Monday, April 24, 2006

The Ice Harvest

The Ice Harvest (Harold Ramis, 2005) [5]
This is a somewhat begrudging approval for a film that really had the potential to be a lot better. When this was released last holiday season, it was marketed as a black comedy a la Bad Santa. What this film actually is, however, is a modern noir laced with elements of black humor. I think that if Harold Ramis realized this, he could have made a much better film. John Cusack plays the standard noir protagonist, an everyday loser who gets into events way over his head. I liked Cusack’s character for the most part, but felt the film tried to hard at the end to make him a nice guy when he really did some awful things. I didn’t think there was enough humor to consider this a comedy even though Oliver Platt and Billy Bob Thornton do have some funny moments. The whole sequence between Thornton and the trunk are really great. The one real aspect of this film that I give issue to be that the beginning is a little rambling. It goes all over the place before it finally lands on the central action. The scenes where Cusack and Platt are together really seem too long and feel detached from the rest of the story. But I felt it picked itself up enough to recommend it, if just barely.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) [10]
Yes, I have finally seen this and after watching that piece of self-important garbage that is Crash take best picture over this, it makes me sick. Brokeback Mountain is by far the more superior film in every regard and in fact, much better than I anticipated. The film is essentially a melodrama with gay cowboys but I never said I didn’t care for melodrama. This is an achingly gorgeous film, in images as well as action. Ang Lee’s direction, while not taking many chances, is still enthralling, especially how he uses the images of the vast American frontier to frame this doomed love story. I don’t think I have seen a better first 45 minutes of an American film in quite a while. Lee simply lets the camera linger and let it capture. Nothing is forced in the acting, and the deliberate silence in which Ennis and Jack form their relationship is exceptional. Heath Ledger is great but there is something about Michelle Williams’ performance that really gets me. It almost borders on transcendence. That is the acting performance of 2005. A lot has been made of the politics of this film, but at its essence it is just a story about doomed love. That the relationship is a gay one has no consequence on the story itself, which is exquisitely told; the socio-political ramifications should have no bearing on its craft. As of right now, the best of 2005.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Monthly Listening Post - April 2006

The number of new releases this past couple of weeks has been tremendous. These are the best of what I've heard recently. I know I'm leaving the new stuff by Fiery Furnaces and Calexico, but I haven't got a chance to hear them yet.

1) Drive-By Truckers - A Blessing and a Curse (in my mind, this is the best band in the world right now)
2) Built to Spill - You In Reverse
3) The Flaming Lips - At War With the Mystics (a funny thing; when I first heart Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, I absolutely hated it. I listened to it a couple more times and saw them at Bonnaroo 2003 and now they're one of my favorites.)
4) Band of Horses - Everything All the Time (sounds like The Shins mixed with My Morning Jacket)
5) Josh Ritter - The Animal Years (may just be the album of the year)
6) Cory Branan - 12 Songs
7) Nicolai Dunger - Here's My Song...

Monday, April 10, 2006

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Judd Apatow, 2005) [6]
Let me just say that you won’t find a bigger fan of Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared than myself. Those two shows were created and produced by Judd Apatow, who happens to direct this movie. So maybe I came into this with a little too high expectations. Its funny and all, but that’s about it. There’s nothing in this film that really creates the connection in me the way those two T.V. shows did. All that being said, it’s nice to see a comedy that can still be consistently funny and have some real emotion behind it. The characters, especially Steve Carrell’s, gets ridiculed but is still treated with humanity and real emotion. The character of Andy could have easily been a cheap joke punching bag, but he is portrayed as a real person. But I feel that Carrell does carry the film on his shoulders a little too much. I thought the other characters, while having tangible qualities, relied a little too heavily on stereotypical humor, especially the characters that weren’t white. I didn’t like the Paul Ruud character, and I’ve never found Paul Ruud really funny in anything. And I can’t remember a comedy that was over two hours long (unless you consider The Godfather, Part III…...ZING!).

