Archive | Book Matters

‘Life Itself,’ Roger, and Me

In 2005 Roger Ebert e-mailed me out of the blue to say he liked my tiny cinema blog. I had met him the month before at his yearly celebration of film, then called The Overlooked Film Festival. (Later it became Ebertfest.) We’d discussed our shared love of science fiction at his favorite fast food joint, Steak ‘n Shake, which is where all the attendees – from Jason Patric to Dusty Cohl, the cowboy hat-clad co-founder of the Toronto International Film Festival – hung every night after screenings. Our conversation was lively and warm but I was still floored that Roger followed up by checking out my writings. It was an act of unsolicited generosity that I came to recognize as one of his trademarks. Soon after, I was offered the position of the festival’s blogger, which I held until 2010. Even afterward, he remained supportive of my work in ways that meant the world to me.

By the time I met Roger he’d already struggled with a bout of cancer. It was an awkward moment in his life – some of the star that had been attached to him when he was part of the legendary “Siskel and Ebert” team had faded, and he hadn’t yet secured the relationship with a younger generation of critics and fans that he later built through blogging and Twitter. During those years I found him curious, resourceful, benevolent. He was much more than a mere film critic; he was a beacon. Occasionally I also found him egotistical – a king who resented the dwindling of his kingdom – and retrogressive when it came to women despite the fact that he was married to a strong woman himself. Roger preferred deference from others, and that could be wearying. Above all, though, I greatly admired his uncanny work ethic, as well as his willingness to curate and celebrate talent. Continue Reading →

Wherefore Art Thou, ‘Whitey?’

The following is a review originally published in Word and Film.

There was a time when James “Whitey” Bulger was merely a Boston legend. Though he ruled a Massachusetts crime syndicate for more than two decades, he really wasn’t nationally recognized until he landed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list in 1994 and a sixteen-year manhunt was launched. (At one point, the award offered for information leading to his capture was second only to the award offered for Osama Bin Laden.) By 2011, when he was arrested in Santa Monica, where he’d practically been living in plain sight, the American imagination was officially hooked. A bona-fide Whitey cottage industry now exists: Martin Scorsese’s The Departed is loosely based upon the blue-eyed mobster; a biopic starring Johnny Depp is in the works; and a bevy of firsthand accounts and journalistic tracts have been published.

Part of why Whitey fascinates is his unique brand of sociopathy. With his combed-back pale hair, searing gaze, and apparent pleasure in his work (even in the world of organized crime he is considered vicious), he’s recognized as the most powerful American gangster of the last fifty years – despite the fact that he doesn’t conform to any stereotype of a mob boss. (For one thing, he’s emphatically un-Italian.) But Whitey also fascinates because his reign of terror prevailed, almost wholly unchecked, for so long that it seems apparent he was snug (with a bug) with federal law enforcement agencies. Joe Berlinger’s documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger takes a good, hard look at the corruption that likely surrounded his case. Continue Reading →

The Dickensian Dystopia of ‘Snowpiercer’

The following is a review originally published in Word and Film.

Snowpiercer is a fantastic dumb movie for smart people. Or maybe it’s just a fantastic smart movie for everybody. Either way, I’m in love; this is the first big-scale picture of the summer that deserves to put tons of bodies in movie theater seats. The irony is that it belongs to the two cinema genres already glutting multiplexes to the chagrin of many. It’s both an action pic and a comic book adaptation – albeit a Korean adaptation of Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette’s 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, which is basically a brainy cocktail of Speed and Brazil. On the rocks.

For seventeen years, Earth has been adrift in an Ice Age caused by a misguided effort to head off climate change. The only humans still alive are sealed off from the elements on the Snowpiercer, a perpetual motion-powered train that hurtles around the earth every 365 days. At the front dwell those who could afford to buy their seats; at the rear, the unwashed ragamuffins who secured their (most piteous of) positions through a lottery. The “haves” luxuriate in spas, nightclubs, and lush greenhouses, swilling sushi and champagne while their children are brainwashed by a Martha Stewart-on-crack schoolmarm (Alison Pill as you’ve never seen her). The “have-nots” languish in unlit shantytowns in which they are subject to terrible brutality (amputation being the standard punishment for insubordination), maw black gelatinous blocks fashioned from a nebulous animal protein, and are presided over by Mason (Tilda Swinton, sporting a dental prosthesis that’s practically four-dimensional), a Thatcher-esque bureaucrat who brandishes a polyester glove on an iron fist. Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy