Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Key Grip Goes New York

For loyal readers who may have missed it -- all five of you? -- this past weekend I was asked to report from Gainesville's four-day experimental film festial, FLEXFest, for And I am here to tell you that the experience of writing 1,000-or-so words about a ninety-nine hour, sixty-five-title, juried film festival, was not only deeply gratifying, not only fully immersing, it may well end up being one of those milepost moments in a person's life. Certainly it is fair to say that I have not yet recovered my day-to-day equilibrium, and might not for some time.

It began with my recent decision to transition some of my film-review efforts to YouTube, and thence to credit the locally owned and suitably smart video rental store here in town, Video Rodeo. Since the store also has a Facebook page, posting copies of the reviews there seemed a logical way of introducing my love of good movies, my desire to support the business, and my appetite for listening to myself talk, all at once. What I hadn't fully appreciated was that the store's founder and proprietor, Roger Beebe, is also the eleven-year director of FLEXFest -- and that in such capacity he would shortly be contacted by Cinespect for ideas about who in the local area might be interested in scrawling a few words about the festival. Beebe graciously ignored my proclivity for, as someone recently put it, "structures so deep they'd give Noam Chomsky wet-dreams," and passed-along my name. After which I quickly became the dog that chases cars, and had just caught one.

To this point even the idea of attending all ten events of such a gathering would have stretched the limits of my capacity for digesting clever sensory input and keeping it all straight inside my fractious head. There would then of course be the question of a passably-done composition about the thing, turned in on short deadline. And by short, you understand, I mean significantly fewer than twenty-four hours.

But a funny thing happened on the way to being completely overwhelmed by the breadth of such a task: Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I felt enthralled -- exhilarated, even -- to an extent that had not been my privilege since attending a writers' workshop in New Smyrna Beach eleven years ago. I'd gone in expecting the one-word takeaway to be "unmanageable" and come out with something more akin to "liberating." The act of getting up Tuesday morning and confronting an un-graded pile of economics tests was nothing short of surreal: it was as if I'd been away from my normal self, not for four days but four years.

I'll leave the actual reporting on the event to the Cinespect article; since they've been gracious enough to take a chance on me, I'm not here going to undercut their readership by paraphrasing what I saw in, or how I reacted to the jurors, the venues, the individual films. But the long and the short of the matter is that disappearing into an unlit warehouse for four days, absorbing everything that some of the quickest-witted filmmakers in the world are up to, and putting something together about it that would be legible and only thirty- or forty-percent overweight vs. the requested word-length, will stand near the pinnacle of my list of memorable experiences for a long, long time. It's been years since I've been surrounded by so much excellence in such a creatively stimulating genre, or felt so included in it by my unfailingly gracious hosts. It could be years 'til I feel such things again.

And that, I guess, is the point of my column this morning: When such experiences grace our lives, they forgive a little bit of self-celebration (I hope), but they also deserve a moment's pause. Whatever I end up doing this weekend, or the next, or the one after that, it won't be anything nearly as special as the project I've just shared a tiny little role in and from which I've taken so much satisfaction. People often comment on how rarely we see the grand and fulfilling high-points of our existences as they are happening, how we can only really appreciate them long after the fact. Well, I see this one; I see this one for exactly what it is. And I couldn't be more grateful, for the having of it, or the seeing, either one.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida
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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Product Review: Konica-Minolta Magicolor 1600W color laser printer

Back in the early 2000s, the last time I needed a printer, I consulted over the phone for long weeks about it with my best friend -- the man who built my current PC, on which these very words are being written -- who repeatedly spiked the various models I'd been floating past him, regardless of name brand, source of my own interest, functionality or reputation. In exasperation I eventually asked him (not without empirical precedent) if he wasn't just shooting-down every candidate in order to be a pain in my ass, whereupon the other end of the phone-line went uncharacteristically and thoughtfully quiet for a moment. "No, Dave," he finally said, "it's just that every model you suggest is in the kind of price-point that it should come equipped with a hostess in a pencil-miniskirt, pushing a drink trolley past your desk every few minutes. You seem to have decided you're going to spend a thousand bucks on something that will work no better for your needs than one that costs something more like a tenth of that much money."

After some further discussion about reliability, print volume, uses, etc., my friend finally convinced me to drive to my nearest big-box office retailer (about a thousand feet from my house, if it comes to that), and spend a hundred dollars on an HP Laserjet 1012. In the years since, that printer performed flawlessly: nary a single paper-jam or smeared page-proof along the way to generating not one or two but five complete, full-length fiction- and non-fiction manuscripts, for nobody to read. It's a bit melodramatic to say, but not a million miles from true, that every bad book I've written in my entire life I owe in some small measure to the advice of that curmudgeonly, beloved, and now gone forever best friend of mine, who passed away from complications of cystic fibrosis in the spring of 2007. (I'll stop mentioning this detail in my apparently unrelated stories about other things altogether at some point, I suppose -- if for no other reason than it won't be possible to keep bringing it up after I've joined him.)

