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.

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 scèné. 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 RocketOn 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 RocketThis 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.”

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

Solyaris (Solaris) (1972)

Solaris 1972 movie poster


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

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

Natalya Bondarchuk and Donatas Banionis in SolarisKelvin sees dead people

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

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

Donatas Banionis in SolarisKelvin inspects the ductwork

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

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

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

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

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

Donatas Banionis in SolarisKelvin at home in Mother Russia

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

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

Must Read: Solaris by Phillip Lopate

Must Read: the Organic Mechanic review by Adam Harvey

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

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button movie poster


This Dork Reporter is slowly cool­ing on for­mer favorite David Fincher. His under­rated first fea­ture Alien3 is highly com­pro­mised, but eas­ily the next most the­mat­i­cally inter­est­ing entry in the Alien fran­chise (after, of course, Rid­ley Scott’s rich orig­i­nal). Se7en is one of the most gut-wrenchingly dis­turb­ing movies ever made, notable for hav­ing vir­tu­ally no vio­lence appear onscreen, despite its rep­u­ta­tion. Fight Club is per­haps the movie of the nineties, an eccen­tric blast of coun­ter­cul­tural fury. But almost every­thing that fol­lowed seemed a dis­ap­point­ment. The Game was wildly implau­si­ble with­out the pop and siz­zle that car­ried the sim­i­larly over-the-top Fight Club. Panic Room was an empty exer­cise in style, seem­ingly con­ceived solely for Fincher to exper­i­ment with new dig­i­tal tech­niques that would allow him to cre­ate impos­si­bly con­tin­u­ous cam­era moves through the walls and floors of a city brown­stone (and pos­si­bly also as another vehi­cle for star Jodie Foster’s per­sona as a sin­gle par­ent to be reck­oned with). Zodiac was highly praised both as a tight pro­ce­dural thriller and as a tour-de-force of still more bleeding-edge dig­i­tal spe­cial effects (so good that most view­ers wouldn’t sus­pect that many sequences were not tra­di­tion­ally shot in cam­era), but it did absolutely noth­ing for me. I’m won­der­ing if I missed some key aspect of it that would open it up to me — and that per­haps I should reap­praise it now that a director’s cut is avail­able on DVD.

Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonYou’re only as old as you feel

The advance mar­ket­ing for The Curi­ous Case of Ben­jamin But­ton excited me at first, but I was appre­hen­sive when I learned the screen­play (loosely based on a 1921 short story by F. Scott Fitzger­ald) was by Eric Roth, the writer of For­rest Gump. Indeed, it did turn out to be con­structed in a sim­i­lar vein and tone, even mim­ic­k­ing some of the corni­est devices of Gump: the famous dig­i­tal feather twirling in the wind has been replaced by an unlikely reap­pear­ing hum­ming­bird; Forrest’s mother’s apho­rism “life is like a box of choco­lates; you never know what you’re going to get” has its ana­log in the less mem­o­rable “you never know what’s com­ing for you”; even For­rest Gump’s parade of cameos by famous or infa­mous Amer­i­cans is here con­tin­ued with an appear­ance by Teddy Roo­sevelt. Against my will, this cutesi­ness did suc­ceed in draw­ing me in for most of its run­ning time. I was engrossed for much of it, but its leisurely three-hour run­ning time hon­estly strained my patience by about the two-hour mark.

Fincher and Roth relate the decades-long story via the fram­ing device of Benjamin’s (Brad Pitt) one true love Daisy (Cate Blanchett) on her deathbed, intro­duc­ing her adult daugh­ter Car­o­line (Julia Ormond) to her bio­log­i­cal father through a dra­matic read­ing of his diary, with gaps filled in from her own mem­ory. A soon-to-be infa­mous hur­ri­cane brews out­side the Louisiana hos­pi­tal room, shortly to erase much of Ben­jamin and Daisy’s milieu. The mul­ti­ple lay­ers of sto­ry­telling result is no less than three speak­ing voices to nar­rate the tale in voiceover. One fram­ing device too far?

Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonCate Blanchett is a beau­ti­ful woman, but it’s eerie to see her appear to be in her 20s

The cen­tral con­ceit of the story is a fan­tas­ti­cally unfor­tu­nate dis­ease that afflicts one Ben­jamin But­ton. His body is born aged and decrepit, and ages back­wards while his mind matures nor­mally. As he aptly puts it when still a boy, he was “born old.” Tak­ing this story as any­thing other than a para­ble or fairy tale would be to miss the point, but the pho­to­re­al­is­tic spe­cial effects place the movie firmly in believ­able real­ity. So this viewer’s mind (when not dis­tracted by the high-tech visu­als) wan­dered into logis­tics. Some of the rules don’t seem to hold up: as a chrono­log­i­cal ado­les­cent, he man­i­fests the typ­i­cal sex­ual desires and self-centeredness. But his aged body strangely has the phys­i­cal fit­ness and stamina/potency to act them out (we see him preen­ing in front of a mir­ror, seem­ingly only aged from the neck up). Also, pre­sum­ably, Ben­jamin can be assured to die when his body regresses to infancy. So, given his phys­i­cal state at birth, is his death date pre-ordained? If he had been born with an infan­tilized body of a 20-year old, could he have been assured of only hav­ing two decades to live? Is he imper­vi­ous to harm? Indeed, he some­how man­ages to sur­vive being stepped on as a new­born, and later, is one of the few sur­vivors of a Ger­man sub­ma­rine attack on an out­classed tug­boat dur­ing World War II.

Ben­jamin is adopted by Quee­nie (Taraji P. Hen­son), an unfor­tu­nately stereo­typ­i­cal African Amer­i­can char­ac­ter, and spends his youth and old age (and vice versa!) at the nurs­ing home she man­ages. There, he meets his one true love Daisy, the niece of one of the ten­ants. Benjamin’s curi­ous con­di­tion pre­vents him from hav­ing any kind of nor­mal friend­ship or rela­tion­ship with her, so he leaves home to find his way in the world. He has his first seri­ous rela­tion­ship with Eliz­a­beth Abbott (Tilda Swin­ton), an older woman who thinks she’s younger than him (later, we learn that meet­ing him helped her change her life). Even­tu­ally, Ben­jamin and Daisy do meet at roughly the same phys­i­cal age and con­sum­mate their mutual love. When Daisy quite rightly asks Ben­jamin if he will still love her when she’s old and wrinkly, he jok­ingly turns it around and asks if she will still love him when he has acne. But what first amuses even­tu­ally comes back around to become one of the most painfully emo­tional sequences in the whole movie: Ben­jamin does after all regress into senil­ity (or per­haps even Alzheimer’s, before it was iden­ti­fied), trapped in the body of a pim­ply teenager. As always, the point is that the bell curve of a human life can be seen as a mir­ror image of itself: here, the impetu­ous­ness, aggres­sion, and mood swings of senil­ity are equated with the tumult of ado­les­cence. Like­wise, extreme youth and old age both are char­ac­ter­ized as the ulti­mate states of depen­dence and vulnerability.

Tilda Swinton in The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonTilda Swin­ton as Benjamin’s first lover, an older woman whom he allows to believe is younger

The spe­cial effects that allow an aged ver­sion of Pitt’s face to be super­im­posed over another, diminu­tive actor are light years in advance of the still-creepy dig­i­tal roto­scop­ing ani­ma­tion style used in Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express and Beowulf (although the lat­ter is an excel­lent film in spite of the inef­fec­tive effects). But no mat­ter how eerily fluid and seam­less the effects, I could not shake the feel­ing that I was watch­ing some­thing largely actu­al­ized by ani­ma­tors equipped with a giant com­puter server farm. These obvi­ously cut­ting edge tech­niques are more com­pre­hen­si­ble to me than what­ever the makeup and/or CG wiz­ards did to make 44-year-old Pitt and the 39 Blanchett appear to be in their smooth-skinned and limber-limbed 20s. Also, it must be said that an arti­fi­cially aged Pitt in his hypo­thet­i­cal 50s and 60s is a dead ringer for Robert Redford.

There must be some­thing in the bot­tled water film­mak­ers have been drink­ing recently, for I’ve noticed a decided trend towards movies about aging recently. Sarah Polley’s Away From Her (read The Dork Report review) and Tamara Jenkin’s The Sav­ages (read The Dork Report review) both look at the senil­ity than often comes at the end of life, and how it may affect the lives of those still liv­ing, for bet­ter or for worse. But another pair of movies dealt with mor­tal­ity and the fear of unfin­ished busi­ness through the lens of fan­tasy: Fran­cis Ford Coppola’s Youth With­out Youth (read The Dork Report review) and Char­lie Kaufman’s Synec­doche, New York (read The Dork Report review). All of these movies tap into most people’s fear of aging: not only of los­ing phys­i­cal health and thus inde­pen­dence, but also of the reli­a­bil­ity of one’s own mind.

