Saturday, December 29, 2007

Paris je t'aime

Paris je t'aime (Various directors, 2007) [5]
Compilation films are almost never really that good and this film is another example. It wants to have one connecting feature, all stories revolving around different areas of Paris, but when you get 20 different directors bringing their own vision the film can't help but get off message. What was surprising to me was how poor overall many of the shorts were. Out of the twenty, most were bad to mediocre, a couple had some salvageable moments, and only two were exceptionally strong. The Sowa and Craven had some good moments but were pretty much blah. Twyker was Twyker, meaning his kinetic style and heavy hand allow me not to like a good story. I just don't know what to make of the Coen Brothers short; it has some humor but reflecting on it later, it seems too mean and odd compared to the rest. It's a disjointing film that really has no place in the greater structure of the film. Plus, it seems a little cheap. One of the two shorts I liked most was the one by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas starring Catalina Sadino Moreno. It digs a little deeper than the others, dealing with immigration, and it really works because it's not cluttered with cutesy expressions or bossy narration like some of the others. Salles and Thomas keep the focus on the daily tasks of Moreno's character, having to deal with her own child as well being nanny to a wealthy French family. It's told simply and yet it's still powerful. The real saving grace of the entire project is Alexander Payne's film, which if it stood alone could be considered one of the best films of the year. His story of a Denver mailwoman, learning French and heading to Paris alone, starts off as feeling it could prime for mocking. But Payne turns this on its head instead creating a film where by taking this trip, it becomes a journey of reflection for a woman who was all too easy into making a one-dimensional character. The trip to Paris, of being alone and taking a chance, brings out all the loneliness in this woman but also creates a joy in her of being someplace she's never been before. Seeing her discovery is a rewarding experience for the viewer as well as herself. It's careful touch and depth are just so out of character from some of the other ones, it's hard to believe but still refreshing to me that a little something could be salvaged from this collaboration.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Simpsons Movie

The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman, 2007) [5]
Let's just call this a disappointment. In my younger days and in the golden years of the show (Seasons 4-8 or 9), I was a huge Simpsons fan. The last few years has seen the show dip into mediocrity and the looming clouds of disappointment that the movie would surely surround myself in kept me from seeing it in the theatre. It's basically what the television show has been for the last six or so years: a lot of nothing impressive peppered with an occasional laugh. What really bothers me most is that Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and all the writers admitted they wrote this film for the broadest audience possible. That may be good for Fox's box office receipts but it's antithetical to every subversive trait the show has shown over the years. That the film has none of the sharp satire and inside jokes that true Simpsons fanatics like myself is its biggest flaw. I think by now people have made up their minds if they like The Simpsons or not; you don't need a movie to win new converts this late in the game. Besides that, the story is another of the borderline ridiculous/frivolous ones that the show has been using for the past years. The writers could get away with this in older episodes (Frank Grimes, the Monty Burns Casino) because the show used to have one foot grounded in something realistic. The plot of this film is too much like a movie plot. I don't watch The Simpsons to see that; the whole Spider-Pig thing doesn't work for me. The only time the film really finds its groove of years past is the character of Russ Cargill, which should be no surprise since he's voiced by Albert Brooks, memorable for his great characters in the early seasons. It's the only time the humor attempts not to be broad and hence, not stale.

All of this might like sour grapes from another fan who says The Simpsons isn't close to what it used to be. You know what? It isn't but that doesn't mean I don't hate the show now and for all its flaws, I really can't dislike this movie. But after watching and waiting for 17 years, I really wanted something a little better.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Sicko (Michael Moore, 2007) [8]
By toning down the harsh rhetoric and actually spending a lot of time on creating a structurally good film, Sicko should be considered Moore's best film to date. The problem is that Michael Moore has used to his other films to grandstand and confront, which has made him a hugely divisive person. No matter how sober and rational the message of the film will be, the people that have always loved him will love it and those who don't agree with him will hate it. I've always found Moore's films to be entertaining but this one is the most competent and structured film he's ever created. It does mean, however, that the sharp humor has been toned down for this one but it's not really a negative. Those on both sides of the political spectrum would like to boil down the film to a indictment on the HMO/private system in the U.S. and/or the fawning over the socialized systems in Canada, Britain, and France. The ideological points of the film aren't really that black and white. Moore really uses his visits to other countries as an examination as why the U.S. is the only industrialized, Western nation that doesn't have universal health care. Of course what is shown of the Canadian and European systems may be polished a bit but if you don't know what you're going to get out of Moore by now, then you're a bit stupid. Those systems aren't perfect but they're much better than the one here now. Moore's strongest points in the film are telling the stories of the people who do have health insurance and still don't get the coverage they thought or should have. The first hour of this film works so well mostly because Moore keeps focused on the stories of people like that. That, and he reigns in the dramatic confrontations that mark his films. The film's weakest moment is the one stunt he does attempt by taking 9/11 rescue workers to Cuba; it just doesn't fit with the rest of the film. Besides its one misstep, Moore really has made a focused, poignant film, something that just can't be said about his previous efforts. Even without the shrill rhetoric, the film does have its funny moments, most notably the record of Ronald Reagan talking about the perils of socialized medicine. That leads me again to what I think Moore is asking in Sicko: why have American become so ingrained as to think something like universal health care is akin to a Socialist takeover of this country? The result is a strong and sympathetic film for the case for universal health care as well as highlighting that this nation's system has failed many.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Factory Girl

Factory Girl (George Hickenlooper, 2006) [3]
A mess on a formal and story level, Hickenlooper's Edie Sedgwick biopic is only interesting for Guy Pearce's portrayal of Andy Warhol. Manny Farber wrote an article years ago that shows up in film theory classes about white elephant and termite art. It's an interesting concept to me and it's important in this film because Pearce's performance is the embodiment of termite art. Farber's theory defines termite art as when an actor's performance exists and stands out on its own from the rest of the overall tone of the film, Farber's example being John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Pearce here seems to be out on his own, playing Warhol with the kind of commitment and uniqueness that the rest of the film lacks. It's not a great portrayal; it seems to boil down Warhol's complex personality down to he's a fame seeking mama's boy. Still, it starkly stands out from the cluelessness of Hickenlooper's direction. The thing about termite art is that it's usually marked as unique performances in bad films. While not awful, the film never finds any continuity. Sienna Miller plays Sedgwick as the 60's era Paris Hilton that she was, famous for being famous. She offers no real insight into the character emotionally and when the film tries to, Hickenlooper moves quickly on to something else. The film rushes so quickly through Sedgwick's time with The Factory that Hickenlooper never stops to examine anything closely. The only effort he makes is her relationship with "musician", who's clearly meant to be Bob Dylan but can't be through threat of character defamation. Hayden Christensen has zero on-screen charisma with Miller, playing the character about as superficially as every other one outside of Pearce's Warhol. Then there's the whole issue with the film formally. Hickenlooper uses so many tricks like switching film stocks and hyper editing choices that give the film no formal identity. He also tries to recreate Warhol's films, notably Poor Little Rich Girl and Vinyl. Having seen Vinyl and knowing of Wahol's style, the minimalism, static frame, and deconstructionist elements of those films is the complete opposite of the style that is in use here. He would have been better off making the film using the elements Warhol used. At least it would have made more sense formally then. Thinking of that, it would be a film more about Warhol than Sedgwick but after judging Guy Pearce's performance, it may not be that bad of a decision.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited Addendum

