The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen movie poster

 

Terry Gilliam’s mad, brilliant yarn The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a strongly anti-war fable to which every kid (and adult!) ought to be exposed. Like the best of its kind (including Ratatouille and Gilliam’s own Time Bandits) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen works on multiple levels and is accessible to all ages. It is, however, a Gilliam film, as as such possessed of a certain degree of darkness and naughtiness. But depictions of tobacco, decapitation, and brief nudity (of the young Uma Thurman variety… thank you, Terry!) were evidently A-OK for kiddies in its era, and merited a mere PG rating. Special mention must also be paid to the spirited performance by a very young, adorable (but in a non-cloying way) Sarah Polley.

John Neville and Sarah Polley in The Adventures of Baron MunchausenOops, we threw the budget projections overboard…

What must be the most ironic caption in cinema history, “The Late 18th Century: The Age of Reason,” is followed immediately by harrowing imagery of warfare that wouldn’t be out of place in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Further driving the point home for the slower members of the audience, a trip to Hades finds Vulcan (Oliver Reed) forging ICBMs out of hellfire. In a theme straight out of Noam Chomsky, the military industrial complex (personified by Jonathan Pryce’s hilariously accented bureaucrat) imprisons the people within the walls of their own city with a sham state of perpetual war. In the end, the Baron (John Neville) defeats these villains not with more violence, but by inspiring the people to throw open their doors and thus their minds.

Uma Thurman in The Adventures of Baron MunchausenUma comes out of her shell

Must read: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen fun facts from Dreams, the Terry Gilliam Fanzine

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WALL-E

WALL-E

 

With the delightful WALL-E, Pixar continues its as-yet unbroken winning streak of instant-classic films for all ages. From among their oeuvre, my personal tastes run toward the darker and more psychologically complex The Incredibles and Ratatouille by director Brad Bird. Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E certainly ranks among Pixar’s greatest hits, all films that will resonate decades hence with children of all ages (as the saying goes). Other studios continue to produce disposable pastiches such as Shrek and Ice Age, laden down with pop cultural references that will not age well and eventually be forgotten. While eye-popping now, perhaps some day Pixar’s animation will appear less than state-of-the art, and I do fear that one day Pixar may miscalculate and produce a critical and commercial failure. If they ever do, it will be because they lost their emphasis on storytelling craft and sense for timeless relevance.

WALL-E looks backwards in cinema history for inspiration to envision its grim distant future. WALL-E’s daily travails on an ecologically collapsed Earth resemble the desolate wastelands seen in such joyless apocalyptic downers as The Terminator and The Matrix. WALL-E is the lone survivor of his kind, dispassionately salvaging spare parts from his dead comrades. All this is potentially very scary stuff for kids, but the little guy has become charmingly eccentric over the course of his several-hundred year long mission, and his positive, can-do energy provides an amusing counterpoint to the dead world about him. Still, the themes of loneliness and environmental crisis are there for adults to plainly see and even the youngest viewers to pick up on.

WALL-EWALL-E befriends the DustBuster3000

Long before WALL-E, the camp sci-fi classic Logan’s Run supposed a future devolved humanity, reduced to a self-sustaining infantile state. Humanity imprisoned itself for the sake of survival, but the rational was long since forgotten and the closed system no longer unnecessary. It takes the rebellion of one free spirit to wake up the whole of society to the reality outside the walls of their enclosed womb (or tomb).

WALL-E draws its ecological metaphors and even the visual design of WALL-E himself from the classic hippie science-fiction film Silent Running. The last remnants of an overpopulated Earth’s biosphere are preserved in orbiting greenhouses, until venal corporations decide they are no longer necessary and are to be demolished. But one driven botanist and his team of cute gardening droids conspire to preserve a garden of eden forever, adrift in space, but a great cost: their rebellion is a bloody, murderous one.

The last major cinematic touchstone for WALL-E is, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The visual design of the Buy ‘n’ Large ark carrying the remnants of humanity is all about the clean, white lines of Kubrick’s space station, and none of the filthy grunge that has dominated science fiction ever since Ridley Scott’s Nostromo in Alien (but Sigourney Weaver does provide the voice of the ship’s computer, perhaps finally finding vengeance against Alien‘s evil computer M.O.T.H.E.R.). WALL-E‘s chief villain is the droid AUTO, with the single, sinisterly unblinking red eye of HAL 9000. Both are artificial intelligences that stunt the evolutionary advancing of the human race in a twisted literal reading of their programming to protect it. Deleterious overprotection is also a theme in Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo; the Marlon learns that his prohibitive coddling of his son prevents him from blossoming.