Of course nothing lasts forever in this molded-plastic-and-printed-circuit-board junk store that is the world of modern consumer technology, and while the HP printer itself never did evidence any signs of getting tired, the combination of increasingly fractious after-market toner vendors, and a sudden interest on the part of yours truly to print a few things in color, led me with a deep sigh and a heavy heart to conclude last Christmas that the time had come to say farewell to yet another of my de facto Buddhist shrines to the life and love of my best friend. As you can tell from reading this, it wasn't going to be easy.

Then again, after digesting a few cursory user-reviews on the web it became apparent pretty quickly that it wouldn't have been easy anyway: Know those machines out there in big, middle-of-the-aisle displays at WalMart and Best Buy? The ones for seventy- or fifty- or in some cases even thirty bucks? You know, the default choices for non-professional home users these days, the color inkjet "all-in-one" with the handy little SD-socket and the flatbed scanner/copier platform at the top, made by Canon and HP and Lexmark? Well, unless the users who've bought these and written about them are all either hopelessly ignorant or part of some mass-conspiracy to slur the once-noble titans of the printing game, the machines themselves are all... well... shite, if you'll pardon me for saying it.

I'd planned to read a dozen user-reviews each for middle-end all-in-one machines by each of the names with whom I'd have expected to have a good experience, and each time I found myself not needing to continue after the second or third write-up. One person would say, "Well, this one is good for what it does -- which isn't much," the next person would say, "I got it to install but it never printed anything," the third person would say, "You have to send a single page at a time, because it jams every time it tries to grab a second sheet on the same print-job," and then the fourth person would say, "DO NOT BUY THIS HUNK OF CRAP; IT WORKED FOR FIVE MINUTES AND THEN GREEN SMOKE STARTED POURING OUT WHICH KILLED THE FAMILY DOG." This happened with the Canons, which surprised me; it happened with the Lexmarks, which stupefied me; it happened with the HP models, which left me literally staring at my monitor with my mouth hanging open and my hand on top of my head.

Some people out there might think it's silly to put this much stock of credibility into the collective feedback of a group of unseen strangers who might not all have any business trying to buy and install a printer in the first place, but by way of justifying my resulting circumspection I should here confess that I am, more than any other single negative-descriptor that suits me better than I'd like, an absolutely zealous consumer satisfaction Nazi. Most people choose to major in economics because they can't bear the idea of messy explanations for bureaucratic red-tape; I chose to major in economics because I couldn't bear the idea of the faceless automatons in windowless conference rooms, sitting around all day trying to figure out how to force us all to buy stuff that they already know won't do what they're saying it does, on the wrapper. When most people buy something that fails to do what it's supposed to, they make a note and shake their heads and try again; when I buy something that fails to do what it's supposed to, I spend the next thirty-six hours watching movies in which people murder someone and get away with it, taking notes.

The difficulty this particular failing presented for me in the present context is self-evident: There simply didn't seem to be anything out there -- anything, out there -- for a person to buy if he wanted to print more than a page or two before feeling he had no choice but to google-bomb the make and model-number with incendiary diatribes about what a hunk of junk he'd just bought. Even the buyers' wizard on CNET.COM -- a usually functional if not always last-word-worthy set of fixed-alternative questions, culminating with a single recommendation -- repeatedly suggested the same particular all-in-one color inkjet, made by Canon, regardless of which options I chose along the way, and which gets less than 2-1/2 stars out of 4 for its user-review aggregate on their very website!

Add to this the problem the stealthy detail that the all-in-one jobbies tend to yield shockingly low page-totals before needing new cartridges (and the implicit hell that finding the new cartridges would surely be, despite all those wall-to-wall glass display cases of cartridges you and I have both seen a hundred times), and it was clear that my search was going to have to bring me a little farther afield. To wit, if I wanted a reliable machine -- even if that was all I wanted -- I was going to have to look at a color, laser printer.

So, having resigned myself to color laser printers for my search pool, I then proceeded to check all the usual on-line-merchant suspects for machines ranging in price from... five to nine hundred dollars! After all, if a color inkjet all-in-one for seventy bucks was a big, fat, do-not-buy, then surely the only reliable solution out there was going to cost at least five or ten times that much money, n'est-ce pas? I mean, it's not like I hadn't been right about this very same logic once before, no? ...Oh, wait: I hadn't been right about this very same logic once before; I'd been dead wrong, about this very same logic, once before. The difference being that this time there would be no irritable and periodically profane friend to all but literally slap me out of it.

In the end the story came to a different resolution through something a lot closer to blind good-luck. Having found a $600 printer that looked promising, I began reading the user reviews for that model and, mercifully, the second one I read had been written by someone who in his first paragraph said that he'd liked that machine, but could see no reason to prefer it for home-office use over another machine that could be had with a little snooping for a sixth as much money. It wasn't until I'd actually divided $600 by six in my head that I realized how profoundly I'd almost just let the memory of my deceased friend, down.