I just forgot a couple of points I wanted to make about The Darjeeling Limited. First of all, let me repeat I liked the film a lot more than my review makes it sound. It was enjoyable but my whole point of contention is that I'm not sure afterwards how much it goes beyond its surface. The three brother characters don't go very much beyond their surface quirks and the story is nothing that memorable. All that being said, I think the film goes a little deeper than a lot of critics want to give it credit for. I felt an emotional resonance with the film at the end. I know I'm a cold, distant person so maybe something someone sees as emotionally shallow carries more weight with me. It wasn't that strong but I'm willing to give Anderson a little more credit than some. My theory behind all this is the soundtrack. Anderson has been a master of using a popular music soundtrack to emphasize certain scenes. While I'm a sucker for this, some more academic film critics have raised issues with this. Michael Sicinski, who runs The Academic Hack, was a professor of mine at Binghamton University and in one of the classes I had with him, he raised this issue with Anderson in regards to The Royal Tenenbaums. He argued that Anderson substituted songs for real emotional development in scenes. I can see his point, but if there's one thing I have a weakness for, it's this type of thing (see: Goodfellas, Magnolia, Scorpio Rising). I'm still wrestling with this film and I really think it's a little more serious than a lot of reviews have stated. I happen to be a supporter of the auteur theory and there's nobody making films today that has all the traits of that as Wes Anderson. Maybe, I put too much into that.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007) [7]
I feel conflicted about this film and am not really sure why. I've liked all of Anderson's previous film, even The Life Aquatic, whose reaction was decidedly mixed. This film has had the same type of critical reaction, and while I still like it more than some critics, it's problems are the same raised by Anderson's detractors. He seems so caught up in his visual quirks and formal choices that it feels like the same film over and over again. Setting the film in India is a way to break away a little, the striking images of the subcontinent a clear homage to Renoir's The River. I've never had a problem with Anderson's meticulous formal approach which here he loosens up a little bit by freeing up the frame a little more, allowing it to drift over the landscape and using more zooms and pans to loosen up his typical tightness. What I feel is kind of stagnant is the story, heavy on the WASPy dysfunctional that has become standard in Anderson's films (The Life Aquatic somewhat the exception). Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody play three brothers, trying to reconnect with each other after their father's death and their mother's lack of support. The brothers all have their particular quirks but I really feel the characters' emotions don't go that beyond the surface. Wilson's character was the most fleshed out to me, using his bossiness and wealth to coax his hopes of spiritual enlightenment on his brothers. He also has a secret agenda: to find their absent mother, hidden in a convent somewhere in India. This is pretty common ground for Anderson story wise and no matter how good the film looks and how entertaining it is while watching it, it still rings a little hollow afterwards. It smacks of a sameness that while it can be reassuring for his fans, definitely isn't going to win a lot of new ones. That may sound harsh and I don't mean it to be since I still liked the film. India here isn't a touristy backdrop; it has a beguiling charm, and at the same time, isn't quite foreign. The train itself has other Western tourists and the staff speaks English. Anderson keeps the setting at a distance, which works in that it doesn't create issues with the film but it at times lacks dimension like the characters. Still, I want to repeat I liked the film. That's all I can really surmise from The Darjeeling Limited. If you like Wes Anderson's previous films, you'll like this.

Hotel Chevalier is a short that played before the actual film that is meant to be a prelude. Seeing it right before the main film hinders me a bit from evaluating it on its own. It has some interesting elements about it, most notably the terse, clipped dialogue between the Schwartzman and Natalie Portman characters. The short also shows off the stylistic flourishes that make the main film stronger. Since it really seems not much different than the feature, it seems unnecessary to grade it on its own.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

12:08 East of Bucharest

12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2007) [6]
The first half of this film is so drifting that it almost ruins the entire film. Porumboiu takes so much time setting up the crux of his story that he almost sabotages himself before he gets started. This film centers on a small-town Romanian television station and its self-important anchor/news director and on a debate on whether a revolution actually occurred in the overthrow of Nicolae Caeusescu''s dictatorship 16 years earlier. Porumboiu uses the first half of the film to set up the three main characters that will make up the debate: Manescu, the self-righteous reporter, Piscoci, an old man known for being the town Santa, and Jderescu, a drunk, broke professor. Really none of this backstory has any importance to the strength of the film, which is the television debate. Filmed in real time, and with aesthetics that make it look like it may actually be a small-town Romanian new program, it is a marvel of dry, deadpan humor. Manescu asks a question that did an actual revolution occur in the town or did people just follow others after Caeusescu's demise. Jderescu claims he and his colleagues were there before 12:08, the time of the overthrow. Piscoci claims that he followed other down to the square. A series of callers refute Jderescu, call him a drunk, and throw the program into disregard. What makes all this work is the futility of the whole thing. Manescu wants to be the intrepid reporter but will never get a straight answer. Jderescu refuses to budge on his original statement that he was there before 12:08. Piscoci is practically useless, every once and a while wondering what the point of the program is. Even the amateur production techniques, which are humorously recreated, add to Manescu's exasperation. Porumboiu purpose of the whole enterprise is to debunk the mythical ideals of revolution. These aren't ideal revolutionary figures; they are petty, squabbling, and aren't really that concerned with the revolution itself. By using a small town and a no account news program, Porumboiu really hits on the point that big ideas like change and revolution are always fleeting. This is a Romania where nobody really remembers the past and the search for answers is met by clueless bystanders.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Manufactured Landscapes

Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal, 2007) [6]
Edward Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer that takes pictures of man-made landscapes that would seem to be gigantic eyesores of globalization and somehow crafts interesting pictures from them. Baichwal's film follows Burtynsky on his photo shoots in China but her film tries to be more than just the portrait of an artist. The images, not just of Burtynsky's photographs but also the ones Baichwal creates are the strongest element of the film. The long, long opening tracking shot of a massive Chinese factory is an achievement on the filmic level but it also is a disturbing result of a globalized economy. Baichwal also creates some interesting Bressonian shots of a workers assembling products that stands out beyond Burtynsky's work. The film tracks how the images Burtynsky captures of massive industrial structures can hold a strange beauty but also show the negative societal and environmental impact of those structures. This is most evident in Burtynsky's trips to the massive dam in China that uprooted millions of people and the massive factory complex that looks more like a military barracks or prison than a factory. My main issue with the film comes from the way Baichwal handles Burtynsky. The photographer makes it explicit that he has no political agenda from what he's doing; he's not an environmentalist but he's not saying he supports massive industrialization. Baichwal clearly wants to get a distinct message across that Burtynsky should be critical of the elements he photographs but she never takes the glove off (clearly, she doesn't want to ruffle his feathers too much or she won't have a film). The first half of the film is interesting, but by reverting back more to Burtynsky in the second half causes the film to lose a lot of steam. This refusal to conflict or confront Burtynsky on his ambivalence seems to be a major issue but Baichwal never addresses it.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Useless Film Snob's Best Music of 2007

I still haven't seen enough of the film I've wanted to to make a best films of 2007 list. For music, however, I made a concerted effort to listen to as many new releases as possible. The result is the most new music I've ever listened to and a greatly expanded list. So, instead of the two part review of 2006, here's my top 40 albums of the year.

Useless Film Snob Top 40 Albums of 2007

40) Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Baby 81
Could be considered the biggest letdown of 2007. While not a bad album, it's nowhere near Howl. Instead of staying with the roots-oriented sound, B.M.R.C goes back to their earlier sound, which I don't find that interesting.
Choice cuts: "Berlin", "All You Do is Talk"

39) Jason Isbell - Sirens of the Ditch
He could always be counted on for one or two good songs per Truckers album and that's what's here: two good songs, a lot of mediocre ones.
Choice cuts: "Dress Blues", "Hurricanes and Hand Grenades"

38) Over The Rhine - The Trumpet Child
A mix of jazz, pop, blues, and Americana that sounds like a more interesting Norah Jones. I'll admit I'd never heard of Over the Rhine before this album, and the album was one of many new bands I discovered this year.
Choice cuts: "I'm on a Roll", "Let's Spend the Day in Bed"

37) Bettye LaVette - The Scene of the Crime
On this album, LaVette finds herself backed by the Drive-By Truckers, which would sound like a mixed bag at most. While there are some good rocking tracks, most find LaVette showing off here soulful vocals on songs by Willie Nelson and Elton John.
Choice cuts: "Choices", "Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)"

36) The Thrills - Teenager
The Thrills have always been a band that's had a sound more in common with California than their native Ireland. Teenager finds them still mining 70s California rock with more orchestral flourishes.
Choice cuts: "This Year", "I Came All This Way"

