Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton movie poster


Michael Clayton is a that rare thing: an intelligent, fictional thriller for grownups. Like any self-respecting Thriller for Grownups, it’s relentlessly grim in tone, the chronology is fractured, and a high level of detail demands your attention. It doesn’t approach impenetrability like Syriana, but it unfortunately doesn’t engage the brain as much as a good puzzler could. Everything is spelled out for the viewer in the end, except for a few niggling logistical questions. (Such as, why would two expert assassins opt for something so messily conspicuous as a car bomb?)

Tom Wilkinson in Michael ClaytonShiva the goddess of death

Michael Clayton has all the whiff of being based on a true story, but is in fact a wholly original work from writer/director Tony Gilroy – his first film as director after a successful run of screenplays including the Bourne trilogy. George Clooney carries the film with the complex, compromised title character, and Oscar winner Tilda Swinton sweats convincingly as a dying-inside corporate executioner. But in my mind the real star is Tom Wilkinson.

Tilda Swinton in Michael ClaytonDon’t sweat the small stuff

Official movie site: michaelclayton.warnerbros.com

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Once movie poster


Now this is a love story (of sorts) I can get behind, unlike the recent Dork Report screenings of Eagle vs. Shark or Year of the Dog. The unnamed “Guy” (Glen Hansard, already a rock star in The Frames and a movie star from The Commitments) is a street busker, playing popular songs for pennies during the day, and saving his own passionate compositions for the empty streets at night. “Girl” (Markéta Irglová) is an immigrant from the Czech Republic, looking at an unhappy future as a single mother, in servile jobs, with no outlet for her own musical talent. Each has become stuck, but their meeting jostles each other into motion.

What a fucking great movie. That’s it; that’s my entire “review.” See it, and get the soundtrack.

Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in OnceHey, it’s that guy from The Commitments!

Official movie site: www.foxsearchlight.com/once

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Away From Her

Away From Her movie poster


So far, it seems The Dork Report is definitive proof of the truism that criticism is cheaper than praise; it’s easier to pick apart what’s wrong with a bad or mediocre movie than it is to praise what’s good. So sitting down to write something about a really great film like Away From Her, I find myself at a loss for what to say.

Already a seasoned actor at 29, Sarah Polley proves herself a mature and sensitive writer/director on her very first outing. Although concerned with Alzheimer’s, Away From Her is thankfully not a movie “about” a disease. I felt the biopic Iris, although finely acted by no less than Kate Winslet, Judi Dench, and Jim Broadbent, fell into the trap of educating the audience about a disease more than looking at the experiences of the real-life figures whose lives were surely defined by more than Iris Murdoch’s disease.

Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent in Away From HerJulie Christie and Gordon Pinsent in Away From Her

Fiona (Julie Christie) and long-time husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) are already aware of her relatively early-onset Alzheimer’s as the movie begins, but react to its sudden progression with different degrees of preparedness. Worse, as her short term memory leaves her, memories of old traumas resurface just as it is time for her to enter an assisted living community, making an impossible situation no easier for either of them. The next time Grant sees her, she appears to have forgotten him altogether… or has she? The possibility that Grant may be reading his fears into Fiona’s behavior and lapses is one of the most powerful questions of the film.

Sarah Polley directs Away From HerSarah Polley, writer/director of Away From Her

The still-gorgeous Julie Christie deserves an Oscar for her Canadian accent alone. Christie’s long resume and Oscar nomination put her in the entertainment media’s spotlight this winter, but Gordon Pinsent is excellent as Grant, arguably the lead role. Away From Her may be a powerfully sad movie, but not one that anyone should be afraid of being bummed out by.

Official movie site: www.memory-catcher.net

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The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

The King of Kong movie poster


First, full disclosure: I work for the movie company that distributed The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. My miniscule role in marketing the film was limited to designing the official movie site, and I am under no obligation or prohibition to write this review (which happens to be positive, anyway). Any opinions expressed here are mine alone. I mostly avoid writing about movies released by my employer. I’m making a rare exception in this case because The King of Kong has been out of theaters for some time, and my personal opinion on this blog is certainly not going to have any impact on its revenue. Having just seen it again, I have a few thoughts I would like to record here.

I would hate to be an English teacher, at any level, for one reason: the countless “it’s a metaphor for life” papers I would have to grade. Probably one of the biggest cliches of kids’ essays is to pull out that refrain, e.g. “the light at the end of the dock in The Great Gatsby in a metaphor for life.” After grading a few dozen of those I just might want to start throwing things and switch to another career, like, say for example, web design.

