The Three Hour Avalanche: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas Movie Poster


Books are books, and movies are movies. I usually don’t want or expect any adaptation to copy its source — in fact, it’s usually in everyone’s best interests for a derivative work to strive to be its own thing, and not… well, derivative. But Tom Tykwer and Lana & Larry Wachowski’s Cloud Atlas turned out to be an astonishingly faithful adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel. For a book so sprawling and commonly deemed unadaptable, I fully expected more characters and incident to have been necessarily jettisoned. But almost everything is there, with most of the screenwriters’ additions coming in the form of structural changes rather than material.

Being so faithful to this particular book comes with a potential downside. One of the greatest pleasures to be had in the novel is its wide range of genres and tones. Sequences include a pulpy 70s thriller, a light-hearted old folks farce, a sci-fi dystopia, and a postapocalyptic wasteland. Each is familiar to a degree, but only insofar as Mitchell employs known genre tropes to his own ends. Each is written in a different voice, ranging from archaic historical vernacular to imaginary fractured and devolved languages of the far future.

Continue reading

Adapting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: After the End of the World

The Road movie poster


Genre fiction has long resided on the wrong side of the chasm between escapism and literature. But as The Atlantic notes, cult writers like Neil Gaiman are crossing over into the mainstream while established novelists like Michael Chabon are exploring the genre territory blazed by the likes of Margaret Atwood. Few know these blurring barriers as well as Cormac McCarthy, a writer with firm bona fides in the literary world whose devastating 2006 novel The Road incorporated elements of speculative fiction. It become a crossover hit and landed a spot in the world’s biggest book club: The Oprah Winfrey Show. Its vision of a burned world populated by scavengers drained of all humanity is sometimes even described as a zombie story, sparking an argument over whether or not it qualifies as horror or science fiction. My own two-fold answer: of course it does, and the question is also irrelevant. Speculative futures and fanciful technology are not the true subjects of science fiction, but rather means to an end: exploring the here and now.

The Road made its way to theaters shortly after a very different vision of life after the apocalypse. Director McG’s Terminator Salvation was the fourth entry in an escapist action franchise detailing a formulaic battle for the fate of humanity. The Road is set at a time long after such heroic struggles can even be imagined, and when the drudgery of mere survival is waning. The world itself is terrifyingly realized onscreen, using real desolate locations: particularly an eerily abandoned stretch of turnpike in Pittsburgh, and the still largely lifeless blasted remains of Mount St. Helens in Washington. The only technical problem I noticed was the somewhat distracting tooth continuity throughout. Decay: now you see it, now you don’t.

A scene from The Road“If I were God, I would have made the world just so and no different.”

I re-read the novel a few days before seeing the film, which turned out to be a mistake. The book remained the emotional, visceral experience it was on my first read, but its freshness in my mind kept me somewhat detached throughout the movie. I could not help but dispassionately analyze the particulars of the adaptation. I’m among those who loved the book, but didn’t necessarily desire the movie to be faithful. The mechanics of how it could be done fascinated me. How do you adapt a book that lives and dies on the Steinbeckian terse, harsh, understated poetry of its language? Joe Penhall’s screenplay is remarkably faithful in terms of plot and sequence of events, and the few changes are mostly effective. In particular, a neat trick involved seamlessly combining three separate incidents in the novel into a single sequence: The Boy falls ill, The Man loots an abandoned boat, and they are robbed.

It’s hard to imagine a better director for The Road than John Hillcoat, whose previous film The Proposition, from a screenplay by Nick Cave, could have been the movie that Cormac McCarthy never made himself. But The Road as a film somehow fails to recreate the emotionally devastating effect of its source material. Another candidate for director might have been Alfonso Cuarón, who managed to transform P.D. James’ novel Children of Men into a gut-wrenching vision of a near-future society disintegrating before our eyes. McCarthy had presented Hillcoat with a significant challenge; The Road is, in a sense, a long denouement to a story we didn’t see. Perhaps the strongest argument against genre fans claiming The Road as their own is that most zombie stories concern the fall of civilization. The Road is set far after an implied cataclysm, where everything has been taken away, even the very names of the people and places that remain.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road“If there is a God up there, he would have turned his back on us by now. And whoever made humanity will find no humanity here.”

That said, the McCarthy does glancingly allude to a cataclysmic event followed by violence on a massive scale, waged by tribes described as Bloodcults. There are many aspects of the back story that Hillcoat and Penhall opt to clarify (particularly the Man & Boy’s family life), but the massive wars that swept the country in the preceeding years is not one of them. This largely unspoken past in crucial to the book, as the reader contemplates how the Man, the Boy, and everyone they encountered somehow lived through it all, be it through fighting, hiding, or collaborating. The Man’s strategy for survival is to lay low and instill in his son the need to preserve a metaphorical “light” of basic humanity. We see numerous alternative strategies that also worked, but which result in the destruction of the soul. One such walking dead man we meet is Old Man (Robert Duvall), who apparently collaborated with the Bloodcults until the toxic landscape claimed his health.

Some of McCarthy’s poetically spare language is preserved in the limited voiceover narration delivered by the Man (Viggo Mortensen). But some evidence exists onscreen that the filmmakers feared the audience might not be able to put two and two together. While being scarcely mentioned by name in the book, “cannibalism” is one of the first words spoken in the film. It presents this savagery as the specific omnipresent threat that forces the Man and Boy to remain totally alone and self-reliant. Another clue the movie is more obsessed with cannibalism than the book: in the closing credits, a plump female character is chillingly named “well-fed woman”. That’s certainly more humor than can be found in the text.

Viggo Mortensen in The Road“I told the boy when you dream about bad things happening, it means you’re still fighting and you’re still alive. It’s when you start to dream about good things that you should start to worry.”

Another key element I missed from the book is the realization that the Boy has literally never seen another child, ever, which goes a long way towards explaining his careless reaction to glimpsing another boy. Long accustomed to hiding from all contact, he explodes with the dangerous need to connect. Although The Boy has evidently known little else, he seems to have the inborn need to cling to signs of life. The boy also marvels at a glimpse of a beetle — a detail which I believe was added — whose metallic-like wings refract the grayish light and provide one of the film’s only flashes of color.

The ending of the novel is something that can only work in prose. A simple change in verb tense hints at a possible future, a radical change in thinking for characters previously forced to organize their lives around immediate survival. Beyond an overarching quest to reach the ocean, they indulged in little talk of the future, or of any kind of continuance at all. Life on the literal and metaphorical road is a sick combination of drudgery and terror. Every event in their lives is sudden, unexpected, and never likely to recur in quite the same way. The final words in the novel are perhaps the first thing the boy hears that hints of a comforting routine he might expect in his future. Translated to film, Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall do perhaps the only thing they could do: plug a bunch of words into a character’s mouth that was silent in the book.

Charlize Theron in The Road“My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born.”

The casting is pretty much perfect, particularly Kodi Smit-McPhee, who so resembles Charlize Theron that it’s eerie. Even the supporting cast is superlative, including Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Michael K. Williams, Molly Parker, and Garret Dillahunt. The latter is an interesting, versatile actor, having played an upper-crust psychopath in Deadwood, a criminal idiot in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a murderous cyborg in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and here a vile cannibal. That’s a remarkable range of deranged characters, but will he ever have a chance to play a normal guy?

Official site:

Buy any of these fine products from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report:


Solitary Confinement: Moon

Moon movie poster


Moon is a rare science fiction thriller that doesn’t derive its tension solely from the spectacle of spaceships, robots, or offworld locale. Rather, it’s a psychodrama about paranoia, in the Philip K. Dick tradition of Blade Runner, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly (not to mention the countless movies Dick indirectly inspired, such as Dark City, 12 Monkeys, and The Matrix). Moon’s futuristic trappings hide several onion layers of deeper themes: bioethics, torture, labor exploitation, and questioning the nature of the self and one’s perception of reality.

Director Duncan Jones (aka Zowie Bowie, son of David Bowie), shot Moon on an extraordinarily economical budget of $5 million, achieved largely by restricting production to soundstages and substituting practical miniatures for costly CGI. A beneficial side-effect is a pleasing tactility lacking in most contemporary sci-fi films, where entire characters and environments are now routinely virtual. As a beat-up moon rover slowly trundles across the uneven lunar surface, kicking up dust, bumping and rattling all the way, it feels real because it is.

Duncan Jones' MoonOur circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong

As his character’s name Sam Bell implies, Jones conceived the role with Sam Rockwell in mind. Rockwell was great in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Matchstick Men, and is great here. He must hold the screen virtually alone for most of the film, and Jones was right to hype him for an Academy Award nomination.

Sam is a blue-collar miner and the sole occupant of a partially automated base dedicated to strip-mining the dark side of the moon for a compound needed back on earth for clean power. It may sound like technobabble but in fact the science is sound: Helium-3 is a real element believed to be plentiful on the moon and theoretically may someday provide a sustainable source of energy. But in the true sci-fi dystopian tradition, Sam’s employer Lunar Industries turns out to be as insidious as the Weylan-Utani corporation that exploits the Nostromo mining platform crew in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Lunar Industries boasts of profitably saving the Earth’s environment by providing clean power on the cheap, made possible by engaging in practices that are arguably immoral but commonly accepted. The exploitation of cloned life is a direct parallel to today’s outsourcing of labor to developing countries with more lax human rights. If one wonders how a future society might be so inured to cloning that they would condone Sam’s servitude, media broadcasts overheard at the end of the film spill the beans: no, they don’t (that is, if we’re optimistic and assume what he hear is real – it’s possible they’re the fantasy of a dying man imagining his moral victory). But perhaps it’s like how many in the western world live now; we enjoy affordable consumer electronics and clothing manufactured by workers that literally live inside their factories, and don’t ask why our purchases don’t cost more. Jones told Suicide Girls that Moon is the first part in a projected trilogy, so perhaps we will see prequels or sequels that flesh out a world where human cloning is a fact of life.

Kevin Spacey in Duncan Jones' MoonGERTY ROTFLMAO

Sam’s madness and physical deterioration is partially explained within the science fiction context as a result of the inherent instability of cloned life. Apparently, like early experiments with animals like Dolly the sheep in 1996, clones are more prone to disease, organ failure, and premature death (Dolly survived about half the normal lifespan for a sheep). Like the “replicants” in Blade Runner, these clones come with built-in expiration dates. But then, don’t we all? While Blade Runner’s Dekker comes to terms with his true nature through escape, Sam instead chooses to confront.

Discovering he is merely a commercial product with inbuilt obsolescence is just one of Sam’s problems. His quarters and workspace look like they might have once been as clean and white as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Discovery One vessel (or the inside of an Apple Store), but have long since become stained and soiled with the filth and grit of the many Sams that came before him. Also like the Discovery One astronauts, Sam periodically receives prerecorded video messages beamed from earth. These asynchronous conversations are not unlike email, and a poor substitute for real human interaction.

You don’t have to look far for a metaphor: the common practice of solitary confinement is increasingly recognized as a form of torture. The harrowing New Yorker article “Hellhole” by Atul Gawande recounts how a psychologically stable person can go mad in a matter of weeks or even days without human contact. We first meet Sam three years into his tour of duty.

Sam Rockwell in Duncan Jones' MoonI am obligated to make a lame “Sam I Am” joke somewhere in this review, so here it is

Sam’s interactions with the base’s computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) are likewise reduced to the rudiments of online communication; its “face” is comprised of happy/sad/neutral emoticons. GERTY is a rarity in science fiction: a compassionate example of artificial intelligence. Countless movies (including 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Wargames, The Terminator, I Robot, et al.) have trained us to expect artificial intelligences to be inherently evil or, at least, dangerously unstable. But GERTY is more like David (Haley Joel Osment) in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet, or Wall-E: an artificial creation that rigidly follows its programming, but whose parameters allow it to exhibit genuine compassion and caring for its charge.

I loved the movie overall, but was disappointed by the lack of ambiguity in its storytelling. The trailer reveals more than I would have liked to know if I had watched the movie cold, and the movie itself reveals its secrets very early by quickly dropping the word “clone.” Would it have been more interesting had there been hints of a possibility that Sam might be delusional, hallucinating a clone, and was in fact alone the whole time? Maybe I’ve been conditioned by too many Twilight Zone episodes, Fight Club, and M. Night Shyamalan movies, but I expected a twist ending that never came.

I’ve touched on several of Moon’s more obvious inspirations, but I’m also reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris remake, in which a clone-like creature murders his original. Cloning is just beginning to enter the zeitgeist, having recently figured into the braindead actioner The Island but also the more contemplative Never Let Me Go, based on the highly regarded novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Clones may very well prove to be the next zombies or vampires.

Official movie site:

Buy the Blu-ray, DVD, or Clint Mansell’s excellent soundtrack CD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Christopher Nolan’s Fugue State: Inception

Inception movie poster


In his 1999 essay Celluloid Vs. Digital, Roger Ebert cites studies equating the experience of watching a movie to entering a fugue state: “film creates reverie, video creates hypnosis.” In other words, experiencing a film in the traditional manner, projected at 24 frames per second in a darkened theater, affects the brain in a way akin to dreaming. Inception is far from the first movie set in dreams, but it may be alone in attempting to encode the experience into the architecture of a film itself. Whether you compare it to onion skins or a puzzlebox, the form follows the content.

The bar has been set very low by the likes of Avatar, but Inception is finally proof that movies with budgets in the hundreds of millions need not be moronic and disposable. Yes, Inception is a sci-fi action movie full of well-tailored outlaws, guns, fight sequences, and exploding mountain fortresses, but it’s also an intelligent, complex experience for adults. If it took a weak remake and two movies about a vigilante in a rubber bat costume for Nolan to get here, then so be it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception“It’s not, strictly speaking, legal.”

Inception is the natural progression from Following, Memento, and The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s quartet of wholly original visions. Insomnia, a safe remake of the far more incendiary Norwegian original, now seems like a detour, a paying of dues to enter the mainstream. His pair of Batman franchise entries injected a modicum of psychological realism into the pulp source material, but the grimly ponderous weight of it all was perhaps more than it could bear. For my money, nobody other than Tim Burton has managed to find the right mixture of camp and solemnity that makes up Batman.

While Inception may have some surface resemblance to numerous heist, caper, long con, action, and science fiction films, it is nevertheless a very welcome New Thing. Its deepest thematic links are probably to cerebral sci-fi meditations Solaris and Until the End of the World. The nightmare planet in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris haunted visitors with imperfect reincarnations of their most emotionally significant others. When a grieving astronaut is reunited with his ersatz wife, long dead of suicide, is it a blessing or a curse?

Inception“A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.”

Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World posits a future in which dream-reading technology would be enormously addictive, psychologically damaging, and permanently alter society. If a technology is ever invented for a group of people to not only enter an individual’s dreams but also to construct the dreamworld itself, how plausible it is that society would not be radically transformed? In Inception, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a master at corporate espionage. His expertise is with a process normally utilized for the “extraction” of trade secrets, but inverted to inception: to implant an idea, a task which proves to hold massive significance to Cobb. Like a drug, we’re told, these machines gradually seep away users’ ability to dream on his or her own. We glimpse a sort of opium den in which burned-out dream junkies go to re-experience the normality of not only dreaming, but more importantly, waking up from dreams. Wenders’ The End of Violence would similarly look at another dystopian future in which global surveillance is taken to its logical extreme.

Inception’s action sequences beg comparison to everything from James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mission: Impossible. Its creative fight sequences, taking place in virtual arenas in which the laws of time and gravity are fluid, recall The Matrix. But the true narrative and structural template is much more along the lines of long-con tale much loved by David Mamet (particularly Homicide and Redbelt) and heist films Rififi, Thief, and Heat, in which a crack team of criminal experts work with a psychologically damaged leader on a high-stakes One Last Job.

The bloodless massacre of hordes of armed thugs seems designed to resemble video games. The obliquely portrayed violence is partly explained by a PG-13 rating that hypocritically permits dozens of onscreen shootings, but disallows blood, and thus any sense of the repercussions and ramifications of violence. But in the world of the film, the thugs are explained to be manifestations of the subconscious. A slight-of-hand morality magic trick that makes it OK for our heroes to mow them down with machine guns and grenades (again, this flashes back to The Matrix, in which the good guys rationalize away their mass killing of virtual avatars).