Enter the Konica Magicolor 1600W -- a
non-wireless, non-duplexing, twenty-page-per-minute yawner that, when asked to print in full color, drops down to five.
It's bigger, heavier, and less functional than its principal target market has probably gotten used to expecting out of its products, to be sure. A two-employee consulting business with a studio office overlooking the used records store at Fourth- and Elm is quickly gonna want its money back. But here's the thing about all of that: The fucking thing works. And for this target market of one, that's the non-cinematic equivalent of having me at hello.

Out of the box the Konica makes an immediate impression. It's both self-serving and probably at least to some extent revisionist of me to say so, but I do feel as though I've gotten to the point in my own consumer experience -- not without some negative examples -- where I can tell more-or-less immediately whether I'm going to be happy with something, based on the vibration I get from the thing while I can still hear the UPS truck pulling into traffic on eighth avenue. Arcam makes good stereo source components, period. Integra makes good receivers. Dared makes good amplifiers. Signal makes good stereo cables. Salk makes good speakers. Panasonic makes good TV's. Some of these things might be less likely than their competitors to thrill you, but none of them are going to leave you wondering how you could have been so stupid. Add the Konica Minolta 1600W to the list. From even before the styrofoam ears were safely hidden from the cats, it was going to be a good fit.

The pictorial instructions for unpacking and installing the machine are a little excessive (must, not, throw, metal, transit, screws, in, the, regular, garbage) , but I'd rather that than the opposite, of course. There is a corresponding manual, but it is rendered utterly redundant by the tediously over-detailed cartoon strip that comes folded-in on top, which is fine by me. The point being, I was connected and printing non-test-pages in under five minutes after signing for the box. And a lot less can be said
of many, many, many other printers out there in the hundred-dollar price point. What am I saying, a lot less has been said of many, many, many other printers out there in the hundred-dollar price point.

Since the overwhelming majority of my own print requirements (at least for now) would seem to be of the monochromatic variety, my first big experiment with the Konica was to put it through the trickiest job I could anticipate needing it for in this category--one in which the black-and-white formatting associated with documents like hotel receipts and so-on should appear cleanly on the same page as basic, legible text. And folks, not only was I impressed with the job the Konica did--I was impressed to an extent that didn't immediately seem physically possible.

Whereas the same pages printed from the HP had faint-but-detectable gray "footprints" around logos and other cut-and-pasted graphics on these text pages (e.g., if a piece of mock letterhead had a picture of a legal scale centered at the top, one could detect a blocky under-mat around the scale when the page was printed), the Konica seems somehow -- inexplicably, unless there's something about all of this that I don't understand -- to know that the fuzzy matting surrounding the image doesn't actually belong in the document, and instead the image itself is printed as crisp and clean as if it were the next letter to the right of the mailing address. Obviously there is much about such matters that I don't understand, but this doesn't change the fact that the Konica was able to effortlessly accomplish something for me that had heretofore been completely impracticable.

As impressed as I was with text, full-color printing was, if anything, even more arresting, with less false contouring and better rejection of jaggies than I get when viewing the same image on my plasma television! From photographs to color brochure designs and back, it is clear to me after even a few short trials that all but the most heavy home-office users will be nothing short of fully satisfied by the all-color performance of this almond-colored little sumo wrestler and its slow, moderately noisy, but unimpeachably serviceable output.

The ideal user for this machine -- well, the ideal user other than a crabby and self-alienated and as a result largely friendless-old-coot-before-his-time like your present columnist -- would seem to be the scholastically minded seventeen year-old about to leave home for the toughest school that would have him- or her as a student. Indeed I can't really even look at this printer, much less use it, without transporting myself to a dimly-lit dorm room someplace: It's three-AM and six nervous, dirty-blue-jean wearing kids are standing in an uneasy semicircle around the precocious group-leader, who only just let slip that they don't actually have to walk the flash-drive with their project on it all the way to Kinko's now that the buses have stopped running. Meanwhile the guy who hasn't been one of those kids in more than half his lifetime now may sit over here, on the other side of town, pounding-out bad fiction and even worse narrative memoir, and never once have to worry about any of the tree he's killing for no good reason getting stuck inside his equipment and screwing-up his whole print job.

If it's true that I'm the sort of guy who flips a lot further out than most when things don't do what they say they will on the wrapper, then perhaps the upside of this failing is that, in some specific ways, consumer products have an oddly lower standard to live up to, in earning my esteem. An object that says, "Dave, I'm the newest whiz-bang thing, and I've got the opening-night jitters to prove it" is not going to last in my house (not least because the Polynesian burial ground over which my house's fractious electrical supply was apparently built will only eat such a product and spit it out before I've learned to hate it for my own personal reasons, anyway). But a product that says, "Dave, I will sit here, inconspicuously, un-inspiringly, and do exactly that which you expected when you read about me before buying," is the product that will have my allegiance -- if not my still-broken heart, since that is locked away someplace else -- forever.