The Bitter Tear of Petra von Kant

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972) [8]
This is certainly the most obtuse and patient of all Fassbinder films I have seen to this point. That can be a good and a bad thing. I think that Fassbinder has hit the right notes in addressing how the women’s relationships are, especially between Petra and Karin. The film certainly does a good job of showing the manipulation and power inherent in these relationships which goes far beyond any homosexual context that’s on the surface. Even though I liked what the film was doing, I definitely had a hard time getting into it. I have to admit I fell asleep for a few short instances, but this was not out of boredom. It probably wasn’t a good idea to have a bottle of wine and then attempt to fully engage with this film. You need to have a lot of patience in order to really understand what Fassbinder is doing. That intense focus makes it difficult to give this a grade of greatness. That's not some simple, I-don't-want-to-think-while-watching-a-movie statement; I think that the film is a little too rigorous to fully enjoy.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Good Night, and Good Luck

Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005) [7]
I was impressed enough with George Clooney’s direction, and thoroughly impressed with David Strathairn’s hard-bitten performance as Edward R. Murrow, but there wasn’t anything else in particular that overly impressed me with this film. The black-and-white cinematography is solid, with its fluidity in moving through the hustle and bustle of a newsroom and capturing the swirling cigarette smoke, which always looks cool in black and white. Clooney does a good job of laying out the situation for us, and Strathairn is great in his economy of action and expression. I just feel that there is some element in the story that is lacking that would make this a great film. I feel like there isn’t enough conflict and/or tension in the story between Murrow and McCarthy. Maybe it’s the fact that McCarthy only appears in archival footage, but it seems he and the actions of his heinous committee are too detached from the film. That’s a shame because I think this was one element away from being a really great film

Night and the City

Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950) [10]
It’s not very often that I have to run out and buy a film right after seeing but this one made me right out and do it. This is an incredibly entertaining film noir with a career-defining performance by Richard Widmark as an American grafter/club tout in London who is doomed from the start. Widmark’s performance as Harry Fabian, a na├»ve, believing he’s somebody when he ain’t dope is possibly one of the best I’ve ever seen (and I’m not exaggerating). While Widmark’s performance alone could carry the movie, Dassin’s direction isn’t too shabby either. The film is dropped into the messy London underworld, a place where nobody has a past and where only people with money have the power. The trouble starts when Harry beliefs he can become a big shot in the wrestling business only to have a series of unfortunate events occur that make his demise inevitable. There are some great film noir images here, with Dassin emphasizing the sweat, dirt, and worry on the character’s faces. An interesting fact: even though this is film noir, there is really no crime as the axis of the story. The film occupies a world of perpetual crime. I have to say that Night and the City is one of my favorite film noirs, and Jules Dassin, along with Jacques Toureur, as two of the most capable, yet forgotten noir directors.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951) [6]
I had just finished Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name that this film was based on for a class in crime fiction and wanted to see how the film stacks up. All being told it was a bit of a disappointment, mostly due to the drastic changes in story between the two. I don’t really think this is a bad film; Hitchcock was a master craftsman. It’s just that I thought the book was much better. What’s missing from the film that really bothers me is the depth of psychological darkness that Highsmith gives to the main characters. Hitchcock strips all that away so there can be a hero and a villain and the standard upbeat Hollywood ending. There are other minor details that get changed but nothing that irks me as much as what I think is a dumbing down of the Guy/Bruno relationship. I’ve been more respectful than a fan of Hitchcock’s work, and this film is tight enough of a suspense thriller that I have to give it a decent grade despite its faults.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

A History of Violence

A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, 2005) [9]
Definitely an interesting film and one that is really timely in certain aspects as a critique of American society. The discussion on violence really doesn’t interest me as much as the theme of the inability to be able to escape one’s past. That doesn’t mean I think the violent elements don’t work. They have a very visceral impact even though I think they almost border on being something out of a comic book. I know that’s Cronenberg’s style coming through and while it seems extreme, it fits in the notion that American culture has become readily accepting of violence as a part of life. The one aspect that really interests me is that Tom Stall is considered a hero for doing something that is pretty repugnant and extreme. Still after all this, I think the film really comes back to the idea that this man cannot escape the violence in his past, and that will always be a part of him. The uncertainty left at the end seems to fit because who knows where these characters, and the culture itself will end up.