#OscarsSoWhat

oscars 2016

At least the Oscars still have a capacity to surprise. Thankfully, those surprises sometimes mean they’re moving in the right direction, that there’s a prevailing need to try and get it right, to make certain that the sheen remains on the most prestigious award in film. Alicia Vikander has the kind of breakout year in which she can make the claim of providing exemplary support in a number of films, so she wins the award the corresponds with that achievement, the title etched on the base of the trophy far less significant than the four digits that place it in time. Mad Max: Fury Road is an undeniable feat in the kinetic visual possibilities of filmmaking (it’s also so much more than that, of course, but there can be reasonable disagreement about its deeper resonance), thus it cleans up in those categories, despite the presence of The Revenant, the sort of pushy period epic that would have bullied its way to wins in many prior years. Given the choice between the sentiment of Sylvester Stallone playing Rocky Balboa for the umpteenth time in forty years (albeit playing him very well, probably better than he ever has before) and one of the great actors of his generation in an exceptional, understated performance full of beautiful minor notes, Academy voters made Mark Rylance an Oscar winner.

These sharp, unexpected turns also lead to a roster of winners that collectively make for an odd year. Fury Road has the most Oscar wins, with six, comfortably outpacing any other single film, and yet it didn’t land a victory in any of the categories that would be considered major. Spotlight makes for an admirable choice as Best Picture, but there’s the supreme oddity of its anointment accompanied by only a single additional win during the night, in the Best Original Screenplay category. Much as I appreciate the shift from the years of heavily synchronized award distribution, when a consensus on Best Picture was arrived at early and the outcome of nearly every category in which it was nominated became a foregone conclusion, this spreading of accolades feels more scattershot than thoughtful. At its most perplexing, it even starts to seem like a voting membership at war with itself.

The ceremony itself is similarly hobbled by an inner turmoil. Last night continued the recent trend of the Oscars show wandering in tight, anxious circles, desperate for a point of view. Chris Rock was an able host, simultaneously blessed and burdened with a controversy that arced right into his wheelhouse. He addressed it well enough in the opening monologue, including a couple moments of admirably pointed challenges to the assembled Hollywood power structure, but couldn’t quite pull off the necessary trick of getting past it. The evening was full of bits that didn’t really land, from Stacey Dash’s lazy cameo to the girl scout cookie shilling, which too overtly recalled Ellen Degeneres’s pizza delivery stunt from two years ago, both in its base execution and its needless recurrence later in the night. And the filmmakers behind Room, arguably the Best Picture nominee most in need of the added attention the Oscars can provide, deserve to be livid about the contemptuous “comedy” Sacha Baron Cohen perpetrated in introducing it as a contender for the top prize.

That partially stems from a hollowness that has dogged the awards for years, and that I’ve already complained about repeatedly in this space. There remains a fierce reluctance to let the awards be the awards, to accentuate why the Oscars matter more. It’s clear enough in the faces of the winners, but the show itself undercuts the value of the awards at every turn, rushing winners off the stage with impatient orchestral swells, as if embarrassed at the very purpose of the night. In presenting the Oscar for Documentary Short Subject, Louis C.K. did a more effective job of conveying the life-changing value of winning this prize than every bit of the rest of the night’s pageantry combined. That he did so while being far funnier than anyone else who crossed that stage and also subtly jabbing the monumental levels of unchecked privilege held by the entertainment elite before him only means that Cheryl Boone Isaacs should have immediately corralled him backstage to begin the wooing process for next year’s hosting gig.

Beyond that, I’m baffled at how poorly the show is assembled, purely as a piece of programming. If there must be a succession from Star Wars droids (which stirred my cynicism until the camera captured young Jacob Tremblay popping out of his seat to get a better look, his movie mom, my hero for the night in more ways than one, peeking back at him to see his excitement) to those hideous Minions to Buzz and Woody from Toy Story, why do it ninety minutes into the broadcast, around 10:00 p.m. on the East Coast, well after every little kid who might be watching has already wandered off to feign sleep while playing video games under the covers? With the whole of storied movie music to chose from, why play people on and off stage with pieces to which they have no connection, as if the cues were determined by hitting shuffle on Hollywood’s iPod? I don’t think its too much to ask for the Academy Awards to actually be excitedly engaged with the cinema it celebrates.