A word or two of caveat are also in order, here. First, a few users out there have reported some performance quirks with this machine, but it would seem after a little digging that those users might be having most of their troubles as a result of running non-laser-quality paper through this bad-boy, which strikes me as a bit pointless anyway. (In for a pound, and all that.) A user who splurges on a ream of name-brand, high-visibility bright, laser-printer paper, would appear unlikely to have any problems with quirky performance whatsoever.

Second, the power consumption of this machine is anything but Al-Gore-friendly. In my house, with my house's Amityville electrical system, the Konica causes a pulsating dimming of the lights even when it's at idle. But the amusing thing here is that, in a left-handed way, this trait actually saves power in my own usage, because it inspires me (or perhaps I should say terrifies me) into toggling the Konica all the way off when I'm not printing.

Third, and most important, if you have cats as I do you will very much want to close both the paper feed-tray and the output slot after every use, since both of these are the flimsiest aspects of the overall design, and will unceremoniously snap off -- greatly complicating any subsequent printing processes -- the first time an innocent kitty-cat mistakes either one of them for a viewing perch at the top of your home-office rig. And this would, I'll have to admit, seriously cut into one's impression of the machine's overall rugged build quality.

I'll post a follow-up review after I've gotten better-acquainted with this guy, but the initial impressions simply could not be any more favorable. Readers in the market for a new printer may, as far as I'm concerned, buy the Konica-Minolta Magicolor 1600W with absolute confidence that what they're being promised is exactly what they'll get. And if they're anything at all like me, that's more than enough satisfaction of expectation to ensure that they won't be disappointed. Unless you need wireless (a buying group that includes a grand-total of nobody, admit it) or forty-page-per-minute printing (in which case you wouldn't be reading this), it would seem impossible to buy this particular printer and wish you'd gotten a different one instead.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida
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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Movie Review: Tron Legacy (2010)

Those among us who are old enough would seem to have entered into some kind of mass self-deception about the original Tron, released to a yawning public in 1982. The computer-generated effects were flat, sterile, and fraught with optical-print errors, and the storyline managed to be abstruse and superficial at the same time. What the original Tron did have was a completely, enthrallingly original look. All of which begs the question of how a group of Disney filmmakers might go about selling us a highly evocative sequel, to a movie whose only attribute to begin with was its visual originality? Well, the short answer is: they would do it badly.

Garrett Hedlund is Sam Flynn, the rebellious twenty-something son of Jeff Bridges’ software developer Kevin Flynn, who when Sam was little abruptly disappeared. After some bizarrely unimportant preliminaries about corporate bad-guy-ism, Kevin’s erstwhile partner informs Sam of a page he received from a disconnected number. Sam traces the number to Kevin’s basement lab, and the room-sized, high-voltage laser pointed conspicuously at the chair in which Sam now sits. Presently Sam presses the wrong button—or is it the right one?—thence to find himself scanned into the program, captured by electronic sentries, and forced to compete in a series of gladiatorial competitions, known as the games.

There follow fifteen minutes of suspenseless, characterless whiz-bang nonsense, all of it fraught with roughly the same edgy anticipation it takes to open our milk duds and steal another peek at our phones. Having bested all comers, Sam is hauled before the grand and power-lusting Clu, an arch rival created by the elder Flynn in his own image and played by a computer-reverse-aged Bridges—though not, we notice immediately, reverse-aged to the point of the original picture. Tasked by Kevin with perfecting the game grid, it happens that Clu has interpreted this order as a war on all that is beautiful and non-sterile, planning in consequence to destroy both father and son, along the way to making his escape into a reality imperfect enough to have spent a hundred and seventy million bucks on a hunk of mostly 2-D gibberish like this one.

But before Clu can have his way with Sam, the younger Flynn is busted out by the beautiful Cora, played by Wilde, who whisks him away to meet daddy dearest at his laughably 2001-like mountaintop exile, itself invisible to Clu and his minions because of its location outside the limits of the program! Who knew that high-desert terrain existed at the periphery of computer code, or that computer-programmed vehicles could go there, provided they come equipped with big, knobby tires? For that matter, why is dad so apparently startled to see Sam, despite the fact that the newly cleaved portal to the outside world is plainly visible from his balcony?

At all events, with our trio of variously reluctant heroes at last united, we may be forgiven for presuming at least the brute-force coherency of an urgent call-to-action. What happens instead, is that everyone sits around talking. Cora catches Sam up on the tedious backstory while Kevin, separated from his son for decades, sits in the corner and meditates. Sam goes to his room, Cora ultimately joins him there, and they talk. Kevin snaps out of it in time for dinner, and then all three of them talk some more, Kevin unloading on Sam a bouillabaisse of Zen/Taoist nonsense more aptly suited to an NFL-lineman who’d misread the cliff-notes.

