The Commitments

The Commitments movie poster

 

The Commitments remains a Dork Report favorite, even some 17 years after first seeing it in the theater. I’ve owned the soundtrack since then, but for whatever reason, had not revisited one of my favorite films. But having recently seen and loved Once, costarring Commitments alum Glen Hansard, I was inspired to check it out one more time and see if I still loved it after all these years. If The Commitments (the band) are the World’s Hardest Working Band, then The Commitments (the movie) may be the World’s Most Unashamedly Crowd-Pleasing Movie. There’s not a single scene that doesn’t charm, amuse, or get me rocking to the sweet sounds of soul music.

The CommitmentsRemember kids, heroin(e) kills

Where are they now? Original members Dick Massey and Kenneth McCluskey still tour as The Commitments. Director Alan Parker (look for VHS copies of one of his previous films Birdy in one scene) built on his success with musicals Fame, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and The Commitments by directing the mammoth production Evita. Andrew Strong (Deco Cuffe), a wee 16 at the time, still has his golden voice and is now a solo artist. Maria Doyle Kennedy (Natalie) is now a star of the television series The Tudors. And Glen Hansard just won some kind of award or another…

Two bits of fun trivia gleaned from the IMDB entry: the actual kid from U2’s Boy and War album covers cameos in the film, and the script racks up a spectacular 145 f-bombs.

The CommitmentsThe World’s Best Dressed Band

Official movie site: www.foxhome.com/commitments

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

 

Had I seen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford earlier, I might have included it among my Most Disappointing Films of 2007. Certainly not because it’s “bad,” for could I make a better movie myself? Could I make a movie at all? And who appointed me a critic, anyway? But this blog is about my personal reactions to movies, so here goes. Assassination was praised to the high heavens by publications including Dork Report favorite Sight & Sound, so I had expected it to be one of the year’s gems. And indeed, the acting is excellent and the cinematography breathtaking. But I would describe the movie as “novelistic,” not necessarily a good thing with cinema, as opposed to, you know, novels.

Assassination no doubt inherited its notably slow pace (not a problem for me) from its source material, the novel by Ron Hansen. I haven’t read it, but I suspect my own chief complaint likewise derives from the book: the omniscient narration. I’m not one that thinks voiceover narration is a screenwriter’s crutch to be avoided at all costs, but there are two extremes in which it can be misused: to redundantly explicate the action seen on screen or to impart information better shown that told. The Assassination of Jesse James does both. I wish I had made a note of an example or two, but there are numerous instances of narration that could simply have been cut for not adding anything to what we’re watching onscreen at the moment. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the most significant events of the story, Ford’s ultimate disillusionment with James and decision to betray him to the law, happens offscreen and is offhandedly recounted by the narrator. Ford approaching the authorities to become a criminal informant would have made for a dramatic scene.

Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert FordThrough amber fields of grain

Although the pairing is not quite fair, I am I huge fan of the HBO series Deadwood and couldn’t help but compare the two in my head. Please set aside for a moment the only roughly related settings (Deadwood is set in 1870s South Dakota, and Assassination in 1882 Missouri) and bear with me for a moment. Most obviously, actor Garret Dillahunt appears in both. Dillahunt may have been typecast as a 19th Century sort, but his characters could not be more different. The Francis Wolcott of Deadwood is an educated, urbane, and yet dangerously perverted early Master of the Universe, a far cry from the suicidally ignorant Ed Miller in Assassination. But where the two diverge, and Deadwood certainly prevails, is the dialogue. David Milch’s scripting is the kind of astonishingly profane poetry that might result when characters with Victorian educations find themselves living in the ass-end of the world. I found myself spoiled by my memories of the prematurely-cancelled Deadwood, and wished Assassination had a little more of its poetry.

But enough griping – time for the praise! Roger Deakin’s cinematography is delicious, full of warm oranges and deep unbroken fields of black. A notable visual effect used to open new chapters in the story is a narrow field of focus with a blurry halo, suggesting old daguerrotypes (similar to what I’ve seen recently in The Illusionist). Dork Report guest critic Snarkbait christened the effect “Ye Old Timey Filter No. 4,” but according to an interview with Deakins in American Cinematographer, the filter is his own invention and appropriately called the Deakinizer.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert FordThe James Gang in happier days

There is fine acting all around, and two fun cameos from James Carville and Nick Cave (who cowrote the film’s music). Casey Affleck rounds out an excellent year in his career after Gone Baby Gone with a great performance as Robert Ford, obviously not billed above Brad Pitt but arguably the main character. Sam Rockwell (as Charley Ford) is especially great near the end of the film, as his simple-minded character tragically breaks down. Pitt makes a charming and earthy, yet plainly sociopathic Jesse James. James’ curse is that he’s always the smartest man in the room, but one need only witness the particularly unhinged laugh Pitt gives him to see how lunatic and criminal the man actually is.

