Bottle Rocket

Bottle Rocket movie poster

 

Wes Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson’s feature debut is based on their 1992 short film of the same name. Like Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Bottle Rocket is Anderson’s urtext. His signature style is already fully present: meticulously constructed of primary colors, written in torrents of words, and shot perpendicularly against exacting mise en scène. The Royal Tenebaums is the only of Anderson’s films to feature parents as featured characters throughout, but Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited, and Bottle Rocket all concern misfit siblings with largely absent parents. Like the Tenenbaums and the Whitmans (of The Darjeeling Limited), the Adams brothers are privileged yet seem to possess nothing of their own.

Dignan (Owen Wilson) throws in his lot with local crook Mr. Henry (James Caan), who proves both a bad boss and poor father substitute. Dignan forms an amateur gang of sorts with brother Anthony (Luke Wilson) – an aimless young man suffering from self-diagnosed “exhaustion,” and their pushover friend Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave) – of use mostly because he has access to a car. Every detail of Dignan’s grand scheme for his life is plotted out in the handwritten manifesto “75-Year Plan – Notes Re: Careers.” As he tells Anthony, “I think we both respond well to structure.”

Robert Musgrave, Owen Wilson, and Luke Wilson in Bottle Rocket“On the run from Johnny Law… ain’t no trip to Cleveland.”

They feel the urge to steal (from a chain book store, hilariously, and even from their own parents’ home), not so much for money itself but to enable their fantasy of living independently on the road. Their dream is that being on the lam would provide the excitement they imagine their lives lack. But Dignan’s precise vision of the future is disrupted at every turn. The most cataclysmic event of all is when the romantic Anthony becomes smitten with motel maid Inez (Lumi Cavazos), and he gives up most of their illgotten spoils to help her. Dignan’s own future hasn’t factored in love; eventually he realizes he must set off on his own to find his destiny.

The 2007 Criterion Collection edition reprints a 1999 appreciation by producer James L. Brooks, in which he describes how the neophyte filmmakers had little notion of how movies are actually written and made, especially any aspect thereof involving creative compromise. Their first draft was reportedly so wordy that a simple table reading proved epic:

the longest entertainment known to man, beating Wagner’s Ring cycle before we reached the halfway point of the reading. By the time we approached the last scene, all the water pitchers had been emptied, yet voices still rasped from overuse, and there were people in the room showing the physical signs of starvation.

The script was deemed unfilmable, beginning a long process of urging Anderson and Wilson to cut material they held dear, and they held everything dear. The movie still seemed doomed even after successfully shooting a workable script. When early cuts tested poorly before audiences, Brooks tried to console Anderson and Wilson by telling them that early feedback for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was also poor, but it was saved by the music and a memorable logo. Indeed, Brooks credits the score by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo for helping make the film work.

James Caan and Owen Wilson in Bottle Rocket“This seems like a nice soirée”

James Caan only worked on the film for three days, and still seems bemused by the whole thing. But the result has proven a cult classic, and launched the careers of not only Anderson but also the Wilson brothers. The Criterion Collection edition also includes Martin Scorcese’s 2000 appreciation from Esquire, in which he credits Anderson with a rare, true affection for his characters. Dignan’s belief in his imperviousness is the flm’s “transcendent moment”: “they’ll never catch me, man, ’cause I’m fucking innocent.”


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David Byrne, Live at Radio City Music Hall, February 28, 2009

David Byrne On Tour Poster

 

David Byrne and Brian Eno, both Dork Report favorites, collaborated extensively between 1978-1980. Many of these classic albums have passed into the musical canon, most especially Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (1980) and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981). I believe there are some lingering rumors of interpersonal friction, certainly within the four Talking Heads, but Byrne and Eno appear to have remained in light, as it were. As Byrne relates the story in the liner notes to their new album Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, the possibility of his completing several of Eno’s stockpiled instrumental demos arose over dinner. The eventual result is a brilliant new album that is unmistakably the product of these two unique musicians, but is certainly no sequel or retread of past glories.

David Byrne Live at Radio City Music HallSquint and you might see more than some blotches of color

Touring to support the new material, Byrne challenged himself with the self-imposed restriction to draw from only the five albums on which he worked with Eno: More Songs about Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, Remain in Light, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. Even with this self-imposed limitation of albums that are all, frankly, kind of weird, it’s amazing how many toe-tapping pop songs they contain.

The excellently sequenced set list, mostly alternating between the weird and (relatively) normal, kept the massive Radio City Music Hall audience singing along. Strange Overtones, my favorite song from the new album, came first. Talking Heads’ Crosseyed and Painless proved an early climax, bringing the entire audience to their feet for most of the rest of the show. The only disappointment was that Byrne selected only one single track from the legendary My Life in the Bush of Ghosts: Help Me Somebody. It was imaginatively rearranged with live voices replacing the original’s found vocals (or as Byrne noted that we would call them today, samples). Why not try the same with some of the other great tracks on that album?

David Byrne Live at Radio City Music HallThe long white splotch in the middle is David Byrne and the Rockettes!

The stage design was perfectly austere, and deceptively simple. I especially liked the stark, monochromatic lighting design. The entire band was clad in white, and three modern dancers accompanied several songs with wittily choreographed routines. The show climaxed with a truly barnstorming version of Burning Down the House, with the entire band dressed in frilly tutus. It could only be completed by the startling appearance by… wait for it… the bloody Rockettes! OMGWTF!? Needless to say, the crowd went bananas.

In short, I had a grand time. Here at The Dork Report, I have fewer qualms about rating movies on a five-star scale than I do concerts. Movies are cheap enough to rent in consume in large gulps. I end up seeing many bad or mediocre movies, but few concerst that sucks. The likely explanation is the expense involved, which often limits the concerts I go to to artists that I already very much like. The only reason I didn’t rate this particular show higher is that I could imagine that if I could time-travel back to the 1980s and see the original Talking Heads (preferably during the period Adrian Belew was in their live band), that would easily by five stars.


Official album site: EverythingThatHappens.com

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Encounters at the End of the World

Encounters at the End of the World movie poster

 

In 2007, the National Science Foundation invited legendary filmmaker and documentarian Werner Herzog to make a film about Antarctica. With only seven weeks to plan and shoot, and with an austere crew of exactly two (Herzog himself and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger), he produced the stunningly beautiful film Encounters at the End of the World.

Right away, Herzog declares he is not a “tree-hugger” or “whale-hugger.” Instead, he wonders why civilization is more concerned about endangered species than it is about its own disappearing languages and cultures. He made it clear to his sponsors that he had no interest in making “another penguin movie,” of course a backhanded reference to the smash hit documentary March of the Penguins. For a brief period around 2005, it seemed everyone was obsessed with the peculiar lifecycle of penguins, finding in them metaphors for everything from the sanctity of marriage to evidence of homosexuality in nature. But it turns out even Herzog couldn’t resist the pathos inherent in the penguin lifestyle. He became fascinated by the regular occurrence of individual penguins becoming disoriented, and determinedly marching off alone to certain starvation and death. His camera catches one happily scooting off towards the mountains, away from the relative safety of the ocean and his comrades.

Encounters at the End of the World Henry KaiserSome of the otherworldly underwater footage by Henry Kaiser the inspired Herzog to investigate Antarctica

But Herzog is mostly interested more in the humans that migrate to Anarctica. As is his custom, he narrates the film himself and openly wonders whom he will find there. Some of the unusual characters he encounters are a philosopher operating a forklift, a humanitarian driving a bus (the continent’s single largest vehicle), a linguist tending plants on a continent with no languages, and a journeyman plumber descended from Aztec royalty. Most Herzog-ian of all is an Eastern European man unable to speak of his traumatic escape from “behind the iron curtain.” He keeps a large backpack full of survival gear, everything he would need should he have to leave at any moment. He puts it as being “in search of adventure,” but it seems he has left many places before he came to this one, so he is most likely doing more escaping than adventuring. He is not unlike Dieter Dengler, the subject of Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), who keeps a cache of foodstuffs in his home long after escaping a Laotian prison camp in 1966.

Werner Herzog & Peter Zeitlinger in Encounters at the End of the WorldWerner Herzog & Peter Zeitlinger

Antarctica represents “the end of adventure.” There are no more “white spaces on the map.” But most of the people Herzog finds there are scientists, making it clear that there are many discoveries left to be made. Of interest to Herzog is not only the research itself, but why it is being conducted in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Zoologists study naturally tame seals, especially enjoying their truly bizarre underwater communication that one likens to Pink Floyd. Geologists flock to Mount Erebus, one of the the earth’s only three stable open volcanos, whose “lava lake” is essentially the Earth’s exposed mantle. The world’s only two other open volcanoes are both located in politically unstable countries, it being preferable for scientists to risk being pelted by exploding bombs of molten rock in subzero temperatures than to be shot by bullets in hotter climes. In a separate experiment, The University of Hawaii is attempting to detect neutrinos. These subatomic particles are omnipresent in abundance, but are almost impossible to observe directly. The reason to come to Antarctica is to escape the distorting background radiation of civilization, a metaphor if I’ve ever heard one.

Herzog dedicated Encounters at the End of the World to critic and longtime advocate Roger Ebert. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, his only nomination to date. How the Academy could overlook the sublime and haunting Grizzly Man (2005) is beyond belief.


Official movie site: encountersfilm.com

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The Only Child: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline

Coraline movie poster

 

I saw Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline on its opening day in my favorite movie theater, the best possible venue to see any remotely visually ambitious movie: the Clearview Ziegfeld in New York City. Fittingly, my tickets were misprinted “Caroline,” a misnomer that is a recurring plot point.

Coraline was written and directed by stop-motion animation genius Henry Selick, whose patient and precise hands also created the utterly mad pleasure The Nightmare Before Christmas (often erroneously credited to Tim Burton, who produced). As if Coraline needed any finer pedigree, it was based on the fine novella by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is a longtime Dork Report favorite, at least since my buying the very first issue of The Sandman new off the rack in 1989 (read my account of having books signed by Gaiman and Ray Bradbury). Coraline and his later The Graveyard Book are both ostensibly aimed at “young adults,” which I guess means whomever is old enough to understand most of the words. Such a categorization is more about marketing and the convenience of knowing where to shelve titles in bookstores and libraries, anyway. As is also the case with his children’s books The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls (both illustrated by frequent collaborator Dave McKean), they’re all basically for anyone that likes to read.

Dakota Fanning in CoralineCoraline traverses the portal into John Malkovich’s brain

Gaiman, once famous for possibly having the record for most unproduced projects in Hollywood, has been tearing up the movie biz of late. Just to name a few highlights, he wrote the script for McKean’s sumptuous film Mirrormask (read The Dork Report review), had his fantasy novel Stardust (originally illustrated by Charles Vess) adapted into a film by Matthew Vaughn, and co-wrote the brilliant script for Robert Zemekis’ Beowulf with Roger Avery. As is his custom now for all his pending projects, Gaiman has been blogging and Tweeting about the Coraline adaptation all along, a process rudely interrupted by his winning the Newbury Medal for The Graveyard Book. His mantle is now officially groaning under the weight of all his trophies, medals, Very Important Prizes, and suchlike.

Gaiman was not directly involved with the making of Coraline (beyond being on good terms with the filmmakers and making the occasional consultation), but was pleased the finished product and especially with how well it was marketed by Weiden+Kennedy. Frequent readers of his blog will be familiar with how he blames Stardust’s relatively disappointing box office (in the US, anyway) with a marketing campaign that misrepresented what the film was actually like (the precise analogy he used went something like “more Princess Bride, less Ella Enchanted”). But I feel that this kind of heightened level of communication between artist and audience made possible by the internet might sometimes be too much information. Close to the release of Stardust, I recall Gaiman urging readers to see the film on opening weekend or even opening day if at all possible, the narrow window that in today’s movie industry determines the perception of success or failure. This time around, he made a point of mentioning that Coraline’s production company Laika had basically bet the entire farm on the film. I have been working for movie companies for years and am familiar with perpetual job insecurity. I was happy to go see the film right away anyway, but I would have rather not worried about whether or not I was protecting someone’s job. Thankfully, Coraline appears to have performed above expectations on its opening weekend, and all is well.

John Hodgman in CoralineThe Other Father gives us our 3D money’s worth

Apologies for the rambling preamble. On to the movie: Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and her family move into the ground-floor apartment of a crumbling rural house. Her parents are busy gardening writers without the time to actually garden, let alone to pay much attention to their only child. Coraline’s biggest problem is that she’s unhappy at being so often left alone. I suspect that most overprotected kids whose parents take them to see this movie will have trouble identifying with a kid who has too much freedom.

The residents of the neighboring apartments are at least as eccentric as those of The Sandman’s The Doll’s House. Russian acrobat Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), may or may not be training rodentia to take part in a Mouse Circus. Coraline gets off on the wrong foot with unloved oddball Wybie (Robert Baily, Jr.), who takes his name from “Why be born.” British comedy duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders appear as Misses Spink & Forcible (two Gaiman-esque names if there ever were any), a pair of well-aged actresses living in the basement.

Coraline discovers a long-forgotten doorway hidden behind furniture and layers of wallpaper. Not unlike the very similarly diminutive door in Being John Malkovich, it is a gateway to another world. Whereas the portal to Malkovich’s brain resembled the gross inside of a digestive tract, this one is part cobwebby cave and part glowing funhouse tunnel. On the other end of the door is another, better version of Coraline’s milieu. In the real world, no one gets Coraline’s name right, but in the Other World, everyone knows her. She is well fed, the garden is a luxurious Eden sculpted in her image, her bed is made, and her toys are new. But alas, her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) has constructed this enticing simulacrum just to ensnare her. Coraline is about to abandon the real world for this coddled existence, when she is given the price: she must sew buttons over her eyes. This is point in the film when adults squirm and kids squeal with delight. Creepy, creepy, creepy!

Teri Hatcher and Dakota Fanning in CoralineThe Other Mother serves Other Omelettes for breakfast

Roughly the first three-quarters of the film is genius-level setting of tone, character, and atmosphere. It falters only when a rigid plot structure appears out of nowhere and forces the narrative onto fixed rails. Cat (Keith David), the only other creature that can travel between worlds, tells Coraline that the Other Mother likes games. This key characteristic would have been better shown than told, for Coraline is able to turn the tables by simply challenging her to a game. The Other Mother immediately acquiesces, and is apparently unable to resist a game in the same way that the mythological Sphinx can’t resist a riddle (a plot point that also figures in Mirrormask). Coraline’s challenge is equal parts game and bet: if she can find the five souls The Other Mother has trapped before her (her parents and three other children), she must release them all. Finding three hidden objects hidden in different virtual worlds is a classic video game scenario. Coraline has no shortage of other MacGuffins to lose and recover, including a key and an Eye Stone (a magical jewel fortuitously provided by the actresses). Indeed, a tie-in videogame exists, which no doubt doesn’t have to stretch the story to structure its own narrative.

Also disappointing are the three children the Other Mother has already captured. Their trio of cutesy voices that compliment and encourage Coraline are the most conventional aspect of the film, not in keeping with the rest of the film’s enjoyably macabre tone. But actually, maybe this all makes sense… the kids are definitely not as bright and spunky as her, for she alone has the brains to escape and defeat the creature.