WALL-EPistol-packin’ Princess Leia-bot comin’ through!

But more than anything, WALL-E is a love story. If you think about it too much, you realize WALL-E is several hundred years old, and is thus rocking the cradle when he falls for the later model droid EVE. A pistol-packin’, short-tempered spitfire in the fine tradition of Princess Leia, EVE is so far advanced that she’s practically a different species of robot. Still, when WALL-E upends an entire society in stasis, he also awakens EVE to the joys of life.

Pixar has long had business ties to Apple, but this is the first film of theirs to make overt in-jokes. WALL-E has somehow rigged a vintage VHS cassette of Hello, Dolly! to play on an only slightly less vintage iPod. Apple’s resident industrial design genius Jonathan Ive reportedly consulted on the design of EVE. WALL-E’s startup sound is the classic Macintosh boot-up fanfare. The “evil” robot AUTO speaks with the voice of MacInTalk, the text-to-speech technology invented by Apple in the early 90s. Any one of these gags would have been cute, but taken as a whole, one suspects the Berlin wall between companies is breaking down, resulting in crass product placement.


Official movie site: www.wall-e.com

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If….

If....

 

If…. is the first in director Lindsay Anderson’s trilogy of films featuring Malcolm McDowell as the Mick Travis, whose misadventures continue in O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital. Everything I read about the trilogy repeats the same word to descibe Travis: “everyman.” On the evidence, I take this to mean Travis is a blank slate, a shapeless person pushed and molded by the forces of society about him. If…. begins with the epigram “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom; and with all thy getting, get understanding” from The Book of Proverbs, but an even better statement of the film’s themes is spoken my Travis himself: “When do we live? That’s what I want to know.”

The initially realistic portrayal of life at a British public school, filmed at Cheltenham College but referred to simply as “College”, includes frank depictions of the corporal punishment and homosexuality (mostly repressed but in one case, genuine young love). The pupils’ lives are so regimented and ordered that even virtuous activities such as studying are forbidden if not conducted at the proper time and place. Most of the rampant cruelty and capriciousness comes from Whips (the senior class, with privileges) and is sanctioned, or rather, willfully ignored by the aloof adult faculty. It becomes clear the school is satirical microcosm of the British class society: a self-perpetuating system in which the young underclassmen “Scum” eventually grow into the roles of the oppressors.

If....I think I’ll call you Mini-Malcolm

Much of the students’ time is preoccupied with paramilitary war games couched in religion. As the school chaplain admonishes them, “Jesus is your commanding officer.” The sermon also instructs that desertion is the worst wartime crime, and as all Christians are born with original sin, all are likewise deserters. During one war game, Travis and friends deliberately shoot live rounds at their own comrades. Curiously, the headmaster mildly scolds them as if they had committed an infraction as naughty as nipping at the communal wine. But the first irrefutable instance of the film’s turn towards surreality is when the headmaster produces a faculty member from within a cupboard drawer for whom Travis to apologize.

From this point on, it is clear at least some of Travis’ experiences are fantasy. And what do teenage boys fantasize about but hooking up with hot girls and violently lashing out at enemies? He beds a beautiful waitress (Christine Noonan) in a violently animalistic coupling, who might very well be another figment of his imagination. Together they uncover a cache of weapons and pickled medical anomalies in the school basement (his subconscious?), including a grotesque human fetus. Travis’ anarchic adolescent fantasies climax with a massive school shooting during a nauseatingly patriotic festival honoring The Crusades. Unlike the considerably more tragic school shootings typical to films made in an era of actual teen massacres like Columbine (in films as diverse as Elephant, Empire Falls, and The Basketball Diaries), Travis’ war is a comically carnivalesque affair and the consequences fall offscreen.

If....Mmmf mmmmf mmff mmmmfff….

Miscellany:

• The otherwise spiffy Criterion Collection DVD edition appears to be a censored cut, not the X-rated full version originally screened in some parts of the world.

• The assistant director was Steven Frears, who went on to direct Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity, and The Queen. In the Criterion DVD bonus features, Frears states that If…. was filmed at the same time as the Paris Riots in 1968, lending powerful immediacy to the theme of violent student rebellion.