I lied, one more complaint: Mary-Louise Parker & Zooey Deschanel, both fine, name actors, appear in miniature roles with minimal dialogue. Perhaps their characters were similarly minor in the original novel, but they seem underserved in the film. Perhaps the female presence in the actual lives of these historical figures was not significant, but to return to Deadwood for a moment, Deadwood repeatedly proved it is not historical revisionism to include women in a modern-day portrait of a bygone era.


Official movie site: jessejamesmovie.warnerbros.com

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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner

 

Since resurrecting The Dork Report earlier this year with the intent of writing something about every movie I see, The Kite Runner is the first about which I have little to say. Perhaps the movie appealed more to people with an emotional connection to the novel (I haven’t read it). But, as per the rules I set for myself with this blog, I have to say something, so here it is:

I’ll applaud any film that presents the Taliban as a bunch of child buggerers.

The Kite RunnerOh, go fly a kite

Official movie site: www.kiterunnermovie.com

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Blue Man Group: The Complex Rock Tour Live

Blue Man Group - The Complex Rock Tour Live

 

This Dork Reporter may have to burn his Rock Snob card, for I just watched and enjoyed the Blue Man Group concert film The Complex Rock Tour Live. I’d long assumed that the Blue Man Group’s seemingly permanent residency on Lafayette Street in downtown Manhattan was some kind of tourist trap like Mars 2112 or Jekyll and Hyde, but now I’m wishing I had looked closer.

For any others that may also have prematurely dismissed them, the Blue Man Group is equal parts performance art collective, percussion ensemble, and, well, blue. The Complex Rock Tour DVD captures the group live in 2002, with a show that is at once both an actual rock concert and an ironic commentary upon one.

I had to fight the suspicion throughout that a blue-clad trio of catburglars had slipped into my apartment and raided my cd collection. As I watched, I started to compile in my head a list of artists that must have been influences:

  • Emergency Broadcast Network. Now defunct, EBN was a trailblazing multimedia performance group that fused McLuhan-esque media theory with techno, all in the style of a television news broadcast from hell. Their caustic and aggressive social commentary is a far cry from The Blue Man Group’s squeaky clean naiveté, but it’s hard not to watch footage of their live performances without seeing an ancestor of the Complex Rock Tour’s ironic infographics.
  • Laurie Anderson’s Home of the Brave concert film (1986). All the ingredients are here, albeit in artier form: film, performance art, mime, masks, dance, etc.
  • Peter Gabriel and Robert LePage’s Secret World Live and Growing Up Live tours were as much theater as rock concerts, utilizing simple yet hugely symbolic shapes and props: a tree, an egg, the moon, etc.
  • Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense concert film (1983), for all the same reasons as Laurie Anderson and Peter Gabriel above.
  • King Crimson. Some of the Blue Man music bears more than a passing resemblance to the polyrhythmic tuned percussion King Crimson employed in the early 1980s with tracks like “Waiting Man” and “Neil and Jack and Me.” Not only that, one of the members of the Blue Man band can be spotted played the Chapman Stick, popularized by Tony Levin.
  • Rock Snobs might be surprised to hear traces of even more modern music in the Blue Man Group repertoire. I caught snippets of the instrumental so-called “post-rock” of UNKLE, Battles, and Explosions in the Sky.
  • And finally, the one influence the Blue Men actually namecheck with a (brief) cover version in their show is Devo, but I don’t own any of their music! Maybe I should take this as a recommendation.

As humorous and toe-tapping as the Complex Rock show is, the Manhattan-based Blue Man Group end the proceedings with “Exhibit 13”, a haunting piece incorporating footage of actual World Trade Center debris that showered over Brooklyn only a few months prior. The piece is available online at Exhibit13.com

Blue Man Group - The Complex Rock Tour LiveAn excellent way to recycle your used PVC

Official site: www.blueman.com

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Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton movie poster

 

Michael Clayton is a that rare thing: an intelligent, fictional thriller for grownups. Like any self-respecting Thriller for Grownups, it’s relentlessly grim in tone, the chronology is fractured, and a high level of detail demands your attention. It doesn’t approach impenetrability like Syriana, but it unfortunately doesn’t engage the brain as much as a good puzzler could. Everything is spelled out for the viewer in the end, except for a few niggling logistical questions. (Such as, why would two expert assassins opt for something so messily conspicuous as a car bomb?)

