Solyaris (Solaris) (1972)

Solaris 1972 movie poster

 

The opening credits of Andrei Tarkovsky‘s 1972 film Solaris state it is “based on the science fiction by Stanislaw Lem.” It’s perhaps telling that the term “science fiction” is used in place of simply “novel.” This faint hint of apology may hint at a lack of respect for the original Polish novel or the entire science fiction genre as serious literature. A similar ambivalence echoes decades later in the advertising campaign of director Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake, emphasizing the romantic melodrama over the fantastic, futuristic setting.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (read The Dork Report Review) had arrived only a few years before Solaris, and was by a long shot the most serious stab at intellectual, literary science fiction cinema yet filmed. In his essay for the 2002 Criterion Collection DVD edition of Solaris, Phillip Lopate outlines three ways Tarkovky wished to distance his film from Kubrick’s. He found 2001: A Space Odyssey “cold and sterile,” and set out to infuse his own science fiction with “passionate human drama.” Unlike its predecessor’s gleaming high-technology, Tarkovsky built run-down and filthy sets for the space station, and found futuristic earthbound locations in the contemporary cars and architecture of Japan. Finally, Lopate points out that Solaris shares more themes with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo than 2001, namely, “the inevitability of repeating past mistakes.”

Natalya Bondarchuk and Donatas Banionis in SolarisKelvin sees dead people

The links between the two films go beyond the thematic into the political; Solaris is frequently cited as the Soviet Union’s answer to 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it ought to be viewed in the context of the Cold War. 2001: A Space Odyssey preceded actual manned moon landings, the US’ most definitive victory in the space race. Kubrick’s visuals were so effective that they spawned the still-simmering rumor that the moon landings were falsified using footage directed by Kubrick. But before all this, 2001: A Space Odyssey must have seemed like a threat or promise made to the USSR: saying, in effect, that the US is going to be first in space and the first to make first contact with alien intelligence.

So in this context, it’s hard not to interpret Solaris as at least partly a propaganda countershot. It too illustrates how the society of its makers and audience also have the brainpower and resources to extend their empire into space. But most unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky and co-writer Fridrikh Gorenshtein never allude to politics or even mention the names of other countries. Kubrick’s film envisions no end to the Cold War, even at least thirty years into the future. Kubrick’s vision of the future is actually a wicked satire, showing how little he expects humanity to evolve despite significant technological advances. His future humans still engage in petty squabbles and apocalyptic brinksmanship in the face of a potentially paradigm-shifting revelation: the discovery of definitive evidence of alien intelligence in a manufactured monolith buried on Earth’s moon. The US scientists and government officials investigating the monolith seem unmoved by the powerful notion of alien contact, and instead hold boring boardroom meetings and pose for photographs. In stark contrast, Tarkovsky’s Solaris has no sense of humor at all, about anything. Perhaps the most significant trait Solaris shares with Kubrick is a penchant for long takes. As Lopate also notes in his Criterion essay, atypically for a Russian filmmaker, Tarkovsky favored long takes over Eisensteinian montage.

Donatas Banionis in SolarisKelvin inspects the ductwork

In this vision of the future, the Soviet Union operates a scientific research station in orbit over the ocean planet Solaris. An entire school of study called Solaristics has sprung up around the study of the ocean’s peculiar properties. Astronaut Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) returns to Earth with controversial claims that the Solaris ocean somehow creates physical manifestations of landscapes and monstrous creatures on the planet’s fluid surface. Dr. Gibarian (Sos Sargsyan), still stationed at Solaris, sends for his old friend, psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis). Berton, haunted and prematurely aged by his experiences, visits Kelvin at his father’s home in an attempt to warn him about what he is surely to experience, but Kelvin rudely dismisses him. We later learn the source of Kelvin’s misanthropy: his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) committed suicide after he left her some years before.

Kelvin arrives at Solaris to discover that Gibarian has already committed suicide. The strange manifestations Berton reported on the Solaris oceans are also occurring on board. Every surviving scientist still aboard the space station is haunted by “guests,” their euphemism for the apparitions that, as best they can determine, are somehow culled from their most emotionally intense memories. In due course, Kelvin’s dead wife reincarnates in a confused, partially-formed state. She is dazed and doesn’t quite understand who she is or why she is there, and doesn’t “remember” that she is dead. When she tries to undress, she discovers her dress is completely sewn shut; Kelvin’s imperfect memories of her apparently don’t include buttons ‘n’ zips. Kelvin also experiences feverish nightmares in which he confuses Hari with his long-dead mother.