Okay, that last bit was unkind, but if the line, “Doing nothing’s underrated” works as an ethos in real-life—and it might not—I’d have at least thought we could all agree that it isn’t going to work for the middle hour of a movie. “What’s it like outside?” Kevin asks Sam, ten minutes after the last non-reviewer has left the building. “Rich gettin' richer, poor gettin' poorer,” is Sam’s suicide-temptingly adequate response. Wasn’t this supposed to be a Disney film? In 3D? Come to think of it, why am I still bothering with these stupid glasses?

By the time our un-involving characters find their way to what we already sense will be a flimsy and one-dimensional climax, the corny and undramatic gotcha feels less like a petty theft of ticket money and more like a mercy-killing. Well, you can almost literally hear people thinking. At least it’s over.

Still I’d be remiss if I did not point out the ease with which I managed to distract myself from the enduring of this heaving mess, by concentrating instead on the wall-to-wall gratuity of delicious young actresses clad in scandalously form-fitting lycra. Throughout our dreary cyber-triptick we are regularly and mercifully visited by Olivia Wilde or Beau Garrett, their outfits so tight that a bored audience can amuse itself guessing what they had for breakfast. Just why Disney is so consistently attached to projects involving so much racy sex-appeal is a topic that has been done to death already, but whatever the reason I’m sure there are far less hygienic ways for a fractious nine year-old boy to discover, on a rainy Saturday, that he is, without remorse, a heterosexual.

The Key Grip gives Tron:Legacy one bald head out of five. Mostly for the lycra.
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Movie Review: Revanche (2008)

Friends of mine will tell you that I’m “too plot driven.” And while I’m not even really sure what that means, I do have a clear enough idea to know that it’s an awfully faint way to challenge someone else’s taste in movies, especially when the person in question counts among his favorites such atmospheric gems as Tsai Ming-Liang’s What Time is it There and Gus Van Sant’s Gerry. Never mind: expecting the story-aspect of a film to work is just about the last transgression for which I’m planning an apology. If I am to be guilty of expecting a self-supporting narrative, by all means let’s pay the nickel fine and have it over with. The sooner some of us can get back to soaking-up a narratively enthralling tunnel of suspense, like this one.

Johannes Krisch is Alex, the hardscrabble ex-con whose job as a Viennese brothel bouncer entangles him with the beautiful and indentured Ukrainian prostitute Tamara, played by Potapenko. When Tamara’s situation at the brothel becomes unsustainable, Alex decides to pay-off her debt by robbing a bank located near the farm of his estranged grandfather Hausner, played by Johannes Thanheiser—thence to lie low while the heat dies down under the pretense of chopping granddad’s copious stash of firewood for the coming winter. Meanwhile Ursula Strauss is Susanne, early middle-aged, long-time churchgoing friend and through-the-woods neighbor of Hausner, struggling to build with her husband a comfortable family-life for themselves, with decidedly qualified success.

When Alex’s ham-handedly opportunistic robbery goes just as terribly wrong as a person might have imagined ahead of time, he finds himself holed up at Hausner’s farm for reasons far more serious than a trifling fifty thousand euros—a poison-laced isolation made all the more unbearable by the recurring pop-in visits of the unsuspecting Susanne, who plays it chatty and informal with the new houseguest, despite Alex’s openly impolite self-excusals to chop more wood.

When at last Alex finally confronts Susanne with the news that he does not welcome the further disruption posed by her vicarious company, matters abruptly take a turn that would surely have knocked all of us ten-inches back in our chairs, even if we hadn’t known the other, up-till-then-larger reason to cringe at Susanne’s arrestingly heterodox response.

What follows is a third act in which no one discloses the only thing that someone else needs to know—a series of misunderstood exchanges raising the anxiety like the counterweight on an elevator to oblivion. Even at the moment of denouement, we realize at a stroke that the critical exchange is being perceived completely differently by each of the parties to it—the two characters participating, and us.

Writer-Director Gotz Speilmann is no stranger to delicate balancing acts of narrative tension, as in his 2004 Film Movement selection Antares, but here with Revanche he outdoes even himself in stretching our capacity to endure our awareness of things of which the characters on the screen are unaware. In ingenious service of this objective he chooses a sporadically de-saturated color palette—thus allowing us to find our players sympathetic without being likable, by rendering them in brushstrokes that are beautiful without being pretty.

The cinematography, too, is a conscious nod to this tricky needle-threading, with a series of camera-cuts so rapid and without explanation at the film’s outset that Susanne’s and Alex’s stories aren’t at first obviously even coherent, let alone related—followed at the critical moment by a seamless transition to the very opposite photographic style, with desperately long takes featuring camera-pans so slow and overloaded with latent anticipation that we find ourselves wondering if the character in question will still be there to make their next bad decision when we arrive.

