than you would ever have time to see. My coverage of the festival continues over at Film Journal International‘s Screener blog:

Picking your way among the choices at DOC NYC 2017 is a rewarding but sometimes daunting task. There are documentaries about strife in the Middle East, the cats of Istanbul, a science-fiction utopia in Minnesota, a Golden Age of Hollywood hustler, and how an animated store clerk has driven a standup comedian insane for years. Opening the schedule to a random page works too…

 

Screening Room: ’11/8/16′

Remember Election Day last year? Feel like living through it all again? If you have the constitution for it, check out the new documentary 11/8/16, opening this week in limited release.

My review is at Film Journal International:

The disputatious and fractured omnibus documentary 11/8/16 nibbles at too many stories in too short a time to make the one great American tale it seems to be aiming for. There are glimmers of larger import here, various signifiers of this or that impulse from a certain slice of the electorate. But much like the news media in its breathless coverage of the 2016 presidential election, its onslaught of 16 points of view creates more of a cacophony than anything else…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Whose Streets?’

The modern-day civil rights documentary Whose Streets? opens this week—three years after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson—in limited release.

My review is at The Playlist:

“St. Louis, I don’t know what year it is, but it’s not 2014,” a voice intones at the start of Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ activist documentary “Whose Streets?.” That weariness comes back later in this documentary about the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the waves of protest that followed, but it’s not the movie’s overriding emotion. Each of the film’s five sections is buttressed with beaten-but-not-down quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Frantz Fanon. This isn’t a movie about despair in the face of seemingly implacable problems; it’s about the heavy lifting that constant hope requires. Disappointingly, that surging energy which animates the activists profiled here, in ways both intimate and caught-on-the-fly, never coalesces into the desired blueprint for reform…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Citizen Jane’

In the 1950s, when bulldozing historic downtowns under the flag of “urban renewal” was all the rage, architecture journalist Jane Jacobs was one of the loudest and most eloquent voices of the resistance. A new documentary on her, Citizen Jane: Battle for New York, chronicles her fight against the city planners who dreamed of replacing organic urban chaos with high-rise and parking lot dead zones.

Citizen Jane opens in limited release this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

At the risk of oversimplifying the debate, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City divides the participants into two camps: the “top-down” city planners and the “bottom-up” activists. To illustrate that divide, Tyrnauer handily reaches back to the most famous urbanist debate of the 20th century: the fight between New York planning czar Robert Moses and journalist-turned-activist Jane Jacobs. The struggle wasn’t always easily understood, but the stakes were for the future of the city itself…

Here’s the trailer.

Screening Room: ‘The Lego Batman Movie’

legobatmanmovie-posterartSo, now that Christopher Nolan has left Batman in the Affleck’s hands, we’re left with no new movies about the Caped Crusader. Oh wait, they would never let a franchise like that lie moribund for more than a year.

So, The Lego Batman Movie is finally upon us. My review is at PopMatters:

A sugar high of self-conscious product placement and satirical mock-epic, The LEGO Batman Movie strip mines Batman’s mythology for all its comic potential. Voiced by Will Arnett (reprising his role in The LEGO Movie), this Batman is part Christian Bale’s Dark Knight and part reality-show star, a showboater who loves saving the day but won’t let anybody steal his light or get close to him. Yes, there is a lesson here. But after three Christopher Nolan efforts and lord knows how many Zack Snyder bores, Batman could use a little therapy that doesn’t involve punching people…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Founder’

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Even though Ray Kroc referred to himself as the founder of McDonald’s, he didn’t exactly invent the idea. That would be the McDonald brothers, who ran a popular burger stand in Southern California in the 1950s, when Kroc came across it. What happened next is described in The Founder, featuring Michael Keaton in a showy turn as Kroc.

hancock-founder-p350The Founder played briefly last year and is opening wider this week. My review is at PopMatters:

Sometimes a hamburger isn’t just a hamburger. Consider how many Americans still hold primal memories of wolfing down a Big Mac with fries as a child, or the fact that the Soviet Union only seemed truly dead and gone after a McDonald’s opened in Moscow in 1990. A phenomenon in many ways, McDonald’s has inspired backlashes against its cookie-cutter business model. It has also served “billions”. As the visionary Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) puts it in The Founder, “McDonald’s can be the new American church”…

You can see the trailer here.

