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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Paul Williams Still Alive (2011)

Starring Paul Williams

Directed by Stephen Kessler

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Like Searching for Sugar Man, Paul Williams Still Alive starts out with a fan’s recollection of an idol from his childhood, the legendary Paul Williams, and a conviction that, because of how abruptly Williams disappeared, he must have died. When he finds out that isn’t true, he sets out to meet his hero. And that’s pretty much where the similarities end. This film isn’t about mystery, discovery, and wonder. It is about obsession and entitlement, about fame and redemption. As documentaries go, it is awkward, self-conscious, and adversarial in a way that is sometimes uncomfortable to watch. And through that tension, it achieves a kind of greatness, and throws genuine light on the humanity of its two subjects. I say two subjects because this isn’t just a “where are they now” documentary about Paul Williams; it’s also a revealing portrait of a fanboy who wants to be his idol’s friend so badly that he can’t help but make himself a part of the story.

This isn’t a music documentary. This isn’t The Fearless Freaks or Be Here to Love Me, exploring the growth of Williams as a musician, the history behind his songs, his struggles with fame, the psychology of an artist. Williams fans will be happy with the archival footage of classic performances, TV appearances, and even some strange and sweet home movies peppered through the story, but this isn’t a portrait of him as a musician. It isn’t really about the music at all. It’s about the man, and what he means to Stephen Kessler.

Steve very much wants to be a part of his hero’s life, so his documentarian’s distance is compromised right from the start. Steve isn’t shy about showing us that, either, in his false starts, the way he stutters and struggles with his questions, or interrupts Williams’s personal recollections to completely change the subject. It’s not that he isn’t interested in what he has to say, necessarily, he’s just much more interested in being there, interacting with Paul. It’s not long before Williams makes what might be called a fateful editorial decision to pull Steve in front of the camera, because as he put it, he can either play to the camera or pretend it’s not there, and Steve’s not letting him do either. We never forget the camera in this film, and neither do the subjects, and that’s part of why it’s so awkward. Often it’s obvious that Williams and everyone around him – his agent, his wife, his band  – are uncomfortable with having Steve around. Steve films awkward silences, uncomfortable glances, and multiple requests to put his camera down or turn it off, and he puts all of it in the movie. In one memorable scene, Williams, suffering from laryngitis, asks the house to dim the lights during his performance so that Steve can’t film him. Steve’s response: night vision. This closely follows Steve standing in the hall outside Paul’s dressing room, filming the door while he rehearses. That’s his self-portrait: awkward and obsessed, unable to help himself, unable to turn the camera off when Williams asks him to, because he’s afraid to give up the one excuse he has to be with the man he idolizes.

Kessler loved Paul Williams as a kid, and after his idol left the spotlight, he found himself fixated on a question: what happened to Paul Williams? The facts are easy enough to come by: after years of drug abuse that cost him his career and two marriages, Williams became clean, and has been sober for 17 years by the time Steve catches up with him. Somehow, though, that answer isn’t enough. Steve wants to know not just how one of the biggest stars of the 70s finds himself playing lounge rooms in Vegas and shows in the Philippines, but how he could be satisfied with that fall from grace. He keeps returning to this piece of his idol’s history, as if trying to bridge the missing time in their relationship. It’s obvious to anyone that this line of questioning is extremely unwelcome, and common sense says it isn’t wise or polite to ask an addict to relive the worst parts of his life and his addiction, but Steve tries it anyway. The climax of the film is some truly uncomfortable filmmaking, and a perfectly revealing moment, although probably not exactly of what Steve wanted. That moment, though reveals the strength at the core of Paul Williams, which is the films real reward.

We come to like Williams, throughout the film, and it’s one of the magical qualities of the film that Steve’s awkward, intrusive filmmaking somehow serves to show just what a likeable person Williams is. He keeps inviting Steve along, humoring his intrusive questions, bring him on tour with him even though no one else really wants him around. Williams is, as his superfans describe him at the beginning, an incredibly nice guy. But until this moment, you don’t really see how strong he is. Paul Williams is not a sad person, cast down from fame and defeated by life. He is someone who triumphed over addiction and went on to become an addiction counselor, who still sings and performs the way he wants to, who is married and happy with his life. Paul Williams is exactly where he wants to be. Paul Williams is a hero.