35) Devendra Banhart - Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon
Banhart combines so many styles here (pysch-folk, samba, doo-wopp, gospel) that the resulting album is a little scattershot. The strength of the albums lies in Banhart moving beyond being a Nick Drake soundalike and letting his backing band get rolling.
Choice cuts: "Seahorse", "Saved"

34) Kings of Leon - Because of the Times
This doesn't sound like a band that was once called the southern Strokes. The songs here veer a little towards bombastic arena rock but they show a band that has grown and can definitely play better and more diverse stuff.
Choice cuts: "Black Thumbnail", "True Love Way"

33) Heavy Trash - Going Way Out With Heavy Trash
Jon Spencer gets a lot of shit for being ironic or tongue in cheek but the thing is, if you're going to make a rockabilly album, you really got to like the stuff. Teamed with Speedball Baby guitarist Matt Verta-Ray and backed by The Sadies, Heavy Trash sound like Gene Vincent and Johhny Cash if they listened to punk rock. It may sound too indebted to its influences, but that isn't going to stop me from liking it.
Choice cuts: "Outside Chance", "They Were Kings"

32) Blood Meridian - Liquidate Paris!
Blood Meridian adopt a little more of the so-called Psych-Folk movement that's gaining steam. I said of last year's Kick Up the Dust that it had an underlying weirdness to it, and while not as good as that album, Blood Meridian should be seen as more than a side project.
Choice cuts: "The Burning River of Guilt", "She Calls Me"

31) Richard Thompson - Sweet Warrior
My preference for Thompson is as a guitar player, but he also is a really good songwriter. A few of the songs here deal with the Iraq war but the slower folk ballads are the real strong point to the album.
Choice cuts: "Dad's Gonna Kill Me", "She Sang Angels to Rest"

30) The White Stripes - Icky Thump
I've never been a huge fan of The White Stripes but when they stick to bluesier material, the limitations of their sound are much better hidden. A good but not spectacular albums that a lot of other reviews have stated.
Choice cuts: "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told)", "Bone Broke"

29) Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer
Even a year ago, I would have had no interest in Of Montreal. Even though, for whatever reason, it appealed to me.
Choice cuts: "Suffer For Fashion", "Labyrinthian Pomp"

28) The Shins - Wincing the Night Away
The most musically adventurous Shins album to date but no real stand out song.
Choice cuts: "Sleeping Lessons", "Turn On Me"

27) Deadstring Brothers - Silver Mountain
Talk about endebted to your influences; this sounds like Exile-era Stones outtakes with a little bit of the Faces mixed in. I really like that so I really like this.
Choice cuts: "Queen of the Scene", "You Look Like the Devil"

26) Blitzen Trapper - Wild Mountain Nation
The two best tracks are the rootsy, Deadish rockers. The rest are all over the place. Definitely the most eclectic album of 2007.
Choice cuts: "Wild Mountain Nation", "Country Caravan"

25) The Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
The comparisons to Springsteen and U2 are obvious here but I think it's not nearly as good as Funeral.
Choice cuts: "Keep the Car Running", "The Well and the Lighthouse"

24) Patton Oswalt - Werewolves & Lollipops
Comedy albums are albums too, and Oswalt is one of the few comedians of today who can make an album as good as comedy album's heydey of the 60s and 70s.
Choice cuts: "American Has Spoken", "The Miracle of Childbirth"

23) Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter - Like, Love, Lust & the Open Halls of the Soul
Another album that could be considered psych-folk highlighted by Sykes' alluring, smokey vocals.
Choice cuts: "The Air is Thin", "Station Grey"

22) Dr. Dog - We All Belong
A mix of classic rock styles, from the Beatles to the Beach Boys to the Band, Dr. Dog perfects songs that sound older than they really are.
Choice cuts: "My Old Ways", "Alaska"

21) Bright Eyes - Cassadaga
An album much more in tune with alt-country than emo, maybe Conor should leave the earnest shouting behind for good.
Choice cuts: "Four Winds", "Classic Cars"

20) The Felice Brothers - Tonight at the Arizona
I saw the Felice Brothers open for Bright Eyes, knowing next to nothing about them. Their shaggy Americana with vocals that sound exactly like early Dylan are right to my liking.
Choice cuts: "Lady Day", "Mercy"

19) Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog
Sam Beam get more musically adventurous as well and his use of reggae and African styles don't overshadow his songs.
Choice cuts: "White Tooth Man", "Resurrection Fern"

18) The Broken West - I Can't Go On, I'll Go On
California power pop that is done smartly and catchy.
Choice cuts: "Down In the Valley", "Brass Ring"

17) Radiohead - In Rainbows
I've never been a big fan but after hearing most of these songs at Bonnaroo 2006, I got the album and liked it much more than I thought I would.
Choice cuts: "Bodysnatchers", "Faust Arp"

16) Mavis Staples - We'll Never Turn Back
Staples revisits songs of the Civil Rights Movement and with help from Ry Cooder, makes them sound fresh and just as relevant as forty-five years ago.
Choice cuts: "We Shall Not Be Moved", "Jesus On the Mainline"

15) Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Spoon always makes great albums and the best songs here find the use of horns much to their advantage.
Choice cuts: "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb", "The Underdog"

14) Augie March - Moo, You Bloody Choir
A band that's huge in their native Australia, their sound has more in common with American roots music than the AC/DC copycats that are known here. "One Crowded Hour" is my choice for song of 2007.
Choice cuts: "One Crowded Hour", "Bottle Baby"

13) Rilo Kiley - Under the Blacklight
Apparently, I like this album a lot more than most of the people who've posted on Stereogum. Rilo Kiley have always had pop elements in their songs, so why should it be any suprise that they've made a pop album?
Choice cuts: "Close Call", "15"

12) Band of Horses - Cease to Begin
Ben Bridwell and co. move to South Carolina and more southern elements end up in their music. It's an interesting new direction but could have been a little more consistent throughout.
Choice cuts: "Is There a Ghost", "The General Specific"

11) Ryan Adams - Easy Tiger
Adams clearly made an attempt to make a much more accesible, streamlined record and while it didn't achieve much chart success, it' clearly his best effort since Cold Roses.
Choice cuts: "Goodnight Rose", "Pearls on a String"

10) The Cave Singers - Inviation Songs
A band from Seattle that sounds a lot like they'd be from out in some mountains. Another band that could be lumped into the pysch-folk category.
Choice cuts: "Seeds of Night", "Helen"

9) Vietnam - S/T
From their look to their sound, everything about this band is reminiscent of the 60s. The songs are right out of the Lou Reed/Bob Dylan songbook. But like Howlin' Rain last year, there's something about that type of music that I find appealing.
Choice cuts: "Toby", "Summer In the City"

8) Wilco - Sky Blue Sky
The most straightforward sounding Wilco album in some time which I think makes it deceiving to some people. It's not supposed to be anything more than what it is: direct. Sometimes, it's good to hear a band strip down their sound a little.
Choice cuts: "Hate It Here", "What Light"

7) Great Lake Swimmers - Ongiara
I guess I'll call this my best discovery of 2007 since I've never heard them before. Tony Dekker's haunting vocals are the key here, with very subdued, melancholic sounding songs for the most part.
Choice cuts: "Backstage With the Modern Dancers", "There Is a Light"

6) Josh Ritter - The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
Like some other acts on this list, Ritter brings a lot more musically to this album than his past ones. Not as strong as The Animal Years but still very good.
Choice cuts: "The Temptation of Adam", "Empty Hearts"

5) The Avett Brothers - Emotionalism
The Avett Brothers aren't just bluegrass: there's a little bit of punk rock, latin and classic pop in them as this varied records shows.
Choice cuts: "Salina", "Living of Love"

4) Okkervil River - The Stage Names
Nothing much to say except well-crafted songs with excellent songwriting.
Choice cuts: "You Can't Hold the Hand of a Rock & Roll Man", "John Allyn Smith Sails"