Arguably one of the boldest choices didn’t arrive until the closing credits, when Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” played over freeze-frames of the evening’s highlights. If, say, Rock had entered to that song, with uncertainty about how he’d grapple with the #OscarsSoWhite movement still hanging over the room, it would have been a statement. As it was, pumping out over airwaves, satellite feeds, and cable lines after most weary viewers had already turned off their televisions, “Fight the Power” was just another oldie.

spotlight

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 232 – 230

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232. Gary Numan, “Cars”

Officially, “Cars” is the debut single of Gary Numan. Born Gary Anthony James Webb, the musician took his stage name as the leader and chief creative force of the U.K. band Tubeway Army. According to Numan, he wanted to formally transition to a solo act fairly early on, but the label felt a band was more likely to crack the charts. Though bassist Paul Gardiner was also part of the Tubeway Army lineup through it’s entire existence, by the time they were making records in the late nineteen-seventies, it was realistically Numan under a different name. Only after delivering a U.K. chart topper with the 1979 single “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” did Numan have the clout to put his name front and center on a record. “Cars” made for a helluva solo bow. Numan again reached the top position on the U.K. chart and made it into the United States Top 10. The song itself came to Numan with remarkable ease. He wrote it on bass guitar, largely as a means of learning the instrument better. Looking back, he reported that it took him no more than thirty minutes to compose the entire song. Though it’s considered one of the touchstone electronic tracks, providing an essential pivot point from disco to new wave, Numan didn’t even own a synthesizer at the time. He needed to rent the instrument when it came time for the recording process. The icy simplicity of the lyrics might make it seem like they’re pulled together practically at random, or maybe intended to send up pop music’s longstanding preoccupation with motorized vehicles. Numan, though, was dead serious, asserting in a 1980 interview, “I feel very safe in cars….You can lock the doors and they can’t get to you. I don’t like people gettin’ to me. Bein’ in a car keeps me safe. It’s a cocoon.” He’d sometimes so far as to compare a car to a personal tank. Part of the inspiration for the song’s lyrics came from using his vehicle in just that way, when he was attacked on the street by a couple of other motorists. Ultimately, though, the lyrics are less significant that the amazing hook and accompanying music Numan conjured up for the song, which he acknowledges by noting it’s “almost an instrumental.” All the singing happens in the first minutes with the remaining three-fourths of the song largely nothing but music, leading Numan to complain that it’s a fairly boring song for him to play live. Of course, as by far the biggest hit of his career, “Cars” cannot be omitted from the set list.

 

231 girls

231. Duran Duran, “Girls on Film”

The title for Duran Duran’s breakthrough single originated with Andy Wickett, the singer with the band in 1979. He used the term “girls in films” all the time, usually to enthuse on the how much prettier they were that the birds he saw simply walking around in the wild. Nick Rhodes and John Taylor changed the term to “girls on film” because they felt it sounded better that way. After Wickett left the group, Jeff Thomas took over lead singer duties. The fragment of a song was given to him and he composed the chorus, which remained largely intact when it progressed forward to yet another lead singer: Simon Le Bon. The newcomer to the band to shift the song away from pining for glamorous beauty and invest it with more edgy commentary. According to Le Bon, “It’s about the exploitation of women by the fashion industry, what they have to do to sell bathing suits and toothpaste.” (In a supreme irony, the song is now routinely used to score exactly that sort of exploitation, sometimes with the band’s active participation.) The process of recording it was arduous, with multiple takes and pressure from the band’s management to modify the melody, under the impression, proven incorrect, that it simply wasn’t strong enough. The band had a different impression of the song than those music business suits. They knew the track was a hit in waiting, fighting with the label about releasing it as a single, finally getting their way after the label’s preferred song, “Careless Memories,” fizzled on the charts. “Girls on Film” became the third single from Duran Duran’s self-titled debut album and their first to reach the Top 5 in the U.K. That success can be traced somewhat to the band’s lengthy music video, released at precisely the time the freshly launched cable channel MTV was desperate for content. With its scantily clad models, the video was banned in some quarters, which of course only stirred greater interest in it. Le Bon knew that all along, As he explained to Billboard, “A lot of people are going to slag us off. A lot of people will try to get us banned from this place or that. I’m dying for that. When they try to ban us, that means we’re making an impression on people.”

