The opening moments where we are smack dab in the thick of a test flight thrusting Neil Armstong above the earth’s atmosphere are among the most thrilling I’ve felt since Dunkirk, all sound and fury and rattling nuts and bolts and creaking ship hulls. But when not relishing in the “in the moment” nitty-gritty details of how we got to the moon, the filmmakers take a huge gamble by positing (with some poetic license) that the primary motive behind Neil Armstrong’s push to the be the first man on the moon was perhaps grief – namely finding a way to process the death of his two-year old daughter, but also the grief over the astronauts who lost their lives in earlier failed missions. It worked for this viewer (and new dad) but it makes for a surprisingly somber tale colored with a psychological complexity I was not expecting.
Well, I’m a little over three weeks into this new fatherhood thing (our son having arrived auspiciously early last month), so it was rather serendipitous that Ron Rash’s long-nursed Something Rich and Strange short-story collection (seriously, I’ve been working this one for like three years) was in closest reach when I found myself with a short window of respite.
The next story up just happened to be “Badeye” and I don’t know if it was simply the pure joy I found in being able to read something amidst the exhaustion that made me feel the way I felt about it, but, man, it’s got to be my new favorite short story of his. Like an Appalachian set Stand-by-Me where the narrator reaches back to his childhood and tells us, “That summer was the longest of my life…”, Rash’s story is about a little boy who loved snowcones and snakes, his mother’s spiritual and moral battle against both, how he found a way to connect to his previously distant father, how the father comes through in a big way in the boy’s time of need, the mysterious man who delivered the snowcones, the secrets both adults and children keep from each other, and the tales we weave about it all.
It instantly brought to mind one of my favorite short-stories of all time from arguably the greatest short-story writer of all-time, Raymond Carver’s “Bicycles, Muscles, and Cigarets” from his Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (fitting words for this time in my life) collection. Like Rash’s “Badeye”, Carver’s masterpiece is also about a father and son, and the secrets both adults and children keep from each other. Carver’s harried, cluttered, suburbia of 1950’s California seems a far cry from Rash’s brutal yet beautiful Appalachia of the same time period, yet the stories share universal themes, and as a new father with a newborn son, I can appreciate them on an added level above just their brilliant craftmanship. Continue reading
Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense opens with a magical passage dreamily describing that feeling of flying, sitting in a plane and taking-off, the world a string of lights slowly falling and fading away beneath you. It’s a magnificent episode. So much of the mood he sets was exactly what I felt on a flight ascent from Toronto to Philadelphia many years ago, and I had always wished I had the nerve to capture it properly in words. Alas, Helprin captured it better than I ever could have…and wisely changed the setting to Paris, to boot!
The novel was a gift from my wife this past holiday season, and the greatest gift the novel gave to me was its ability to bring back memories of our trip to France in September of 2015 just a month before we were married.
Helprin’s swooning and expansive tale of an elderly cellist facing down the demons of his past and the fate of his legacy is dense, dense stuff. Helprin’s vivid, thick, sometimes blustery, sometimes flowery descriptions of people, places, food, wine, and emotions are intermittently wondrous, evocative, illuminating, frustrating, and too often clichéd. Oh, yes, anyone who has been there gets it…Paris is undeniably Hemingway’s Moveable Feast. Continue reading
My Top Ten Films of 2017:
- Phantom Thread – d. Paul Thomas Anderson
- Wind River – d. Taylor Sheridan
- Dunkirk – d. Christopher Nolan
- Blade Runner 2049 – d. Denis Villeneuve
- Personal Shopper -d. Olivier Assayas
- Mudbound – d. Dee Rees
- The Beguiled – d. Sofia Coppola
- Get Out – d. Jordan Peele
- Wonder Woman – d. Patty Jenkins
- Lady Bird – d. Greta Gerwig
Notable Omissions (films I’ve yet to see that are showing up on a many Top Ten lists):
Call Me By Your Name, The Shape of Water, I Tonya, The Post, All the Money in the World
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – d. Martin McDonagh
- The Big Sick – d. Michael Showalter
Worst Films of the Year:
Tell us what your pick was for Best Film of 2017.
What movies would make your Top Ten List?
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Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread opens with a simple, stately title card and the emerging sound of a crackling fire. Soon, a moodily lit young woman (an impeccably unpredictable Vicky Krieps) is providing the introductory voice-over to our cinematic affair. Right there, Anderson upends our expectations, as this being a Daniel Day Lewis film (and purportedly his last!), one expected if anyone would be narrating this tale, it would have been him.
Daniel Day Lewis is indeed the main focus of attention, a classic Andersonian archetype, the tortured artist/mad genius…a true narcissist who is also somehow sympathetic, likely a result of Lewis’ and Anderson’s own symbiotic genius. Their finely stitched designer Reynolds Woodcock is the toast of the 1950’s London fashion scene, and his art, those costumes, are to die for. But the story is told mostly from the point of view of his new love interest, the enigmatic Alma (Krieps), an initially demure waitress he picked up in the British countryside…both actress and environ exquisitely photographed, as is every single thing, by Anderson’s camera lens.