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders in CoralineThe comedy stylings (and alarmingly large bosoms) of French & Saunders

Stop-motion animation is one of the oldest filmmaking techniques, but Laika (based in Portland, Oregon) and Aardman Animation (makers of Wallce & Gromit and Chicken Run) are still making films more dazzling than the most advanced CGI. The reason is quite simple: you’re looking at moving photographs of physical objects crafted by human hands. Like Beowulf, Coraline is being shown in many theaters in 3D. If possible, the technology seems to have improved even since U23D (read The Dork Report review), let alone since the 1950s. But as animated movies such as The Incredibles (read The Dork Report review) and WALL-E (read The Dork Report review) have proved, all the technology in the world must play second fiddle to a good story.

Gaiman has been saying in interviews lately that his books for kids are creepier than his novels for adults (including American Gods and Anansi Boys). In keeping, Coraline the film is wonderfully deranged, weird, and twisted. By far the eeriest sequence is the opening credits, featuring the hands of a creature we later learn is the Other Mother, ritually disemboweling a puppet and reconfiguring into a simulacra of Coraline. Watchdog site Kids-In-Mind nearly goes into meltdown counting the discrete instances of violence and disturbing imagery, and expect to read a great many reviews cautioning parents to keep sensitive kids away. But I suspect most kids will love this film, and will probably be better off for having their imaginations poked and prodded in ways that safer pap wouldn’t. One of the reasons I love movies is to experience the mad visual imaginations of directors like Selick (and Burton, McKean, Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry, Tarsem, etc.), and it’s a good thing “kids'” movies like Coraline are here to warp youngsters minds early.


Official movie site: www.coraline.com

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Lou Reed’s Berlin

lou_reeds_berlin.jpg

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

lou_reed_berlin_2.jpgAntony dances the rock minuet

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

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

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


Official movie site: www.berlinthefilm.com

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Cinema Immortal: Tarsem’s The Fall

The Fall movie poster

 

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

Tarsem Singh The FallInside the Grateful Dead t-shirt factory

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

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

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

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

Tarsem Singh The FallOur heroes wisely keep their distance

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

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


Official movie site: TheFallTheMovie.com

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Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven

Ridley Scott

Kingdom of Heaven movie poster

 

Ridley Scott’s video introduction to the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven claims it is more than a merely extended version of the film. The Director’s Cut represents his intentions, and is “the best version” of the film. The most significant restoration he singles out is a subplot involving Princess Sibylla’s son. This version is long, yes, but always engrossing and interesting. It’s incredible that this much material was shot for one movie. It must have been clear from the length of the script that much of it was going to have be cut, but the expense and dedication was there to shoot more than was needed in order to be able to shape the story later in the editing room. I might have lost my patience with a three-and-a-half hour long movie in the theater, but it’s perfect for home viewing.

Eva Green in Kingdom of HeavenGallic Goddess Eva Green

Kingdom of Heaven opens in France in 1184. At the time, Jews, Christians, and Muslims were sharing Jerusalem not quite in peace, but in relative stability. The wise King Baldwin IV and the cynical but basically decent Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) are barely preserving the fragile stalemate. By and large, Muslim characters are presented as more sane and civilized than the Christians. Interestingly, Jews are mentioned but are absent from the proceedings – evidently to this Dork Reporter unschooled in the relevant history, they had little political power at the time. Indeed, Christian holy men come across the worst of all. Early in the film, a preacher in a ramshackle European layover camp along the route to the Holy Land proclaims to prospective Crusaders that “To kill an infidel, the Pope has said, is not murder. It is the path to heaven.” Later, as the Christian army is about to be overrun by the Muslim army, one priest advises everyone to “Convert to Islam. Repent later.”

Balian de Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) is a widowed French blacksmith swept up in vast historical events. Bloom’s performance as the real-life historical figure isn’t bad, exactly, but he’s deadly dull. He is certainly earnest and handsome, but without the sympathetic starpower of a true leading man. Balian is a largely passive man caught up in key moments of history by the arbitrary whims of birth and luck, not unlike Forrest Gump. A plot not driven by the actions of the protagonist could be seen as a sign of bad screenwriting, but I’m prepared to accept the basic arc if it means it can hold such an interesting core concept together.