3) Feist - The Reminder
Before she was selling Ipods and becoming a "new" artist, Leslie Feist released an album that I was sure was going to be near the top of this list. A smartly done album can also have a pop sensibility to it, which nowadays, isn't so easy to see.
Choice Cuts: "My Moon My Man", "1234"

2) Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam
Not too long ago, my tastes would not have run to this. It would have been too weird and foreign sounding. Now, I think it's the most adventurous album of the year. In terms of the way this band uses sound, they create something based in improvisation that is much more interesting and pyschedelic than anything coming out of the stagnant jamband scene.
Choice cuts: "Peacebone", "Fireworks"

1) The National - Boxer
I liked this album before I saw their impressive performance at Bonnaroo but ever since then, this has been the album I've listened to and enjoyed more than any other this year. I really don't know exactly why I like it or how to describe it in any concrete way other than it's the best album of the year.
Choice cuts: "Slow Show", "Apartment Story"

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

No Country For Old Men

No Country For Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007) [10]

As this site and my film viewing have been intensified, my discretion has also become much more nuanced. 2006, for example, has yielded only one film to receive a ten. The simple fact of the matter is that what qualifies as a near perfect work of filmmaking has to be really good. No Country For Old Men is that good. A story that grabs you, partly exhilarating an yet jarring. Performances that are pitch perfect for the film. And more than anything, the superb execution of story, acting, editing, cinematography, and whatever else to show that the filmmaker has full control. The Coen brother exhibit all this in this, the best of 2007 so far, and their best film to date.
On the surface, the story deals with a drug deal gone bad and the violent consequences for those who happened to be involved in its details. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) just happens to stumble onto the bodies and the money, takes it, and a little while realizes he's done something he probably shouldn't have. Llewelyn is a typical noir hero, an ordinary man thrown into events and consequences way beyond his handling but somehow unaware of it. The pull of the two million dollars is too much for Llewelyn to just leave it alone; the inherent greediness of man, whether it be money or blood, is a key undercurrent of the film. Even from the outset, Llewelyn knows everything may not end smoothly but yet he still takes his chances. It's an intriguing element especially as he digs his grave even deeper. The man after Llewelyn and the money, Anton Chigurgh (Javier Bardem) will stop at nothing to do what needs to be done. Anton is one of the most mesmerizing and terrifying characters I've come across in film in quite some time. He is a man so psychologically twisted that a coin flip will decide whether a man lives or dies but yet it still operates as part of his moral fiber. As one character says, Chigurgh does have principles, no matter how they jet out from accepted morality. He sticks to his word and he will get the money back even if numerous others have to be murdered. Chigurgh exists in the film as a mythical figure, a ghost, as he almost miraculously slips away from situation after situation with almost no trace of him ever being there. Bardem imbues him with a eerie calmness, an emotional flatness that makes Anton almost not human but still a truly terrifying person. The film focuses on the cat and mouse game between the two, with Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) haplessly trailing behind. I won't give away too much of what happens but things turn out they way they were expected.
The Coens have been remarkably faithful to Cormac McCarthy's novel while still giving the picture a little more. Roger Deakins is masterful, capturing the desolate isolation of the deserts of West Texas, encasing the characters in a rugged, vast emptiness which allows for anything goes. What the Coens do so well is create a taut, thrilling storytelling while still capturing the meditative rumination of McCarthy's prose. Sherriff Bell is the moral signpost of the film, a man too old and not ready to adapt the new type of criminals like Chigurgh running around. Jones plays Bell as a man exasperated at the audacious violence of these crimes as well as a man resigned to know he can't handle what's in front of him. This leads into the ending, which I know a lot of people will say there isn't one. Those people should realize that films don't need to have a tidy resolution. There is no resolution to this story. Crime and violence like this are going to continue and what Bell and the film are trying to explain that there are always going to be people who feel that the times have passed them by wondering how they got that way. Most filmgoers have been so indoctrinated by crappy Hollywood films to expect and feel entitled to an easy, tidy resolution. If they can't handle that a film is going to be a little open-ended and challenging, I feel sorry for you. The ending makes sense in the grander metaphorical world of the film. To say it plainly, the Coens have made a film that stands far above almost anything else released this year.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

La Vie en Rose

La Vie en Rose (Olivier Dahan, 2007) [6]

Haven't we had enough of musical biopics with their protagonists overcoming personal demons and tragedy to achieve stardom? I would expected a little bit more with a film about French singer Edith Piaf than pictures like Walk the Line and Ray but sadly, Dahan plays it just as safe and middlebrow as them. Formally, it is much more adventurous than the American films but the story still falls into the same formula that I've grown tired with. Everything gets covered in this film: Edith's poverty ravaged childhood with an itinerant parents, her childhood bout with sickness only to be "saved", her near miraculous discovery and her subsquent stardom only to be scarred with personal demons and tragedy. The one main difference for Piaf is that her career highs seem to come paired with something just as tragic. Louis Leplee, the man who discovered her, is murdered by people out of Edith's shady past. Her only true lover, boxer Marcel Cerdan, dies in a plane crash on his way to meet her. Morphine and alcohol dependency as well as arthritis and a car crash slowly cripple her body until she finally dies at the age of 48. This continuing undercurrent of inescapable tragedy is the real thematic core of the story and it is refreshing to see Dahan not shy away from it and try to end the film on a brighter note. This leads to the fractured narrative of the film, where Dahan uses Piaf's last few years as an anchor to be able to go back into the past and explore the deeper tragedies that shaped how Edith ended up much older than her years. A lot of review have called Dahan's jumbling of narrative a mess, which I just don't see. Are American filmgoers and critics reached a critical mass of stupidity that the use of the narrative device is so perplexing? It has a thematic resonance for the film and its really the film's strongest plus for me. Most every review raves about Marion Cotillards's performance but I'm less sold on it than them apparently. No matter how hard they may think they're not trying to mimic Piaf, Dahan and Cotillard are making a film about a real person and mimicry is almost impossible to avoid in re-creating a character. Cotillard's performance has a little too much showmanship and excessive emotion for my liking. I don't know that much about Edith Piaf but Cotillard's go for broke moments just aren't what I'm looking for. Still, her performance and the film are an admirable effort but this film gets too trapped in its conventions to get above mild approval.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet, 2007) [8]

When I think of Sidney Lumet's films, I think of them being expertly crafted and enjoyable but I never happen to think of the man as an auteur. It's that craftsman like precision that really keeps Lumet from having the identifiable style of contemporaries like Scorsese and Altman. After seeing this film, I happen to feel the same way. This is an excellent thriller with some tremendous performances and fantastic moments but still lacks just a little bit.

Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are some brothers who need money. Andy comes up the idea to rob their parents jewelry store, the idea being that it's as close as you can get to the perfect crime. The problem is the robbery doesn't go as easily as planned and the rest of the film goes back and forth between characters and time to tell of the crime's reasons, planning, and consequences. Lumet jumps back and forth into time and his emphasis on character's. One sequence will focus on Hank after the robbery and we get some information that gets thrown about on Andy which is explained more in depth when Andy becomes the focus of the story. This non-linear storyline makes the film much more interesting than if it was told in a straight line. It fractured and frantic pace help re-enforce that the characters feel the same, racing to decipher everything that's going on. My one qualm is that Lumet does this a little too overtly, spelling out this is 'Andy: one week after the robbery' etc. and using a jarring flashing to change perspective. I know the perception of the average moviegoer is that they're a moron but someone of Lumet's stature isn't getting that audience. Give me a little more respect; I can figure out what's going on without having to be told who the story's focusing on now.