230 everywhere

230. Translator, “Everywhere That I’m Not”

Translator was known as a San Francisco band, but they actually formed in Los Angeles. Lead singer Steve Barton was part of a highly successful Beatles cover band, essentially playing the part of John Lennon (though he was originally hired to fill the role of George Harrison). In a humorous, inadvertent commitment to mirroring the lore and legend of the revered band they were aping, the tribute outfit made the determination they needed to sack their drummer. Dave Scheff was brought in as a replacement, and he and Barton quickly determined they were simpatico enough to form a group that would play their own music rather than trade off lingering Beatlemania (or, for that matter, still active Beatlemania mania). Deciding that San Francisco might be more hospitable to a new group that the always packed L.A. scene, they moved north. “Everywhere That I’m Not” was the catalyst for all of the band’s success. A demo version of the song made it to local college radio station, KUSF, where Howie Klein was taking a regular shift. Fortuitously, he was also the founder of the local label 415 Records. When he noticed the song was stirring heated interest with the listenership, he went to see the band play live and offered them a contract. In turn, the independent label’s distribution deal with the mighty Columbia Records got the band’s music to a national audience. While there was a popular interpretation that the song was Translator’s tribute to John Lennon, whose death was still a fresh wound on the music scene (Translator’s debut album, Heartbeats and Triggers, was released in 1982), that mournful duty was actually fulfilled by the similarly titled track “Everywhere.” Instead, “Everywhere That I’m Not” was informed by that most fruitful of pop music subjects: Barton wrote the song while a romantic relationship was coming to an end.

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

From the Archive: Capote

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The Academy Awards ceremony that took place ten years ago was a mess of mixed emotions. It anointed Crash as Best Picture, which many consider to be one of the worst choices for the Academy’s top prize in recent decades (I maintain the real worst choice in my lifetime is A Beautiful Mind, though The Revenant seems primed to become my new choice for that dubious category) and strained to honor a couple movie stars in the acting categories by awarding George Clooney and Reese Witherspoon Oscars for mediocre work. But then, Ange Lee won his first directing Oscar, entirely overdue, for lovely, insightful, controlled work on Brokeback Mountain. The other two acting awards were equally admirable. That includes Rachel Weisz winning for The Constant Gardener, but there was arguably no more just selection the entire evening than that of Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Best Actor in a Leading Role, for Capote. The significance of his loss from the cinematic arts community remains heartbreaking, hard to fathom. From my former digital word depository, this is my original review of the film.      

Capote is about Truman Capote, focusing intensely on the time during which he conceptualized, researched, wrote and began to receive acclaim for his book In Cold Blood.

Director Bennett Miller (whose sole previous credit is The Cruise) achieves a stark elegance with his imagery, particularly when he uses the plywood-flat landscapes of Kansas to great advantage. This film is full of excellent examples of how to construct shots to properly use the widest widescreen format. Just because the screen is more oblong doesn’t mean that bigger explosions and fussier special effects are the best way to fill the extra space.

At times, Miller seems most interested in capturing the stillness of this place, this time and this writer who soaks the world in, and, he will proudly, repeatedly tell you, retains 94% of what he sponges up. This instinct can sometimes make the film feel a little too still, the deliberateness of some stretches dulling the narrative drive. Sometimes the characters seem as distant as the trees that are impossibly far away on horizon. The film tells us that Harper Lee accompanied Capote on his first trip to Kansas, ostensibly to help him connect with the Midwesterners whose insights he needed, but at times it seems the role is inserted in the film primarily to allow for gentle jokes about people not really knowing the name of her just-published novel. Oh, that person thinks that she wrote a kid’s book called Killing a Bird, how wry!