Steve’s role in the film wasn’t really emphasized in anything I read about it, so I wound up being a little surprised by the way the film played out, and often wasn’t sure if Steve knew what he was doing, if he was self-aware enough, as a filmmaker, to know how he was making himself look. But Steve knows what he’s doing. The scene where he gets to make Marrianne Williams, Paul’s wife, look like a ridiculous fun-ruiner in Vegas is funny, but more importantly it reveals just how manipulative, jealous, and obsessed Steve can be. It’s a perfect snapshot of a fan. But while snapping this angle on himself, Kessler also manages to capture a beautiful portrait of a faded celebrity, one that isn’t sad, or tragic, or tainted by Schadenfreude, but which is instead triumphant, celebratory, and kind. We get to see the strong heart of Paul Williams, and Steve gets to paint a portrait of himself with his hero. And the fact that this all appears accidental is what makes it brilliant. The fact that we can wonder, through most of the film, if Steve is aware of the film he is really making, then be left with a perfectly complete and honest portrayal of both an interesting celebrity and his obsessive superfan is, I think, an incredible feat. That achievement, as much as the character of Paul Williams, is what I think makes this film worth seeing.

It’s possible I’m giving Kessler too much credit, I suppose. But it’s certainly not more than Paul Williams gives him. And after this film, I think I’m willing to trust Paul Williams, and try to approach people, even apparently off-kilter and obsessed people like Stephen Kessler, with an open mind and kindness, ready to understand.

Paul Williams Still Alive is available on DVD and Amazon Instant.

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Iron Man 3 (2013)

Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, and Ben Kingsley

Directed by Shane Black

Written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black

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I, for one, am happy to live in a time when “superhero summer blockbuster” is a regular watchable occurrence. Marvel Studios has been doing good things with their Disney money, but the Iron Man movies are probably the best of the individual character franchises (although I accept that I’m in the minority for thinking Iron Man 2 was good). Iron Man is silly fun and ridiculous CGI and exploding nonsense and a hero who, comic book superscience aside, feels relatable and true in a way that’s difficult for alien supergods and World War II goldenboys to match. Tony Stark is a brilliant, insanely wealthy jerk who realized one day that, partly through his contributions, the world was a terrible, death-filled place, and then further realized that he was just enough of a brilliant jerk to change that. Like the other movies, Iron Man 3 doesn’t explore the implications of Iron Man vs. American military adventurism to the extent that it probably should, but the character of Tony Stark, played with unstoppable charm by Robert Downey Jr., remains the kind of action hero that I find compelling, and Iron Man 3 the kind of action movie that I enjoy.

The movie opens with Tony Stark’s voice, confiding in us. He reveals himself at his worst, as a young billionaire playboy who cared about no one but himself, and as a genius superhero still reeling from the trauma he suffered in The Avengers. Pepper and Rhodes are there for him as much as they can be, but ultimately only the threat of the Mandarin gives him something to hold onto, a problem he feels he can solve. The Mandarin is a mysterious terrorist mastermind who perpetrates horrific and untraceable crimes in apparent vengeance for all of America’s sins, past and present; facing that threat while under a bombardment of traumatic memories, fatigue, and anxiety attacks will push Stark to his limits. It’s really this internal struggle that makes the fight against the self-created monsters of America’s and Tony’s pasts so interesting. Although Tony’s damaged psyche is handled with the light touch that dominates all of these films, that vulnerability is part of what makes Tony Stark such a great hero. I recommend Linda Holmes’s excellent write up at NPR for more on this subject.

You may have noticed that I like it when characters suffer in stories. I’m okay with a character being the best at what he or she does, as long as someone beats the crap out of him, nails him to a tree, or buries her alive. I want my heroes to limp to victory on feet cut up by broken glass. I want my heroes to almost die. So when I say that about 90 minutes of Iron Man 3 is Tony Stark getting the absolute bajeezus kicked out of him by everything in the world, that is to say that I enjoyed it. It’s Iron Man, so the thrust is still toward entertainment and comedy, in the pulp comic book tradition, with little of the heaviness seen in the similarly bruising, but not quite as satisfying Dark Knight Rises. Though the Iron Man suit plays a significant role in the film (ahahaha just wait), for most of the story Stark is either without the suit or making do with a barely functional prototype. He gets kicked around by villains and explosions, and has to rely mostly on his friends and his brilliance to fight back. Whether Tony is suited up or just using his genius to macguyver weapons from spare parts and kitchen appliances, there is no easy victory for him.