The performances here are solid especially Hoffman as the bullying, oily older brother. Ethan Hawke, who I don't care much about, does a good job playing the younger, weaker brother. There are some scenes between the two after everything has unraveled that are just electric, with Hoffman stealing the scene. Hawke is smart enough to know Hank's role and let Hoffman dominate. Albert Finney is there to fill the need of the father, whose relationship with his sons plays a key underlying plot point in the film. As the story progresses and things get more unhinged, the film becomes more than just a heist film. It becomes about family, the bonds that it creates and also the dysfunction that can lasting consequences. There's a lot of baggage between all three of these characters and the robbery becomes a microcosm to explore everyone and their issues. Lumet does a great job of laying all this out even though I'm not quite sold on the end. Even at 83, Sidney Lumet can still show younger filmmakers how to make a entertaining and very good film.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Glengarry Glen Ross

Glengarry Glen Ross (James Foley, 1992) [9]

On many occasions, it may seem when reviewing films, that I spend more time talking about arcane ideas like form and composition of images. Story and acting are never really that important when talking about auteur theory and aesthetics. This film is all dialogue and performances and I happen to think it's exceptional at those areas. If you want to talk about it as a film, it isn't much more than a filmed stage play but after all, that's all it was. This isn't real James Foley's film, even though he does a good job of standing back and letting his actors chew their meaty roles. (Side note: James Foley is the only notable director that I've ever met; it's not important to the review, I just wanted to get it out there.) David Mamet and his dialogue are still the stars of the film. It crackles with sarcasm, profanity, desperation, and an utter lack of candor. Even though it's big and loud, the dialogue is all we know of the salesman and their world, the phantom (?) properties, and what is exactly going on. It's never clear whether this whole real estate business is a scam, and whose these people really are beyond their bluster. It's never really that important in that the whole film is in the now, not concerned with any past. The film really hinges on the actors' performances and really they couldn't be much better. Pacino, Harris, and Baldwin are perfect for their parts but no discussion can go on further without Jack Lemmon as Shelley. Clearly the basis for my favorite Simpsons character, Gil, Lemmon plays Shelley with a mix of desperation, envy, and failure that sums up everything about the film. Shelley constantly lives in the past, touting himself as 'the machine', of bragging of past accomplishments mostly because he has no where else to go but to the absolute bottom. It's really what these characters are grasping for; fighting to accomplish something (a Cadillac, good leads, the feeling of success) in order to stave off the stench of failure and total defeat that looms over the entire picture. It's a fight that by the end ends with its expected outcome.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Essential Collection - Out of the Past

Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur, 1947) [10]

Tournerur is one of the great forgotten noir directors and I'm hard pressed to find another film noir that is as great as this one. Quite simply, it's one of my favorite films ever made. Robert Mitchum is perfect as Jeff Markham or Jeff Bailey, depending on the situation, a "detective" that gets ensnared with a femme fatale played by Jane Greer and shadowy rich man, done with the right amount of smug charm by Kirk Douglas. The true meat and potatoes of the story are like many other noirs, full of twists, set-ups, and double crosses. Markham was initially hired by Sterling (Douglas) to track down the femme fatale who had shot him and stole his money. Markham tracks her down in Mexico only to become enamored by her and help her allude Sterling. Their entanglements eventually lead to a murder and situation in which Markham retreats to a small town and becomes Bailey. Sterling's men happen to track Bailey down and he owing them a big favor, has no choice but to accept. Of course it's a set-up and once again, Bailey's weakness shows as the woman entraps him. There's no outcome but an untimely death.

What is unique about this film is how it tells its story. The entire background story is told in a flashback, Mitchum doing the first-person narration. The entire narrative ellipses takes up most of the first half of the film, in which we learn everything about who Bailey was and how he ended up where he was. It's odd to see a studio film of the era use elliptical narrative structure so prominently and more so, so successfully. The story told in the flashback flows so seamlessly that it never feels clunky or a waste. It's most important because that sequence is crucial to developing the characters for the second half of the film. Mitchum excels as the typical noir protagonist, an (now) ordinary man thrown into extraordinary circumstances. He plays Jeff with the right amount of casual indifference and grim understanding of what exactly he got himself into with Kathie. He recognizes his weakness at resisting women and Greer plays her role with the steely understanding that Jeff will do almost anything she asks. They're performances of what you expect out of any film noir with their mannerisms and language but somehow they make it seem go beyond genre. Tourneur's direction is flawless in that he doesn't let film noir stereotypes take over. He lets the actors act and the story do its work. Out of the Past also goes beyond genre; sometimes, film noir is held to different standards than other films but this is a great film, film noir or not.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Stranger Than Paradise

Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1985) [8]

Jarmusch's minimalist debut film is a richer, much more complex film than it appears on its surface. It deals with many more deeper meanings than just its deadpan exterior. A lot of the praise for the film really ignores the story itself and deals mostly with its form, a series of static sequences all delivered with a dry, deadpan sense of humor. There's a lot I like about Jarmusch's style but also happen to feel what happens in this film also is interesting. Willie is an immigrant now living in New York, hustling with his friend Eddie to make a living. His life gets thrown out of whack by his visiting cousin from Hungary, Eva, on her way to Cleveland. It's clear that the two have not much in common from their tastes in music to clothing. By using the form he does, Jarmusch is really able to strip a lot of extraneous elements away so the ideas of foreigners and assimilation really come to mind. It's this clash of differing cultures that gives the film its humor, especially the scene with the t.v. dinners. Eventually Eva goes to Cleveland and after a questionable poker game, Willie and Eddie decide to take a road trip. They visit Eva and Aunt Lotte. They go to see Lake Erie but its frozen and windswept. The three decide to head to Florida, to perceived paradise. What happens in Florida can be described as a bit of misunderstandings that allow for a humorous ending. It may not seem like much is going on in the story, but I feel that Jarmusch is describing America to some extent. Someone like Eva comes to America expecting big things but is stuck in a lousy job in a city with lousy weather. Willie and Eddie aren't much better off. The expectations of Florida is of a grand playground but all Jarmusch shows are race tracks, highways, and motels. The reason why this works instead of being pointless is that by using the structure of the film leaves some detachment for the viewer from the characters in all their restless glory. Stranger than Paradise paints a sketch of characters on the edges of the American dream who wish to find the promise of America but end up still searching. But Jarmusch creates an almost sealed off universe where America for these characters aren't palm trees and sunshine and is instead more drab and pointless than many of us would want to believe. What this film does show is maybe that world is more honest than the ideal one.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Hey! Why is this Bright Eyes concert get full of immature assholes?

Went to the glorious Magic City Music Hall in beautiful Johnson City, NY on Wednesday to see Bright Eyes' first and last performance in my hometown. When this was initially announced I was completely shocked, seeing that Magic City's forte is mostly washed-up classic rockers and shitty metal bands, and wondered what type of crowd would go. I just had a feeling that it wouldn't go that well, and I was sort of right. The crowd was pretty good sized but may have been the worst I've ever been a part of. Coming of age in the jam band scene makes going to a Bright Eyes concert an uncomfortable proposition and between all the plaid shirts and emo college kids, I really felt out of place. But what was the worst was the overall immaturity of the crowd. Between all constant talking and cell phone bullshit, it was like half of this crowd had never been to a concert before. This might have had something to do with looked like half the crowd being underage but still, that's no excuse from given the performers on stage a little respect. When a group is doing a quiet song, the audience should actually shut up and listen. Conor didn't really help himself as he grew perpetually drunker and belligerent as the night went on. I've heard about the drunk show stories and while it didn't really affect his overall performance, it was just another blight on the night. I could understand his frustration with the crowd though as the band actually cut one quieter song out because the crowd just wouldn't shut up. If the Binghamton area is actually wants to get more quality concerts, the people going to them should stop acting like assholes and appreciate an artist like Conor Oberst actually came. I doubt he'll ever be back again. At least I'll be in Portland in a couple of months where people actually appreciate actual music.