Of course, that sense that the film occasionally sags a bit could be because of the comparison of these quieter elements to the boldness of Capote—the audaciousness of his self-regard and the subjectivity of his connection to others. These moments of great energy, of Truman presiding loudly over a cocktail-fueled conversation or radiating glee in the warm beam of others’ attention, are what make the greatest impact. In fact, the film succeeds most grandly as a character study of Truman. Watching him pull together the facts that will fill his book are interesting insofar as they afford the greatest opportunity for revelation. We see Capote as brilliant and petty, charming (in a highly obnoxious sort of way) and headstrong. He connects with others only through relating their ordeals to his own in a sort of sympathy through one-upmanship. His relationship with the murderers who will take central roles in his final published work is riddled with acts of kindness that raise the ire of the law enforcement officer who brought them to justice, but the generosity is only there as long as it serves the needs of Capote. It’s humanitarianism fuelled by the need to up the page count.

Unsurprisingly, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is phenomenal in the title role. He affects the vocal mannerisms of Capote and adopts his fey twitchiness, but also connects deeply with all the inner contradictions of the man. He expertly plays the emotions of each moment, smoothly signaling whether those emotions were truly felt or employed as a tactic. By the end, intriguingly, the question becomes whether or not Capote himself really knew the difference any more. Or whether or not it mattered.

One for Friday: Paul Westerberg and Joan Jett, “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love”

tank girl

When the annual Academy Awards ceremony is finally upon us, the tendency toward retrospective really kicks in. Sure, it’s about thinking back across the prior year in film, but these awards are so storied, so heavy with the weight of history, that thinking back on past winners and past shows comes automatically. No one gives a damn what happened at the Golden Globes twenty years ago, but Vanity Fair will happily devote a lot of digital ink to the Oscarcast of the same year. Reading through that essay of wistful snark brought a lot to mind, including the that way the Best Original Song nominees both did and didn’t reflect the state of movie music in the mid-nineties.

Best Original Song has long been a messy category at the Academy Awards, certainly at least since the point original movie musicals largely fell from favor. Even the end of the nineteen-eighties, a decade in which soundtracks dominated the album charts, brought a year so devoid of qualifying material that the Best Original Song category could only muster three nominees and there was serious discussion of dropping it from the roster altogether. Then the Disney revival that began with The Little Mermaid basically brought validity back to the category. For the next decade or so, there were few surer bets in any Oscar pool that the nominated song from whatever Disney animated feature arrived in the qualifying year. Sure enough, for the 1995 film year, “Colors of the Wind,” from Pocahontas, was the winner. Beyond that, the nominees included the requisite venerated rock star, destined trophy loser Randy Newman, the obligatory nod to Bryan Adams (the reigning king of the soundtrack at the time, thanks to the ludicrous success of his putrid Robin Hood song from a couple years earlier), and, as if by Hollywood law, a John Williams composition.

Those nominees are reasonable representative of the era, but there was another side to how soundtracks were being constructed. In 1995, commercial alternative radio was still at its unlikely peak. The likes of Live, Alice in Chains, and the Smashing Pumpkins could all claim chart-topping albums that year. That was reflected in the mad rush to get alternative acts onto CDs associated with big movies, even if, as was the case a remarkable amount of the time, the songs in question weren’t similarly included in the films themselves. It was the era of “songs from and inspired by” soundtracks. The Batman Forever soundtrack had fourteen songs on it, only five of which actually appeared in the movie. It is perhaps the one opportunity a music fan has to buy a single, commercially-released disc that has both Brandy and PJ Harvey on it.