• The film alternates between black & white and color film stock. There are conflicting explanations according to Wikipedia, but the primary motivations seemed to have been that of budget and time (black & white film taking less time to light for). Anderson, however, liked the “texture” and continued to use the device. It is apparently not to be understood to delineate reality vs. fantasy.

• Mick repeatedly plays the music “Sanctus” from Missa Luba, an African-tinged version of the Latin Mass. Difficult for modern ears to believe, but it was a hit single at the time. (also from Wikipedia)

• Full of interesting tidbits, Wikipedia also cites a visual allusion to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger in McDowell’s first appearance, showcasing his instantly recognizable eyes.


Must read: everything you could possibly want to know about If…. from MalcolmMcDowell.net

Official movie site: www.lindsayanderson.com/if.html

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4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days)

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

 

Writer and director Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is an unsensational drama on a very sensational topic. Like Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, it is shot in Dogme style with a handheld camera, long takes, and no score. Both films remorselessly lead the viewer through journeys likely undertaken by many throughout human history, although which most people would prefer to never know about. Although it seems ridiculous to talk about such a serious film in terms of “spoilers”, I do wish to caution any readers who have not yet seen the film to stop here.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

In 1987 Romania, students Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) pool their money and make elaborate plans for an unspecified illicit event. What exactly the two young women seek is withheld for some time, building considerable suspense. No matter one’s political or religious beliefs, it is a simple fact that any society in which abortion is illegal produces a corresponding black market in dangerous back-alley procedures. 4 Months is not a passionate argument for or against the legality of abortion, but rather an unadorned illustration of two women’s experiences obtaining one.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

4 Months begs comparison with another naturalistic film on a similar theme: Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake. It would be reductive to say 4 Months is a “better” film, but in comparison, it does make Vera Drake seem like a conventional courtroom drama with overly emotional acting.


Official movie site: www.4months3weeksand2days.com

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Be Kind Rewind

Be Kind Rewind

 

Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind is a more mainstream effort than the personal and heartfelt The Science of Sleep, but still imbued with his signature handmade style and many of his particular (some might say peculiar) obsessions.

The premise is brilliant in its simplicity: a pair of misfit doofuses accidentally erase every tape in their retro video rental store, and decide to remake an eclectic selection of them from scratch. The considerable humor comes not just in how Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black) recreate shots, costumes, casting, and special effects, but also in how they must reconstruct entire plots and scenes from memory alone. If you had to condense a movie you hadn’t seen since childhood (say, for example, Ghostbusters) down to 20 minutes, equipped only with a camcorder and a budget of approximately $0, how would you do it? Jerry randomly coins the word “sweded” to describe their work, a puzzling term that isn’t even a pun, but spontaneous absurdity is a virtue in Gondry’s world.

Be Kind RewindMos Def has mos’ def’ had enough of Tranny Jack

Desperation inspires them to find a means of artistic expression, something many people spend lifetimes daydreaming about but never seize for themselves. Much as how Tim Burton characterized Ed Wood in the eponymous biopic, Mike and Jerry have true amateurs’ supreme confidence in their total filmmaking abilities. Their own ingenuity and the power of moviemaking inspires them with the realization that they can do anything and the trust that people will like what they do. Also like Wood, each obstacle they encounter merely increases their creativity.

Even before the inciting incident of mass erasure, Jerry was already something of an outsider artist. He operated an auto shop with very creative notions of “repairing” cars into souped-up rocket-powered BatMobiles. His character is initially very unlikable, and evidently something of a misogynist. We see him taunt and nearly physically threaten a woman in the video store. Later, he reveals a longing for cutie Alma (Melonie Diaz) working in the local laundry, but when moviemaking provides him with the opportunity to interact with her, he treats her as would a little boy with a “No Girls Allowed” treehouse. But that’s not to imply there’s something cute about his attitude towards women; there appears to be a barely suppressed contempt and threat of violence.

Be Kind RewindHow long until they get around to remaking Gummo and American Psycho?

An obvious paradox is that Be Kind Rewind is a film from a major motion picture studio that celebrates the indie spirit (not to mention fair use of copyrighted materials) and vilifies the venal movie biz executives that inevitably materialize with cease-and-decist orders. Speaking of venal movie execs, the movie’s home at New Line Cinema no doubt introduced several hardly canonical films like the New Line property Rush Hour 2 into Gondry’s script. The overabundance of New Line posters and VHS tapes in the set design bric-a-brac is something of a joke. While it’s funny that a run-down video store might still have ratty old Blast From the Past posters hanging around, would a competing mainstream neon-lit DVD store (Blockbuster in all but name) really shill for the long-forgotten Woo?