Marion Cotillard in Inception“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

Inception had already developed a reputation as a mind-bender even before release, but I found it to be surprisingly straightforward if you pay a little bit of attention. If you choose to take the film at face value, pretty much everything you need to know is spelled out for you, often in frankly literal exposition (usually in exchanges with Ellen Page’s inquisitive character). The key ambiguity is a simple but profound question raised in its final moments. Interpreted one way, the film neatly wraps itself up in an airtight box (which is extraordinary in and of itself, when most big-budget movies often fail to make logical sense). Interpreted another way, it calls into question everything you’ve seen.

This moment hinges on Cobb’s totem, a personal item that each dream-traveller must rely upon to detect whether or not they are awake. Both Cobb and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) warn Ariadne (Ellen Page) to never allow anyone else to touch hers. But Cobb also freely admits that his totem first belonged to his wife Mol (Marion Cotillard). Complicating matters, unless I missed something, we never see her with it outside of the dream world. The top had symbolic meaning to Mol, for she locked it up in a metaphorical safe in her dreams. Cobb then uses it to plant the notion in her head that the dream world is not real, in order to encourage her to break her addiction and wake up with him. If the top was real, would she not be able to test herself with it when she woke up?

One further clue that suggests much of what we saw may be Cobb’s dream: if he and Mol lived the equivalent of 50 years in Limbo, several levels deep into their subconscious, why do they seem to only wake up through one level of dreaming? Is Cobb still trapped a few levels down?

Ellen Page in Inception“Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”

And one wonders about the implausible dream technology itself. It’s offhandedly said to have been developed by the military for training purposes, but very little time is spent on the mechanics of the technology. Some sort of IV is involved in the process of linking people together, but how exactly does an Architect create and realize the world? We see Ariadne fiddle with papier-mache models, and verbally describe the world to the participants, but we’re also told that the architect need not necessarily enter the dream personally, so it’s not her mental map that makes things possible. If the agents are able to conjure things on the fly (Eames produces a grenade launcher out of thin air, and Ariadne folds a city in half), why do they not take more advantage of their effectively unlimited abilities during the heist? Cobb makes a big deal out of a prospective architect being able to devise labyrinths, something like a video game level designer. But Ariadne’s work is literally short-circuited and we never see a dramatic payoff to the theme of mazes.

Ray Bradbury once said that he was not concerned with the mechanics of interstellar travel; if a story he wished to tell required a rocket ship to ferry characters to another world, that was good enough for him. So is it pedestrian of me to wonder about these practicalities, or do these questions actually matter a great deal? Is the lack of specificity about how this miraculous technology actually works a clue? I believe it is linked to the troubling ambiguity of Cobb’s desire to “go home.” Does he simply want to clear his name so he can re-enter his home country, or does he want to plunge deeper into his fantasy? Is he actually guilty of a crime like Roman Polanski, or merely obsessed with indirect culpability like Kelvin in Solaris or Teddy in Shutter Island? Either way, he may have the opportunity to construct a false reality in which he can absolve himself.

I believe Inception is one for the ages, and not just because it has been endorsed by Al Gore. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, it’s the rare science fiction film likely to remain well-regarded for years.

Random Observations:

  • How many heist movies have you seen in which the master thief attempts the mythical One Last Job before retiring?
  • Despite Leonardo DiCaprio sporting Nolan’s own haircut, Inception might suffer in comparison to his somewhat similar character in his most recent film, Shutter Island. Two thrillers in a row about a man wracked with guilt over his dead spouse.
  • Wikipedia puts the budget at $160 million, plus a $100 million publicity campaign. As usual, these numbers make my head spin. But at least this time the result is a strong movie.
  • Like Paul Thomas Anderson, Nolan has developed his own personal actors’ troupe. Inception features return appearances by Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy.

Official movie site:

Pre-order the Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.totem

Design is how it works: Gary Hustwit’s Objectified

Objectified movie poster


Objectified finds its thesis in a quotation from one of history’s prime industrialists, Henry Ford: “Every object, whether intentional or not, speaks to whoever put it there.” In other words, everything we select, purchase, and interact with, was first designed and manufactured by a skilled artisan. That person’s job is to obsess about you, your body, needs and habits, and how their product might become a part of your life. Director Gary Hustwit’s previous documentary feature Helvetica (read The Dork Report review) was a celebration of typographers and graphic designers, and inspired laypeople to recognize the long history and great labor that went into the typefaces they use every day on their computer screens. Similarly, Objectified profiles the often unknown industrial designers behind the stuff we buy.

Jonathan Ives in ObjectifiedJonathan Ives’ inner sanctum. After conducting this interview, Apple had the filmmakers shot.

Apple’s resident guru Jonathan Ive is perhaps the most famous design auteur featured. Ive is probably the second most famous person at Apple, justly acclaimed for his singular design aesthetic that first caught the public imagination with the bondi Blue iMac and then the stark, white, deceptively “simple” iPod. Ive’s boss Steve Jobs famously said that design is “not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works,” a principle born out in Ive’s work. Knowing inside and out the particulars of different materials and manufacturing is just part of designing a product’s externals. Ive brandishes precision-tooled parts from a disassembled MacBook Pro to illustrate that Apple spends an enormous amount of time and resources not just designing their products, but also the custom machines and processes necessary to mass produce them.

Naoto Fukasawa in ObjectifiedNaoto Fukasawa rethinks the CD player.

Objectified spends some considerable time on the topic of sustainability, a responsibility that regrettably only recently entered the industrial designer’s job description. Valerie Casey of IDEO relates the incredible anecdote of the difficult process of developing a new toothbrush. When the product is finally ready and in stores, she embarks on a much-needed vacation to Fiji. If you didn’t already guess where this story was going, she finds a discarded IDEO toothbrush washed up on a beach halfway around the world. In less than a week, her product had become pollution.