Natalya Bondarchuk in Solaristhe twice-doomed Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk)

In a kind of filmed suicide note, Gibarian tells Kelvin the manifestations have “something to do with conscience,” indicating that the common origin of every guest is that they are each the primary object of guilt in an individual’s mind. Gibarian asks Kelvin “did you see her yet?” suggesting that he sent for him because he correctly predicted Kelvin’s guest would be his dead wife Hari. The presence of Gibarian’s guest (a little girl) was evidently for him an intolerable curse, but perhaps he imagines it would be a gift for Kelvin to have Hari back. But the whole situation begs the question: if the authorities know about the manifestations, why would they agree to send such a psychologically damaged man as Kelvin?

When Kelvin attempts to leave Hari alone in his quarters, the not-quite-human creature manages to smash through the doorway in pursuit. She instinctively doesn’t want to be left alone, but can’t explain why. A suitable science fiction explanation might be that she somehow senses that she may literally dematerialize when Kelvin’s brain is not within proximity. Or her newly-formed mind may be suffering echoes of what the “real” Hari felt when she committed suicide after Kelvin left her. What if Kelvin becomes comfortable living with this reincarnation of Hari, and his guilt for the original woman’s death lessens… will her reincarnation then disappear?

Donatas Banionis in SolarisKelvin at home in Mother Russia

An observation: like Lindsay Anderson’s If… (read The Dork Report review), Solaris uses a mixture of black & white and color film. For most of the first hour, black & white footage initially signifies either film clips or teleconferencing (note that the film correctly predicts widescreen HDTV monitors and webconferencing in the future). But later sequences appear in black and white, without internal justification: first as Berton drives dejectedly back into the city (filmed in the alien landscapes of Japan), and later as Kelvin locks himself in his cabin on Solaris. To confuse the matter still further, Kelvin brings a home movie with him from Earth, which is in color! I don’t have a theory to explain these logical discrepancies; I’m just pointing them out.

I’m surprised to find to find that I did not like the film as much as my first viewing almost a decade ago. Solaris is as talky and overwritten as its ostensible model 2001: A Space Odyssey is elegantly quiet. Totally self-serious and humorless, its three-hour running time is frankly a little trying on the patience. In his 1977 appreciation of the film reprinted in the Criterion edition booklet, Akira Kurosawa reports he was stunned by the expense when he visited the set, equivalent to 600,000,000 yen at the time. But he defends the significant length of the early scenes set on Earth, which he interprets to be intended to instill nostalgia for Kelvin leaving nature behind forever. Indeed, the time spent on Earth in the early parts of the film does prefigure a significant homecoming at the end, when Kelvin seems to return to a dreamlike vision of his father’s house. The formerly lush and moving natural scenery landscape is now wasted and frostbit. It rains inside as well as out, suggesting a kind of baptism or rebirth in the waters of Solaris.


Must Read: Solaris by Phillip Lopate

Must Read: the Organic Mechanic review by Adam Harvey

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Lou Reed’s Berlin

lou_reeds_berlin.jpg

 

Lou Reed‘s 1973 album Berlin is a concept album relating the tale of a doomed woman named Caroline living in the eponymous city. The term “concept album,” then and now, invokes immediate condescension from fans and critics alike, calling to mind the progressive rock excesses of 1970s megabands The Who (Tommy and Quadrophenia) and Yes (Tales from Topographic Oceans). The poet and arty downtown Manhattanite Reed might have better served himself by referring to Berlin as something more fancy-sounding, perhaps a “song cycle.”

Reed’s previous album Transformer was a great commercial success, debuting the enduring hits Satellite of Love, Perfect Day, and Walk on the Wild Side. To follow it up with something like Berlin may have been loaded with artistic integrity, but was asking for trouble in terms of making a living. I recall reading that enough material was recorded for it to be a double-lp, but it was edited down to a single disc before release (I can’t find a source for this factoid online, but I believe it was related in the liner notes of his 1992 retrospective boxed set Between Thought and Expression). Produced by Bob Ezrin (whose concept album credentials also include Pink Floyd’s The Wall), it was a commercial disaster at the time. So, cursed from the beginning, the full studio version has apparently never been released.

lou_reed_berlin_1.jpg“Caroline says / While biting her lip / Life is meant to be more than this”

In retrospect, Reed now seems to have been compelled to flee from commercial success, or at the very least was bound and determined not to repeat himself. Reed’s other infamous commercial disaster Metal Machine Music was another deliberate provocation: even the most open minded musicologist might charitably characterize it as earsplitting noise. But Berlin is different, hated more for its tone and subject matter than its sound. Several of the songs are lovely, but wow is the complete work depressing, full of anger, venom, resentment, death, despair, and guilt. The song “The Kids” is especially harrowing, ending with a tape of children wailing.

