Friday, October 9, 2020

Fiction Award!

 Some personal news: a short story of mine about a father-daughter road trip, YOUNG AMERICANS, was just chosen by author and contest judge Karen Dionne to win first place in the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction at Philadelphia Stories! I'm astounded at this news, and honored to have my work included in the latest issue of Philadelphia Stories. I'm also excited to be invited to give a public reading of my work at the Push to Publish conference taking place (virtually) on October 10, 2020. 

While I've made a living as a lecturer and public speaker for decades, it will be the first time I have the honor of reading my own fiction to a real audience. Nerves! Many thanks to Karen Dionne (whose novel THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER is a masterpiece of tension and finely-spun detail) and to the many good people at Philadelphia Stories for their faith in my work. Onward!

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Movie Review - The Sunlit Night

The opening shot of The Sunlit Night confronts the viewer with the direct gaze of three unimpressed critics. They hum and cluck and shake their heads, and end up saying unkind things about a splashy abstract painting. The artist, Frances (Jenny Slate), absorbs their derision with stoicism. The painting, shown straight-on in all its vibrant color and depth and gesture, looks beautiful and evocative, which ends up providing an apt metaphor for the film itself: gently quirky and hinting at great depths.

Directed by David Wnendt from a screenplay by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight (based on her own novel), The Sunlit Night skips through the set-up with charming economy. One moment Frances is cavorting with a hunk in a sun-drenched pool and the next moment she's trudging onto a commuter bus, still dripping in her swimsuit with tears on her cheeks. Her boyfriend dumped her, her younger sister's getting married and her parents are getting separated. Lying awake in the bunkbeds they're both too old for, the sister asks a question that will shadow Frances for the rest of the story: "Do you think that love can last?"
The beginning of the answer takes Frances to Norway, where she lands a gig working as an assistant for a reclusive artist. His project: paint an entire barn yellow, every inch of it. Frances doesn't bat an eye. She's chatty and nervous and eager to please, and he's moody and not at all interested in making her feel welcome. The rom-com alerts begin to sound, but this isn't that kind of story. There's no budding romance with the rugged Scandinavian genius, but there is a gradual arc toward camaraderie and mutual respect, with is Frances' first clue about the answer to her sister's question.

Yasha (Alex Sharp), a young man she glimpses trudging along the side of the road in a black suit, offers another kind of answer. He turns out to be a fellow refugee from New York City, in Norway to give his dead father a Viking funeral. (Zach Galifianakis plays a small role as a Viking impersonator from Cincinnati, and Gillian Anderson appears as Yasha's icy mother.) Cross-cutting scenes develop the budding friendship between Frances and Yasha, but he's too steeped in grief to be available for romance. He tells her how he worked his whole life as a baker's apprentice to his father, and Frances absorbs that idea. After all, she's been painting someone else's barn yellow for twelve hours a day, and neglecting her own work. Once she spots a woman at the grocery store who reminds her of a Renaissance portrait, Frances is inspired to paint again.

Here's where the lasting love is. Frances might never find the right romantic partner, but she has everything she needs to be the artist she is. The scenes of Frances in the act of painting exude a sense of focus and power. Her style, like the film itself, has a soft and intimate vibe, attuned to details and textures with buttery light and velvety shadows. The yellow barn turns out to be something much more interesting than what it sounded like initially, and the same can be said for her Norwegian sojourn. Her new paintings are naked and bold, and she stands before her critics with a new confidence. She's already found her lasting love.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

In Praise of Yacht Rock

As a child of late-'70s/early-'80s radio saturation, my love of Yacht Rock is deep and true. In fact, that genre label didn't exist at the time, as far as I knew. What I remember is dialing the hi-fi tuner on a lazy summer evening and stumbling across a cascade of celestial light in the form of the sax riff in "Baker Street." I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Why were people going on about Mozart and Beethoven when this brilliance was happening in popular music? A lot of my favorites from those years--Steely Dan, Bertie Higgins, Michael MacDonald, Toto--would later get bunched together and labeled Yacht Rock, but to me they were just gorgeous melodies which shimmered.

