Now Playing: ‘Terraferma’


terraferma-posterTerraferma is the second movie that’s in theaters right now which digs into the tragic drama of the refugee crisis. The other one is Elysium—you can tell them apart easily since Terraferma is the quieter one in Italian that won several awards at the Venice Film Festival and features beautiful Mediterranean scenery and many fewer gun-toting androids.

My review of Terraferma ran in PopMatters; here’s part:

What happens to an island fishing village in the Mediterranean when the only things the Italian fishermen seem to be pulling from the sea are drowned or near-drowned African refugees? The economic, cultural, and personal effects of this shift shape Emanuele Crialese’s story of stark choices and uncertain futures. In this elegantly structured film, everybody’s concept of home is in flux, their eyes fixed either stubbornly on the ground beneath their feet or hopefully on the horizon…

You can watch the trailer here:

New in Books: ‘The Dinner’

book-dinner-hermankoch-200 (1)Herman Koch’s nasty surprise novel The Dinner was first published in his native Netherlands back in 2009. Since then, it’s been published in about twenty-five countries and been compared to everything from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl to Yasmin Reza’s God of Carnage. The American edition hit shelves this month.

You can read my review at PopMatters:

It begins with blank effect, as though listening to your none-too-interesting friend relate a perfectly ordinary evening filled with ordinary grievances. The narrator, Paul, grouses about this and that, with a chipper flatness that suggests one of those quiet, empty books about ennui and social conventions. Before it’s all over, though, Herman Koch’s serenely malicious little mousetrap of a novel, The Dinner, will have revealed some deadly shadows behind the bright-mannered griping of its opening pages…

New on DVD: ‘Heaven’s Gate’

heavensgate-dvdIn the history of legendary cinematic disasters, there are flops and then there is Heaven’s Gate:

In his interview on the Criterion Collection release of the 1980 Michael Cimino film Heaven’s Gate, a craggy-looking Kris Kristofferson makes a strong appeal for the roundly maligned Western as being a potent work of political cinema. Kristofferson sticks up for Cimino’s indictment of Manifest Destiny and robber baron greed at the end of the 19th century. Of course, he did star in the thing. But still, this is the iconoclast’s take, and an unpopular coming after more than two decades of popular film history telling us that not only was Heaven’s Gate one of the greatest disasters in film history (it took in less than ten percent of the $40 million budget at the box office) but that it single-handedly ended the free-wheeling era of American filmmaking…

The Criterion Collection now offers Heaven’s Gate on DVD and Blu-ray, with plenty of the usual extras. My full review of the DVD edition is at PopMatters.

You can see the trailer for the original film release here:


Department of Cinematic Complaints: Perceived Biases Edition

dinesh1It was bad enough that the semi-scholar Dinesh D’Souza put his efforts behind a particularly seamy piece of Andrew Breitbart-ish video propaganda disguised as a documentary about Barack Obama. (This still from 2016: Obama’s America shows Dinesh intrepidly scouring the globe for clues to the president’s ignominy.)

Then came this:

…the makers of the documentary 2016: Obama’s America were peeved that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ shortlist of Oscar-contending documentaries didn’t include their film. The articles notes that 2016 was a surprise hit that pulled in over $33 million, a staggering amount for a nonfiction film and more than the 15 documentaries have made combined.

My post about this “controversy” is at Short Ends & Leader.

New in Books: ‘The Story of America’

Those truisms quoted today from Ben Franklin? Not meant to be taken seriously. Voting anonymously with paper ballots at polling places free of violence? Unheard of in America until 1890. This and more discussed in Jill Lepore’s new book The Story of America:

When in doubt about your thesis, cover the spread and present everything as a variegated tapestry of humanity. Sometimes this can serve as a neat dodge for a potentially failed project, better than trying to shoehorn everything into an explanation that doesn’t quite hold water. Depending on the richness of your material, this can be either a rag-and-bone shop of leavings (usually subtitled “sketches” or “impressions”), or a rich panoply of story that rattles and bursts with humanity. Even though it should fall in the former category, being mostly a collection of New Yorker articles, Jill Lepore’s wonderful The Story of America fits snugly into the latter…

The Story of America is on sale now at finer (and not so fine) bookstores everywhere; my review is at PopMatters.