The end result is a narrative-driven masterpiece that even a pooh-pooh’er of narrative will surely never forget—our sheer exhaustion of a sort not just grateful for the end of all that ringingly taut discomfort that has come before, but laced with the deep and abiding satisfaction that comes from knowing just how masterfully has our route been plotted along this low-current, intimately personal, E-ticket thrill ride of dread.

The Key Grip gives Revanche five bald heads, his highest rating.
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Movie Review: The King's Speech (2010)

William Shakespeare had a lot of problems. He had to write astonishingly good poetry and prose, or starve. He had to be funny, compelling, romantic, historically credible, sometimes all at once. But of all the challenges confronted by the Bard, surely the highest was that of how to tell a story about royalty in such a way that his everyman-audience could give a damn. Fortunately for the rest of us, the everyman-audience for whom he was writing was galvanized by a commoner’s lustful appetite to see the overambitious brought low. Shakespeare’s currency, in other words, was comeuppance.

What then to make of Tom Hooper’s film about the eventual World-War-Two-era British monarch George the sixth, and our instant connection with that stammering, insecure, quintessentially reluctant royal—a man so under-ambitious that he was all but physically thrust onto the throne by his brother’s abdication? Well, the short answer is—everything.

Collin Firth is Albert—Bertie to his closest family and the friends of whom he has none—at the film’s mid-thirties outset the Duke of York, younger brother of Edward, son of George the fifth. He stammers. He stammers so badly that at the 1936 European Cup, he is unable to continue. In times previous the solution would’ve simply been not to speak. But now Britons, like their cousins across the pond, have been swept-up in a sugar-high addiction to the just-invented mass communication tool that threatens to wreck Albert’s cozy anonymity, radio.

Helena Bonham Carter is Elizabeth, the stoic-but-not-stuffy wife and duchess whose mission to find the expert who can help her husband is clearly driven by the mundane desire not to see him any-more-humiliated. After a series of false starts, the quest brings her to the disarmingly negative-spaced office of one Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush, a quirky Australian retread whose passionate insistence on egalitarian informality immediately sets all involved—including us—to wondering just how this is going to work.

After some obligatory posturing Logue takes the job, at least to the extent that his patient will permit the indignity of administration. Thence do their meetings careen across a galaxy of mutually cautious transactions, with Firth’s Albert somehow regal and indignant without being inaccessible, and Rush’s Logue somehow confident and assertive without being cheeky. Bit by bit, at times almost imperceptibly, Albert makes progress.

All around him his dream of passing into historical obscurity is much less imperceptibly falling apart. Even before his father the King has passed away, the nascent British tabloids have begun feasting on the decidedly un-regal romantic interests of Albert’s older brother Edward, played by Guy Pearce—the man whom, in Shakespeare’s time, this whole business would surely have been about. Worse, or at least just as bad, is Edward’s self-evident lack of conviction regarding the rising threat of totalitarianism on the continent. “Ah, Heir Hitler will sort them all out,” he mutters over his shoulder, in one particularly telling and no doubt tonally authentic moment of unbecoming candor.

With the final outbreak of war, even Edward himself realizes he is too compromised and abdicates—whereupon Albert finds himself George the sixth, quite literally at the very moment that his subjects, far and wide, need to hear him speak clearly, lucidly, and firmly inhabiting his capacity as the head of a now mortally imperiled state. It is not obvious that he can do this. Neither is it obvious how Britain will literally survive it if he does not.

If the power-embracing and ultimately self-destructive Edward and his love-interest Wallice Simpson stand as anachronistic prototypes of the Shakespearean royal, then surely the unfussy genius of Tom Hooper’s film lies in just how perfectly the would-be-alien plight of George VI strums the sensibilities and dramas of the modern bourgeoisie.

All of us doubt ourselves, true enough. All of us from time to time find ourselves asked to do things we are fairly certain that we cannot do. All of us sometimes fail, and when we do, all of us turn to our closest loved ones for our foundation of support. But what connects us so profoundly to this peerless film is the other thing that happens. The thing that happens next. The thing that happens when all of us—from the cubicle worker in Pamona to the King of England—look inside ourselves, urgently, hopefully, not quite sure what we will find, and discover there a small, gently turning crystal of potential, its facets glinting in the light of our resolve.

The Key Grip gives The King’s Speech five bald heads, his highest rating.
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Movie Review: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Not long ago I asked a friend of mine to pore over a printout of my entire, roughly 2000-title movie collection, in search of omissions that risked leaving the collection incomplete. And you know, I could’ve said that the very definition of a friend is someone who would agree to do such a thing—but really the very definition of a friend is someone who would even pretend, to agree to do such a thing. This friend returned to me in less than two weeks with a list of perhaps a hundred missing titles, the top-left corner of which was reserved for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. “It’s the only film I’ve ever watched,” he explained, that the moment it was finished I pressed PLAY and watched it all over again without a break.” And now so it is for me, too.