Objectified necessarily makes a brief detour into interaction design (this brief digression would be worthy of a film unto itself, but in the meantime, the curious can refer to Steven Johnson‘s 1997 book Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate). When we interact with most analog products, their form follows their function. As a thought experiment, would an alien from outer space (or a Tarzan raised in the wild) be able to infer an object’s function simply by looking at it? That is likely the case with a spoon or chair, but not so much with an iPhone. For many products of the digital age, the outward form factor gives no clues as to the function. Thus, interaction design was born with the Xerox PARC graphical user interface. Many of our daily tasks are now abstracted onto a two-dimensional screen. The Apple iPhone and iPad have popularized the touchscreen, which likely signals the beginning of another sea change when peripherals like keyboards and mice will be revealed to have been a temporary evolutionary bump, now marked for extinction.

still from ObjectifiedAwww yeah, designers know what time it is.

The last images we see are of the devices used to make the movie itself: a computer, hard drive, and camera. Tellingly, the Objectified Blu-ray edition has no menu structure at all. You put it in, it plays, and the supplementary features follow immediately after the closing credits. It’s a completely guided, linear experience that speaks to the film’s elevation of the creator over the consumer.

Official movie site:

Must read: A Hurricane of Consumer Values by Alissa Walker

Buy any of these fine products from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report:



Homicide movie poster


Detective Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna) comes to see himself as torn between two discrete worlds in David Mamet’s Homicide (1991). Only when maneuvered into a position in which he must choose, the duality unravels and he finds he is no one special and belongs nowhere in particular.

Gold’s partner Sullivan (William H. Macy) has an unreserved man-crush on him, taking every opportunity to publicly butter him up and extol the therapeutic pleasures of police work. He reminds their peers that his revered partner is “Bobby The Orator,” so-called for his skill at negotiation. Indeed the moniker is deserving, for he is called on to calm a rabid dog with mere words, and later sweet-talk a ferociously stubborn mother into betraying her son. But Gold is certainly no action hero, confirmed in a early scene as he is beaten up and disarmed by an overweight civilian, in the sanctuary of the police station. By the end of the film, he has lost his sidearm a second time and is quickly physically bested again by the crook Randolph (Ving Rhames). Is it too much of a stretch to link his failure to control his weapon with impotence and castration? He certainly feels perpetually aggrieved. At each unfair turn in these very unfair events, he repeats his refrain: “What did I ever do to you?”

William H. Macy and Joe Mantegna in Homicide“You got some heavy troubles on your mind? Huh, babe? We’ll work it out. We’ll play some cops and robbers. We’ll bust this big criminal. We’ll swagger around.”

Bobby accidentally comes across a seemingly mundane murder while chasing down the sexier Randolph case (the kind of unambiguous, action-packed police work, with measurable results, that grants Gold and Sullivan existential satisfaction). Elderly Jewish woman Mrs. Klein has been found murdered in her inner-city candy shop. Everything points to a simple robbery, “everything” being, of course, the supposition that poor neighborhood African Americans have robbed a rare white business. Klein’s son, not quite grieving but resigned to a lifetime of persecution, sighs “It never ends.” When Bobby asks “What never ends?”, granddaughter (Rebecca Pigeon) coldly clarifies for him: “On the jews.” Already the murder escalates from a robbery to a hate crime, and this is a strong whiff of catnip for a man who also believes himself to be perpetually put-upon and aggrieved. As the Klein family correctly infers, Bobby is a Jew. But he wears a 5-point star as a cop. His sublimated Jewish pride only comes out in defense against the occasional professional flare-up in which he is called a “kike.”

Fittingly for a detective celebrated for a mastery of words, pursuing the Klein murder case is more an act of literary scholarship than one of police procedure. Gold’s investigation brings him to a Jewish research library where he senses deeper mysteries encoded in his ancestral Yiddish. His single best clue is the tantalizing derivation of the nonsense-seeming word “Grofatz.” All of this leads him into a confrontation with a decades-old group of Zionist warriors (who may be or may not be the Mossad, although the name is not mentioned in the film) who awaken him to his vengeful Jewish identity. Hungry for the rush of positive action that his cop side is currently denying him, he elbows his way into their ranks and becomes addicted to violent action.

Rebecca Pigeon in Homicide“Hey, you’re better than an aquarium, you know that? There’s something happening with you every minute.”

But Homicide is a policier on the surface only. Like most of Mamet’s plays and screenplays, the plot is structured around a deep, complex confidence game. House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Glengarry Glen Ross (read The Dork Report review), Spartan, and Redbelt (read The Dork Report review) all feature a long con of one form or another at their cores. A sucker is a sucker because of the truism that if one looks hard enough for something, one will find it. Most of Gold’s apparent clues and leads evaporate into meaningless happenstance. What is at stake is not what he thinks, and he finds himself used and abandoned.

Special mention goes to fine cinematography by the great Roger Deakins. The decaying Baltimore provides for two spectacular chase scenes, one along the rooftops and another below the asphalt. Each coils into a labyrinth, spiraling down and in, deeper and deeper, until Bobby encounters physically powerless but immovable minotaur-like figures the disarmed man must battle with his words alone.