Orlando Bloom and Liam Neeson in Kingdom of HeavenLiam Neeson teaches his young padawan Orlando Bloom the ways of the Force

Balian discovers he is the illegitimate son to the Knight of Jerusalem Godfrey de Ibelin (Liam Neeson). He inherits the mantle and is launched on a journey that makes him a knight, friend and counselor to the wise King Baldwin (Edward Norton), lover of his beautiful sister Princess Sibylla (Eva Green), and leader of the doomed defense of Jerusalem. But what’s most implausible is his sudden emergence as a master swordsman, military strategist, architect of fortresses, civil engineer of irrigation systems, and honorable lord who treats his subjects fairly. True, he is established early on as an “enginer” who despairs have having fought in meaningless conflicts and designed war machines for the slaughter of innocents. But it is absurd for this largely uneducated man to wield such knowledge and wisdom.

Moreover, Balian arguably causes more harm than good. His pride in being a good knight (as per his father’s dying instruction) leads to the slaughter of an entire army and to an evil man becoming king of Jerusalem. His piety doesn’t stop him from sleeping with a married princess, but he later hypocritically decides sleeping with her is no longer morally acceptable when her husband Guy of Lusignan (Marton Csokas) becomes king. And what kind of man would kick Eva Green out of bed?

Eva Green in Kingdom of HeavenThis review can’t have enough pictures of Eva Green

The villainous Guy is cartoonishly fey and sneering, and probably not coincidentally the most obviously French of all the characters (perhaps for the best, few other cast members attempt to affect French accents). It is suggested that he knows his son has leprosy, and callously banks on him dying and thus allowing him to be king. But what exactly does he want? If power, he gets it. So why then spark a holy war? The filmmakers’ intentions may have been to draw an analog to Bush’s misadventures in the Middle East, but Guy doesn’t seem to be the pious sort who believes it is his duty as a Christian to purge the Holy Land of infidel Muslims.

Special mention must go to Edward Norton, excellent as King Baldwin IV, whose advanced leprosy left him a faceless man in an iron mask. I don’t mean this praise as a backhanded slight to Norton; he expertly conveys intelligence and wisdom through his voice and body language alone.

Edward Norton in Kingdom of HeavenEdward Norton as the original man in the iron mask

Interestingly for a Hollywood epic, Kingdom of Heaven actually features very few of the grand battles usually required for the genre. The tension-and-release structure of William Monahan’s screenplay is almost musical. After a long buildup, the first conflict is curtailed before it begins. King Baldwin cannily negotiates for peace by personally showing up despite his advanced (and known to the enemy) illness; also, his reputation as in intelligent man precedes him. The second battle happens mostly off-screen. Finally, very late in the film, we see the spectacular defense of Jerusalem against the Muslim army. Other directors might not have been able to resist wowing us with spectacular battles for so long, but Scott and Monahan’s interests are admirably elsewhere: in the characters.

On release in 2005, Kingdom of Heaven was lumped in with Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, only insofar as they were both historical epics. It’s a doubly unfair comparison in that Troy, a far inferior film, is set hundreds of years earlier and based on a work of literature. Kingdom of Heaven was interpreted as a direct commentary on US incursions in the Middle East, not least because one of George W. Bush’s most breathtaking gaffes (in a presidency full of them) was to cast his war on terror as a “crusade.” If he ever screens Kingdom of Heaven, perhaps he will gain a little perspective and be inspired to read up on the long, complicated three-way religious conflict in The Middle East.


Official movie site: www.kingdomofheavendvd.com

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The Big Lebowski

big_lebowski.jpg

 

In 1998, when all the world wanted from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen was another Fargo, they got The Big Lebowski instead. The Coens recently repeated this trick by following up another masterpiece, No Country for Old Men, with the happy-go-lucky Burn After Reading. The Dork Report wonders if this compulsion is by design or if the Coens just can’t help themselves.