Appropriately, one of the craziest jumbles of a soundtrack was connected to a movie that is a rip-roaring mess, striving to be a hip, alternative kid classic with no conception at to how to achieve that. Tank Girl, adapted from a comic book series by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin, is a wild-eyed disaster, though it deserves some sort of extra credit for casting Ice-T as a mutant kangaroo. The soundtrack is similarly haphazard. It’s a grab bag of old and new, established singles and nutty notions somehow spun into half-baked songs. It’s reaches its half-drunk, why-the-hell-not apotheosis when it unites Paul Westerberg and Joan Jett (who, it’s worth noting, had collaborated previously) to cover a Cole Porter classic, each of the perpetually too-cool-for-school performers oozing indifference. Sure, the track wasn’t eligible for the Best Original Song award, nor would I argue it was worthy of consideration even if it were. But it’s at least memorable in its slapdash way. That’s more of a compliment that I can pay most of the songs that did get played from the Oscars stage that night, or just about any night, really.

Listen or download –> Paul Westerberg and Joan Jett, “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love”

(Disclaimer: As best as I can tell, the Tank Girl soundtrack is no longer available as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store. I might be wrong about that. It does strike me as the sort of release that might be the baffling beneficiary of the LP revival, pressed onto candy-coated vinyl to snag the disposable income of delusional Lori Petty completists. I am sharing this track her with the belief that doing so will impede no fair commerce. Hell, maybe my inclusion of the term “Lori Petty completists” will lead someone here and make them realize they’re in desperate need of buying the poshest version of this soundtrack they can find. This post can be promotional in nature. You’re welcome, Elektra Records! Regardless, I know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this track from little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request. Sigh…even you, Elektra Records.)

Twenty Performances, or Infinite Best

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Following tradition, the epilogue to the countdown of the top films of the year brings me to a consideration of the most exemplary acting performances of the same span of time. If I’d been in possession of one of Actors Branch Academy Awards nominating ballots, knowing then what I know now, this is how I would have filled it out.

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

1. Jason Segel, The End of the Tour
2. Michael B. Jordan, Creed
3. Matt Damon, The Martian
4. Steve Carell, The Big Short
5. Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight

Besides Damon, I diverge pretty strongly from the Academy in this category, though that’s partially due to my decision to slot Ruffalo into lead instead of supporting for his tricky, engaging character work in Spotlight. I long ago resigned myself to the fact that Segel’s outstanding performance as David Foster Wallace was going to be one of this year’s afterthoughts, but I’m perplexed all over the place by what the awards community did and didn’t chose to celebrate. Carell gives exactly the sort of colorful performance that copped him an Oscar nomination for Foxcatcher, only this time more smartly considered and with less hollow hamminess. Similarly, I get that Sylvester Stallone gets the sentimental vote for Creed, but even the most distracted viewing of that film should make it clear where the most compelling acting is taking place. Of course, Sunday night’s almost certain winner in this category will be Leonardo DiCaprio, finally getting the hardware in his fifth attempt in an acting category. I think he should have one of these already (two actually: for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Departed, though he wasn’t even nominated for the latter as the Academy inexplicably gave the nod to his mediocre work in the same year’s flatly lousy Blood Diamond), but his acting in The Revenant is just one more bad part of a bad movie. The Onion offered the perfect counterargument to the pending victory. Fassbender just misses the list for me, and it pains me to leave him off.

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

1. Brie Larson, Room
2. Elisabeth Moss, Queen of Earth
3. Lola Kirke, Mistress America
4. Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road
5. Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

This is the one and only acting category in which I’m in agreement with Academy voters on the winner, barring a fairly major upset. It may be the sort of role that has Oscar glory built right into it, but Larson somehow manages to bring added poignancy to it. I have mixed feelings about Room, largely because it winds up as needlessly less than its source material. Larson reverses that, bringing more to the part than she was given. Other than Larson and fellow Oscar nominee Ronan, my selections are a jumble of performances that were never all that likely to gain traction in awards season, although I can’t quite figure out why Theron’s status as an Oscar winner didn’t stir some chatter of her as a potential nominee once it became clear that Fury Road was a film they’d need to take seriously.