Over time, the album was eventually rediscovered. One of those reappraising Berlin was no less than artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel. So it came to be, that 33 years after its release, Schnabel proposed to Reed that Berlin really ought to be a film. Schnabel is obviously attracted to artists dedicated to their work with utter conviction: revolutionary New York Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in the eponymous biopic, the gay poet Reinaldo Arenas in Castro-era Cuba in Before Night Falls, and the paralyzed writer Jean-Dominique Bauby in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (read The Dork Report review). Berlin’s DVD bonus features include a brief conversation with Reed and Schnabel on Elvis Costello’s show Spectacle, in which Schnabel describes his attraction to the cinema from the perspective of a painter: he reverently refers to the canvas-like movie screen as “The Rectangle.”

Something that only people who’ve seem him live would know is that Reed is a great guitar player. He’s also visibly in surprisingly good shape for a former junkie (sorry, but it’s true). Does he practice yoga? Reed in performance is supremely cool and detached, but some startlingly real emotion comes through in his vocal delivery; he spits out the lines “they took her children away” from the song “The Kids” with real venom.

lou_reed_berlin_2.jpgAntony dances the rock minuet

Original guitarist Steve Hunter rejoined Reed for the Berlin tour, and can barely contain his pleasure, despite the grim subject matter. Bob Ezrin conducts with great enthusiasm, but oddly, he seems to be facing the drummer, away from the choir and woodwinds. One of my favorite bassists, Fernando Saunders, doesn’t really get to shine, but perhaps it was my sound system that couldn’t do him justice. Julian Schnabel’s daughter Lola directed film clips projected during the performance, starring Emmanuelle Seigner as Caroline.

So Reed finally got a chance to present Berlin live, as a whole. Now the once-denigrated work has become a world tour, a theatrical feature film, a live album, and a DVD. Reed is now considered a New York deity, not the erratic heroin addict he was back in the day. His career is far from over and there’s plenty of time for more drama, but could this be his ultimate revenge?

The encore includes a special treat, a lovely version of Rock Minuet sung by Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) in his otherworldly voice. Rock Minuet was not from the original album, but a special request from Schnabel, who rightly felt it belonged. But it’s followed by a bummer: a desultory performance of the Velvet Underground standard Sweet Jane. It’s a letdown that after the emotionally intense proceedings, that Reed seems truly bored here and just walks through a song he’s probably played hundreds if not thousands of times.


Official movie site: www.berlinthefilm.com

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Sigur Rós: Heima

Sigur Ros Heima Movie Poster

 

Dean DeBlois’ documentary film Heima (meaning “coming home” or “at home”) follows the band Sigur Rós on their summer 2006 tour of their home country Iceland. The tour consisted of mostly free, unannounced concerts, and with the band in three basic configurations spanning the continuum of the purely acoustic to the fully electric. The four core members Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson, Georg “Goggi” Hólm, Kjartan “Kjarri” Sveinsson, and Orri Páll Dýrason perform several acoustic songs just for the camera. The extended band (including string ensemble Amiina) is also seen performing outdoors, fully unplugged, at a concert protesting an environmentally destructive dam to be built by the Icelandic government. Finally, in contrast, we also see the full band in indoor concerts with dramatic lighting and video effects.

Sigur Ros HeimaSigur Rós live in concert

Most Sigur Rós songs are sung in an invented language called Vonlenska (“Hopelandic”), adding to the universality and international appeal of their music. For the uninitiated, Sigur Rós are a key representative of the musical genre “post-rock,” which generally refers to highly evocative, cinematic, largely instrumental music sometimes compared to movie soundtrack composition. Other notable bands working in roughly the same idiom include Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, and Múm. In this Dork Reporter’s opinion, you can trace the genre’s heritage back to the progressive rock of Yes and King Crimson.

Sigur Ros HeimaSigur Rós live in concert

Interview clips and stunning landscape images punctuate the film, making it almost as much about Iceland itself as the band. The most incongruous clip is from the avant-garde band’s unlikely appearance on the Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn. They discuss being unprepared for the business side of a career in music (lawyers, contracts, etc.), but understand that they have to think of the future.