On an unrelated note but something I wanted to address, Norman Mailer, someone who I have great apprectiation for as an author, passed away last week. As a person, Mailer was a pretty dislikable man to many different groups and his general boorishness has a unique appeal. There's no denying that the man was a talented writer and that being a prick shouldn't disqualify his literary achievements. Read The Executioner's Song and find out.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Army of Shadows

Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969) [7]

Every once and a while, for whatever reason, I find it hard to get into a film. The most notable example of this was my first viewing Exotica, after which I didn't quite like. I changed my mind after a second viewing and hopefully the same can be said for this film, which I can't quite see as the masterpiece the majority of critical reviews have given it. The film is described as a thriller but there wasn't a whole lot of action. Melville pays crucial attention to the behaviors and interior processes of his characters more than their actions. Granted, there are a few action sequences throughout but I found the film more of a psychological examination of the French Resistance more than something like the Bourne films. The film's strength relies in its examination of the characters and their actions, led by mannered looking Philippe. Melville spends a lot of time focusing on reactions, letting the camera linger to capture the true emotion of the situations the characters are in. One of the main themes is the necessary actions of what those in the Resistance were doing but being knocked up against using ruthless tactics not that much different than the Nazis. Traitors must be executed, people will die, and these characters have to come to some acceptance of their actions. Netflix calls the film bleak and uncompromising, with which I have to agree, and maybe this might be the cause of my issue with the film. I just find it too strenuous at times with its omnipresent downbeat nature. I also feel the film was too long and maybe for one a little streamlining of action wouldn't be too bad. All this doesn't mean that I don't think Army of Shadows is a bad film; it isn't, it's just that I don't see the masterpiece that many want to believe.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Year of the Dog

Year of the Dog (Mike White, 2007) [5]

In Mike White's films, especially The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck, his characters very often have very disturbing personality traits but somehow manage to come across as harmless despite their disturbances. My biggest problem with this film is that is how Peggy (Molly Shannon) comes across to me and I just don't buy it. This doesn't mean Peggy's characterization is wrong; the supporting characters themselves are so wrapped up in their own preoccupations that they are all conveniently oblivious to Peggy's tailspin. The film as a whole works in its logic, it just my personal opinion that I don't like how it turns out. Peggy's transformation after the death of her dog turns her into a very traumatized and dangerous person. Peggy's deterioration comes off mostly as harmless and by the end, everything gets resolved, not completely happy, but there is resolution. What I'm trying to say is that I find it hard to believe what happens to here would not be noticed by somebody and the resolution of her conflict would be a little bit more substantive. Peggy turns into a vegan animal rights activist and while I don't think that automatically makes her a "nut", I think the way Shannon plays it makes it very hard to get away from some preconceived notions about PETA and their ilk. It's a shame my outside baggage weighs this film down because there are some really good performances here, especially by Shannon who does a great job skipping back and forth from emotional states. Even with all of her disturbances and trauma, her character still wants to be seen as harmless and for once in a Mike White written film, I have a hard time believing.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Knocked Up

Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2007) [6]

As I've stated before, I'm a huge fan of Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared which maybe means I'm expecting too much of Apatow's films. This along with the 40 Year Old Virgin have their laughs but they really aren't that impressive overall. This is a solidly executed film but it really isn't the kind of revelatory piece that critics painted it to be. Maybe when you release a film in the shitstorm that is the summer movie season, anything that is even watchable becomes a masterpiece. For the actual film, it just drags too much in the beginning and really only gets its footing (and most of its laughs) when the focus moves to the Rogen and Heigl characters' relationship issues. Too much of the film is spent on the sophomoric aspects of Ben's friends which I could really do without. Apatow formally as a director doesn't do anything but get the basics across, not doing anything to emphasize the emotional complexities the film has. It's rare to see a film like this tackle the issues of marriage and raising children with such a real mix of joy, humor, and depression as this. The greatest strength of the film is that it places all the neuroses of marriage and kids right out there, whether it be the doubt if you're in the right relationship or if you can actually be a fit father. The end of the film is quite conservative, and while I'm not begrudging it, it jostles with my sensibilities. Is it quite necessary? What exactly has Ben learned besides cleaning up his superficial personality traits? I guess it all comes down to what you want out of this film; if you wanted laughs and a tidy ending you got it but I think there could have been a bit more to what Knocked Up actually is.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

By Brakhage

I was in the cinema program at Binghamton University which is much more based in experimental film than narrative film. After all, the program was founded by Ken Jacobs, one of the most revered people in the genre. I rarely saw any of Jacobs' work but the one filmmaker who was the cornerstone of everything the program stood for was Stan Brakhage. Brakhage is the single most influential experimental filmmaker of the 20th century, at least in terms of creating a certain genre of experimental film, the lyrical film as defined by P. Adams Sitney in his book Visionary Film. For Sitney, lyrical film is film where the one behind the camera is the protagonist of said film. Everything seen through the camera is a first person viewpoint of the events as they are seen by the protagonist. Lyrical film is also defined by the constant movement of the camera as well as constant movement of images. Brakhage fits this description but there's more to his works than that. He has an inherent romanticism about him that flows through his work, especially his earlier work, that give his films a personality that keeps them from being didactic and sterile. Only a portion of his vast output is in this Criterion set, and sadly there is no Anticipation of the Night (1962), which I feel is his most accomplished work.

There are two phases to Brakhage's career: his earlier, more lyrical works and his later, non-lyrical works, which are almost exclusively him painting directly on film. I'm not going to cover anything about those mostly because I feel that they have more to do with modern art than film. A big discussion can be brought up about what exactly these film are and how they operate in the filmic world and all but frankly, I don't find them nearly as interesting as the image film (for lack of a better term). All the Brakhage film I'd seen at Binghamton were these, and all of them are somewhat similar in structure. There are a lot of quick movements, superimposition, and contrast of a variety of images. The standout piece on the collection is Window Water Baby Moving (1962), which graphically depicts childbirth. Brakhage takes the birth footage and cuts in shots of water, light, and the body to create something that comes out that's much prettier than one would expect. I had seen this a couple of years before and had a hard time getting past the childbirth footage but seeing it again, the meticulous nature of the cuts creates a very good film. Cat's Cradle (1959) is similar in structure and more obtuse, dealing more with sexual tension. Mothlight (1963) is one of Brakhage's most memorable pieces in that it consists entirely of moth wings and parts glued to film and projected. It's an awe-inspiring film in regards to its labor and effort put in but it just doesn't quite grab me as much as the lyrical work. Of all Brakhage's later works, only Comingled Containers (1997) does anything to intrigue me. It forsakes paint for water and the contrast of aquatic imagery harkens back to the lyrical films in a way that not much work of that time does.

The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971) is the closest to an actual documentary Brakhage ever gets. It is footage entirely of autopsies and I actually didn't have as much of a problem with this as when I saw Window Water Baby Moving for the first time. It's almost a linear film in its progression and with much more static shots and edits, it doesn't feel quite like typical Brakhage.

Brakhage's self-described epic, Dog Star Man (1964) is his crowning achievement and one of the best experimental films ever made. That being said, even for me, it is an extremely difficult film to get through. Just because a film is difficult doesn't mean that it's not great or there aren't redeeming qualities about it. Shot in five parts, a prelude and four acts, it's a romantic observation of man, his dreams, and his interaction with the world. It's really difficult to try and boil down all the ideas in it to a paragraph or so but it's really about a man's search for truth and beauty in the world around him. It's Brakhage's most aesthetically accomplished work, with layers upon layers of superimpositions and images. It can become such an overload of imagery that it becomes hard to really focus on certain aspects for too long, especially towards the end of the Prelude and Act I. Even though, its achievement of filmmaking artistry is so impressive that the construction of the film is the center for me. Along with Scorpio Rising and Wavelength, Dog Star Man is one of the experimental films that define the genre for me. I know this kind of work isn't for everyone but for anyone with an interest in experimental film, Brakhage's work is not to be missed.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Monthly Listening Post - October 2007

Not much this month but one really good discovery in The Cave Singers, whose debut should crack my year-end top ten.

The Cave Singers - Invitation Songs
Band of Horses - Cease to Begin
The Thrills - Teenager
Ryan Adams & the Cardinals - Follow the Lights

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Essential Collection: American Movie

American Movie (Chris Smith, 1999)

It's been five years since I've seen this and while my overall viewpoint of the film has changed a bit, it's still at its heart a really good film about a really earnest man. When I first saw this, I couldn't help but laugh at Mark Borchardt, his antics, and his friends. After seeing this again, I really feel more sorry for him than anything. It's hard to tell what Borchardt really thinks of Smith but there's no doubt Smith is using Borchardt and his friends, especially Mike Schank for their comedy more than their ambitions. That doesn't mean that that doesn't come out in the film; what Smith also does is capture the ultimate filmmaker's film about a man whose only ambition is to make a film. For every comic trait Borchardt has, from his way of talking to his drinking problem to his mostly naive view of the film industry, he also has more ability than the film wants to give him credit for. He knows enough about filmmaking to have some good ideas and shots but the film doesn't really want to focus on that. It's Borchardt Hell-be-damned goals that are really the most important elements of the film, not everything that goes wrong. That brings me to the one issue I have: that the film perceives these characters as unrealistic imbeciles at times. I don't think it's entirely harmful to the film but it's a question that lingers in the back of my mind, mostly because these characters are oblivious that they were going to be laughed at. I feel bad for a guy like Mike, who has clearly taken one acid trip too many as told by himself in the film and is a clueless burnout used mostly for laughs. The problem is it's almost impossible to not laugh and Smith has for better or not, crafted an expert comedy. Even after all these years, American Movie is still a very good film but it's hard to determine if it was actually good for the ones that were in it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady, 2006) [4]
There's something quite disturbing about this documentary and it doesn't come from the Evangelicals and their actions that populate this film. What's more disturbing to myself is the whiff of exploitation that comes out of this. It's quite obvious that the Evangelical movement are exploiting this kids for their own political and social motivations, indoctrinating them into thoughts and ideas that kids shouldn't really have to grapple with at such an early age. That being said, Ewing and Grady are just as responsible for exploiting these kids who obviously have no clear grasp of how they are going to be portrayed. I'm not one of these people that are overprotective of kids but there were a handful of instances in this film that made me angry and uncomfortable with the way the adults, the filmmakers included, use these kids for their own personal advantages.

I don't really think political views have anything to do with reviewing a film so I will keep what I personally think of the Evangelical movement to myself. The film should have had good enough sense to do the same. Ewing and Grady bring a liberal viewpoint to this and they really didn't. Let the viewer decide for themselves what they think of these events. There may not be any agreement with the views of the people in the film, but let the film put it out there and have everyone make their own decision. The blundering use of an ominous soundtrack and the Air America Radio type asides do not have to be in this film. At the end of the film, the radio host and the children's' pastor have a conversation in which the host voices the same concerns I had. Watching the film, I feel that kids should be able to be kids and make these decisions about religion and morality on their own free will. I already had that assumption from the film, I don't need the film to tell it to me. Ewing and Grady are using these kids to help a political agenda and that's just wrong, as the S-CHIP debate has shown. Just leave the kids alone and go after the ones here that really deserve scorn, the adults facilitating this.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Films of Kenneth Anger, Volume 2

The first volume of Kenneth Anger's collected work came out a while back but what I was really looking forward to was Volume 2, solely because of Scorpio Rising. I happens to be one of my top ten films of all time and having it out on DVD gets it out there beyond film classes, where incidentally, I have seen almost all these films before. Here we go with the grades:

Scorpio Rising (1964) [10]
In my mind, Anger's masterpiece. Its style and form have become so influential on later filmmakers and styles. With its frenetic cuts and rock & roll soundtrack, its easy to see its influence on someone like Scorsese as well as being a template for the music video revolution. The film itself is masterfully arranged with Anger starting off with a lot of slow pans of motorcycles with the film gradually becoming more kinetic as the action increases. Anger inter cuts outside footage of a film about Jesus as well as some Nazi and occult imagery to great effect. The inter cutting between the Scorpio character going out and the footage of Jesus is funny and right on in making a correlation. The ideas of ritual and the occult that Anger will later cover more in depth rear up in the motorcycle culture. Anger spends a good amount of the film showing Scorpio and the others preparing to go out, the clothes they wear, the mythology involved with the motorcycle culture. Of course, the film shows the homoerotic aspects of this culture, the idea of leather and chains that has become a stereotype of a gay subculture. I think too much has been made of this aspect; Scorpio Rising get pegged as a "gay film" when it really has little explicitly to do with it. It's more a film about ritual and ultimately sacrifice with the motorcycle race and the deadly end. The real power of Scorpio Rising is that it takes a lot of mundane stuff and arranges it in a way that creates something fresh and exciting. To me, it's a landmark of experimental cinema.

Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) [5]
Besides the tongue in cheek title, there isn't really anything about this that makes it stand out. It feels too much like Scorpio Rising outtakes, except with cars instead of motorcycles. A lot of the same as Scorpio in terms of form. Lots of pans, Bressonian focus on objects, and that rock and roll soundtrack. At only 3 minutes, it doesn't do much to leave a big impression.

Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) [7]
The most experimental of all the works on this collection, it's also probably the most divisive film of the set. What was originally film for a first version of Lucifer Rising, it's a film that focuses heavily on the occult and the black magic of Aleister Crowley. The crux of the footage is Anger performing his "magik" ritual in which a God of light is born from opposites. Don't ask me how it happens; what sells the film for me is the editing and images which is the closest Anger comes to approximating the style of Brakhage. The droning Moog score by Mick Jagger, who also appears briefly, is either going to repulse or intrigue you.

Rabbit's Moon (1979 Version) [6]
This is the first version of Rabbit's Moon I saw and I really don't feel much different about either one. This version is a bit more streamlined in terms of what shots are shown, as there is much more repetition of action in this version. This causes the story Anger wanted to tell, of a Japanese fable that a rabbit lives in the moon, to lose some of it focus but forms trumps story here. The use of the XTC song feels disjointed to what's being shown but it has a certain topical relevance that makes it work.

Lucifer Rising (1981) [4]
The most puzzling film for me, and another film about ritual and black magic. It has similarities to Scorpio in that regard but it much more direct in the occult and symbols. The film is flooded with them from Egyptian symbols to the occult to mystical spaceships. It creates too much of an image overload with no real discernible theme outside of that of ritual. Speaking on a formal note, there's just something that feels off about this film. Anger is a filmmaker of such a certain style and this doesn't feel like an Anger film to me.

Continuing on an experimental binge, I've gotten the By Brakhage anthology through Netflix so a comprehensive Stan Brakhage retrospective will be coming in the next week or two. Even though I've seen a good portion of his work, I wanted to seen everything again to really give a good opinion.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Inland Empire

Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006) [5]

I don't want to be someone taking a director to task for being too self-indulgent or not knowing when to edit because I generally believe in the auteur theory and giving directors the benefit of the doubt. The problems with this film is what I mentioned above. It is a film that has some very interesting things going on but is too rambling and incohesive to make much sense. David Lynch has never been one to have a straightforward narrative, which I'm not talking about when I talk about this film not making sense. Speaking on a formal level, this has too much going on to make it work. Some things seem downright unnecessary, from the rabbit headed characters sitcom to the film within a film within a film and (I'm assuming) the ex-flames of the male star of the film within a film. Lynch throws so much into this that he really weakens the strength of the film which is the Laura Dern character's journey. If Lynch were to just focus on her, it would have been a shorter, and greater film. Dern is absolutely fearless in her role, and the scenes with her are truly the most memorable. As the film goes, she descends deeper into a filmic world where the reality we're given at the beginning and the supposed film become more and more indistinguishable. This blurriness of temporal space is probably the most irritating feature to someone watching accustomed to narrative. This isn't a film that conventional narrative can be found and it shouldn't be applied either. Inland Empire is Lynch's most experimental work and it should really be looked at in regards to experimental film. That being said, in my mind the one major reason experimental film can go wrong is if it becomes too self-indulgent. Inland Empire is guilty of that mostly because by shooting on DV, Lynch can shoot much more footage than with film. I'll come out and say I despise DV on aesthetic levels, but I'll admit Lynch makes it work to his advantage at times. But it also allowed him to film a lot of scenes that weren't necessary. That lack of editorial discretion makes this film too long and lessens the impact of what works. At its central focus, Inland Empire has some very strong elements working in its favor, but by failing to harness his ambitions, Lynch ends up with a film that just doesn't quite hit its mark.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The TV Set