A lot of people die in this movie, and while I don’t think it’s gratuitous, I thought the film could have taken this a bit more seriously. Beyond the fact that Iron Man kills an awful lot of people for a superhero, Manohla Dargis at the New York Times has, I think, some compelling thoughts on a tendency in contemporary action movies to exploit the realities of the post-9/11 world – the wounded veterans, the deaths of innocents, the industry of fear and its effects on our national psychology – for thrills and laughs. I’m not sure that hasn’t always been a part of this kind of fiction (although that’s doesn’t really mean it isn’t problematic) and I don’t agree that this makes Iron Man 3 a bad film, but this was where Iron Man 3 let me down a bit. Tony Stark and his friends and foes are fun and engaging, but there was something more to say about a villain who is a clearly being made into a reference to Osama Bin Laden, or about War Machine’s rebranding as The Iron Patriot and Iron Man’s stance against militant nationalism, and about wounded warriors from America’s foreign interventions being turned into weapons of mass destruction. The elements are all there, but what’s being said about them isn’t particularly clear. It’s kept very surface level, and I get the impression the filmmakers thought dealing with these themes more seriously might be a bit heavy for a summer blockbuster. The result is that these real world problems feel used for entertainment rather than meaningfully engaged with. It’s understandable, maybe, but disappointing.

For me, the characters redeem the shortcomings of the plot. The Mandarin is handled beautifully, speaking as someone who wasn’t really sure how the filmmakers would handle a character that is basically a classic racist stereotype. Ben Kingsley surprised me with how fun he was to watch, and Guy Pearce is pretty perfect as Aldrich Killian, Tony Stark’s shadow self. Don Cheadle is the perfect foil for RDJ’s silliness. And I feel like this movie really lets Pepper Potts shine, and illuminates her relationship with Tony, more than any of the others have. Laura Hudson has a great, if spoiler-laden, article up at Wired about the way the women in Iron Man 3 subvert typical gender roles for women in action movies. Although Pepper does inevitably wind up a Damsel in Distress, almost nothing about that situation goes as expected. Pepper Potts is a badass, and I have to say I kind of love seeing a happily married couple in an action movie in which the stress of supervillainy and a checkered past are just part of the chemistry, and not a relationship-shattering source of dramatic tension. Robert Downey Jr. carries most of the movie on his charisma, it’s true, but the supporting cast is what makes the story feel complete.

In conclusion, yes, Iron Man 3 is a summer blockbuster with all that that entails, including a problematic use of current events for comedy and excitement. But the Iron Man series continues to push against the expectations of its genre in its handling of women and of its protagonist, and is still the best of Marvel’s movie franchises. This movie is a load of fun, and even though that’s all I could really ask of it, it gives that little something more that makes for a good action movie instead of a forgettable one. Stay past the credits, if you are an Avengers fan and into that sort of thing, but I will warn you: there is a lot of CGI in this movie. The credits are…pretty long.

Iron Man 3 is available (for pre-order) here on DVD and Blu-Ray. Check your local theater listings for showtimes.

Clarkesworld

First of all, sorry for the late post. I got in late Saturday from Chicago, barely wrote a word of anything while I was there, and then worked and hated life all Sunday. So, you get a super late post, then we resume a normal Saturday schedule. And now, one of my favorite things:

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I found Clarkesworld as a writer trying to place a story. That didn’t really work out, but as a reader I have never looked back. There are many good magazines out there for science fiction and fantasy – Shimmer, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons – in addition to the venerable Asimov’sAnalog, and Fantasy and Science Fiction, but Clarkesworld is my favorite, consistently publishing some of the most excellent speculative fiction – or fiction in general – currently floating around on the Internet.