Eyes Wide Open 2016: The Best

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‘American Honey,’ #3 on the list of year’s best (A24)

So now that it’s January, time to get working on all those films you meant to see over the holidays but never quite got around to. Not sure what to see first? Check out this list of the 25 best films of 2016, published over at Eyes Wide Open.

It’s broken down into three parts: here, here, and here.

oj1There’s something there for pretty much everybody, from great dramas like Manchester by the Sea and Denzel Washington’s Fences to screwball comedies (Maggie’s Plan), boundary-pushing indies (The Childhood of a Leader, American Honey) and gripping documentaries on race and history (Command and Control, 13th, I Am Not Your Negro).

What was the best film of the year? There’s no way to be that reductive about it, of course. But for historical sweep, attention to detail, and drama, the sprawling epic OJ: Made in America is hard to beat, making that number one. But the other 24 are no slouches, either.

And for the gluttons for punishment among, there’s always the worst of the year here. Yes, that list includes Deadpool.

Screening Room: ‘I, Daniel Blake’

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In Ken Loach’s searing new drama, an out-of-work carpenter fights to keep his humanity and a shred of dignity after being thrown into the Kafkaesque world of the UK’s social services bureaucracy.

I, Daniel Blake is playing now in limited release and is worth seeking out. My review is at PopMatters:

In many ways, I, Daniel Blake is as shamelessly manipulative as the most reductive romantic comedy or melodrama. Daniel might be the single most decent and loveable human being to grace a movie screen during the whole of 2016. At his side is a similarly decent single mother whose tearful travails are the stuff of a 19th-century immigrant’s saga. Together they contend with petty bureaucrats who never miss an opportunity to let their rulebooks and prickly egos keep them from doing their jobs. It’s David versus Goliath, only David doesn’t use a slingshot because he’s just too nice a bloke…

Here is the trailer.

Screening Room: ‘Manchester by the Sea’

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For his followup to the brilliant, if barely released Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan delivers a fistful of melancholic comedy in the surprising, deftly written Manchester by the Sea, which stars Casey Affleck as a man coming apart under the weight of multiple tragedies.

Manchester by the Sea is playing now. You probably will not see a better written or acted film this year. My review is at PopMatters:

“It’s not a good disease.” Diagnosed with cancer at the start of Manchester by the Sea, Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) asks his doctor if there are any good diseases. “Poison ivy,” she replies, with the barest hint of a grin. At that, Joe’s wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), furious that they’re joking at a time like this, storms out of the hospital room. Elise might be best advised not to watch Manchester by the Sea, a nearly perfect example of how to weave humor throughout tragedy…

Here is the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Moonlight’

In the sumptuous melodrama Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-favored film explores the three stages of a young man’s life in a rough Miami neighborhood.

Moonlight is opening this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

It’s safe to say that after his last feature, 2008’s romantic talkfest Medicine for Melancholy, few people would have expected Barry Jenkins to be starting off his newest film with a do-rag-wearing drug dealer rolling through a rough-and-tumble Miami. The characters of the more extravagantly emotional and romantic (in all sense of the word) triptych Moonlight are on the surface light years removed from the urbane hipsters of that earlier film. But really, they’re still dealing with the same issues: namely, identity, their place and purpose in the world, and the search for love…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Accountant’

THE ACCOUNTANT

In The Accountant, Ben Affleck puts on glasses and his serious face to play … an accountant … who’s not really just an accountant. See? It’s like one of those twist things.

Directed by Gavin O’Connor (Warrior), The Accountant opens this week wide. My review is at Film Journal International:

In what could serve as the year’s most preposterous mainstream release, Affleck plays Christian Wolff, an accountant who works out of a strip mall in downstate Illinois, finding deductions for local farmers. Or does he? We know that he’s a high-functioning autistic after an opening scene with a child whose tics and inability to deal with small talk or inconsistency seem remarkably like Affleck’s dour-faced pocket-protector of a glowering adult. We also know that he’s more than he claims to be, after being fed into a parallel storyline in which Treasury Department honcho Ray King (J.K. Simmons) details Agent Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), easily cowed due to her secret dark past, to uncover the identity of a mysterious man who has been doing forensic accounting for everyone from terrorists to cartels…

Here’s the trailer: