Friday, January 27, 2012

December movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2007)

Seth Gordon’s documentary The King of Kong depicts the battle for worldwide supremacy in the venerable video arcade game of Donkey Kong. In the one corner, the strutting, beyond-parody Billy Mitchell, a legend among the (with all due respect) geeks who make these pursuits as much a part of their day as eating or sleeping (and a distinctly larger part of their day than, say, exercising, much as several people in the movie try to make the case that Donkey Kong and its ilk are as demanding as the decathlon). In the other corner, suburban family man Steve Wiebe, rather unfairly painted by the movie as an emblematic loser. Wiebe sets his heart on the Kong title, actually beats Mitchell’s long-standing highest score on a machine in his garage, but can’t get it accepted by the self-styled statistical gurus at “Twin Galaxies.” Further twists and turns follow.

It’s an enjoyable thing – one of those documentaries (like the girls’ basketball chronicle Heart of the Game) that seemingly got lucky in being in the right place at the right time and then took care not to screw it up. If, like me, you come in with the prejudice that this stuff is basically for slackers…well, I don’t see how the movie does much to change that. But it’s all rooted in real needs and desires of course, and certainly the quiet, sympathetic Wiebe ultimately walks off with a huge chunk of audience sympathy. The real stars though are the unnamed (and for all I know, expired) inventors of Donkey Kong, whose creation is pored over and analyzed as though handed down by God.

The Mist

The Almighty bestows something much nastier in Frank Darabont’s The Mist, or at least that’s how some of the characters see it. A conventionally motley group is trapped in a small town supermarket when a strange mist rolls in – at first they suspect poison gas from the local military research base, then they see what’s hidden in the mist, and it’s even worse than that. One bunch, led by an overwrought (presumably as per director’s orders) Marcia Gay Harden, turns into a nutty end-of-days faction; a dwindling number of levelheaded good guys (led by Thomas Jane) try to ward off the interior and exterior threats and just stay alive.

This is all hokey stuff, based on a Stephen King novella, but shows again that you can get good mileage out of such contrivances if you play it straight and don’t get too fancy. Darabont’s last two films, The Green Mile and The Majestic, were way too much for my taste, so this one looks like a deliberate retrenchment. The dialogue could frequently have been pared back a bit more, but the movie builds effective dread and intensity. And then there’s a remarkably bleak ending. I’m not sure if it’s meant to have some kind of moral charge – it doesn’t work as such, and some viewers may consider it a mean-spirited resolution – but it’s certainly distinctive.

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner, based on the bestselling book, received largely bored reviews, and I wasn’t much looking forward to it. But you know, I enjoyed it, without being able to cite much more support for that than a surrender to smooth Hollywood mechanics. Which tells you that even though it’s set in seldom-depicted foreign locales, the vast majority of the movie is subtitled, and no one you’ve ever heard appears in it (unless you’re an Abbas Kiarostami fan), this has studio values all over it (the director is Marc Forster, who last made Stranger Than Fiction and is lined up for the next Bond movie).

The worst of this is in a climax that struck me as immensely contrived. I don’t know how it seemed on paper, but as presented here it’s a series of events simply beyond plausible dramatization. But by then the movie’s already repaid your investment, in large part through the sad comparison between the relatively relaxed Kabul of 1979 and the barren hellhole of the present-day. The characterizations are good and often moving, although again seldom breaking away from familiar furrows (in particular it kept reminding me of Mira Nair’s The Namesake, although it’s much better than that lax effort). I guess I haven’t told you anything about the plot, but I suppose you basically know already…two kids, Afghanistan, kites, redemption.


Maybe this is too much information, but I got sick during my viewing of Atonement and spent virtually every second in a state of squirmy exhausted nausea (except for the five minutes I was in the washroom throwing up). So can my impression of the movie possibly be trusted? Well, with a lesser film I would probably have given up and surrendered completely to sleep, or to the journey home. Atonement is a powerful story, told here with remarkable clarity and visual acumen; every scene leads you immaculately to the next.

This is another literary adaptation, based on Ian McEwan’s book (I haven’t read that one either…it has its price, watching this many movies). Cecilia (Keira Knightley) falls in love in pre-war Britain with the lower class Alex (James McAvoy). Cecilia’s younger sister Briony, not understand what she’s seeing between the two of them, and carrying her own secret crush on Alex, accuses him of sexually assaulting another girl, destroying his life and Cecilia’s. War arrives and the three characters all enlist in various capacities, all still carrying the stain of this past action.

As I said, the film barely puts a foot out of place, but I’m not completely sure what that place actually consists of. It ultimately seems like a rather small story, focusing on art as a means of atonement for physical misdeeds (towards the end it engages in some calculated misdirection, which would be more impressive if such techniques weren’t so familiar now). And yet at times it has the ambition of the greatest of epics, most famously in a bravura single shot, lasting five minutes, around the military evacuation on the beach at Dunkirk. It’s technically magnificent, but rather forced and puzzling.

Ultimately the film then is an intriguing hybrid – part convincing evocation of a world gone by, the kind of film they don’t make any more, and part postmodern, somewhat flashy creation of the kind they make all too often. I can’t quite join with those who see it as one of the year’s best, but I’ll state with confidence that I don’t blame it for my getting sick.

This is a rich season for movies – hope you have a chance to fit one or two in there. Have a great holiday season and a fantastic New Year, and I’ll be back to you next week.

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