Must read: Homicide: What Are You, Then? by Stuart Klawans

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

The Impostors

The Impostors movie poster


Stanley Tucci’s The Impostors (1998) is without a doubt one of the funniest and most purely enjoyable movies I’ve ever seen. And that’s really saying something, considering its milieu is the joblessness, desperation, and looming international conflict of The Great Depression. Baldly composed as a loving homage to old-school Hollywood screwball comedies, it has the feel of a filmed stage play like Peter Bogdanovich’s Noises Off (1992) crossed with the loosey-goosey, making-it-up-as-they-go-along feel of a Marks Brothers or Laurel & Hardy romp. The production values may be frankly rather cheap, but it turns its budget into a virtue as the same sets are redressed over and over to amusing effect, and finally as the entire soundstage-bound facade is unveiled during a celebratory dance number that breaks the fourth wall. Refreshingly, The Impostors is an affectionate pastiche, and not satiric or ironic in the least.

Olive Platt and Stanley Tucci in The Impostors“To life… and its many deaths.”

The freewheeling farce is above all a love letter to the craft of acting. Arthur (Tucci) and Maurice (Oliver Platt) are two perpetually out-of-work actors so enamored of their chosen profession that they will not consider pursuing any other line of work even when faced with starvation. Their daily routine consists of staging acting exercises for themselves in public, duping passersby into serving as their participatory audience, like a prototype of modern-day pranksters Improv Everywhere. An escalating series of misadventures finally delivers them into a scenario in which their acting skills for once become useful: the opportunity to portray fabulously rich cruise ship passengers, to save the day, and of course to die magnificently heartbreaking deaths while doing so. One could argue that what Arthur and Maurice want, even more than to eat, is the opportunity to die in front of an audience. It’s worth noting that most of the legitimate passengers are anything but; most have either lost fortunes during the Depression, are conspiring to steal new ones, or plot to wreak terrorist havoc in the name of fascism.

Lili Taylor and Campbell Scott in The Impostors“The danger of the chase has made you perspire. It has made me also… moist.”

Tucci’s paean to acting attracted an ensemble cast to die for, including a dream team of 1990s indie superstars including Lily Taylor, Steve Buscemi, Hope Davis, Isabella Rossellini, Tony Shalhoub, and Campbell Scott (who shamelessly steals and runs away with the movie with a sublimely odd character that answers the unasked question: what if Marvin the Martian were a lovestruck Nazi?). A great many others would achieve greater fame later: Alison Janney (The West Wing), Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2), Michael Emmerson (Lost), and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor – read The Dork Report review). And there’s still room in the soufflé for wildcards like Scottish comedian Billy Connolly and a cameo by a manic Woody Allen in a superfluous (but still funny) skit.

Sadly, The Impostors was not nearly as much of a critical or commercial success as Tucci and Scott’s acclaimed Big Night (1996), which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that Tucci has only directed two films since (Joe Gould’s Secret in 2000 and Blind Date in 2008). Let’s hope he and Big Night co-director Scott conspire again soon in the future.

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Nothing to Say and No Way to Say It: Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road movie poster


The first few minutes of Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road feature one of the boldest jump cuts this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and April (Kate Winslet) meet cute out of a crowd of Beatnik hipsters at a loft party. Like any flirting young couple, how each chooses to introduce themself comprises a promise as to whom each will become should they grow up together. The glamorous April simply says she is studying to be an actress, as if that is all Frank needs to know. He in turn cracks wise about toiling in nothing jobs holding him back from vaguely-defined great aspirations. After this very brief scene, Mendes jump cuts to several years later to find Frank and April married in suburbia with two kids. An older Frank privately cringes during April’s weak debut in a community theater production. It turns out she’s not a great actress after all, but cursed to be just smart and sensitive enough to know it. Her sense of definitive failure and his frustration at her frustration combusts into a blistering roadside argument on par with any of the cataclysmic rows between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road“You were just some boy who made me laugh at a party once, and now I loathe the sight of you.”

Frank and April’s all-consuming pride escapes as barely-veiled condescension toward their peers in the office and on their suburban street. They both share mutually incompatible senses of superiority, feeling destined for something great without knowing what, or having any obvious natural talent to nurture. It provides no satisfaction when Frank does eventually manifest an aptitude in marketing, something they both view as disappointing and beneath them. Who or what propped them up with this sense of superiority? Are we to read their hubris as a critique of the Greatest Generation (Frank is a World War II veteran, an experience he romanticizes even while acknowledging his sheer terror at the time)? This generational theory would be supported by how the older Givings family views them – but more on the Givings later. Or were Frank and April’s egos boosted by overpraising parents? We hear much of Frank’s late father, who toiled in obscurity for years at the same firm where Frank now finds himself trapped, but any other relatives are wholly absent from their lives. Perhaps if Frank and April had been born a few generations later, they would be the sort of overconfident personalities drawn to compete on reality TV shows.

After April gives up on her dream of acting after her disastrous debut, she latches onto a fantasy of moving to Paris and supporting Frank so he may find his. But Frank is even less evolved than she; he never specifies what he imagines himself becoming. Writer? Politician? Artist? He has nothing to say, and no way to say it. Their Gallic escape plan is not fully thought through, and Frank never really commits anyway. He’s clever enough to excel amongst the duller coworkers with whom he shares daily steak and martini lunches. He becomes further ensnared by success in the business world, as measured by income, the sexual availability of naive office girls, and a step above his father on the ego-stroking ladder of promotion.

Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road“Hopeless emptiness. Now you’ve said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”

One flaw of the film is dialogue that sometimes strays from naturalism into the novelistic. Even in the midst of the fiercest of arguments, April is still poised enough to deliver zingers like “No one forgets the truth, Frank, they just get better at lying” and “You’re just some boy who made me laugh at a party once, and now I loathe the sight of you.”