Viewed with some puzzlement upon release, The Big Lebowski is now the subject of pop art, annual conventions, and action figures. The farcical film noir is ultimately an extended “wrong man accused” pastiche in the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock and Raymond Chandler, but The Coen Brothers infuse it with their trademark anarchic spirit and populate it with characters with low (or otherwise chemically impaired) I.Q.

big_lebowski1.jpgWe don’t roll on Shabbos

The film’s 10th anniversary was recently celebrated in a Rolling Stone feature article, The Decade of the Dude by Andy Greene. John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, and Sam Elliott reveal a wealth of anecdotes and all seem genuinely delighted at the film’s cult status. Goodman, however, alludes to having had a kind of falling out with the Coens after Oh Brother Where Art Thou. The article also states that The Coen Brothers decline to discuss the The Big Lebowski at all anymore, for unspecified reasons. However, the DVD edition screened by The Dork Report includes the original 1998 contemporary electronic press kit including an interview with the Coen Brothers in which they gamely discuss the production (Joel is credited as director and Ethan as writer, but in truth they have always shared the duties equally). The DVD also provides a peek at cinematographer Roger Deakins’ spectacular fantasy sequences and unique bowling footage actualized with a motorized camera capable of running up to 20 M.P.H.

Jeff Bridges reveals the extent of his actorly craft in preparing for each scene: he would simply ask The Coens, “Did the Dude burn one on the way over?” Most often, the answer was yes, so he would rub his eyes to approximate the degree of redness appropriate, and proceed. The Dude copes with the trials and tribulations of life with the motto “The Dude abides,” but the circumstances in which he finds himself during this misadventure leave him less in a state of zen than one of paranoia. No doubt a lifetime of pot abuse has harshed his mellow somewhat.

big_lebowski2.jpgYou don’t &$%# with the Jesus!

Despite having only barely more than a cameo appearance, John Turturro nearly steals the movie with the unforgettable character Jesus Quintana (that’s “Jesus” with a hard “J”), a sexual predator and cocksure bowler. The Coens speak about wanting to write a Latino character for Turturro, but where did the rest of his outrageous characterization come from? Did they just wind Turturro up and let him go? Other notable cameos include David Thewlis (Naked, Harry Potter) as a giggling associate of Maude (Moore), and musicians Aimee Mann and Flea as hapless nihilists.


Official movie site: www.biglebowskidvd.com

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Dark City (Director’s Cut)

Dark City

 

I recall Dark City being one of my favorite films of 1998, and I would have rated it quite highly had I been keeping score at the time. Dark City is a bold science fiction film noir most obviously indebted to Blade Runner, but also to Dork Report favorites Brazil (especially the sequences of buildings sprouting up out of the ground), Metropolis, M, and City of Lost Children (read The Dork Report review). In each of these films, a protagonist survives in a hostile, often nameless dystopian city, often with the suspicion that his depressing existence is somehow not real. Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer’s screenplay explores the same flavor of paranoid schizophrenia that also figures in the literature of Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick.

Dark City was overshadowed at the box office by Titanic like all its contemporaries, but like its later oddball distant cousin Donnie Darko, its extended lifecycle included becoming a cult hit on DVD. In the meanwhile, director Alex Proyas further raised his bankability with later commercial success I, Robot. So for Dark City’s tenth anniversary, New Line Cinema financed Proyas’ completion of a Director’s Cut for a special edition DVD. Watching it for the first time since 1998, it all nevertheless seemed familiar to this Dork Reporter, who found it difficult to spot anything new from memory.

Dark CityThe worst loo in The City

DVD bonus features are dryly referred to by movie studio home entertainment executives as “value-added content.” Repurposed electronic press kits typically feature filmmakers congratulating themselves on how wonderful a film they’ve made and how brilliant all their colleagues were. In contrast, the Dark City DVD squeezes in an interesting and fairly candid feature-length documentary on the making of the film and its impact upon numerous philosophers and film critics. No less a marquee booster than St. Roger Ebert praises the film and contributes and entire commentary track. Ebert has long championed the film, even including it among his series of Great Movies. Among other excellent insights, he points out it predated the similarly-themed The Matrix by over a year.