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

1. Liev Schreiber, Spotlight
2. Christian Bale, The Big Short
3. Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
4. Emory Cohen, Brooklyn
5. Seth Rogen, Steve Jobs

The supporting categories are both fairly weak this year. I’m rounding up, for example, to get Rogen into that fifth slot. Then again, I am pleased that there are two Freaks and Geeks alumni on my ballot. If only Linda Cardellini were getting better big screen career options than thankless wife parts. Following the theme of my bafflement over which performances are being singled out for accolades in the year’s most celebrated films, I think Schreiber’s turn as Marty Baron is clearly the most fascinating piece of character-building in Spotlight. On Sunday, Stallone probably wins in this category, even though the Academy has been a little less driven by sentiment in their voting in recent years. It’s difficult for me to ignore the standing ovation he received at the Golden Globes.

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

1. Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
2. Julie Walters, Brooklyn
3. Jessica Chastain, Crimson Peak
4. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Tangerine
5. Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

This is the major category at the Oscars that could land on just about any of the five nominees, including Vikander. Too bad she was nominated for her solid lead performance in a drab drama instead of her crafty, nuanced supporting turn in Ex Machina. Were I placing a bet, I’d probably put my money on Rooney Mara, though I wouldn’t do it with a whole lot of confidence. I’ll say this for my quintet of nominees: this would make for a far more entertaining batch of Oscar clips that what we’ll actually get in this category on Sunday night.

Top Ten Movies of 2015 — Number One

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As I twirled words around in my head, seeking the right opening sentence to efficiently establish why I think The End of the Tour is the best film of 2015, I landed on an introductory declaration that felt exactly on target. It also seemed familiar, though. To be safe, I revisited my original review of James Ponsoldt’s understated triumph only to discover that I was about to inadvertently repeat myself, right down to the use of the adverb “devilishly.” I prefer to think that this means there’s an admirable consistency to my connection to the film, rather than the far less agreeable notion that I don’t have any original thoughts to offer. I admire The End of the Tour because it burrows into the tricky nature of creative genius, especially in a modern era that operates with an immediacy of reaction, with celebration and backlash and reassessment all spinning in overlapping succession as if they’ve been tossed into a turbine. Praise can be smothering and stultifying. Admiration can curdle into corrosive jealousy. Complexity breeds genial incomprehension that withers the spirit. If intellectual heroes aren’t hollow, they might reside in a far more dire realm, in which they wish to be emptier than they actually are, freed from the burden of living up to their own philosophical potency. In a way, The End of the Tour is a funkier, freer version of Amadeus, with Salieri’s agony of inadequacy experienced over junk food and dismissible pop culture.

The film comes at its complicated drama through a flawed attempt at journalism. David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), somewhat adrift in his new position as a Rolling Stone staff writer, suggests a piece on David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), ascendent on the exalting reception for the just published Infinite Jest. Somewhat unexpectedly, given the noted ambivalence Wallace felt about his swelling fame, Lipsky is invited to join the author on the final leg of his promotional book tour. What follows is a protracted exchange that intertwines fleeting camaraderie with the predatory invasiveness of a profile writer desperate to find the angle that will distinguish his article. It is at once simplicity itself and as psychologically layered as can be. Grounded almost entirely in conversations, many of them one-on-one between the two loads, the film is abundantly stuffed with fascinating dynamics and stealthy insights. Eisenberg’s performance as Lipsky could have easily been a carbon copy of one of his prior iron-eyed, self-destructively bright boy-men, and been plenty effective in that mode. Instead, he peels back the need and envy of the character to provide the film its dark, stressed heart.

If Eisenberg is the heart, Segel is the soul. In a performance that truly merits the description “revelatory,” Segel taps into the wariness of an unsteady intellect. The cult of personality surrounding Wallace is significant enough that Segel was dogged by complaints from the moment his casting was announced. They were as understandable as they were, ultimately, unfounded. Beyond superficial physical adjustments, the actor eschews cheap impersonation to focus on the inner life and the driving dissatisfaction of the man, suggesting the currents of misery that would be his mortal undoing without explicitly signaling the troubles the lay ahead. It is remarkably free of overt embellishment. Segel honors the man he plays by embodying him, finding moving truths in the process.

