Guillermo del Toro, Killer Mike, Harper Lee, and more

Guillermo del Toro, Killer Mike, Harper Lee, and more

NOT OPTIONAL takes a quick weekly look at some essential releases, some recent, some not.

The Devil’s Backbone
With the big bam-boom of Pacific Rim threatening to define Guillermo del Toro for multiplex audiences, and the undeniably scary but weirdly literal-minded The Conjuring setting the current standard for horror movies, the Criterion Collection couldn’t have picked a better time to reissue The Devil’s Backbone, Del Toro’s poetic 2001 ghost story. Like his masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s a child’s dark fantasy, from a director who grew up in a country haunted by memories of civil war and the reality of fascist dictatorship—a reality so bleak that any fantasy that offers a chance for beauty and wonderment qualifies as a welcome escape, no matter how badly it ends for some. If you order it from the Criterion website, be sure and check out the director’s loosely defined “Top 10” list, which has “clip and save” written all over it.[Phil Dyess-Nugent]

Quick Draw
John Lehr’s comedic sensibilities are somewhat of an acquired taste, but once you fall for their charms—as I did after discovering his part-scripted, part-improvised TBS series, 10 Items Or Less, during its second season—you tend to stay in his camp for the long haul. After following the creative trials and tribulations of Lehr and his longtime collaborator, Nancy Hower, during their web series How To Sell A TV Show and How To Write A TV Pilot, it’s great to see them with a new series on Hulu. Set in 1875, Quick Draw is the story of John Henry Doyle (Lehr), a newly appointed sheriff who arrives in Kansas with a Harvard degree and a burning desire to use all of his recently acquired knowledge of forensic science. Teamed with an uncertain deputy (Nick Brown) and an unenthusiastic undertaker (Bob Clendenin), Doyle’s education doesn’t do much for his constituents, but it turns out that he’s surprisingly strong with his pistol, which completely screws up the death pool the townsfolk have running. Quick Draw doesn’t hit Hulu until August 5, so it’s far too early in the game to throw around hyperbolic praise like “Blazing Saddles meets Christopher Guest!” or anything, but just based on the pilot, the blend of improv comedy and cowboy TV clichés is more than sufficient to put the series on the must-watch list. [Will Harris]

“To Steal A Mockingbird?”
The August issue of Vanity Fair features a long-form piece titled “To Steal A Mockingbird?” that attempts to provide some context to the lawsuit alleging that literary agent Samuel Pinkus stole the copyright for To Kill A Mockingbird away from its author, Harper Lee. The piece provides decades of background information describing Lee’s tenuous relationship with her agents and her nonexistent relationship with (and contempt for) the press. But it also expands this unfortunate situation to a full-blown scandal packed with several publishing heavyweights, pointing out some questionable practices on the part of Pinkus involving the estates of John Steinbeck and Irma S. Rombauer (author of Joy Of Cooking) as well as the secret founding of a competing literary agency. Until just a few years ago, Lee (who is well into her 80s) entrusted all legal decisions to her older sister, a practicing attorney until the age of 99. When both women were beset with health problems, it was as if predators descended, and Lee signed several documents despite her declining eyesight. Although Pinkus has since signed the copyright back over to Lee and his literary agency has folded, there are millions of dollars of diverted royalties in question. It’s a compelling read for anyone interested in the inner workings of the publishing world. [Andrea Battleground]

The Autobiography Of Nicolae Ceaușescu
Two years after its (very limited) U.S. theatrical release, the Romanian documentary The Autobiography Of Nicolae Ceaușescu has finally arrived on Region 1 DVD. The holdup is understandable: At three hours long, and featuring almost nothing but mundane footage of its eponymous dictator giving speeches and attending political functions, Autobiography is admittedly a somewhat alienating viewing experience. Put in the proper context, however, it gains a spooky significance. Director Andrei Ujică didn’t shoot a single frame; his film is assembled entirely from state-commissioned footage of the infamous leader. That’s the ironic meaning of the title: This is Ceausescu’s two-decade reign of terror as he would have wanted it remembered—an “official” version of history most notable for what it omits, namely the mass suffering of the people under his rule. The movie is most fascinating when put in dialogue with some of the other works of the Romanian New Wave. Acclaimed downers like 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days and Tales From The Golden Age gain new dimensions of sickened outrage; here, the movie implicitly sneers, is the frivolous nonsense Ceaușescu was up to while his people were starving. The film begins with the triumphant 1989 ousting of the leader; make it to the end and you’ll want to rewind back to the start and watch him get his comeuppance all over again. [A.A. Dowd]

Run The Jewels
One of my favorite parts of my favorite hip-hop album of 2012, Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, is the spoken-word intro to “Jojo’s Chillin’,” in which hulking MC Michael Render takes a break from playing southern-fried Slick Rick to offer the following: “This album was created entirely by Jaime and Mike.” (To get the full effect, imagine Render verging on a weed-induced giggle in the middle of his sentence.) There’s a similar moment of pride in the early goings of the 2013 collaboration by Jaime “El-P” Meline and Render, albeit one shot through with the darker, nastier tone of the piece: “Producer gave me a beat, said it’s the beat of the year / I said El-P didn’t do it, so get the fuck out of here.” Run The Jewels (by Run The Jewels, featuring the song “Run The Jewels”) is a departure for both of its contributors, grittier than R.A.P. Music and more straightforward than that record’s brain-scrambling competition for the 2012 hip-hop crown, El-P’s Cancer For Cure. But the joy Render and Meline derive from their friendship and collaboration provides levity among all the grime; these two good guys have a hell of a time playing villains in the recording booth. The crime and cruelty of Run The Jewels could make the whole enterprise a drag, but Killer Mike and El-P are clearly having such a good time—and are so justified in the record’s abundant braggadocio—that it’s easy to excuse their reoriented moral compasses. [Erik Adams]