Billy Mitchell in The King of KongBilly Mitchell with the ladies of Namco

That said, I’m about to commit that very grievous essay sin: if anything is a metaphor for life, it’s Donkey Kong. Let’s look at the evidence:

  • Donkey Kong is an intensely difficult game.
  • The game’s god/creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, did not supply it with a predefined ending.
  • The number of levels is undeclared at the outset.
  • Anyone with a quarter can play.
  • Most people die very quickly.
  • A very select few thrive and have their names entered into history.
  • How you play, not just how long you live, determines your score. In other words, you can reach the exact same point in the same level as somebody else but have a higher score.
  • Even the best of the best players cannot “win” the game; everyone will eventually drop dead without warning and through no gameplay fault of their own. This point has become known as the game’s “kill screen.”

That list of bullet points just about covers it; Donkey Kong is so clearly a metaphor for the human experience that the film thankfully doesn’t even bother to explicitly state its themes. Kids, let that be a lesson.

The King of KongSteve Wiebe preps for the big game

The King of Kong is a very rousing film that works best to an audience; if possible, watch the dvd with friends. From what I can gather, viewers respond to two basic things: the frankly weird subculture of professional video gaming, and the more universal story of the underdog vs. an entrenched power network. A suspicion is gaining traction that the story is too perfect, the hero Steve Wieve too all-american, and the villain Billy Mitchell too evil. The movie’s official message board features heated discussions including actual figures featured in the film, and documentarian Jason Scott has gone so far as to publish a passionate teardown of The King of Kong’s filmmakers’ ethics.

Personally, I wish the film had been more clear on a few points:

• As you can read on the above links, Billy Mitchell’s well-timed taped submission did seem fishy but turned out to be genuine.
• Most viewers (including myself) all ask the same question: how long does it take to play one of these “perfect” games? The movie finally discloses the answer incidentally near the end, as if the filmmakers weren’t deliberately withholding the information, but rather didn’t realize it was something viewers needed to know.

All in all, the subculture featured in the film is a truly unique bunch of people, and a great find by the filmmakers. Some of them may deserve a little mockery, but my favorite moment in the film goes to a Robert Mruczek, who describes how professional sports records are broken once in a lifetime, but he sees gaming records broken every day. And how exciting is that?

Official movie site: www.billyvssteve.com

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Chasing Amy

Chasing Amy movie poster


Far and away Kevin Smith’s best film, and not coincidentally his most heartfelt. I think Smith’s achievement is to tell a universal guy’s story while still featuring significant and sympathetic female characters. Yes, Chasing Amy is spectacularly profane and the characters are prone to giving extended on-the-nose speeches perfectly explicating their inner motivations, but the central theme is worthy and true: love can be a mixture of elevating another to a height to which you can’t measure up, while paradoxically needing to have them do the same to you. More literally, Holden (Ben Affleck) feels both fascinated and threatened by what he perceives as Alyssa’s (Joey Lauren Adams) more adventurous and worldly sexuality, but also needs to believe that he has power over her and has somehow tamed her.

Out of Smith’s oeuvre, the closest to Chasing Amy is Jersey Girl. But his personal meditations on fatherhood required more of his trademark raunch to offset the treacle than the PG-13 allowed. It did, however, feature the single cruelest joke I’ve ever heard: Andrew Lloyd Webber is “the second-worst thing that’s ever happened to New York City.” Zing! Nobody, not even Lloyd Webber, deserves that!

Ben Affleck and Jason Lee in Chasing Amy.jpgNot one to pass up an opportunity to cite Jaws

A far better writer than I has already been here and done that: please refer to Matthew Dessem’s review on The Criterion Contraption. I disagree with his obvious dislike of the film, but every point he makes against it is fair.

Official movie site: www.viewaskew.com/chasingamy

Criterion DVD info: www.criterion.com/asp/release.asp?id=75

Criterion Contraption review: criterioncollection.blogspot.com/2007/09/75-chasing-amy.html

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Gone Baby Gone

Gone Baby Gone movie poster


Good ol’ Bahstuhn Cahtholick Ben Affleck is an all grown-up, big-boy director now, and lookit, he made himself a pretty decent movie. That said, Gone Baby Gone is a big plate of grim, with side order of depressing.

Affleck makes excellent use of location footage and local color. And not surprising for a movie directed by an actor (like Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris and George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck), Affleck privileges the characters and performances over the plot. We also see plenty of B-roll footage of the faces and voices of Bostoners on the streets, in the bars, and on local TV screens.