Ponsoldt’s skilled direction smartly lets the performances illuminate the film, trusting that he need not default to panicky editing or antsy camera tricks to add spark to the talky narrative. The film is still visually interesting, using wise framing and delicate patience to accentuate the comparatively quiet drama of well-charged minds engaging in little skirmishes of escalating irritation. The filmmaker is at at his boldest when he is at his most withdrawn, gently wiping away his authorial fingerprints. The strength of the characters and the nuance of their relationship is enough to carry the film. Indeed those assets — bolstered by empathetic acting and an artful repurposing of the actual words the Lipsky captured on tape when he inserted himself into Wallace’s world — are the only things that could imbue The End of the Tour with the proper levels of discovery. It is Ponsoldt’s achievement that he had the wisdom, the care, and the confidence to take this fine material and spin it into exemplary cinema.

My Writers: John Grisham

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Let’s be real. When I return to this recurring feature, plucking a new author from the misty library of the already read that resides in my brain, I usually opt for a wordsmith who will confer some amount of coolness on me, in much the same way that the tomes that speak well of the reader usually have conspicuous placement on the household’s most prominent bookshelf. (For years, Richard Ben Cramer’s massive What It Takes was front and center in my collection, despite the inconvenient detail that I only made through about a third of its thousand-plus pages.) But I — like most, I suspect — have devoted plenty of my hours turning pages with writers saddled with reputations of lesser literary honor. Sometimes celebration and confession coil their fingers tightly and move forward together. Thus we come to the moment when I acknowledge that I’ve read a decent number of John Grisham novels.

I read my first Grisham book right at the point when the career of the lawyer-turned-author was first soaring. Indeed, the first signal of Grisham’s transformation from a writer to an entertainment business model was the impetus for me purchasing the blocky paperback edition of The Firm, his second published novel. In the summer of 1993, I got my paper and I was free. Suddenly blessed with the ability to chose reading material without the burden of assigned texts, I raced through as many books as I could. One of the motivating factors for me to select a title was its status as the subject of a pending major movie adaptation, in part because I was still writing stray film reviews for the college radio station. I spent many days early that summer walking back to my movie theater gig while, page by page, Mitch McDeere found himself embroiled in an extremely compromised position thanks to his introductory position in the legal profession. In possession of an English degree with mildly damp ink, I recognized Grisham wasn’t delivering high art, but it was eminently readable, which sounds like faint praise but absolutely isn’t. Grisham’s writing was fluid, direct, and engaging. He had an instinctual command of plotting that approached that of masters like Stephen King and Elmore Leonard.

For a time, I read Grisham with some regularity, often, I will admit, as a sort of palate cleanser between weightier fare (I read The Rainmaker as a way to figuratively catch my breath before plunging into Don DeLillo’s Underworld, for example). They were unerringly mass-market paperbacks and a film version was always in the offing. I largely stopped picking up Grisham’s books when he decided to largely refrain from selling any more of his books to Hollywood, admirably deciding he had enough money and the steady stream of film product was creating oversaturation. Even now, padding his bank account is a small enough concern that he’s willing to give his product away if he feels its important to get it in front of more eyes. In general, Grisham has used his clout to fight the right fights. If nothing else, that makes me feel good about those old purchases.

Previously…
An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider
Alan Moore
Terrence McNally
Elmore Leonard
Jonathan Franzen
Nicole Krauss
Mike Royko
Simon Callow
Steve Martin
John Updike
Roger Angell
Bill Watterson
William Shakespeare
Sarah Vowell
Douglas Adams
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Clive Barker
Jon Krakauer
John Darnielle
Richard Price
Art Spiegelman
Anthony Bourdain
John Irving
Oliver Sacks
John Byrne
Eric Schlosser