Be Kind Rewind is at its most brilliant when recreating classic (and some not-so-classic) moments from cinema history, so much so that everything else in the film feels like a distraction from the true delights. But the powerfully moving climax is the premiere screening of Mike and Jerry’s masterpiece, made in collaboration with their entire community. Their maturity as auteurs is marked by their first truly original work; their film within a film is a fictionalized musical biopic of Fats Waller. If only all actual musical biopics could be so wonderful!

Full disclosure: I first saw an advance screening of Be Kind Rewind on February 22, but as I was then employed by the movie company distributing the film, I decided not to post my thoughts. Regardless, I had nothing to do with making or marketing the film, and any opinions expressed above are mine alone.


Must Read: Director-File.com’s Be Kind Rewind archive

Official movie site: www.bekindmovie.com

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Joseph Arthur, live at Maxwell’s, Hoboken

 

Joseph Arthur, live at Maxwell's, HobokenJoseph Arthur, live at Maxwell’s, Hoboken

Set List:

  1. unknown
  2. Even When Yer Blue
  3. Lonely Astronaut
  4. Enough to Get Away
  5. King of the Pavement
  6. Only You Can Drive
  7. Blue Lips
  8. Take Me Home
  9. Temporary People
  10. When I Was Running Out of Time
  11. Don’t Tell Your Eyes
  12. Slide Away
  13. You Can Take Everything Away From Me
  14. Say Goodbye
  15. Honey and the Moon

Joseph Arthur, live at Maxwell's, HobokenJoseph Arthur, live at Maxwell’s, Hoboken

Official site: www.josepharthur.com

Pre-order the upcoming Joseph Arthur & The Lonely Astronauts’s album Temporary People from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Joseph Arthur & The Lonely Astronauts, live at The Bowery Ballroom, New York

 

Joseph Arthur and The Lonely Astronauts, live at The Bowery Ballroom, New YorkJoseph Arthur & The Lonely Astronauts, live at The Bowery Ballroom, New York

Set List:

  1. unknown
  2. Devil’s Broom
  3. Electical Storm
  4. Slide Away
  5. One By One
  6. Could We Survive
  7. Redemption’s Son
  8. Chicago
  9. unknown
  10. You Can Take Everything Away From Me
  11. Black Lexus
  12. Too Much To Hide
  13. Spacemen
  14. Take Me Home
  15. Temporary People
  16. Enough to Get Away
  17. Cocaine Feet
  18. Birthday Card
  19. In the Sun
  20. I Will Carry
  21. I Donated Myself the Mexican Army

Joseph Arthur and The Lonely Astronauts, live at The Bowery Ballroom, New YorkJoseph Arthur & The Lonely Astronauts, live at The Bowery Ballroom, New York

Official site: www.josepharthur.com

Pre-order the upcoming Joseph Arthur & The Lonely Astronauts’s album Temporary People from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Get a Real Job! or, Thoughts on Pseudo.com

Bringing new meaning to the phrase “get a real job,” I now learn that my last full-time gig was for a “fake company.” Years after the fact of its demise, Pseudo.com founder Josh Harris has pronounced to Boing Boing that Pseudo Programs Inc. was in fact a massive performance art piece, aided and abetted by the since discredited New York Times journalist Jayson Blair.

What is Harris up to? Is he, as my former colleague Jacki Schechner puts it, “Batsh*t Crazy“? Has he been retroactively inspired by the literal definition of the word with which he chose to christen his venture, and now remembers things the way he wants to? To give him the benefit of the doubt, this pronouncement itself may be the performance piece. Or, he may indeed just be batshit crazy.

pseudo.com logoWhat’s in a name, indeed?

Regardless, wow! All of this comes as some surprise to me, as I drew a regular paycheck at the time. I was there, so I can attest that Pseudo was “real” insofar that it had regular employees, sitting behind desks, computers, cameras, and studio mixing desks. We reported every day for actual work, for pay, with benefits. We produced countless hours of audio and video programming for exclusive broadcast over the internet, years before technology and bandwidth made such things commonplace and trivial. If I was a pawn in someone’s conceptual art piece, well, it’s still a bullet point on my resume, man. But it may explain why I’m having trouble locating most of my past colleagues on LinkedIn.