The second disc of the two DVD set features full uninterrupted performances, but with no two songs played in sequence, let alone a full concert. The fragmentation of both the main documentary film and the supplementary features is mildly disappointing. However, as reported in Pitchfork, the band has plans for a full concert film directed by Vincent Morisset.


Official movie sites: www.heima.co.uk and www.heimafilm.com

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Grant Gee’s Joy Division

Joy Division movie poster

 

Grant Gee’s documentary Joy Division covers the all-too-brief history of the eponymous post-punk band from Manchester. Joy Division was tragically short-lived, only completing two albums before lead singer Ian Curtis’ suicide in 1980, but disproportionately influential. Their sound is all over the early U2 albums Boy and October, and the contemporary band Interpol made a career of emulating Joy Division’s sound.

Gee sets the scene of late 1970s Manchester as a grimy hellhole in which “there’s nothing pretty.” The core members of the band are perversely inspired by a Sex Pistols concert (their review: “shite, a car crash”) to form their own band. Photographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijn took some of the most memorable portraits of the band. Used to Holland’s health care system, he was shocked to see such poverty in England. He describes Joy Division as undernourished and shivering in their thin coats.

Joy Division by Anton Corbijn
Malnourished and shivering in their thin coats: a famous portrait of Joy Division by Anton Corbijn

Gee also interviews Peter Saville, the graphic designer that created the remarkably stark album sleeves that were almost as influential as the music itself. Tony Wilson (a colorful character who was the subject of Michael Winterbottom’s fantastic biopic 24 Hour Party People) was an early champion, in between his duties as host of the TV show “So It Goes” and Factory Records impresario. Curtis’ widow Deborah does not seem to have participated, but her side of the story appears in the excellent biopic Control (read The Dork Report review), co-produced by her and directed by Corbijn.

Curtis is described as a regular lad who frequently bought flowers for his wife. In other words, the opposite of punk. But he’s also characterized as “bipolar,” moody and unpredictable even before his epilepsy manifested itself in frequent, dramatic grand mal seizures. His singular stage presence was marked by a peculiar form of dance inspired by his seizures (that he sometimes actually did experience on stage). The necessary drug treatments caused huge mood swings, further compromising his already unsteady mental health. Curtis continued his day job assisting disabled people for the Civil Service even as the band was taking off. In a heartbreaking bit of synchronicity, his classic song “She’s Lost Control” is about an epileptic girl he met though his work.

Ian Curtis of Joy Division

Grant Gee’s clear expertise is musical documentary. His 1998 film Meeting People is Easy famously captures Radiohead breaking through to mass popularity as their 1998 album OK Computer is almost universally declared the album of the year. The frank film shows emotionally fragile Thom Yorke almost physically recoiling from fame, but receiving wise counsel from mentor Michael Stipe of R.E.M. Gee also co-directed the excellent 2005 Gorillaz concert film Demon Days Live at the Manchester Opera House, better even than the studio album that preceded it. Both films have permanent spots in The Dork Report’s DVD shelf.


Official movie site: JoyDivisionMovie.co.uk

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Daniel Lanois: Here Is What Is

Here Is What Is movie poster

 

Daniel Lanois is a unique musician, as gifted a singer-songwriter in his own right as he is a collaborator and producer. I originally came to recognize his name after finding it listed in the credits of many key items in The Dork Report’s formidable music collection, including Peter Gabriel’s So and Us, U2’s The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind. His 1993 solo album For the Beauty of Wynona remains an all-time personal favorite.

The feature documentary Here Is What Is premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2007, directed by Lanois, Adam Samuels, and Adam Vollick. It captures the recording of the album of the same name, but also serves as a kind of retrospective and mission statement. Conversations between Lanois and early mentor (now equal) Brian Eno punctuate the film. Lanois states to Eno his intentions for the movie: to create a film about the beauty of music, not everything that surrounds it (which I took to mean hagiography, celebrity gossip, and the sometimes tedious behind-the-sceens documentation typical of the genre). Eno suggests that his film should try to show people that art often grows out of nothing, or from the simplest of seeds in the right situations, not from what outsiders might assume are the miraculous inspirations of allegedly brilliant or gifted artistes.

Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno in Here Is What IsDaniel Lanois and Brian Eno recording their new ambient masterwork, “Music for Staircases”

Lanois is Canadian by birth, but has a special affinity for the American South, especially New Orleans. He credits New Orleans for the original sensual groove that formed the basis of rock music. Perhaps intended as a visual echo of this theory, the stunningly beautiful Carolina Cerisola often appears dancing in her scanties.

Lanois details his longtime, fruitful collaboration with drummer Brian Blade. Legendary keyboardist of The Band, Garth Hudson, also joins them in the studio for some truly awesome performances. One of my favorite sequences intercuts between “The Maker” performed by Lanois’ band live in studio, covered by Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris, and Lanois’ band live on stage. Billy Bob Thornton, still friends from collaborating on the score to Sling Blade in 1996, drops in for a visit. We catch exciting glimpses of recording U2’s forthcoming album (since christened No Line on the Horizon, to be released in February 2009) with Eno and Steve Lillywhite.

Daniel Lanois in Here Is What IsWhich button dials down Bono’s ego?

Lanois names a primarily influence to be the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which he describes as a fairly straightforward rock trio but with ambitious, experimental production. He describes how he himself approaches production, in just one word: “feel.” He reportedly had a contentious relationship with Dylan in the studio, but the resultant albums are classics, and Dylan affirmed that “you can’t buy ‘feel.'” Another Lanois aphorism, “maximize the room,” means to make the most of what you have, rather than invite guest musicians or order up more equipment.

Here Is What Is features full performances of songs, which is especially welcome compared to two recent music documentaries recently screened by The Dork Report: Low in Europe (read The Dork Report review) and You May Need a Murderer (read The Dork Report review), which both shy away from actually showing Low perform. Here Is What Is’s visuals are sometimes compromised with cheesy video effects. The film is at its best when simply following the hypnotic movements of Lanois’ hands on his pedal steel guitar.


Official movie site: daniellanois.com/hereiswhatis

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Menace II Society

Menace II Society movie poster

 

Let me just come out and say it: I utterly and totally loathed Menace II Society. The Dork Report’s 1/2 star rating is reserved for true cinematic crimes against humanity, movies that I think the world would have been a better place had they not been made (zero stars are for those rare and special cases, beyond the pale, where bad transmutes into good, like the perversely enjoyable Plan 9 From Outer Space – read The Dork Report review). Of course, I’m a relatively privileged white boy from suburbia, so it’s going to be tricky for me to explain my passionately negative reaction to a movie about African Americans trapped in racist, drug-infested Watts, South Central Los Angeles. The cheap way out would be to claim I’m not the target audience, but that itself would be a kind of racist copout.

Menace II Society

The best way to explain how I feel about this movie is to compare it to two of the best works of fiction I’ve ever seen: Do the Right Thing (1989) and The Wire (2002-08). Menace II Society opens with stock footage of 1965 Watts riots, and then fast-forwards to Watts in 1993. It’s a cheap and crass stab at social relevance that only movies like Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing have earned. I don’t know how much factual or biographical truth is in Menace II Society, but everything that follows strikes me as exploitation; which is to say, the worst, most sensationalized depictions of drug culture dramatized to scare the bejeezus out of supposedly civilized cinema goers. Do the Right Thing presented one of the most complex views of racial tension ever seen in the movies, but Menace II Society is a mere lowlights reel of relentless violence and depravity that seemed to me to be racist itself. Caine (Tyrin Turner), O-Dog (Larenze Tate), and Tat (Samuel L. Jackson), not a single character can speak a single sentence without at least three n-words and two f-bombs.

The Wire is one of the only TV series to approach the level of literature, and like Do the Right Thing it counts race among its many deep themes. Many of its characters are also underprivileged African Americans on the wrong side of the law. But not once did I ever sense The Wire was exploitative or sensationalistic in any way. Menace II Society barely deserves to be mentioned in the same paragraph as The Wire, but I did note a very similar scene in both: in the second season of The Wire, Bodie and Shamrock take a rare road trip out of Baltimore and, unable to find any hip-hop on the radio, instead find themselves listening to NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion in baffled silence. Likewise, the best scene in Menace II Society is of an African American family at home on Christmas Eve watching It’s a Wonderful Life, and utterly unable to relate to or derive any pleasure from it.