Proyas describes his Director’s Cut as “more complete,” and blames the audience testing process for New Line Cinema pressuring him to add an explanatory voiceover. As he put it, the process undermined his confidence as a filmmaker and thus compromised the film. As was the case with the 2007 reissue of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Proyas has now removed the opening narration, spit-polished the special effects, and extended some scenes.

Dark CityHappy Birthday, Mr. Murdoch

The filmmakers relate their amusing struggles with the MPAA. Shown a relatively inoffensive cut of the film, they nevertheless wanted to give it an “R” rating, the best rationale they could give being its overall weirdness. So, faced with receiving an R no matter what, the filmmakers actually decided to add more nudity and violence. But there is still no profanity in this antiseptic universe. Dark City is a film noir of the sort where even hookers say things like “Aw, shoot.”

Of the cast, only Rufus Sewell participates in the documentary. He’s nothing like I would have expected; actually kind of goofy and animated, in direct contrast to his moody seriousness in the role. Kiefer Sutherland overeggs his performance with a limp, facial deformity, and speech defect. His character is a remorseful collaborator that turns on his masters, interesting enough without all the actorly accouterments. Jennifer Connelly is as luminously beautiful as ever in Dark City, but seemed a bit more… how do I put this politely… soft than usual. Was she pregnant at the time? A striking shot of Connelly standing on the end of a pier matches my memory of a similar shot in Requiem for a Dream.


Official movie site: www.darkcity.com

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Low live at Mercury Lounge, New York – September 22, 2008

 

I hope I’m totally wrong, but I picked up on a few hints that this latest tour by Low might mark the end of the band. My half-baked evidence:

  1. Alan Sparhawk seems to be having success with new side project, the Retribution Gospel Choir.
  2. This tour is not in support of a new album release.
  3. The shows were marketed as “An Evening With Low,” lingo for shows with no opening acts. Pitchfork reported that Low would be playing extra-long sets.
  4. Sparhawk himself told the Mercury Lounge audience to settle in for a long night, and ominously said a “retrospective” show is like the proverbial “nail in the coffin.”
  5. Bassist Matt Livingston has left the band after a relatively short tenure, replaced by Steve Garrington.
  6. David Kleijwgt’s 2008 documentary You May Need a Murderer (read The Dork Report review) had a notably more frank and final tone compared to the 2004 Low in Europe (read The Dork Report review). Could Low be preparing their legacy?
  7. I read later that on September 13, at the End of the Road Festival in Dorset, Sparhawk flung his guitar into the crowd. As seen in You May Need a Murderer, Sparkhawk has some issues with his mental health. Whether it was an act of rage or elation remains an object of debate online.

Like I said, I hope I’m wrong, and one of my favorite bands will continue on. Recent albums The Great Destroyer and Drums & Guns were both great leaps forward, and as a listener I see no reason why the band can’t keep evolving.

Low live at Mercury LoungeAlan Sparhawk & Steve Garrington live at Mercury Lounge, NY (I could barely see Mimi Parker from where I was standing)

Some little anecdotes of the evening:

  1. The first half of the set was acoustic (albeit using an array of electronic devices), and Sparhawk switched to an electric guitar for the second half. Garrington used an upright acoustic bass throughout.
  2. Mimi Parker stated that the evening’s rendition of “Dragonfly” could have been called “Dragging-fly” Sparhawk agreed, admitting it was a “Extra Dragging-fly.”
  3. Low debuted a sequel to their classic Low Christmas EP: “Santa’s Coming Over,” soon to be released on vinyl and digitally. Its the first example of self-parody by Low that I’m aware of. The Low Christmas EP is actually somberly beautiful, but in “Santa is Coming” Sparhawk sings patently silly lyrics in full doom-and-gloom melodramatic slowcore style. Perhaps I should have filed this note in my list of “half-baked evidence” above…

Low live at Mercury Lounge Alan Sparhawk & Steve Garrington live at Mercury Lounge, NY (I could barely see Mimi Parker from where I was standing)

Official Low site: www.chairkickers.com