I promised to return to the Givings family, whom I believe are the key to understanding the film. Helen Givings (Kathy Bates) gently teaches April how to be a good housewife, offering passive aggressive critiques of such fripperies as lawn maintenance. But she slowly reveals a longing admiration for the Wheelers as an ideal American nuclear family: a nice, good-looking, successful, model young couple in love (their coarse neighbors the Campbells also idealize the Wheelers). Helen hopes that some of their pixie dust might rub off on her troubled son John (Michael Shannon), a mathematician and intellectual brought low by mental illness and electroshock therapy (whether it is the disease or the cure that ails him most is a question that bleakly amuses him). John proves to have the coldest, clearest, starkest view of reality, and cuts right through all the subterfuge and doublespeak with which these American nuclear families delude themselves. Everything he says is right, but tragically, Frank and April interpret the bitterly damaged man as a kindred spirit and not as what he is: a holy fool (in the sense of idiot savant) that damningly illustrates their faults.

Kathy Bates in Revolutionary RoadHelen admires the Wheelers’ splendid picture window looking out on Revolutionary Road

In some ways, the final scene is the most devastating, and it doesn’t even feature the Wheelers at all. The Givings chat at home alone, long after the Wheelers revealed themselves to be fatally fractious and tortured. We witness Helen rewrite history, belittling the Wheelers in terms of their ability to maintain the value of their home (read: their family). As she’s busy erasing her emotional stake in the Wheelers, her husband Howard (Richard Easton) turns off his hearing aid to literally drown her out. He gazes at her emptily, dispassionately, dead inside. We might imagine their marriage survived the kind of emotional flashpoint that destroyed the Wheelers, but trapped them in a cold, loveless life together.

Official movie site:

Buy the DVD and novel by Richard Yates from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Cool Britannia: State of Play

State of Play movie poster


The 2003 BBC miniseries State of Play is nothing less than six straight hours of intelligent drama, liberally spiced with suspense, action, and tasty plot twists. The entire epic tale is delivered by a veritable plethora of British Isles telly & movie who’s who: writer Paul Abbot, director David Yates, and actors David Morrissey, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald, Polly Walker, Bill Nighy, and James McAvoy. Abbot is apparently a superstar television writer in the UK, and Yates directed the last two Harry Potter films (as well as reuniting Nighy and Macdonald in 2005 for The Girl in the Café – read The Dork Report review).

State of Play is an especially good tonic after happening to recently watch the dour The International (read The Dork Report review), which falls more or less into the same genre category. The key differential is a heathy dash of comic relief that never crosses over into farce, mostly supplied by the sublimely quirky Bill Nighy. But more importantly, the intricate tale of high-level political conspiracy feels pertinent. The International, although based on an actual banking scandal (a topic that could not be more timely), sabotaged its plausibility by limiting the protagonists to two lone wolfs that take on a crooked multinational financial conglomerate on their lonesome. Here, numerous fleshed-out cops and reporters alternately clash and collaborate as they chase down a gargantuan story. State of Play is actually both a classic newspaper story (like All the President’s Men) and a police procedural (like The French Connection). It’s worth noting that each of these genres are about the piecing together of stories, and the suspense comes from the audience follows along with them as the discover the pieces of the narrative. Granted, the luxurious six-hour running time was a luxury The International could not enjoy.

Bill Nighy, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald in State of PlayThe Herald newsroom follows the money in State of Play

The details of the plot were undoubtedly timely in 2003 and continue to be now, proven by its American feature film remake in 2009. After suffering through 8 years of a Bush/Cheney administration, Americans can intimately relate to oil companies meddling in governmental operations. Although State of Play is fictional, the affair between a Member of Parliament and a staff member that winds up dead inescapably calls to mind US Representative Gary Condit’s affair intern Chandra Levy, found murdered in 2001. A subplot involving an MP’s compromised expense account now looks even more timely than Abbot could have predicted in 2003, considering the atrocious widespread abuse that currently threatens to remove Gordon Brown and possibly even the Labour Party from power.

David Morrissey & John Simm in State of PlayThe Next Doctor faces off against The Master for the first time

Apart from the sometimes overenthusiastic editing (making the series feel a bit like the satire Hot Fuzz), the only misstep is Nicholas Hooper’s percussive, bombastic score, including an incongruous didgeridoo-infused theme suddenly introduced in part six. But one of the series’ greatest pleasures is to hear Kelly Macdonald (a Dork Report crush ever since her unforgettable performance as the ultimate naughty schoolgirl in Trainspotting) pronounce “murder” with all the wonderful extra diphthongs her Scottish accent provides.

Official site:

Must read: BBC’s State of Play Left Me in a State of Awe on Pop Culture Nerd

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

California Guitar Trio & Tony Levin’s Stick Men, live at the B.B. King Blues Club, New York, June 22, 2009


The California Guitar Trio may not actually be from California (they actually hail from Belgium, Japan, and the US), but there are indeed three of them and they each play a guitar. In a way, that tells you everything and nothing you need to know. As designated spokesman Paul Richards explained during their June 22nd show at The B.B. King Blues Club in New York City’s Times Square, they met as students in one of Robert Fripp’s early Guitar Craft courses. The promising pupils became members of the touring outfits The League of Crafty Guitarists and The Robert Fripp String Quintet, and formed the CGT to present their original repertoire interspersed with well-chosen progressive rock and classical covers. As a King Crimson fan, I’ve wound up seeing them live no less than three times, all without having specifically meant to. The 1992 R.F.S.Q. show in Philadelphia still stands in my mind as one of the best concerts I’ve attended, and I recall their opening sets for King Crimson in 1995 (also in Philly) and The Trey Gunn Band in New York in 1997 going over great with audiences (during most concerts I’ve been to, audiences can’t be pried away from the bar during the opening act). Richards also told the crowd they had been recording and touring the world for 18 years, long since deserving to cease being described as former students of Fripp. (but a little namedropping never hurts!)