Music Break: Rodriguez

The story of Sixto Rodriguez—the Detroit singer-songwriter with the Phil Spector soar to his music and the dark Dylan grit to his lyrics—and how he was rediscovered by a world that was shocked to find out somebody of his talents had lived in the shadows for so long, is one of those rare tales that’s astonishing not just for its oddity but its beauty.

Malik Bendejelloul shot an incredible documentary about Rodriguez, Searching for Sugar Man (much of it using an iPhone with a $1 Super 8 app), that’s well worth seeking out—check out the trailer here.

Ebert was not far off when he wrote:

I hope you’re able to see this film. You deserve to. And yes, it exists because we need for it to.

60 Minutes did a segment on Rodriguez recently (“The Rock Icon Who Didn’t Know It“) that gives you the bare bones of the story.

If you listen to him sing “Sugar Man,” you get some idea of what the fuss is all about and how unfathomable it is that we haven’t been listening to this song on classic-rock radio for the past four decades:

Sight & Sound: Remembering the Lost

For years now, the nearly perfect organization StoryCorps has been traveling the country and giving people the opportunity to just sit down and tell a story about themselves, a friend, family member, or just life. The recordings (which run the gamut from the quotidian to the heartbreaking) are then stored at the Library of Congress, some 40,000 interviews since 2003. It’s an incomparable trove of oral history that will leave future researchers bowing in gratitude.

Their newest project involves putting some of their stories to animation. The result has a This American Life bounciness to them (mostly due to the music), but with a gutsy level of emotion that’s difficult to explain. John and Joe, about one father’s horrendous loss on 9/11 (StoryCorps aims to record at least one interview for each person killed that day), is one of the more memorable short films not just from this program, but from anywhere in recent memory.

You can watch John and Joe here:

One of the other incredibly heartwrenching shorts from StoryCorps’ 9/11 project is Always a Family, watch it here:

New in Theaters: ‘The Master’

The Master makes what should have been long obvious now utterly clear: Paul Thomas Anderson can lay claim to being one of the era’s few American writer/directors afflicted with greatness. It is hard to think of another home-grown filmmaker who so consistently brings such psychologically astute scripting, and ability to coax nakedly revelatory performances from actors—that classically trained eye for widescreen framing—to each film he makes. The Master may not match the level of artistry or thematic intensity seen in There Will Be Blood, but it is Anderson’s most approachable film in years, not to mention his most vividly realized characters to date. There won’t be much else like it on screens this year…

The Master opens Friday in limited release and expands wider over the next few weeks. My full review is at Film Journal International.

The trailer is here:

New in Theaters: ‘Detropia’

“We are here at a critical time!” shouts a tent-revival preacher somewhere in the gloom of a rapidly downsizing Detroit. His is one of the many frightened, brave, saddened, still-fighting voices that Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady include as a chorus of the forgotten in their tragedy-tinted but clear-eyed look at what happens when a city’s reason for being up and leaves. Unfortunately, though the city is inarguably at a crisis point—in 1930, Detroit was the fastest-growing city in the world, and it’s shrunk by over 25 percent in the last decade alone—Detropia doesn’t show any evidence of a consensus on the solution…

Detropia opens this week in limited release and goes wider around the country over the next few weeks. My full review is at Film Journal International.

Dept. of Literary Expatriates: Henry James

Although Henry James remains today one of America’s most celebrated novelists, and his most famous characters were usually American, he was never precisely enamored of his home country. Much like how T. S. Eliot decamped from St. Louis quickly as he could for the more rarefied airs of London intellectual life, James didn’t see much of value in his home country—though, unlike Eliot, he would frequently write as an American abroad in the wider world.

Novelist Colm Toibin, in reviewing Michael Gorra’s new book Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, pulls out this interesting bit from a piece James wrote about Nathaniel Hawthorne just before The Portrait of a Lady. In it, a sweepingly dismissive James lists the things he sees as missing from American life that he sees as necessary for the novelist:

…no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church . . . no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses . . . nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals . . . no Oxford . . . no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class . . . no Epsom nor Ascot.