Listening back on the music now, that quality still stands out, along with unmistakably brilliant musicianship. And sure, today you might be likely to hear one of those numbers when you're staring at the ceiling in the dentist's office, but that should make the experience better, not worse. The New Wave music that followed Yacht Rock seemed to share a lot of that smooth DNA, so artists like Sade and Spandau Ballet and even The Smiths sounded like close relatives even if the mood and messages had changed with the times. I almost want to say that no genre of music deserves derision, since genre itself is a false construct. True, some stuff is truly repugnant--looking at you, Country Rap and Hick Hop--but Yacht Rock will always sound like a magical summer evening to me.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Movie Review: The Science of Sleep

Don't bother wearing socks when you watch The Science of Sleep, because this movie will charm them right off. The story careens between dreams and reality with head-spinning gusto. One moment, Gael Garcia Bernal is talking to the camera in a television studio made entirely from cardboard (even the cameras), and the next moment he's stumbling down a Parisian sidewalk in a half-awake daze. Reality is no less strange than the dreamworld, and there might be a deeper meaning a-brew there, but the movie doesn't put any pressure on itself to actually, you know, make sense. It's like Inception as a sweet-natured but prickly romantic comedy, populated not by shadowy corporate dream-pirates but by awkward young lovers who can't figure out if their connection is real or imaginary. Charlotte Gainsbourg is the perfect foil for Garcia Bernal, with her standoffishness and vulnerability bristling against his naivety and obnoxiousness. They seem at once perfect for one another and bound for disaster as they circle around flirtations and arguments--all of it feeding back and distorting in ultra-vivid, cardboard-and-green-screen dreams. Written and directed by Michel Gondry, The Science of Sleep is itself a dream you don't want to wake up from, and when you do, you have no chance of explaining it to anyone in a way that will make sense.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Movie Review - Guns Akimbo

Here's my review on Spectrum Culture for Guns Akimbo, an ultra-violent video game fantasia starring Daniel Radcliffe.

Daniel Radcliffe has made some interesting choices for roles post-Harry Potter. His performance as a magical corpse in {Swiss Army Man} made that one of the strangest and most enjoyable movies of 2016, and he established his horror chops in {The Woman in Black}(2012). In {Guns Akimbo}, Radcliffe draws on all the charm, physicality, and intensity that served him well in those earlier roles, but the story isn't smart enough to give him much to do with an underwritten character.

Miles (Radcliffe) is a sad-eyed schlub with an unrewarding tech job and an ex-girlfriend (Natasha Liu Bordizzo) who won't text him back. He spends his downtime getting drunk, playing video games, and rage-posting online. When he insults the wrong dude, he draws the attention of a sinister band of real-world psychos, known as Skizm, who livestream shoot-outs between modern-day gladiators on the streets of an unnamed city. They abduct Miles and knock him out, and when he wakes up he's got two semi-automatic pistols with extended magazines bolted to his hands. Not even the Swiss Army Man included the live ammo feature.

Exploring the aftermath of this absurd set-up is where Radcliffe shines. With his hair-triggered handguns, his attempts to check his phone or pull up his pants become hair-raising moments. These scenes inspire genuine laughs, as when he prevails upon a homeless person to help him eat a soggy hot dog he finds in the gutter. ("You don't have a vegetarian option, do you?") In a bathrobe and boxers, with fuzzy bear claw slippers, Miles flees through the streets as his gladiatorial opponent, Nix (Samara Weaving), pursues him beneath the constant eye of Skizm's live-streaming drones.

Written and directed by Jason Lei Howden, the movie's irony rests on the premise of video game violence extending into real life. A recurring montage of rapt viewers seeks to drive home the point that we're all desensitized witnesses to violence in any form. Yet the movie undermines that irony by slaughtering  characters in a dizzying blur of head-shots and viscera, just like any first-person shooter game. On-screen graphics add to the sense of cartoony dislocation. At times it feels like John Wick stumbled into {Scott Pilgrim vs. the World}(2010) and started slaughtering everyone. If real-world violence is as swift and cinematic as video game gore, what difference does it make that it's supposedly happening to real people?

As extreme as the circumstances are, the stakes seem low for Miles. The bad guys kidnap his ex-girlfriend  to motivate him to play their game, but his own survival feels less urgent. Even if he wins this hellish contest, it won't seem like much of a victory to go back to his old life. So why should we care about Miles? The answer is--because he's Daniel Radcliffe. His shambly charm goes a long way towards making Miles likable, and gives you a reason to keep watching when all your instincts might be telling you to turn off your screen and go back to the real world.

* * *

Note: After writing this review, it came out that the director was some kind of hysterical troll who got his Twitter account suspended for cyber-bullying reviewers and POC who criticized his movies. The episode underscores my reaction to the film. To put a finer point on my review: the movie, like the director, is garbage, and not even Harry Potter can save it.