Sam Rockwell is Chuck Barris—yes, that Chuck Barris—the sixties-era game show producer and eventual host who claims with evident sincerity in his “unauthorized autobiography” that he was also a contract killer for the CIA. His early TV-producing aspirations unfulfilled, Barris is approached by the dark and mysterious Jim Byrd, played by Clooney, who persuades him that the very implausibility of a game-show host doing CIA wet-work is what makes Barris so perfect—the quintessential “guy-we’d-least-suspect.”

Chuck reluctantly agrees, ultimately teaming-up with equally eccentric colleagues Patricia, played by Julia Roberts, and Keillor, played by Rutger Hauer—the former of whom quotes Chaucer as foreplay and only beds her colleagues if they’ve first hidden the microfilm in the… um… appropriate recess, and the latter of whom solicits his fellow assassins to photograph him at the moment of dispatch, and whose default dinner-order is a green salad with no dressing.

Rockwell plays the supposedly gun-totin’ game-show host at his word, artfully gracing his fatalistic acceptance with a semi-permanently affixed disbelief that makes the entire movie, since only by not quite accepting that this is all happening to him, can his character sell us that perhaps it really it is. Meanwhile the life for which Barris is known takes off equally unexpectedly—with the Dating Game and other voyeuristic schmaltz-vehicles proving smash TV-hits.

Everything in Chuck’s young-to-middle life seems to be clicking, save for his ostensibly cavalier but practically troubled partnership with Drew Barrymore’s Penny, the unsinkably affectionate hippy chick whose intermittent companionship ties Barris down in the very ways they’d agreed to avoid, not least for her ignorance of precisely how Chuck is paying the bills. When a mole inside the assassin corps threatens everyone’s survival, Barris must shelve his multilayered emotional conflicts, along with his life-taught instinct to selfishness, just to have the fighting chance everyone is counting on, for him to save the day.

Of all the astonishing aspects of this film, and there are far too many to chronicle here, perhaps the most arresting is the fact that each of the movie’s complex scene-segues is accomplished entirely in-camera, with no CG, blue-screening, or other form of visual effect. Barris abandons his spot at the back of an NBC tour and shows up from the opposite wing dressed as a page and giving a tour of his own, and the whole thing is nothing more than a manic quick-change and a race behind the set. Barris draws from Penny’s banal kitchen-chatter his inspiration to pitch The Dating Game, and the blink-of-an-eye scene switch is handled by placing Rockwell on a turntable. Of all the brilliant craftsmanship that Clooney brings to the direction of this amazing picture, it is the scene-shift-in-camera idea that proves the most inspired, delivered so inconspicuously and in so many different guises throughout the film, that it’s unlikely most of the audience even notices.

Of course gee-whiz camera trickery is no substitute for a compelling overall narrative, and Clooney’s interpretation—and Rockwell’s performance—of Charlie Kauffman’s typically elaborate screenplay are both perfectly-paced and as consummately professional as any of the grand old hands of filmmaking. And all from an actor playing his first-ever lead, and a director making his first film. The bastards!

The Key Grip gives Confessions of a Dangerous mind five bald heads, his highest rating, and places it in position number ten on the list of his hundred favorite movies of all time.
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Movie Review: Hopscotch (1980)

With the benefit of hindsight it would seem that, in order to make a good spy-caper movie, the first thing one needs is society’s inclination to invest an evening thinking about spies. I don’t know about you, but the most recent movie I’ve seen about international idea-traffickers was Billy Ray’s Breach—a 2007 film whose absence of a backdrop of cold-war-style paranoia left me feeling fidgety and un-engaged. So yes, context played a role in priming the potential of a Carter-era jab at hapless government secret-keepers. Then again, potential isn’t worth a hill of shredded documents if the resulting picture fails to deliver on its promised resonances, and Hopscotch hits nearly every note.)

Walter Matthau is Miles Kendig, the anachronistic CIA field agent tasked with preventing western secrets from leaving the west through Munich. When at the outset of the film he catches red-handed his opposite number Yaskov, played by Herbert Lom, Kendig decides of his own initiative that recovering the microfilm is enough, and lets Yaskov go. His enraged department head Meyerson, played by Ned Beatty, summons Kendig to Langley and reassigns him to a desk. Instead Kendig—after a creative switcheroo to cover his tracks—disappears to Salzburg and the company of old friend and intermittent canoodle-partner Isobel, played by Glenda Jackson. There he hatches a plan to write a tell-all memoir and circulate it simultaneously to all the major intelligence bureaus of the world, one chapter at a time.

What follows is one of the great and clever chase narratives in all of cinema—with our hero chagrining his erstwhile colleagues, east and west, as-much-with his globetrotting elusiveness as his whistle-blowing candor. All with his young protégé Cutter—played by Sam Waterston—and reluctant old friend Yaskov in hapless pursuit. At each stop along an intercontinental triptick, Kendig flourishes the completion of his next chapter with progressively brazen revelations of his own whereabouts, only to have worked-out his escape with progressively shrewder and more hilarious stylistic flair.