To a baroque and class-obsessed stylist like James, the country’s comparative lack of history makes for a thin existence. To a degree, James is right, without that weight of civilization which he lists, it is difficult to create a certain kind of literary figure: i.e., those like himself. America did ultimately export the likes of Twain, Hemingway, Kerouac, Bradbury, and Bellow, who all did just fine without thatched cottages or cathedrals—but never could have written The Portrait of a Lady (whether or not that’s a good thing depends on your taste).

Bookseller’s Corner: Lonesome Pine Used Books


Care to run a bookstore for a couple months? That’s the question being asked right now by Wendy Welch and Jack Beck, co-owners of Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Books, located in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Welch has written a book, The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book, and the two of them are going to be away on a promotional tour.

Welch told Fresh Eyes Now:

It’s ironic that it’s a book about independent bookstores that’s got me in this position, but I cannot close our community bookstore to gallivant off and have fun with other bookstores…. Our shop is in a small rural community of 5,400 and it doesn’t do enough trade to hire someone in at a living wage. Plus we have two dogs and three cats on staff. So what we’re offering is complete room and board for a person or couple (from laundry soap to the occasional pizza delivery) in return for him/her/them watching the shop for October and November, when most of the ‘road trip’ activities for the book take place.

Think of it: Worse employment offers are made every minute of every day, and they never involve dogs, cats, or books, much all three together. (h/t Jacket Copy)

New in Theaters: ‘2016: Obama’s America’

Dinesh D’Souza’s documentary makes the case that Barack Obama is a man obsessed with fulfilling the “dream” of his dead father, a staunch anti-colonialist, so much so that he is actively working to degrade America as a world power. While this goal has been camouflaged thus far, the film contends, were Obama to be reelected, his true radicalism would be unleashed. To underline this threat, near its end, the film features a picture of Founding Father Ben Franklin, set aflame…

2016: Obama’s America is playing now in limited release, but is due to expand wider in the coming weeks after a stronger-than-expected opening run. My full review is at PopMatters.

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘The Anderson Monarchs’

In the Philadelphia neighborhood where the Anderson Monarchs girls’ soccer team plays, the bright wall murals exhorting a positive outlook (“Dare to Dream”) exist in stark relief to the limited opportunities available to those who grow up there. The practice field itself is a patchy thing, something of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree compared to the verdant greens where they play games against teams from wealthier suburban neighborhoods. During one practice, police cars and ambulances race past, lights flashing; the camera zooms in but the girls, likely used to it all, pay almost no heed. But Eugene Martin’s film about the Monarchs isn’t much interested in delivering another tale of urban woe, preferring instead to accentuate the positive…

The Anderson Monarchs is playing now as part of the Docuweeks festival in New York, but should expand to more cities later. My full review is at Film Journal International.

The trailer is here:

The ‘Jefferson Lies’ That Weren’t

After selling some 20,000 books, Christian publisher Thomas Nelson is pulling all remaining copies of David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (foreword by Glenn Beck). In his zeal to burnish Jefferson’s image, it seems Barton’s facts weren’t quite up to the argument he was making.

According to NPR, the publisher had a “loss of confidence” in the book’s accuracy:

Since its initial publication, historians have debunked and raised concerns about numerous claims in Barton’s book. In it, Barton calls Jefferson a “conventional Christian,” claims the founding father started church services at the Capitol, and even though he owned more than 200 slaves, says Jefferson was a civil rights visionary.

Additionally, Barton tried to shoo away evidence of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings. When the book was first published earlier this year, Alan Pell Crawford had this to say about it:

A commitment to the notion that Jefferson promoted Christian orthodoxy leads Mr. Barton to misinterpret the early history of the University of Virginia. It was precisely because American colleges were created to produce clergymen that Jefferson established an institution where, he declared, “a professorship of theology should have no place.” … Clergymen who opposed Jefferson’s attempt to hire freethinkers as faculty members he dismissed as “satellites of religious inquisition.”

…No doubt Jefferson has suffered at the hands of glib revisionists. But attempting to make this complex man a simple, reassuring and unambiguously admirable figure does no service to his reputation—or to the American past.