Some of the comments on the Boing Boing piece are more amusing and insightful than anything I could attempt here, but I thought it might do the public record some good for a former employee to contribute a few thoughts and memories about the tiny corner of Pseudo I was briefly involved with.

I joined the company in November 1999, right at the precarious peak of the infamous dot com bubble. Countless startups were all trying to figure out how to make money on the internet (wake me when somebody figures that one out). Pseudo was one of the first and most notorious, with a rough-and-tumble reputation of hard partying and drugs. Worse than all that (at least in the eyes of Wall Street) was how it excelled at its true forte: burning money in spectacular fashion (and speed). Old-media executive David Bohrman had been recently brought on as CEO in an effort to steer the chaotic company into profitability. To illustrate how much old-world thinking was driving Pseudo at the time, Pseudo’s disparate programs were fractured and reorganized into “channels,” an amusingly quaint metaphor ill-suited for the internet.

The Pseudo.com Quarterback Club logoThe Q.B. Club logo. I don’t know who designed it, but that’s the font Triplex, and it’s got a whole lotta Illustrator action goin’ on

One of these new ventures was the Politics Channel, still remembered now for its groundbreaking online coverage of the 2000 Democratic National Convention. But I was to be part of another channel no one, not even Wikipedia, now remembers: The Quarterback Club Channel. The Quarterback Club was a collaborative venture by several NFL players (including Warren Moon, Kordell Stewart, and Boomer Esiason) to consolidate their various moneymaking and charity ventures. Yes, that’s correct. This Dork Reporter, who couldn’t possibly care less about professional sports, and in fact often disdains them, took a job working for football celebrities. To my family at the time, I was working for the NFL, but to me, I was right where I wanted to be. To a former film student also interested in web design, making short animated films for the internet looked like the perfect job.

It was pathetically easy to get hired with the dot com bubble was at its apogee. As is my policy, I was utterly frank in my interview. I had used the then-new and trendy web animation tool Flash for a few projects by then, but was hardly an expert. What they had in mind for me was to execute Flash animated cartoons, then a radically new thing, from the writing, directing, and art by Kevin Ross (with whom I still have beers). Here’s a rough transcript of my interview:



MY FUTURE BOSS
"Do you know Flash?"

ME
"Well, yes..."

MY FUTURE BOSS
"You're hired!"

That was easy! But the humiliations started early. One of my first tasks was to tote Warren Moon’s briefcase around after him on a visit to the Pseudo offices. I had never although I had never heard of him, but I was informed he was far too famous to carry his own shit. I have clear memories of it being made of orange basketball rubber, which makes no sense but that’s what I recall.

The Q.B. Club, Politics, and Comedy teams were housed catty-corner to the main Psuedo building, on the north side of Houston & Broadway. If Pseudo’s legendary partying was still going on under the reign of grownup-in-charge David Bohrman, we saw none of it over at our depressing digs. The confusion over the two locations was always a problem. Once, Boomer Esiason mistakenly showed up at our place, and was clearly unimpressed as we tried to give him directions to find the main office (I didn’t know who he was, but my meeting him really impressed my sports-fan cousin). There was everything to be read into our placement; the Pseudo veterans hated how Bohrman was mainstreaming the company.

Despite its justified reputation for profligate spending, Pseudo could be petty, cheap, and wracked by turf wars. Our NoHo Pseudo annex was viewed as intruding on the old skool’s SoHo territory, and they let it be known by delaying our computer and software orders for weeks. We were effectively crippled, but Kevin Ross and I produced the first and part of the second episodes of Q.B. Toons on my own personal PowerBook G3 (it could handle the animation, but didn’t really have the processor oomph for the multi-layered audio tracks we needed). The situation was so dire, and we were so obviously unwanted that I know many of us considered quitting (not a single one of the Q.B. Club team ever did). Speaking for myself, I was convinced Pseudo was the wave of the future, and the best possible place for a former film student to be.

Many of the “new-skool” employees came with little understanding of the medium in which they were to work: the internet. But to be fair, at the time, who did? Our boss was a former Navy Seal, and some of the rest came from television and video production. Time and time again we came up against a frustrating inability to write and communicate clearly. Kevin and I coined the phrase “purple puppy” to describe the kinds of random requests we would receive, as in, “Can you put in a purple puppy?” I still amuse myself with the in-joke to this day.