Neil Clarke, the founder and editor of Clarkesworld and no direct relation to Arthur C., publishes the kind of fiction that I aspire to write. It is strange and beautiful, full of spaceships, death, robots, heartache, alien worlds, interstellar empires, moments of defining character, poetic language, and experimental humanoid and literary forms. I’m wary of drawing some distinction between “genre” and “literary” fiction, so let’s just say that whatever limiting genre expectations you may have, Clarkesworld stories tend to transcend them. There is no formula, exactly, but most of them do what I most want science fiction to do: take me to other worlds. “Mantis Wives”, for example, posits an entire mantis culture based around the death of the male during mating, while “Aquatica” presents the short life of a male anglerfish pursuing a legend of his people in a quest for his life to have some meaning beyond breeding and dying. There are stories that explore the ruined world after some Event (“Fade to White”), or set in an age of great interstellar empires and interplanetary rebels (“Scattered Along the River of Heaven”), hidden worlds not far removed from our own (“A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight”) or our own world gone strange in unexpected ways (“Melt With You”). They don’t tend to explain themselves in so many words; they expect you to splash in and immerse yourself, and let the strangeness and wonder take over for a little while. And they do this effectively, making you feel like you’ve just visited a strange, lovely, sometimes terrible place.

While not as deliberately dark as, say, Apex Magazine,  the quality of the writing is such that when they choose to be so, the effect can be pretty devastating. The three combined stories of the August 2012 issue pack a hell of a punch: “Mantis Wives” is morbidly beautiful, “Honey Bear” is sweet, sad speculative horror, and “Fade to White” just rips straight into your core and keeps on going through and through. The editors aren’t afraid of experimental or weird fiction, either: “Spar” is as deeply upsetting as it is powerful (trigger warning for graphic nonconsensual alien sex); “Everything Must Go” and “All the Young Kirks and Their Good Intentions” are so strange that it’s almost surprising how moving they are, and how well they capture a particular kind of sadness.

I think part of what makes Clarkesworld’s voice, insofar as a magazine can have a voice, unique is the diversity of authors that it publishes. The volume of women and people of color published in Clarkesworld is pretty astonishing, and although Neil Clarke insists it isn’t a deliberate editorial choice, if it was it would be a welcome antidote to what so often appears to be a very white male dominated field. Through Clarkesworld, I’ve learned the names of many writers I might not otherwise have discovered, such as Aliette de Bodard, Ken Liu, Kij Johnson, Yoon Ha Lee, and these are now names that I look for when I search for new fiction. I haunt the blogs of N.K. Jemisin, Jay Lake, and Carrie Vaughn. I find inspiration, as a writer, in interviews with old masters like Gene Wolfe and Lois McMaster Bujold, and with newer writers like Nnedi Okorafor or Myke Cole. The depth of voice in Clarkesworld makes it fresh and engaging every month. I probably wouldn’t say that Neil Clarke publishes optimistic stories, but I think his magazine does the work of optimistic science fiction: not only showing us how the future of the genre could look, but actively works to make that future a reality. Clarke publishes the magazine he always wanted to read, and it turns out that’s the kind of magazine I want to read too.

I hate to relegate illustration to an afterthought, but I can’t leave the subject of Clarkesworld without mentioning the cover art. I know I’m a sucker for judging books by their covers, but the effort taken to select such gorgeous artwork for each issue of the magazine is part of what makes this a top quality read, and has even inspired me to purchase hard copies of a few issues. I’m just going to leave you with a few links to my favorite covers; see if they aren’t just what you’ve always hoped would be on the cover of a magazine of speculative fiction.

“The Remains Which Live” by Keisuke Asaba

“Soulhunter” by Andrey Lazarev

“Winding Down” by Alex Ries

“Nautilii” by Julie Dillon

“Retro Robots” by Georgi Markov

Read it online, and consider buying a subscription for your ereader. You can also buy the first three Clarkesworld anthologies or selected chapbooks through Neil Clarke’s publishing house, Wyrm Publishing.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Garret Dillahunt

Directed by Debra Granik

Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini

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I think I postponed watching Winter’s Bone because it looked like it might be bleak and emotionally devastating. And it is. There is hope and sweetness, but they are bright spots in a beautiful, brutal world. Much like the noir detective searching for truth in a corrupt and diseased city, Ree Dolly navigates the treacherous, meth-corrupted backwoods of her home county, knowing that asking one too many questions might get her killed, but unable to walk away without an answer. Debra Granik’s movie does a spectacular job of pulling viewers into the grim story, and the performances of Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes make you believe in this place, this life, and these people. That’s what makes the fear, the violence, and the desperation so powerful. This is a powerful movie, skillfully crafted, and I feel like watching it again.