Menace II Society

Menace II Society (1993, New Line Cinema) is the debut film from twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, who would later go on to direct From Hell (2001), and completely miss the point of the source material: Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel. In direct contrast to John Singleton’s simply, classically shot Boyz n the Hood (read The Dork Report review), Menace II Society is a slickly polished production (which, I believe, only contributes to its glamorization of the thug gangsta lifestyle). But it’s a clumsy film in other ways, with terrible voiceover narration stupidly telling instead of showing. But it pays off in the end with the realization of the only interesting device of the film: it’s narrated by a dead man.


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Boyz n the Hood

Boyz n the Hood movie poster

 

John Singleton’s 1991 debut Boyz n the Hood is the story of a group of friends coming of age in South Central, LA. After an extended flashback set in 1984, the film catches up with the boys as high school seniors in the present day. Tré Styles (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a soft-spoken virgin that drives a wimpy blue VW bug, while his good-for-nothing gangster friend Doughboy (Ice Cube) rides a souped-up Cadillac and packs heat. The serious, dedicated Tré has a job and a future, and Doughboy’s brother Ricky (Morris Chestnut) has real prospects for going to college on an athletic scholarship.

Boyz n the Hood“Get off me wit yo’ big four by forehead!”

It’s worth noting that the most evil, racist person in the movie is a black cop. It’s a double whammy; as both a policeman and an adult black man, he ought to have been the man the kids could looked up to and relied on the most. Indeed, the one key factor that differentiates Tré from his circle of doomed friends is his role model. His father Furious Styles’ (Laurence Fishburne) uncompromising parenting style helps keep Tré from the fates that befall many of his friends.

Boyz n the Hood“You still got one brother left, man.”

Singleton himself has a cameo appearance as the totally blasé mailman that delivers mail during a front-lawn fistfight. Boyz n the Hood was Singleton’s first film, notable for being one of the first mainstream movies to tell a kind of story for a kind of audience Hollywood historically ignored or exploited. But its relatively low budget also corresponds to clumsy direction, awkward editing, and some crummy acting (especially Baha Jackson as the young Doughboy). The DVD edition I saw was panned & scanned, a travesty that certainly didn’t help. Stanley Clarke’s cheesy lite jazz score is surprisingly awful, and I say that as a fan of Clarke who’s seen the jaw-dropping bassist live in concert.

Boyz n the Hood opens with the sobering statistic that in 1991, 4 in 21 African American males will be murdered within their lifetime. But it also ends with the hopeful epigram: “Increase the Peace.”


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Cinema Immortal: Tarsem’s The Fall

The Fall movie poster

 

Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (2000) was one of the best-looking bad movies I’ve ever seen. It certainly wasn’t helped by the presence of Jennifer Lopez or the routine serial killer plot possibly meant to capitalize on the success of David Fincher’s Se7en (both having come from the same studio, New Line Cinema). But it was tragically obvious that Tarsem (as he is simply known) was a wildly talented visual stylist on a par with Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet. So now, financed by his own money, in production for over four years in 20 countries, and presented by Fincher and Spike Jonze, Tarsem gets a chance to tell one of his own stories. He achieves a high level of spectacle without an ostentatiously high budget. Apart from a scene in which tattoos ink themselves upon a man’s torso, there is little apparent CGI. If Tarsem used more computer effects, they’re good enough to be invisible. And one of the best sequences, a nightmarish surgery, is executed as stop motion animation like something by The Brothers Quay.

Tarsem Singh The FallInside the Grateful Dead t-shirt factory

The Fall opens in the aftermath of a surreal accident: a horse is lifted by crane from a deep gully after having apparently fallen off a bridge. That we eventually learn that this strange scene is merely a Hollywood Western movie set does not lessen the enjoyably dreamlike weirdness of the imagery. The real theme of the movie is of the power of storytelling through the intense visualization of movies, or even better, the imagination.

American stuntman Roy (Lee Pace) recuperates in a Southern Californian hospital. Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), a little girl mending a broken arm, attaches herself to the bedridden mope. She had fallen from a tree while picking fruit with her Indian immigrant family in nearby orange groves, and now finds herself alone in the strange hospital, isolated not only by her age but also by the language barrier. She has never seen a movie and doesn’t really understand Roy’s job. But she is drawn to him, perhaps partly out of an innocent crush and partly out of her realization he, like she, is unusually imaginative.