Kordell Stewart as Activator ManKordell Stewart was not amused by “Activator Man”

All told, I was there for a little more than half a year. The rest of Pseudo had some success promoting the film American Psycho and selling the SpaceWatch Channel to Space.com for a chunk of change. Meanwhile, we only able to produce four episodes of Q.B. Toons. The first was little but a crappy teaser, featuring a holiday greetings from Warren Moon (what Scrooge would not be moved by that?). The second episode told the full, fleshed-out tale of li’l Moon in his first-ever game. The third starred Bernie Kosar and was a disaster, in my opinion, taking ages to produce and looking the worst. But our fourth, and what turned out to be our last, is our masterpiece. Reportedly our supervisors, and Kordell Stewart himself, were not amused and it remained unaired. We were inspired by the cut-out animations of the Monty Python genius Terry Gilliam, but the visual allusions were lost on everybody.

The Pseudo.com Politics ChannelKlik-a-Kandidate: Bush wallows in his daddy’s riches, and Gore rides the information superhighway

We labored under an air of impending doom throughout, and the only ray of light was the daily visit by an enterprising (and very cute!) girl that sold homemade sandwiches door-to-door. I still have copies of some of the internal emails that circulated after each new article predicted Pseudo’s demise. So with the writing on the wall, we tried to diversify with two new projects for the Politics Channel: Klik-a-Kandidate and Campaign Dope. We were finally put out of our misery during the first round of layoffs in June 2000. The day began with an almost comical omen: as we were all called to assemble in the main Pseudo offices, I scraped my arm against the rusty grille of an old truck while crossing the street. There was not a single Band-Aid to be found in all of Pseudo, so I clutched a paper towel to the stubbornly bleeding wound for the rest of the day.

About half of the Quarterback Club staff was called into a brief meeting with Bohrman (like being picked, or not, for a dodgeball team). Our burden relieved, we dragged our pink-slipped asses back to our offices to hurriedly copy our files onto Zip disks (remember those?) in time to grab a few pints at the local pub (which I recall being a really good, authentic Irish pub, actually… I wonder if it’s still there?). I spent the rest of the night in the emergency room for a tetanus shot. The next day I got a call from ABCNews.com, but I declined to comment, thinking I might hurt my chances at finding a new job (but I was working again within days). A second round of layoffs only a few months later put the rest of the company to its definitive end. The domain Pseudo.com appears to live on as a some kind of patchwork of affiliate music links.

Even if it took some wild pronouncements by Josh Harris for it to happen, it’s nice to see Pseudo back in the news. It was a great talking point for me in job interviews right after it imploded, but these days it’s hard to find someone who’s even heard of it. I now work for Warner Bros., and I certainly hope that the original Warners (Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack) don’t someday rise from the grave and say “Psyche! Just kidding!”

Vantage Point

Vantage Point

 

Vantage Point is an awesome technical achievement, and I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise. Director Pete Travis and writer Barry Levy demonstrate excellent plotting, spatial sense, editing, logistics, and continuity. As a thriller it moves forward relentlessly, and feels comprehensible, self-contained, and very satisfying.

Vantage Point is structured around a single gimmick, but it’s a good one. As one of the cinematic children of Rashomon (including The Usual Suspects and Courage Under Fire), it retells the same event from multiple points of view. An assassination attempt on the US president in Spain is foiled by veteran Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid) and civilian Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker). The advantage of the structure is to withhold information and create suspense. The first time we spot Lewis, from the hyper-cautious Barnes’ perspective, he seems to be acting fishily. But when we soon see the events from his point of view, we learn he’s an innocent. But the structure works the other way; almost a full hour passes until we see fellow Secret Service agent Taylor’s (Matthew Fox) side of the story, and the simple fact of his prolonged absence causes the audience to suspect him. At about the one-hour mark, the rigid, neat structure breaks down and we begin to see slivers of each character’s experiences mixed together, as they all draw to a single time and place for the climax.