Tom Wilkinson in Michael ClaytonShiva the goddess of death

Michael Clayton has all the whiff of being based on a true story, but is in fact a wholly original work from writer/director Tony Gilroy – his first film as director after a successful run of screenplays including the Bourne trilogy. George Clooney carries the film with the complex, compromised title character, and Oscar winner Tilda Swinton sweats convincingly as a dying-inside corporate executioner. But in my mind the real star is Tom Wilkinson.

Tilda Swinton in Michael ClaytonDon’t sweat the small stuff

Official movie site: michaelclayton.warnerbros.com

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Once

Once movie poster

 

Now this is a love story (of sorts) I can get behind, unlike the recent Dork Report screenings of Eagle vs. Shark or Year of the Dog. The unnamed “Guy” (Glen Hansard, already a rock star in The Frames and a movie star from The Commitments) is a street busker, playing popular songs for pennies during the day, and saving his own passionate compositions for the empty streets at night. “Girl” (Markéta Irglová) is an immigrant from the Czech Republic, looking at an unhappy future as a single mother, in servile jobs, with no outlet for her own musical talent. Each has become stuck, but their meeting jostles each other into motion.

What a fucking great movie. That’s it; that’s my entire “review.” See it, and get the soundtrack.

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in OnceHey, it’s that guy from The Commitments!

Official movie site: www.foxsearchlight.com/once

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Southland Tales

Southland Tales

 

I don’t know if the roughly 140 minute version of Southland Tales that made it to DVD is a butchered or merely abbreviated version of a masterpiece, but what I just saw is an unholy mess. I’m one of director Richard Kelly’s apologists for his divisive film Donnie Darko, one of the few movies able to choke up this grown male Dork Reporter. Like Southland Tales, it was heavily edited down before release, and the original theatrical version doesn’t even make logical sense. Its emotional appeal is hard to pin down, and yet I found it hugely involving and moving. I was rooting for Kelly on his big follow-up, and even though it made the best-of-the-year lists of both The New York Times and The Village Voice, I guess I’m on the losing team now.

The opening moments recall Cloverfield and Jericho with accidental home video footage of a nuclear attack on Texas. A long barrage of infographics, television fragments, and narration follows, outlining a tremendously involved backstory. Kelly has obviously created a huge fictional universe, the bulk of which proves superfluous to the comparatively simple story that concerns the bulk of the film that follows. Perhaps Southland Tales is the first entry in this Kellyverse, and indeed, it is comprised of four chapters (starting, no doubt modeled after Star Wars, with Chapter 4). But after this failure it’s hard to imagine Kelly securing the funding to complete additional chapters (at least as films; television or comics seem both more appropriate and more frugal).

Wallace Shawn and Bai Ling in Southland TalesBe thankful I couldn’t find a still of them making out

The ensemble cast is extraordinarily weird, featuring The Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seann William Scott, and a complement of little people. No less than five past and present Saturday Night Live cast members also appear: Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler, John Lovitz, Nora Dunn, and Janeane Garofalo (credited but I think I only spotted her in one shot near the end). Rounding it out are Miranda Richardson, John Laroquette, Wood Harris (Avon Barksdale in The Wire), and Kelly booster Kevin Smith. And is that the weird little French woman from The City of Lost Children? You haven’t seen a movie until you’ve seen one with Wallace Shawn and Bai Ling making out. But in a way I suppose that makes sense; they are both aliens from another planet. Different planets, maybe, but still.

Justin Timberlake in Southland TalesJustin Timberlake shills for Budweiser (not shown)

The music is likewise eccentric: Jane’s Addiction’s punk/prog masterpiece Three Days figures in the dialogue as an enigmatic prophesy and as the introduction to the official movie website, and Moby does his best Vangelis impression for his original score. Justin Timberlake (filmed in separation to most of the action) serves as narrator but also stars in a bizarre musical interlude and/or Budweiser commercial and/or Iraq war commentary: “I got sold out by I’m not a soldier.” And, why not toss in pop star Mandy Moore?


