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 RoadIf 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 dénoue­ment 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 RoadIf 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 RoadI 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 RoadMy 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?

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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.

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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 InceptionIt’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?

InceptionA 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 InceptionYou 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 InceptionDreams 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-mâché 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:

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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 HomicideYou 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 HomicideHey, 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 façade 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 ImpostorsTo 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 ImpostorsThe 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 RoadYou 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 naïve office girls, and a step above his father on the ego-stroking lad­der of promotion.

Michael Shannon in Revolutionary RoadHope­less 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.