Justine Waddell in The FallJustine Waddell’s fashions in The Fall will put your eye out

The slightly pudgy Untaru is a refreshing casting choice for a child character, endearing but not cloyingly cute or especially precocious. The physically and emotionally traumatized Roy is bemused by her at first, and shortly finds himself entertaining her with a serialized tale of epic derring-do. Roy’s fantastic adventure of the struggle between The Black Bandit against Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagirone) over the beautiful Evelyn (Justine Waddell) becomes a movie-within-the-movie, visualized through the filter of the girl’s meagre experiences but rich imagination. When the American describes an “Indian,” she pictures a man from India, and his “squaw” is an Indian princess. She casts her version of the story with Roy and people from the hospital. In the most Gilliam-esque image, the enemy knights resemble the hospital’s crudely armored X-Ray technicians.

Tarsem Singh The FallOur heroes wisely keep their distance

But it turns out Roy is a failed suicide case, heartbroken over losing the love of a beautiful starlet. The accident in the beginning of the film was his; both he and she are literally fallen people. Like Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (read The Dork Report review), the seemingly child-like tale he tells is shot through with dark undercurrents. Alexandria can just barely sense the pain embedded in the story, and is unequipped to truly grasp Roy’s deep anxieties that love and life are doomed. Is he being cruel by telling her this story, or is he trying to teach her his grim life lessons?

The conclusion has the feel of being transcendent and exciting, but lacks real punch. In a rapidly accelerating crescendo of cutting and music, Roy and Alexandria heal (physically and emotionally) and leave the hospital. As she grows up, she imagines Roy executing every stunt in every movie she sees for the rest of her life. It’s incredibly callous of me as a viewer to suggest that the story might have taken such a turn, but just imagine the impact this sequence would have had if Roy had killed himself after all… she would keep him alive forever in the movies in her head.


Official movie site: TheFallTheMovie.com

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Speed Racer

Speed Racer movie poster

 

The good news is that Andy & Larry Wachowski’s Speed Racer is fun and eye-poppingly extraordinary to watch. As with their breakthrough The Matrix (1999), there’s the strong feeling that you’re seeing something new; not just emergent technologies but a whole new style of moviemaking. But the bad news is that it’s all… too much. Why undertake such huge effort and expense just to replicate the essence of a poorly written and cheaply animated TV series that no one, not even the geekiest Japanese anime otaku (fanboy), really misses? This film might have been so much better if they had jettisoned the baggage of the intellectual property (a misnomer in this case) and told an original story in this radical new style.

The movie incarnation of Speed Racer has inherited the visual quirks of the original 1960s cartoon, cross-bred with the information-rich computerized motion graphics of modern televised sports. The color scheme is dominated by bright, primary colors like Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (made in a era before computer graphics and digital color grading). Talking heads laterally pan across the screen, usually redundantly narrating the onscreen events for us. The effect is like watching ESPN; when two cars crash, an announcer promptly tells us that two cars have crashed.

Christina Ricci in Speed RacerChristina Ricci can see for miles and miles

The film is also modeled after video games and Japanese anime in general. Huge sequences are entirely computer generated, with what little live action photography there is most likely shot against greenscreen soundstages. The Wachowskis’ resident special effects mad scientist John Gaeta meticulously stages the many incredible car chases like battles in a war movie from an alternate universe. Like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogies, the movie practically is animated. Just watching it, it’s possible to imagine what the tie-in video game must be like.

Every single line of dialog is a cliché, and so too is the plot. Speed (Emile Hirsch) is a young race car driver, a lone honest man in a corrupt industry. Yes, his name is actually Mr… Speed… Racer. His disgraced older brother Rex died a mystifying death years before, providing Speed with the motivation to prove himself both as a driver and as an honest man. Pops and Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon and John Goodman) sometimes appear in the same shot but hardly ever exchange words. Speed also has an insanely annoying little brother with a Brooklyn accent and, god help us all, a monkey. The oddball extended Racer family also includes the Australian mechanic Sparky and Speed’s helicopter pilot-slash-girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci, whom at some point has lost her endearing baby fat and now seems startlingly skinny). The whole gang apparently lives together in the same house, with Speed’s car parked in the living room like an extra sibling.

Lest all the action be of the vehicular variety, the Wachowskis wisely scatter about a few awesome wire-fu fight sequences designed (apparently not designed by The Matrix’s genius choreographer Woo-ping Yuen). The most exciting and visually impressive fight takes place on a snowy plain, with the falling snow providing manga-like motion lines (a characteristic of Japanese comic books). The fights are even more fun when John Goodman gets in on the act, and one understands why he might have signed on to such a project (if for reasons other than a big studio paycheck).