Official movie site: www.southlandtales.com

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Year of the Dog

Year of the Dog movie poster

 

The Netflix queue is, by its nature, the opposite of the instant gratification of a rental store. You add movies you think you might want to see some day, then sit back and wait for them to arrive in an order decided by computer, according to factors and algorithms outside of your control. Enough time had passed since I added Year of the Dog that I could no longer recall why. Possibly I read a good review somewhere, or maybe I was curious about the sudden reappearance of Molly Shannon (part of “my” Saturday Night Live of the mid-90s — am I right that people feel the most affection for the SNL cast of their college years?). But I feel baited and switched; this is not a drama or romantic comedy but rather a movie with an agenda.

Writer/director Mike White’s Year of the Dog is a feature-length dramatization of Janeane Garofalo’s gag “You can love your pets, but you can’t love your pets.” Not unlike Lily in the recent Dork Report screening of Eagle Vs. Shark, Peggy (Shannon) is a gentle sweetheart, but alienated and lonely. Her relationship with brother Pier (Thomas McCarthy from The Wire Season 5) and sister-in-law Bret (Laura Dern) is distant at best, and her closest friends are oblivious workmates.

Molly Shannon in Year of the DogThis commute’s a bitch

When she loses the unconditional love of her dog Pencil, she becomes hungry for, as she puts it, a single word to define her. On a date with Al (John C. Reilly), Peggy demonstrates a dislike of hunting, the seed from which her new fervor for an animal activist lifestyle grows. Her one word, she decides, is to be “vegan.”

Her new life teases her at first with the possibility of love with Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), but he is too much like her, or what she is soon to become: unable to love humans nearly as much as animals. From here, the tone shifts to the disturbing, as Peggy causes her life to fall apart. Her clumsy activism costs her her job and family, and she soon descends to theft and attempted murder.

Molly Shannon in Year of the DogYou can love your pets, but you can’t love your pets

And yet, the movie appears to present her ultimate state as a happy ending of sorts. She chooses to be friendless and unloved, but has found meaning and purpose. The most important part of the movie is missing: what happens between Peggy hitting rock bottom (where she becomes unable to function in society) and her total ascendance as a self-assured being? I don’t buy the sudden switcheroo that it’s all OK because she has discovered herself.

Would real-life animal activists find Peggy and Newt amusingly exaggerated versions of themselves, or insulting stereotypes? Speaking as the owner of two rescued casts, it strikes me that choosing the love of animals over that of people is a kind of mental illness that begs for correction, not celebration.


Official movie site: www.yearofthedogmovie.com

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Away From Her

Away From Her movie poster

 

So far, it seems The Dork Report is definitive proof of the truism that criticism is cheaper than praise; it’s easier to pick apart what’s wrong with a bad or mediocre movie than it is to praise what’s good. So sitting down to write something about a really great film like Away From Her, I find myself at a loss for what to say.

Already a seasoned actor at 29, Sarah Polley proves herself a mature and sensitive writer/director on her very first outing. Although concerned with Alzheimer’s, Away From Her is thankfully not a movie “about” a disease. I felt the biopic Iris, although finely acted by no less than Kate Winslet, Judi Dench, and Jim Broadbent, fell into the trap of educating the audience about a disease more than looking at the experiences of the real-life figures whose lives were surely defined by more than Iris Murdoch’s disease.

Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent in Away From HerJulie Christie and Gordon Pinsent in Away From Her

Fiona (Julie Christie) and long-time husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) are already aware of her relatively early-onset Alzheimer’s as the movie begins, but react to its sudden progression with different degrees of preparedness. Worse, as her short term memory leaves her, memories of old traumas resurface just as it is time for her to enter an assisted living community, making an impossible situation no easier for either of them. The next time Grant sees her, she appears to have forgotten him altogether… or has she? The possibility that Grant may be reading his fears into Fiona’s behavior and lapses is one of the most powerful questions of the film.

Sarah Polley directs Away From HerSarah Polley, writer/director of Away From Her

The still-gorgeous Julie Christie deserves an Oscar for her Canadian accent alone. Christie’s long resume and Oscar nomination put her in the entertainment media’s spotlight this winter, but Gordon Pinsent is excellent as Grant, arguably the lead role. Away From Her may be a powerfully sad movie, but not one that anyone should be afraid of being bummed out by.


Official movie site: www.memory-catcher.net

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