It is for this reason that Hopscotch turns out also to be an unwitting celebration of nostalgia for a world driven by paper documents, and all the intrepid lateral mobility that has disappeared right along with them. Kendig hands a fake passport to an Austrian border guard, and at least one member of his 2011 audience bemoans living in a time in which the same stunt would end the movie in its first reel. Kendig masks his non-compliance with his boss by switching two sets of paper personnel records, and at least one member of his 2011 audience wishes that the H/R department of his local community college was run the same way!

In the end, though, the simple genius of writer Brian Garfield’s story is that our swelling sympathy for Kendig can itself hide in such plain sight, with moments of his near-capture bringing genuine, squirm-in-the-seat urgency because of, rather than despite all the comedic set-pieces and playfully romantic repartee that has come before. In this investment we are aided inestimably—just as Kendig is—by Jackson’s remarkably un-self-conscious Isobel, written just lightly enough that we infer a long and star-crossed backstory between the two, without knowing exactly what has kept them apart or even, once we think about it, whether perhaps Isobel might have come to know and so deeply care about our hero while working for the other side.

There are, it must be said, a series of narrative and continuity problems in Hopscotch, at least one of which pulls-out from the movie every friend and colleague with whom I’ve watched it. But surely it must speak volumes for the undiluted joy of this picture that I’ve departed far enough from character not to let this bother me. Films, it would seem, were more easily fudged in 1980 as well—a lesson the aspiring movie aficionado would be advised to keep in mind, the better to embrace a quirky, underrated cinematic gem like this one.

The Key Grip gives Hopscotch four bald heads out of five.
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Movie Review: True Grit (2010)

I confess at the outset to having never disliked a Coen Brothers film. From their 1987 debut Blood Simple through such triumphs as O Brother Where Art Thou, and culminating with last year’s exquisite masterpiece A Serious Man, the Coen brothers have always seemed to have all the answers, even for questions the rest of us might not have thought to ask. This being said, True Grit struck me as something of an underperformer—at least when measured against such lofty standards.

Haley Steinfeld is Matti Ross, the sage and precocious teenaged daughter of a man killed by his hired hand Tom Chaney during a cattle-drive. Despairing of the likelihood of independent justice, Ross seeks out the one-eyed, alcoholic, amusingly matter-of-fact Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges. Ross intends Cogburn to track Chaney into Indian territory with her in tow—despite the fact that Ross herself is only fourteen years old. But before they can depart they are joined in the search by Matt Damon’s Ranger LaBoeuf, tasked with apprehending and extraditing Chaney to Texas for a completely different crime.

A series of fragile partnerships form and disintegrate among the three, in due course airing a wide array of mutual antagonisms. Above all is the deportment of Josh Brolin’s Tom Chaney, whom Cogburn stands to benefit from killing for Ross, and whom LaBoeuf stands to benefit from bringing back alive to stand trial in Texas.

The western genre is at its root a linear one: good guys are good; bad guys are bad; people ride their horses in straight lines and shoot straight when they get there. For this reason I’ve always found myself most impressed by westerns that are unafraid to take big chances—and this is where True Grit lets its audience down: Make a list of the six things that you suppose might happen to our unhappy trio out there on the wrong side of that river, and you’ll pretty-much end up right. Contrast this with, say, Unforgiven, in which the would-be hero is an unremediated mass murderer, his ersatz ring-leader is a lying braggart, and the chief rival is driven from town while the hero is off-camera with the flu.

Everywhere chances for such complexity exist in True Grit, they pass unexploited. Some might argue that the Coen brothers were constrained by the remake-status of the project, but this only removes the question to the wider theater of why they chose this particular movie to remake in the first place, and anyway doesn’t excuse many of the specific choices they made. Even the cinematography felt surprisingly clamped-down and unimaginative, with two of the scenes in the supposedly boundless Indian Country pretty obviously taking place in the same back corner of some sagey woodland, shot from opposite directions.

None of which is to say that this film shouldn’t be seen, since skipping it would deprive the film-lover of one of the great leading performances in recent memory in Hailey Steinfeld’s Matty Ross. Confronted with a script in which her character’s knee-jerk reliance on bookish repartee could easily have devolved into caricature, Steinfeld instead brings a warmth and multidimensionality to the role, contrasting the rigid dialogue with emotive gestures and child-like expression. The effect is to snap us back each time to Ross’ youthful status, galling us with our own parental instinct to see her delivered to safety, with or without the vengeance for which she’s traveled so dangerously far from home.

I began this review by confessing my admiration for the Coen brothers, and so at the end it seems fitting to acknowledge the trap that such admiration brings, in elevated expectations. The problem here isn’t that True Grit is not a good movie, as much as it is a good movie, crafted by virtuoso hands. And in a world cohabited by films like Inception and The Departed and The Day the Earth Stood Still, a good movie that could’ve been better is surely a good problem to have.

The Key Grip gives True Grit three bald heads out of five.
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