Vantage PointA turkey in every pot and a thriller in every multiplex

But the crucial falling-down point of the movie is the trumped-up assassination plot itself, which is seemingly crafted for maximum storytelling drama and not real-world terrorist efficacy. Would an actual successful assassination be so hi-tech and complex? This plot relies on lots of wireless technology, split-second timing, blackmail (coercing someone to perform key tasks better off done by someone the plotters could count on) and at least two inside men (one of whom must have spent almost a lifetime preparing). This is how terrorism works in the movies. Real-life assassins tend to be lone gunmen who manage to slip through security with their sheer unpredictability, and terrorist attacks like Oklahoma City and 9/11 didn’t depend on technology more complex than fertilizer and box cutters. While we’re on the subject, what are these particular assassins’ motivations, exactly? It becomes clear they don’t wish to kill the president but to capture him. Whatever they hope to accomplish, they seem quite pleased with themselves.

Vantage PointOK, everybody skootch in a little… say cheese!

All of these questions are negated in the end by a news broadcast that claims that a lone assassin has been shot and killed. This conclusion plays to the public’s lust for conspiracy theories than continues to plague 9/11 (an inside job? please, spare me) and the JFK assassination.

Extra observations:

• One of the biggest plot twists is spoiled in the trailer.

• Barnes is a cliche we’ve seen before, played by Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire.

• There’s an oddly tiny role for Sigourney Weaver as television news director Rex Brooks. Was there more intended for her character? Perhaps she took the role for an opportunity to spend a few days in Spain.

• Hey, it’s Hollywood’s go-to middle eastern guy, Saïd Taghmaoui (from The Kite Runner and the Iraqi torturer in Three Kings). He does turn out to be a villain, but so do two white dudes, so the movie totally isn’t racist.


Official movie site: www.vantagepoint-movie.com

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John Adams

John Adams

 

The Dork Report celebrates Independence Day 2008 in a New York City Starbucks, tapping out a review of the HBO miniseries John Adams. Believe it or not, the timing is accidental, but July 4th has proven to be an auspicious date in American History. On-and-off-again friends and foes Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the same date, exactly 50 years after the ratification of what they called The Declaration of Independency. The tale sounds too good to be true, and yet it is.

HBO is back on its game at last, after a period of apparent dormancy following the natural conclusion of flagship original programs Sex and the City and The Sopranos, the premature cancellation of Deadwood and Rome, and the criminal abbreviation of the final season of The Best Television Show Ever Made (sometimes referred to as The Wire). Finely pedigreed, this lavish, over seven-hour miniseries by history buff Tom Hanks’ production company Playtone is based on the biography by David McCullough. However, it fails to reach the epic profundity of The Wire and Deadwood, which in the opinion of this Dork Reporter, possibly have more to say about the true nature of the America we have actually inherited from Adams and his contemporaries.

John AdamsAmerica’s second first couple

This Dork Reporter does not consider himself a patriot, and is not especially moved by stories of early American history. However, the dramatization of these legendary events and the characterization of dusty old American heroes were intriguing enough to make me consider picking up a copy of McCullough’s tome. The adult life of John Adams encompassed such elementary school social studies touchstones as the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. In short, Adams was not only present during many of the key points in early American history, but a crucial participant. Nevertheless, history has chosen other heroes. As Adams was a statesman and not a military man, and indeed spent most of the Revolutionary War on a frustrating mission abroad in Europe, we don’t see reenactments of such key events as the Boston Tea Party, which one might have expected of a lavish big-budget HBO production. It makes sense, but there is unintentional comedy when a character remarks “Boy, how ’bout that Boston Tea Party last night, huh?” (OK, I admit I’m paraphrasing, but the effect is the same.)

After the Revolutionary War (waged in part by “godless Hessian mercenaries,” including one of my ancestors, Johannes Schwalm), Adams returned to the States United only to be turned right back around for his appointment to the impossible, thankless job of ambassador to former mortal enemy Great Britain. There’s a brilliantly tense scene in which Adams meets the slightly odd but clearly seething King George III for the first time. When Adams finally came home for good, he suffered persistent criticism at having been safe and coddled in Europe throughout the turmoil at home (it also seems his weight was a favorite talking point of the newspapers). But the miniseries makes clear that the biggest sacrifice made for his duty was the effects of his absence on his family. He loses a son to alcoholism and a son-in-law to naive investments, but on the other hand, his son John Quincy Adams succeeded him as the sixth president.