Offi­cial movie site: www.benjaminbutton.com

Buy the Cri­te­rion Col­lec­tion Blu-ray or DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai)

Seven Samurai


Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samu­rai is awe­some and per­fect, and this most recent view­ing has affirmed its place among this Dork Reporter’s all-time favorites. It’s a big movie, by which I mean it makes the best use of its gen­er­ous run­ning time with just the right amount of every­thing: romance, com­edy, drama, sus­pense, and action. Nearly half the film is taken up by a mas­sive, expertly chore­o­graphed bat­tle rival­ing any­thing put to film by famous West­ern direc­tors of vio­lent spec­ta­cle like Michael Mann or Steven Spiel­berg. Long as it is, it’s about 15 min­utes shorter than Gone With the Wind but twice as epic, twice as sub­stan­tial, twice as… well, twice as good.

It is, in some ways, a sim­ple tale broadly told. A rice farm­ing vil­lage in 16th cen­tury Japan is under con­stant siege by a band of par­a­sitic ban­dits that abduct its young women and reg­u­larly steal most of its annual yield. With no gov­ern­ment or mil­i­tary to pro­tect them, the vil­lagers pool their mea­ger resources to hire seven ronin (mas­ter­less samu­rai reduced to sur­viv­ing hand-to-mouth as mer­ce­nar­ies) to fight on their behalf. The arche­typal char­ac­ters seem sim­plis­tic on the sur­face: vil­lains to boo and heroes to cheer. In case the viewer have any doubt as to who the bad guy is, the chief ban­dit wears a black eye­patch, for cry­ing out loud! Kam­bei (Takashi Shimura), the supremely capa­ble and wise leader of the samu­rai, essen­tially lays down a uni­ver­sal def­i­n­i­tion of “hero” with his recruit­ment call: “There’s a tough bat­tle ahead, lead­ing to nei­ther money nor rank. Will you join us?”

Seven SamuraiYou messed with the wrong ronin

And yet, many sub­tleties grad­u­ally unfold. Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is one of the great plea­sures of the movie, but also one of its great­est mys­ter­ies. He’s clown­ish and child­ishly impul­sive, yet pas­sion­ately moral. He’s a com­moner mas­querad­ing as a samu­rai, his only cer­ti­fi­ca­tion being his ridicu­lously long sword (pre­sum­ably the lib­er­ated for­mer pos­ses­sion of a very tall samu­rai). Kam­bei, whom in another life could have been a good shrink, cor­rectly deduces Kikuchiyo’s moti­va­tions for hav­ing attached him­self to the ven­ture; he him­self is a peas­ant farmer with pre­ten­sions for more. He directly iden­ti­fies with the farm­ers’ plight, yet his deep-seated class inse­cu­ri­ties fuel his a love-hate rela­tion­ship with them. As an essay by Ken­neth Turan in the Cri­te­rion Col­lec­tion edi­tion book­let points out, medieval Japan was a fiercely delin­eated caste soci­ety, and the fact that a for­mer farmer might pre­sume to call him­self a samu­rai is a huge trans­gres­sion. For a very dif­fer­ent, more sub­dued dra­matic per­for­mance by Mifune, see Kurosawa’s Stray Dog.

As we learn more about Kikuchiyo, we like­wise slowly get a more and more com­plex por­trait of the vil­lagers. They are no doubt the vic­tims of a seri­ous crime. Yet they whine all the way and mythol­o­gize them­selves as help­less, saintly, vic­tim­ized salt of the earth that must resort to hir­ing dis­graced samu­rai to pro­tect them. But they har­bor a dark secret; they have robbed many fallen samu­rai of their armor and weapons over the years Their ver­i­ta­ble armory of pil­fered gear of war is use­less to them, and yet they shame­fully hide it from the samu­rai pro­tect­ing them (even though it would bol­ster their com­ing war). The seven samu­rai are deeply offended, and yet nev­er­the­less do the right thing and defend the vil­lage. But the gulf between the two classes, samu­rai and farmer, is reaffirmed.