We know there’s more to Alma because of how Anderson frames the story, but we’re never given any exposition on her (and only a modicum of backstory – mostly surrounding his mother – for Reynolds) and thus we’re forced to judge her (and ultimately Reynolds) only by what unfolds on-screen. We slowly see how Alma takes hold and upends Reynolds’ structured life enmeshed with his sister Cyril (a perfectly reserved but commanding Lesley Manville). Alma is far more than the typical girl Reynolds and Cyril routinely toss aside like an off-season dress. In fact, she emerges from her cocoon as another Andersonian archetype…the person willing to do anything to fit into, and keep together, their new makeshift family, no matter how dysfunctional (in ways both comic and tragic) that family becomes. Continue reading
David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon sounds like a rip-snorting true crime epic. The labyrinthine conspiracy that lead to the murders of numerous Osage Indians for their oil headrights and the botched FBI investigation that followed is rife with terror and tragedy, but although Grann attempts a few passages of ponderous heft, most of the book is a dry by-the-numbers procedural that presents far too many names and suspects to keep coherent track of, never allowing us to latch on to any one person, and leaving us lost in the immense scope of the dastardly deeds. The book is slated for a film adaptation to be directed by Martin Scorsese, and if there is anyone who can provide both focus and pep to the story, it’s probably him…though Eric “hit or miss” Roth is to pen screenplay, leaving me to worry the Osage might never get their due.
Though it’s presented like a true crime book, Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier couldn’t be more fantastical and “out there.” Mercifully brief (compared to The Secret History of Twin Peaks), this dossier compiled by Special Agent Tammy Preston following the events of Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return is designed to feed the fans. Continue reading
Well, I guess we were just in a New York State of Mind in 2017.
Trips to the Empire State included:
- An extended “writer’s retreat” weekend in Cooperstown in April. It was my wife’s first time in one of my favorite places on earth. It was also our first time doing Air B&B. Despite coming home with a nail in my tire…it was a truly relaxing, lovely trip (and, yes, we both got some much-needed writing done).
- A weekend getaway to NYC in June to hit up some old haunts (with a jaunt out to Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Museum).
- A family vacation in August renting a house on Lake Seneca (first time in the Finger Lakes region) from which we watched the solar eclipse. The vacation also included day-tripping to Watkins Glen and the Canadian side of Niagara Falls (a long overdue first time there!) The Niagara experience inspired a short-story I’m currently polishing up.
When that final gut-curdling scream rang out on that oh-so-familiar street in front of that oh-so-familiar house in that oh-so-familiar town from our oh-so-familiar anti-heroine, just as I had after every other hour, I raced to my laptop to churn out my blog post without much thought. I was a bit flippant, and ill-tempered, as that newly settling frustration of Lynch pulling the rug out from under us (again) was just beginning to simmer, and in my post (and haste) I wrote off the whole series to that Lynchian trope of being caught in an endless loop of suffering from which you can never escape no matter how hard you try. And I still basically stand by that assessment…but oh, Twin Peaks, you are both just that and so much more. Much like life itself, you are a walking contradiction. A mirror unto yourself.
Now I’ve had time to digest the finale and read all the wonderful (and eloquent and thoughtful) theories out there in the media and on fans’ feeds. And I agree with them all. Those theories are mirrors of my own thoughts. Nothing I write about here hasn’t been thought of by someone else who already wrote it down (and probably more astutely conveyed). Continue reading
The closest we get to an audience proxy in Christopher Nolan’s relentless exercise in tension and survival is the young soldier played by Fionn Whitehead. He could be anyone’s son, and he’s a partly shell-shocked but still wily (and very observant) lad in Nolan’s wartime nightmare/day scream. We open with him walking through abandoned French coastal village streets as pamphlets rain down announcing, “We surround you.” That first gunshot, setting him off on a run for his life, is so piercing you feel like you’ve been shot at…and it invites the audience to partake in this immersive first-person narrative. He’s the first and last one we see in the film, and his Murphy’s Law-ridden week-long escape from the besieged French shores anchors the multi-POV time-collapsing narrative. Most notably, his struggle to survive is not alone. He doesn’t get from point A to point Z without interacting with others equally driven to survive, and not without help.
Elsewhere, on one fateful day, we have another brave boy named George (Barry Keoghan) selflessly join his friend (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend’s father (a superb Mark Rylance) as they take their pleasure yacht to join a civilian fleet heading to Dunkirk to pick up some of the 400,000 soldiers stranded there between the English Channel and encroaching enemy tanks on the land. When he hops aboard the vessel after only supposed to have helped father and son set off, the wise elder tells him, “It’s a war, George.” To which George calmly and confidently replies, “I could be of use, sir.”
The film is filled with that kind of stark to-the-point dialogue, interspersed judiciously in a cinematic story otherwise devoid of spoken language but swelling with human emotion transmitted visually across a sprawling canvas of land, sea, and air. Continue reading
Writer/director James Gray’s latest cinematic tome, The Lost City of Z (based on David Grann’s bestselling book about the incredible true story) unfolds like a long…very long…novel. It’s a curious think-piece about a man’s obsession with finding a lost civilization in the Amazonian rain forest that despite being handsomely mounted (among many other cinematic accomplishments) lacks momentum due to a decidedly old-fashioned pace. Yet, there is so much to admire here.
Witness the classical cinematography by Darius Khondji, exquisitely lit and painterly to highlight the sumptuous locales and pristine production design. Individually there are some amazing sequences staged by Gray and Khondji, including the film’s opening elk hunt done up in a thrilling manner that one wishes would’ve punctuated later moments in the epic narrative. While overall the film could’ve used some judicious editing (and script tightening), a series of amazing dissolves and scene transitions (witness liquor poured onto the uneven floorboard of a ship transition into steam from a train cutting across the Bolivian countryside…or wind through the Amazonian jungle transition to a seaside breeze in England fluttering white curtains inward over the desk of a wife reading her husband’s letters) create indelible moments one wishes to savor like a top shelf whiskey. Continue reading