The story follows Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly, a teenager whose meth cook father has gone missing, leaving her alone to take care of her two younger siblings and demented mother. The family is abjectly poor, forcing Ree to accept charity to keep the children fed, and to contemplate hard decisions to keep the family going. Although there’s a sense that she might be distantly related to some of her neighbors, it is clear that Ree is isolated and alone. When the sheriff comes to tell her that her father, Jessup, jumped bail and the family will lose the house if he doesn’t show up for trial, no one, not even her uncle, wants to help her. It’s up to Ree to find her father and save her family.

We immediately feel for Ree, and admire her strength of character. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is pitch perfect. Ree is strong, proud and prickly to those who try to stop her, and heartbreakingly alone. She embodies one of my favorite hardboiled detective virtues, that of the investigator that not only won’t stop, but can’t stop. No amount of warnings or threats of violence can keep her from the answers. At the same time, we’re not allowed to forget that she’s a young girl in an oppressively adult world. At one point, Ree turns to her mother and begs “What do I do? Please tell me what to do” and her mother says nothing, so mentally absent she can’t even comprehend her daughter’s desperation. Ree is so determined and brave that you can’t help but cheer her on, but she is also so alone that you fear for her as she goes to confront each new challenge. It is too much weight for a girl of seventeen to bear. There is a sense of drowning, overwhelmed, with no escape.

Her only other family is her uncle Teardrop, played with scary brilliance by John Hawkes, and he’s not helping. He may, in fact, be the first to really show us how far over her head Ree really is. When we first see him, he’s loading a gun, acting tough and all business, but the truth is that the path she’s taking scares him. That fear, I think, is part of what makes him one of the few people we come to trust, at least in part. We trust his intentions and motivations, because they are straightforward. Contrast this with the sheriff, played by Garrett Dillahunt. The law is an outsider, and even though Ree is alone, she greets the sheriff with nothing but venom. It is quickly established that we can’t trust the sheriff’s offers of assistance; we know instinctively, so closely are we inhabiting Ree’s world, that he doesn’t actually have her best interests at heart. Everyone who could help her is either actively working against her, untrustworthy, or too scared to do anything but warn her away. But Ree won’t scare. Because Dollys don’t run.

Implicit in every interaction Ree has during her quest is a threat, and when those threats turn into actual violence it is explosive and terrifying. Living in this constant state of tension, it’s no wonder that Ree longs to escape by joining the Army, hoping to use the substantial signing bonus to support her family. There is a perpetual fear of hope being snatched away, because this world is just not on Ree’s side. This world does not encourage hope, and attempts to escape can have deadly consequences. Failing to escape, however, can be just as bad, when the bondsman can take away your home, and there’s never enough to eat. Violence, and fear, and desperation are never overused in Winter’s Bone, but their cumulative weight, sometimes felt only after enough time has passed for some dreadful realization to sink in, settles over the viewer like a rain-soaked blanket, omnipresent and inescapable.

I found myself thinking, afterward, about pundits who criticized the Obama administration for working to get more people on government assistance, as if it were a campaign to cultivate dependence. When I look at this movie, it becomes obvious what that campaign is actually about. It’s about people like Ree, people who are vulnerable and living right on the edge, a step away from the abyss. I’ve been fortunate in my life to never have been so impoverished, so without support, that I had to contemplate splitting my family in order to live. I’ve never known the kind of hopelessness that Ree knows. And while this is a fiction, I have no trouble believing in people like Ree, whose lives are so fraught that they have trouble even believing in that kind of help. I think those who fight against government anti-poverty programs are exactly the reason so many people remain in poverty. They are the ones who take hope away.

Winter’s Bone is an absolutely beautiful film, which is strange to say, considering its content. It is startling, and upsetting, and bleak in the best possible way. The final image, and final implications, ought to break your heart, if you are remotely human. And it is absolutely worth it, for the brilliance of the performances and an immensely well-done tale.

Buy Winter’s Bone on DVD, Blu-ray, or Amazon Instant.