Seven SamuraiHe’s a wild and crazy samurai

Seven Samu­rai is in the com­pany of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cit­i­zen Kane, and Ver­tigo, a spe­cial class of film so famously influ­en­tial that even first-time view­ers may very well feel they’ve seen it before. Just to name a few of Seven Samurai’s first-generation off­spring: The Mag­nif­i­cent Seven is an unapolo­getic trans­po­si­tion of the orig­i­nal from feu­dal Japan to the Amer­i­can West. The Dirty Dozen and Ocean’s Eleven both bor­row the trope of recruit­ing a gang of mis­fits one-by-one, whom in con­cert become capa­ble of strengths impos­si­ble as indi­vid­u­als. Another American-produced remake is sched­uled for release in 2009, this time set in modern-day Thailand.

The 2006 Cri­te­rion Col­lec­tion edi­tion is a required library item, not one to merely rent. A mag­nif­i­cent restora­tion of the film itself is accom­pa­nied by a beau­ti­fully designed sleeve and book­let. A sur­pris­ing amount of dam­age remains in the long bat­tle sequence in the sec­ond half of the film, but Criterion’s rep­u­ta­tion for qual­ity ensures that these are almost cer­tainly the best avail­able mate­ri­als. Per­haps these reels were more fre­quently sub­jected to tor­ture over the years by scholars?

Why you need to read the booklet:

  • Ken­neth Turan on the full year of pro­duc­tion it took to make the film, mir­ror­ing the time that passes in the movie. On a prac­ti­cal level, the extended pro­duc­tion allows for greater real­ism like Kambei’s hair real­is­ti­cally grow­ing back after shav­ing his head in the begin­ning (the top­knot is a prized sym­bol of the samu­rai; not just a fash­ion but a require­ment of their caste). But also on a the­matic level, one year = the farm­ing cycle of life: plant­ing through harvest.
  • Peter Cowie on the mutual admi­ra­tion soci­ety between Kuro­sawa (a fan of the Hol­ly­wood West­ern) and John Ford.
  • Philip Kemp on 16th Cen­tury Japan. The feu­dal soci­ety had lit­tle dis­tinc­tion between ronin and bandits.
  • Peggy Chiao on Kurosawa’s influ­ences. Kuro­sawa was a Marx­ist in his 20s, but later mel­lowed. His older brother turned him on to Dos­toyevsky, but com­mit­ted suicide.
  • Alain Sil­ver on Kurosawa’s stag­ing and composition.
  • Stu­art Gal­braith IV on the his­tor­i­cal con­text of the con­tem­po­rary Japan­ese cin­ema, which was flour­ish­ing at the time.
  • Appre­ci­a­tions by direc­tors Sid­ney Lumet and Arthur Penn.
  • Toshiro Mifune’s quite funny and enter­tain­ing rem­i­nis­cences. Mifune claims he devised his char­ac­ter, as noth­ing had been writ­ten yet when he was cast.

Sup­ple­men­tal fea­tures on the bonus discs:

  • Akira Kuro­sawa: It is Won­der­ful to Cre­ate” — an almost exces­sively hagio­graphic biog­ra­phy, but with sev­eral amus­ing anec­dotes. Shoot­ing all year meant con­tin­u­ing through February’s freez­ing mud, while Mifune was almost naked. Kuro­sawa duti­fully stood in the mud with his cast and crew, and was lit­er­ally frostbitten.
  • Seven Samu­rai: Ori­gins & Influ­ences” — “The Story of the 47 Ronin” was a pop­u­lar pup­pet the­ater tale for hun­dreds of years, and was adapted into films sev­eral times a year in early Japan­ese cin­ema. One of those obser­va­tions that sounds obvi­ous in ret­ro­spect, but needs to be pointed out by some­body: Ronin (pro­nounced by some as “roh-ee-nin”) sto­ries are more pop­u­lar than samu­rai sto­ries because they are inher­ently more dra­mat­i­cally interesting.
  • My Life in Cin­ema: Akira Kuro­sawa” — a long inter­view by fel­low direc­tor Nag­isa Oshima.

Must read: the Cri­te­rion Con­trap­tion review by Matthew Dessem

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




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

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

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

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

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

If....Mmmf mmmmf mmff mmmmfff.…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crin blanc: Le cheval sauvage (White Mane) / Le ballon rouge (The Red Balloon)

Red Balloon White Mane


Janus Films and the Cri­te­rion Col­lec­tion have released two clas­sic short films for chil­dren from French film­maker Albert Lam­or­isse: White Mane (1952), and The Red Bal­loon (1956). Each is mostly silent, with only the odd line or two of dia­logue. In essence, both are extended chase sequences that deserve to be taught in film school.