Movie Review - Corpus Christi

I started a side hustle as a film critic for Spectrum Culture. Yay popcorn! Here's my first published review, for Poland's Academy Award nominated feature, CORPUS CHRISTI. It's a tense and lovely thriller...

Who among us hasn't, at one time, felt like an imposter, about to be busted for occupying a role we shouldn't be in? The power of the enchanting Polish film {Corpus Christi} lies in the tension between past mistakes and present circumstances as a young man tries to leave behind a criminal history for a spiritual life. The better he plays the role of a gifted priest, the more he arouses suspicions that he doesn't really belong where he is.

Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) is a young man in a juvenile detention facility who is drawn to the priesthood. We see him participating in gang violence along with fellow convicts, but he also serves as a wide-eyed and sweet-voiced acolyte to the facility's priest (Lukasz Simlat), who seems to see potential for Daniel's redemption. Alas, Daniel’s violent past will prevent him from ever being ordained himself, but the priest assures him that there are many other ways to live a good life.

Daniel, however, seems to feel a calling. Upon his release, he reports to a work assignment at a saw mill, only to be drawn to the sight of a church spire in a town across the valley. With a priest's tunic and collar as a disguise, he manages to ingratiate himself with the ailing parish priest (Zdzislaw Wardejn). Daniel's deception initially involves only lies of omission, until the moment when the priest asks which seminary Daniel attended in Warsaw. His lie in response seems to register in the priest's eyes, but Daniel's earnestness convinces him to give the young man a chance.

Bielenia's nuanced performance captures Daniel's yearning for acceptance as well as his unease that the deception can't go on forever. He's a man caught between two worlds which both feel like home to him. In the church, he's soft-spoken and dignified in his layered vestments, improvising simple and poetic homilies that make the parishioners' eyes shine with admiration. In his downtime, he cranks electronic music on his smartphone while smoking cigarettes and busting dance moves in his tracksuit like any bro at the club. His youthful and down-to-earth persona enchants some of the townspeople, while others are wary of his subversion of tradition and decorum.

Other fish-out-of-water stories tend to verge into the comical, from Billy Wilder’s classic screwball comedy {Some Like It Hot} (1959) to Woody Allen’s sci-fi satire {Sleeper} (1973), both of which play their protagonist’s dislocation for laughs and zany misunderstandings. The mood in {Corpus Christi} however, sticks to the somber end of the spectrum, heightened by long, contemplative shots of quiet village streets and dim rooms adorned only with crucifixes. Scenes unfold at a languid pace that reflects the setting and intensifies the suspense—you know that a breaking point is coming, but you don’t know how or when. Daniel, always watchful with a frosty blue stare, seems to know that he’s going to get caught, but in the meantime he plays his role with an earnestness and inspiration that seems to elude other priests.

Directed by Jan Komasa from a script by Mateusz Pacewicz, {Corpus Christi} (nominated for an Academy Award this year for International Feature) presents an image of a priest as an inspired and charismatic figure, childlike, who helps his flock find grace through acts of forgiveness and redemption. His example helps the townspeople deal with a local tragedy by repairing fractured relationships. This approach draws the ire of entrenched institutions who are suspicious of his motives, and of his past. "You might have power," Daniel tells the mayor, "but I'm the one who's right." The mayor, an imposing businessman who's onto Daniel's deception, twists that notion on its head: "You might be right," he says with the flick of a cigarette, "but I'm the one who has power."

It's a clever bit of dialogue, and it sums up Daniel's situation, torn between the worldly and the spiritual. As elements from his past begin to catch up with him, he knows his time is short. His climactic homily to his flock eloquently captures the spirit of the film's title without uttering a word. The story's coda suggests that Daniel might be living in a closed loop that he will never be able to break out of. If you impersonate a Christ-like figure, the film suggests, you might end up as bloodied as the man on the crucifix.

Love and Death Under the Rain

Years ago, I intended to write a novel about the unraveling of a relationship between two freakishly talented artists who can't help loving each other's minds even as their hearts pull away, but I lacked the stamina to take on such an ambitious project. I turned it into a short story instead, with snapshot scenes to capture the feeling of different chapters. Love and Death Under the Rain is the result. Originally written around 2003, I condensed the story in revision to focus more on the female protagonist's experience. Harriet Silka channels her anger and sadness into her art, with strange and unexpected results.

A revised version of this story was published in Red Rock Review in Fall, 2019.