The TV Set (Jake Kasdan, 2007) [6]
Jake Kasdan worked on Freaks & Geeks and Undeclared, two of my favorite shows in the history of television that didn't make it a full season on the air. Kasdan seems to have taken the worst elements of his experiences in television and placed them in the character of Mike Klein, a writer trying to get his pilot greenlighted by the network and still keep some artistic credibility. The film is basically a series of all the inane notes and dumbing-down network television does in the name of better ratings. There is a lot of satire that's dead on here, beginning with Sigourney Weaver's performance as the network president. Weaver's performance becomes the centerpiece of the film, due to her at times hilarious and at time horrifying performance. She's meant to be a representation of the industry itself, with it's penchant for "broad" shows that aren't too original, too original scares them a little. Kasdan does a good job of showing the inane nature of the industry as well as the struggle between artistic credibility and popular appeal. Mike has everything go wrong that possibly could: he has to change his vision of the show, he has the wrong actor in the lead, and once the show does get picked up, the marketing of it is taken in a completely different direction. Duchovny plays it all with a perma-wince across his face, half flummoxed and outraged at the network dissection of his show. It does play as solid satire and is funny to anyone who has the same view of network television as Kasdan, which I do.

My only real issue with the film is that everyone knows television has little to no artistic credibility. This is the way things work in television and it is such an easy target to skewer. A difference has to be made here between network t.v. and cable; even Mike says his show isn't going to be The Sopranos, which states there is a distinction being made. Granted, I'm no fan of network t.v. and I enjoyed the film throughout but the film does come across as a hopeless exercise. Kasdan knows the networks are never going to change so he can take all the shots at them he wants. In its best moments (the network testing at the mall, the Slut Wars scene at end), the film does its best when it attacks the stupidity of the general public for allowing the networks to get away with what they put on the air. The bad thing is there are too few of those moments to make it a fantastic film instead of just a good one.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The War

The War (Ken Burns & Lynne Novick, 2007) [9]

This will undoubtedly be on my Top Ten list of 2007 even though it will never see a commercial theatrical release. I don't really see the need to be so dogmatic to say that films that weren't shown in theatres somehow don't count. Burns has created a thoughtful, grateful, and refreshingly apolitical film that triggers strong emotions yet isn't pandering or cheap. The subtle difference that Burns uses for his approach, telling personal stories of the war, make it much stronger than retelling history as every WW II documentary on the History Channel. Each man or woman's story has enough of their own personal experience to show human elements that haven't yet been seen yet all the while still threading them into the greater narrative of the war itself. It creates some truly powerful moments as you can see how much each story means to the people telling them. This film really isn't about the broad scope of history of war; it's about people and the sacrifices they made to fight and win. People tend to forget that the war was fought by actual people, not broad terms like Allies vs. Nazis/good vs. evil, etc. By giving a more human experience of the war, Burns has made his film much more powerful as well as interesting.

Ken Burns' style gets parodied and ridiculed to an extent and I could see how most film snobs wouldn't have much use for it. His overemphasis on geography, always reminding everyone of the four cities he focuses on can become a little tiresome after a while but that's about the only real formal flaw I have with the film. Obviously, the film relies heavily on archival footage and it has some remarkable yet graphic footage. The one element that Burns reiterates that is truly effective is that while World War II may have been a just and necessary war, that doesn't mean it was any different from any war. Lives, both soldiers and civilians, were lost. Much of Europe and Japan were virtually wiped off the face of the earth. The men who fought dealt with all the killing, maiming, and shock that war entails. World War II may have been a war that had to be fought, but that by no means makes it a "good" war. War is hell, and many of the veterans speaking in the film say as much. And while the film has no overt political agenda, all the graphic footage can make one feel that war in whatever the case is never necessary. As Spielberg said, all war films are anti-war films.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Monster In a Box

Monster In a Box (Nick Broomfield, 1992) [7]

I liked Swimming to Cambodia so much, I knew I would eventually catch up with this film at some time. Spalding Gray still is entertaining in his monologue here but he jumps around trying to tell too much. While Swimming to Cambodia really focused on Gray's experience while in Cambodia, here he goes from his book (the aforementioned monster), moving to L.A. to do a stage production, expeditions to Nicaragua and Russia, and acting in Our Town. While Gray does keep a thread intertwining between all these tangents some how, it comes across as shambling and less focused than his prior film. It doesn't help that Nick Broomfield attempts to do too much with light and sound effects. Gray is interesting enough as a speaker with all the emotion he himself puts into his monologue that Broomfield's excess of sound and lighting effects overwhelms the power of Gray's words at times. Still, Spalding Gray is an interesting enough storyteller that I can't help but be entertained. He exists on a fine line between real emotional punch and breezy conversation that keeps him from being too frivolous or too self-involved.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Away From Her

Away From Her (Sarah Polley, 2007) [7]

For a first time director, Polley has made a solid but by no means spectacular film, as some reviewers are wont to believe. Julie Christie's performance is solid but not nearly as great as the reviews state. From those reviews, you would think that the film centers around Christie's character but the film is more from the husband's viewpoint, played by Gordon Pinset. The film, after all is called Away From Her. I really don't want to knock Christie's performance because it is good but I found Pinset just as credible and dealing with a lot more complicated emotional issues. It's the nature of the story that Grant, being the husband, has to deal with the brutal realities more directly than his wife. Polley, who also adapted the screenplay from an Alice Munro short story, does a good job of handling the complexities and turmoil that the two main characters' relationship and love go through. What is impressive of her direction, especially for a first-timer, is that she a pretty good hold on a continuity of style throughout. She floods her scenes, especially in the assisted living home, with light, which is always being mentioned by the home's director. Even the elements that I think don't work so well, such as the ellipses in the narrative and too much camera movement in key scenes, aren't too much of a detriment because they are consistent in the style Polley's established. The acting performances also carry the film above any flaws in the style. Christie and Pinset's insightful and emotionally deep performances are key and Polley does a good job of keeping the film's focus on them.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Monthly Listening Post - September 2007

Ken Burns' new documentary on PBS, The War, has been taking up all my viewing time for the past week. While not as good as either The Civil War or Baseball, it still has some pretty powerful moments. A full review when the entire series is done. For now, here's what I'm listening to now:

Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam
Heavy Trash - Going Way Out with Heavy Trash
Devendra Banhart - Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon
Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog
Patton Oswalt - Werewolves & Lollipops

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, 2007) [7]

What Loach does here is very skillful, in that he starts one way (Irish vs. British) and ends up in a completely unexpected place (Irish vs. Irish). The material he's working with is very incendiary, especially if approaching the events with sympathy for the Irish as I was. The film is an unsparing look at all sides of the Irish fight for independence at Great Britain, which Loach turns a critical eye all forces fighting in the struggle. The British occupying force is rightfully vilified, but Loach doesn't let the IRA off that easy either. There are scenes involving them that are just as cold-blooded and villainous as anything the Black & Tans did. That involves the Irish killing their own, as one thing the film does well is shift the identities of those fighting around as events in the film progress. Loach keeps the focus on this by focusing mainly on two characters, a set of brothers, Teddy, more in love with power than ideals, and Damien, the young doctor turned idealist. It's this amorphous identities of the characters that is interesting, especially when Teddy gets into power. The other interesting twist is how Damien moves from nationalist to socialist by the end. There's no denying that the poor where the ones behind the nationalist uprising, but the church and other factors suppressed the socialist tendencies of some especially after Ireland gained some autonomy. This clash of ideals the idealism of Teddy and the compromised power of Teddy is a real interest facet but only comes up in the end. It helps redeem the film a bit, as the second half gets bogged down in two much dissection of ideology and talking. It almost takes the film out of the intense fighting sequences that Loach has established in the first half. Still, he handles the material more than admirably and has made a film that doesn't try to sugarcoat history.