Emile Hirsch in Speed RacerLike audiences worldwide, Emile Hirsch is a little overwhelmed by the visuals

If I were to single out one tragic flaw, I would say that Speed Racer suffers, like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (read The Dork Report review), with too much backstory. Overlong for a kids movie, it’s almost one full hour before we get to the main plot: Speed Racer must join forces with adversaries Racer X (Matthew Fox) and Taejo Togokhan (Korean popstar Rain) to accomplish something-or-other and defeat some kind of injustice that I can’t quite recall, all of which has something to do with veteran racer Ben Burns (Richard “Shaft” Roundtree). Who can remember details after two-plus hours of sheer sensory overload? Speed Racer feels like a sequel to a movie we haven’t seen, with enough threads left dangling (mostly involving the true story of Speed’s brother) to set up a hypothetical third episode.

For any number of possible reasons, this very expensive folly bombed and we almost certainly won’t see that trilogy. The Wachowski brothers were perceived to have fumbled the wildly popular Matrix franchise with two obtuse sequels (although this Dork Reporter would argue in favor of the minority opinion that the second, The Matrix Reloaded, is actually their masterpiece), they produced the thickheaded V for Vendetta (muddying up and widely missing the point of the powerful anarchist graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd), and one is rumored to have had a sex change. With such a track record it’s not surprising that the moviegoing public, even the genre-loving fanboys that make up Chud.com and Ain’t It Cool News might have soured on them. Plus, the original Speed Racer cartoon is exceptionally cheap and lame, so much so that even myself as a child could tell it was crap.

Warner Bros. revealed their embarrassment by issuing the DVD as a bare-bones single-disc release, at time when even the crappiest movie seems to merit a deluxe multi-disc package padded out with hours of self-congratulatory value-added material. There’s nothing at all on the DVD about the obviously groundbreaking special effects. Instead, the filmmakers decided that what audiences wanted was more monkey (the vile beastie stars in the closing credits sequence) and more annoying kid brother (who costars in a mockmentary feature with an embarrassingly poorly acted appearance by producer Joel Silver).


Official movie site: speedracerthemovie.warnerbros.com

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The Incredibles

The Incredibles movie poster

 

Like writer/director Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, The Incredibles is a virtually perfect movie. Bird’s astonishing one-two punch for Pixar builds on the animation studio’s reputation for deep emotional resonance already earned by Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo (read The Dork Report review) and later reconfirmed by Wall-E (read The Dork Report review). But Bird’s films add a welcome maturity that proves the medium of animation can be, at its best, truly for all ages.

Although packed with action, spectacle, and chase sequences, it’s difficult to imagine how little kids would react to such a relatively dark movie. Note the middle-aged anxiety, marital strife, and surprisingly high body count (granted, most deaths happen offscreen, but only just!). I can easily imagine most kids tuning out during the many long dramatic sequences obviously pitched at adults. Just to name one scene that might be hard for youngsters to grasp: Mr. Incredible saves a suicidal man who doesn’t want to be saved. Guest Dork Reporter Snarkbait asked her two little boy cousins what they liked best about their movie. They relate most to the character Dash, and probably selectively ignore the bits they can’t yet understand. So perhaps I’m underestimating how well the movie works on multiple levels.

The IncrediblesThe family that fights robot drones together stays together

Even the voice casting is so perfect, it’s impossible to imagine any others in their place. Craig T. Nelson is as perfectly suited to Mr. Incredible’s middle-aged anxieties as Tim Allen was to Buzz Lightyear’s innocent bluster in the Toy Story films. I could go on to praise every single other voice actor, but special mention must go to Holly Hunter as sassy spitfire Elastigirl, Sarah Vowell’s perfect expression of teen anxieties as (shrinking) Violet, and Brad Bird’s gut-bustingly hilarious impression of Hollywood fashion legend Edith Head as the superhero costume designer Edna Mode.

Brad Bird and Holly Hunter in The IncrediblesBrad Bird steals his own movie as the unforgettable Edna Mode

If forced to find one thing to critique, I would point to the relatively minor details of the characters’ hair. On the DVD bonus features, the Pixar animators and software engineers brag about the technologies they invented to simulate realistic hair, but none of the virtual coifs sit well upon the deliberately stylized cartoony faces. The characters have cute little dimples instead of hairy nostrils and waxy ear canals, so why give them such photorealistic hair?


Official movie site: www.theincredibles.com

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