John AdamsIf I had a dollar…

As the second president of the States United, Adams and his veep Jefferson both had the same aims: avoid war between France and England at all costs. Adams was stuck in the peculiarly ironic position of having a truce with Britain and antipathy with France, the exact opposite of the nation’s situation during the Revolutionary War. His administration grappled for the first time with many issues that still resonate today, including the concepts of freedom of speech, a deliberate national deficit (as espoused by Alexander Hamilton), and so-called “enemy combatants” (which were, at the time, specifically understood to be French refugees suspected of remaining loyal to an enemy monarchy). Adams reluctantly supported the Alien and Sedition Acts, not because he believed in them (he didn’t) but that he nobly felt it was his duty to stand behind the wishes of the people’s representatives in Congress. During his administration, he and Abigail moved into the partially completed White House, which is shown to have been built by slaves. This Dork Reporter should perhaps not have been surprised by this revelation, and yet he was.

As Dork Report first lady Snarkbait opined, John Adams is a showcase for “Hey It’s That Guy”s, providing substantial roles for a parade of familiar character actors. In many ways, Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) is the most interesting, and surprising characterization. As portrayed here, he kept his own council and was somewhat shy, far from the loquacious and commanding personalities of many of his contemporaries. Adams, however, correctly perceived the quiet man’s powerful opinions about independence, and drafted him to write the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson could also be proud, and his effrontery is priceless as Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) quickly produces a red pen to make amendments. Franklin was one of a kind, and indisputably brilliant, but a massive egotist and hedonist. He was technically correct about how to effectively operate as ambassador to France, but it didn’t stop him from selfishly enjoying his job. He gamely played the role of “rustic” in coonskin cap, took mistresses (although Wikipedia does point out he was a widower at the time), lived a life of leisure, and knew when not to discuss politics (which was: most of the time). Originally a friend and ally to Adams, Franklin became an antagonist in France, and Adams appears never to have forgiven him.

John AdamsAmerica’s First Rascal shows John around his crib

George Washington (David Morse) is portrayed as gruff and humbly diplomatic, but also quite intelligent and perceptive, not to mention physically imposing. He was such a popular hero after the Revolution that his inauguration was a forgone conclusion, but it was later alleged John Adams would have actually won the electoral college vote without a conspiracy to anoint Washington as America’s first hero. John’s cousin Samuel Adams (Danny Huston) figures significantly in the Early Continental Congress, and now we can finally see what Sam did to deserve having such a damn fine beverage named after him (I kid; actually he really was a brewer on top of all his other achievements). One interesting figure this Dork Reporter had never heard of was John Dickinson (Zelijko Ivanek). As the representative from Pennsylvania, Dickinson argued passionately against splitting from Britain, and correctly foresaw the Civil War as an inevitable result. And finally, there’s a plum role for Laura LInney as Abigail Adams, about as strong a woman as she could have been at the time. At one point, we see her scrubbing the floor with no motion to help from her husband. But clearly it was not just lip service when John Adams late in life claims Abigail was his most trusted advisor.

John AdamsI apologize for failing to mention Dork Report favorite Sarah Polley in this article

In a great scene near the end, an aged Adams dresses down John Trumbull, the painter of “The Declaration of Independence” (now residing in the Capitol building – which was also, incidentally, built by slaves), for historical inaccuracies. Ironically, the scene is an invention, according to Wikipedia, but it seems to have been consistent with Adams’ beliefs and preoccupations. In his retirement, he was concerned that the story of the American Revolution and his own reputation would (or even could) be reported accurately. He predicted a romanticized version in which future Americans would believe “Franklin smote the earth with his electrical rod and out came Washington and Jefferson.” It seems he may have been correct; Franklin and Jefferson are heroes to this day, while he remains relatively obscure. It is true that there isn’t much scandal or legend about his character and personality for schoolchildren to latch on to. Jefferson had Monticello and his inventions, and Franklin had his aphorisms and, well, inventions of his own. One other reason Adams is not exactly a popular hero is that he first made himself known for defending English soldiers accused of perpetuating an unprovoked massacre. The defense attorney was never a much-loved profession, but set an early precedent for lawyers becoming presidents.

Finally, two smaller observations: The miniseries was partially filmed in Colonial Williamsburg, but many other locations were realized with superlative special effects. Beyond the obvious recreations of old Boston and Philadelphia, the DVD bonus features reveal that certain shots I never questioned, such as Adams ascending the staircase to a impressive European mansion, were in fact part CG. Also of interest are the examples of the medicine of the day: exsanguination, inoculation, and mastectomy, all without anesthesia.


Official movie site: www.hbo.com/films/johnadams

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