California Guitar Trio liveCalifornia Guitar Trio

Monday night’s concert was also an unmissable chance to see Tony Levin‘s Stick Men, a new band formed with fellow stick player Michael Bernier and drummer Pat Mastelotto. The droll, genial Levin is one of the world’s greatest bassists, a fan-favorite (listen for the inevitable moment when crowds go wild as Peter Gabriel introduces him on any live album he’s released in the past 25 years), and not to mention one of the world’s longest-running bloggers. Mastelotto is a powerhouse, a true drum demon obviously enjoying himself enormously on his array of acoustic drums plus various electronics a drum geek would have to identify (comments below, please). He shattered a stick at one point (startling Bernier as a bit of shrapnel flew in his direction), but deftly swapped the casualty for a new one. I’m not familiar with Bernier’s music, but as if his talents weren’t obvious on Monday night, Levin gave him props as a player who influenced his own technique (meaning a lot coming from the legend that helped pioneer the Chapman Stick instrument in the first place). Also, Bernier’s got a little bit of a Hugh Grant thing going on.

California Guitar Trio liveCalifornia Guitar Trio & Tyler Trotter perform Tubular Bells

Generally speaking, the Trio gave a mellow, contemplative show, while the Stick Men came out blasting with some very dense, funky, mostly instrumental prog rock. They were really, really loud – very glad I brought my earplugs – and even chased a few people out of the venue. I’m shamefully behind on my CGT and Levin album-buying, so I wasn’t familiar with much of the later repertoire of either trio. I only own the first three CGT albums (including what I think is a rare copy of an eponymous cd I purchased at the R.F.S.Q. show, that isn’t even listed on their official site). Copies of their latest are on order from Amazon as I write, but I picked up a pristine-sounding live recording available for sale right after the show. Here’s the set list according to Hideyo Moriya’s Roadcam, along with some of my subjective comments:

  1. Punta Patri
  2. Unmei – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony rearranged by Moriya in a 1960s surf guitar style that totally, unexpectedly works.
  3. Cathedral Peak
  4. Tubular Bells / And I Know / Walk Don’t Run – A condensed version of the album-length progressive rock epic by Mike Oldfield (perhaps more famously known as the theme music from The Exorcist). Their sound guy Tyler Trotter joined the band on melodium.
  5. Portland Rain
  6. Andromeda
  7. TX
  8. Moonlight Sonata – Richards briefly described Fripp’s Guitar Craft lesson of “circulation” as a key technique that has stuck with them. Here they’ve distributed the notes among three guitars, passing single notes from one to another. I’m not an expert, but when it comes to classical music, Bach in particular seems well-suited for the guitar.
  9. Echoes – Longtime Pink Floyd fans (myself included, I must admit) recognized it from the first note, but when the major melody appeared, the audience went nuts, even more so than when some King Crimson covers appeared later in the evening! The CGT version includes a gorgeous ambient interlude, stretching the bounds of what an acoustic guitar can do when connected to all sorts of electronic devices.
  10. Eve – Levin joined them for this ballad, sounding a bit like his own “Waters of Eden”
  11. Melrose Avenue – A great, terse rocker. With Levin & Mastelotto.
  12. Blockhead – With all three Stick Men. One of my favorite CGT tunes, but they omitted any kind of solo (Fripp himself plays a stunner on the R.F.S.Q. album The Bridge Between). Amazingly, they started circulating power chords.

The Stick Men stayed on stage for the next set, which included the following (and a lot more):

  • Sasquatch
  • Red – The classic King Crimson barnstormer, which Levin modestly identified as “we didn’t write that one.”
  • Indiscipline – Sung by Bernier.
  • Soup (or Superconductor?)
  • Encore: Larks Tongues in Aspic Part II – An effortless-seeming version with the CGT. King Crimson fans will know what I’m talking about when I say here’s another possible interpretation of the “Double Trio” concept.

California Guitar Trio & Stick Men liveCalifornia Guitar Trio & Stick Men

Levin congratulated an audience member in the first row for consuming a slice of cheesecake during one of the rockier numbers. He also described their recent, greatly meandering European tour, which sounded very exciting to someone with a normal day job. No doubt a professional musician will quickly counter that that much traveling and border-crossing is grueling. But if there’s time for even a few days off along the way, it sounds to me like a great way to see the world. Or maybe it’s just hell.

Tony Levin's Stick Men liveTony Levin’s Stick Men

Thanks for reading, and I invite anyone to please comment below. And finally, if anyone cares enough to have read this far, one last thing: fellow New Yorkers might know what I’m talking about when I say that some days New York is more New Yorky than usual. Monday was one of those days, and the nutters were out in force. On my way to the venue, I was blessed (or cursed, maybe, I’m not sure) but a green-clad street preacher wielding a cross made of twisted wire. Minutes later, the guy sitting next to me in Starbucks got an earful from a totally different preacher. And then, in B.B. King’s, one audience member in the back near me was obviously stoned; not on something relatively harmless that merely makes you stupid, but rather on the sort of thing that makes you manic and insane (cocaine? speed?). He couldn’t stop loudly babbling for the entire concert, and was almost literally bouncing off the walls. I kept hoping the management would toss him out, but no luck.

Official band sites: and

Buy the California Guitar Trio’s Echoes and Tony Levin’s Stick Man from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.