Ben Affleck directs Gone Baby GoneHow many times I gotta tell you, bro? I pahked the cahr down on the yahds

Gone Baby Gone is one of the first movies to poach some of the excellent acting talent premiered in HBO’s superb series The Wire. Doubtless by accident, Michael Kenneth Williams and Amy Ryan both play characters diametrically opposed to their TV counterparts; Williams is a sardonic po-lice resolved to the corruption around him (compare and contrast with The Wire’s Omar, a parasite that feeds on the drug trade), and Ryan plays a coked-out winner of bad-mother-of-the-year, the exact opposite in every way (including accent) of her salt-of-the-earth B’more Port Authority po-lice on The Wire.

Ed Harris and Amy Ryan in Gone Baby GonePay no attention to my rug

The few bad points to mention (other than the aforementioned pervasive grim tone), are Ed Harris’ inconsistent rug and a middle section papered over almost entirely by voiceover narration.

Official movie site: www.gonebabygone-themovie.com

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U23D movie poster


U23D is actually a fairly traditional concert movie, a mostly straight-up filmed record of a representative show of a single tour. U2 had already produced one theatrical feature film about themselves (1988’s Rattle and Hum), and released countless productions on video and DVD before and since. So what could have been just another video of the world’s most overexposed band needed to differentiate itself somehow. Turns out the latest 3-D technology filling a 40-foot screen consuming your peripheral vision is more than enough to justify its existence.

3-D technology has come a long way from what I remember as a kid, watching Creature of the Black Lagoon on TV with red-and-blue cardboard glasses. At first, the degree of depth is disorienting and headache-inducing, but before too long the brain and eyes adjust. Your perspective is not that of the audience but as if you were standing right on stage with the lads. Sometimes I felt as if I should have been holding a tambourine!

U23DIn a state called vertigo

The old songs I’ve memorized from thousands of plays on LP, tape, CD and now iPod are still great. The martial drumbeat to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” still sends chills down my spine, and I have to admit I even choked up a little during “Pride (In the Name of Love).” I was disappointed by the relative lack of songs from the band’s 90s “postmodern irony” trilogy Achtung Baby / Zooropa / Pop, but I now have a new appreciation for “Love and Peace or Else,” a new song from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb that hadn’t quite made an impression on me yet.

Bono in U23DOne blind Bono sez: Coexist or else

I’m a longtime fan that has never seen U2 live. There was a frustration at every opportunity; if they weren’t sold out, I was too broke, sans car, or all of the above. So U23D made a kind of stopgap pilgrimage for me. U2 must be one of the only rock bands to ever preserve the original personnel for so long; here’s hoping they stick together long enough for another tour so I can see them for real.

Official movie site: www.u23dmovie.com

The Iron Giant

The Iron Giant movie poster


The Iron Giant is a sorely underrated animated film remarkable on so many fronts, not the least being a rare film among the company of The Incredibles (not coincidentally also directed by Brad Bird) as a story truly for the ages and for "all ages." Also one of the few films capable of choking up such a hardened emotional rock as myself.

U2: Zoo TV Live From Syndey

U2 Zoo TV Live From Sydney


If I could build a time machine to take me to see any band in history, it would be a trip to the early 90s to catch U2 at any point along their legendary Zoo TV tour. New to DVD, Zoo TV: Live From Sydney documents the lads’ performance in Sydney during the aptly named Zoomerang leg. Rewatching the event in the 21st century is interesting; on one hand, it’s almost shocking how far ahead of the curve U2 was in 1993, preaching a pretty weighty post-modern, ironic kill-your-television thesis in front of thousands of rock ‘n’ roll fans each night. But on the other hand, the fixation on cable and satellite TV now looks rather quaint. True cultural desensitization and alienation via media oversaturation came, in the end, from the internet. “Everything you know is wrong”, indeed.

U2 - Zoo TV Live From SyndeyI’d hate to see the band’s utility bill at the end of this tour…

Zoo TV was less a rock concert than a carefully choreographed theatrical event. Bono donned multiple costumes and personas throughout each show: a drunken rock star clad in leather and flay shades, a paramilitary in fatigues, a gold lamé cowboy hat-wearing megachurch televangelist blasting millions of U2 bucks into the audience, and finally emerging as MacPhisto, a kind of washed-up wasted devil tired of life but still up for a good time.

Bono as MacPhisto in U2 - Zoo TV Live From SydneyBono’s devilish alter-ego MacPhisto

Regardless, what’s amazing is that despite all the high-mindedness and avant-garde video art contributed by Brian Eno and Emergency Broadcast Network, U2 still managed to put on a truly ass-kicking rock concert and get millions of people around the globe to come and love every second of it. And for me to buy the DVD.

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