White Mane is the story of a proud, wild horse sought after by cruel ranch­ers. Only Folco (Alain Emery), a poor young fish­er­man, treats the horse with the due respect in order to be able to approach and even­tu­ally ride him. The two become equals, as opposed to mas­ter and pet. Shock­ingly, their tale ends in an appar­ent sui­cide, as Folco and the horse both chose the free­dom of death over liv­ing under oppres­sion (poverty for Folco, cap­tiv­ity for the horse).

Red Balloon White ManeThe Red Balloon

I vaguely recall see­ing The Red Bal­loon in ele­men­tary school, as an ancient film print run­ning through our rat­tling pro­jec­tor. As the lit­tle boy Pas­cal (Pas­cal Lam­or­isse) makes his way to school through a depress­ingly grey Paris, he frees a stray bal­loon (the red­dest red you’ll ever see on film) tan­gled on a lamp­post. The bal­loon becomes his faith­ful and play­ful pet, but causes him noth­ing but grief. He is kicked off the bus, made late for school, gets in trou­ble with mom, and pro­vokes a gang of ruf­fi­ans in short pants. Still, through­out, the boy remains the faith­ful defender of his adopted friend, and is ulti­mately rewarded after suf­fer­ing tragedy.

Red Balloon White ManeWhite Mane

Together, the two films present the fol­low­ing morals: adults are cruel and unfair, intent on stamp­ing out plea­sure and free­dom, and ani­mals and inan­i­mate objects make bet­ter friends than humans. Both fea­ture heart­break­ing tragedies that would almost cer­tainly never fig­ure into con­tem­po­rary children’s films.

Buy The Red Bal­loon or White Mane DVDs from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report.

For All Mankind

For All Mankind movie poster


It was a weird expe­ri­ence to finally see the orig­i­nal film for the sound­track to which I’ve lis­tened to count­less times. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois’ Apollo: Atmos­pheres & Sound­tracks is a gor­geous piece of work, and very much col­ored my expec­ta­tions of what the film would be. Hav­ing long pic­tured a largely abstract com­pi­la­tion of oth­er­worldly lunar footage, I was sur­prised to find For All Mankind a more straight­for­ward doc­u­men­tary than what was already in my head. (Bits and pieces from the com­pi­la­tion album Music for Films III also appear.)

Unlike In the Shadow of the Moon, the 2007 fea­ture doc­u­men­tary on the same sub­ject, For All Mankind exclu­sively uses orig­i­nal footage taken dur­ing the Apollo Mis­sions, much of it by the astro­nauts them­selves. The absence of new nar­ra­tion or footage rightly places the empha­sis solely on the achieve­ments of the orig­i­nal par­tic­i­pants. But a draw­back is that the inter­vie­wees on the sound­track are not iden­ti­fied (the Cri­te­rion DVD edi­tion includes an option to dis­play sub­ti­tles iden­ti­fy­ing the speakers).

For All MankindOpen the pod bay doors, HAL

I have lit­tle to add to Matthew Dessem’s excel­lent review on The Cri­te­rion Con­trap­tion blog, or to my own thoughts on In the Shadow of the Moon. Three small observations:

  • I was com­pletely igno­rant that NASA first began space­walks dur­ing the Apollo mis­sions. I was under the impres­sion they began dur­ing the space shut­tle mis­sions of my youth. In ret­ro­spect, it makes per­fect sense that NASA would test space­walks in orbit over the Earth before attempt­ing to step out of a cap­sule onto the moon, but: Wow!
  • The astro­nauts were very con­scious of Stan­ley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Each astro­naut could bring one cas­sette tape to play on a portable deck, and one chose Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathus­tra”. Another describes see­ing the moon sur­face up close as being like some­thing from 2001.
  • Due to the film’s nature of being com­prised of orig­i­nal footage, there’s per­haps too much of the astro­nauts goof­ing off in zero-G, and not enough of the spec­tac­u­lar lunar footage. But it goes to show that even the pilots selected for being the most sane and calm peo­ple in the word still turn to excited kids when play­ing in outer space (with the rare excep­tion to prove the rule).

Cri­te­rion DVD info: http://www.criterion.com/asp/release.asp?id=54

Cri­te­rion Con­trap­tion review: http://criterioncollection.blogspot.com/2006/04/54-for-all-mankind.html

Buy the DVD from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to me.