Thursday, January 25, 2007

Leonard Cohen - I'm Your Man

Leonard Cohen - I'm Your Man (Lian Lunson, 2006) [7]
The concert film/music documentary has become so watered down and so often used as a way to make a quick buck that it truly is refreshing to see one that has some thought and craft put into it. The basis for this film was a concert given in Australia that celebrated the songs of Leonard Cohen by artists such as Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Nick Cave, Antony, Jarvis Cocker, and Bono and Edge of U2 at a separate time. While none of the names on the concert bill may leap out at someone who's idea of good music is American Idol, it seems fitting because Cohen himself was never the type of success and had the tremendous influence as someone like Bob Dylan. Personally speaking, even though I love Dylan, I find Leonard Cohen the most impressive lyricist I've ever come into contact with. The way he mixes the sacred and the profane, the serious with a touch of humor, and how he grounds it in an all too fragile reality resonate with me more than any other artist.

Outside of my appreciation for Leonard Cohen, the film is well-done for the majority of it. The concert section is restrained and well filmed. Lunson doesn't let himself over-edit with one exception, letting the performances and Cohen's words linger in the viewer. All of the performances are solid, but I think that Antony's performance of "If It Be Your Will" is exceptional, showing the soulful, sacred nature of Cohen's songs. Lunson's interviews with Cohen are also refreshing. Cohen doesn't try to make himself out to be a great artist; most of the time, he discusses where he feels he has shortcomings in his music. They are truly interesting conversations and my only wish is that there were a little bit more of them. But it's still nice to see a film that while being referential towards its subject, doesn't fawn over it making it trivial.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

I Don't Give a Crap About the Oscars

Academy Award nominations were announced yesterday but I don't care about them anymore. If you want to look back in the archives, you'll find that I said that if Crash won Best Picture last year, I would boycott watching and caring about them forever. I'm a man of my word, so I'll stay away from any Oscar related news. Besides, I haven't seen enough films from this year to have a real valid opinion anyway. The Academy has a long history of dubious decisions and as of late, have been rewarding tripe like A Beautiful Mind and Crash. These films fuel the cheap liberal guilt that is rampant in Hollywood and give perfect opportunity for those vapid dingbats to think they're edgy and get it. The problem is they reward films that are emotionally manipulative and don't actually have any degree of substance or political conviction to them. There's an article by Pete Keough of The Phoenix online that pretty much sums up my feelings of what gets nominated and why. You can check it out here. I haven't seen many of these films so I can't say for certain that I feel the same about every specific performance but the gist of the story is what's important. As for my specific feelings, all I've heard about Babel is that it's Crash taking place all over the world instead of just L.A., which means it will probably win Best Picture.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Coachella Lineup

Going to Coachella has never been anything that I've wanted to do. For one thing, it's all the way on the other side of the country, which means it would cost me a small fortune to go. Plus, spending a weekend in the sweltering desert surrounded by elitist hipsters doesn't sound like that great of a time. While I may be elitist when it comes to film, music is a different story. As someone who really got into the jamband scene, Coachella was and for the most part still is the complete opposite of the spectrum. But over the past few years, I've begun to listen and enjoy more diverse ("indie) groups. My biggest problem with the hardcore fans on both sides (including jamband fans) is that they outright dismiss or look down anything that they don't consider their base.

That's pretty much beside the point I meant to make. I have to say that Coachella's lineup this year is the most intriguing I've seen. It still stays pretty close to the template they've laid down but this is the first time that there's been more than a handful of bands I would have wanted to see:

Rage Against the Machine (so I can remember what I listened to in high school)
The Arcade Fire
Willie Nelson
Manu Chao
The Decemberists
Sonic Youth
Kings of Leon
Grizzly Bear
The Black Keys
Damien Rice
Nickel Creek
The Avett Brothers
The New Pornographers
Regina Spektor
Explosions In the Sky
Of Montreal
Amos Lee
Fountains of Wayne
Gillian Welch
Plus a lot of others. Even though that's pretty good, tickets are too much ($250!!) and I'd still rather go to Bonnaroo. I hope some of these artists head to Tennessee too.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Listening Post - January 2007

It's the return of the Useless Film Snob Listening Post, where I force my music opinions on you as well. This time, we're scrounging a little as most of what I'm still listening to at this time was covered on my Best of 2006 list. This list is a little mix of older and newer.

Catfish Haven - Tell Me (A really nice '60s Soul inspired garage band with a singer with a great voice.)
The Hold Steady - Seperation Sunday (Boys & Girls In America was the first I heard of them, and I liked it so much, I had to go back to the earlier stuff.)
Old Crow Medicine Show - O.C.M.S. (They have a new album out, but I still go back to this one. They put on a good live show too.)
The Grateful Dead - Europe '72 (In my mind the best official live Dead album released. The more rootsy songs fit my preference more. Jerry's guitar is sublime on China Cat Sunflower>I Know You Rider.)

The Bonnaroo lineup should be coming out in a week or so and there already a couple of leaked confirmations: The Hold Steady, Cold War Kids, John Butler Trio, Fountains of Wayne, and Charlie Louvin. A supposed "lineup" was leaked that included Bob Dylan, Pearl Jam, Tom Waits, Willie Nelson, The Police, Band of Horses, Wilco, Ryan Adams, The Shins, and the Arcade Fire among others. While the validity of this is somewhat in question, if it even is somewhat correct, 2007 will blow 2006 out of the water.

Thank You For Smoking

Thank You For Smoking (Jason Reitman, 2006) [6]
I really don't have much to say about this, it has its funny moments and all, but I didn't feel that it was as biting as a satire as I was led to believe. Some of that probably had to do with seeing Idiocracy right before it. Anyway, Reitman seems to take swipes at all sides, not just the tobacco industry but also the shameless nature of lobbying and it bedfellows on Capitol Hill. The film gives it to the hypocrites in government just as much as the tobacco industry. As someone who has a libertarian stance on smoking, I agree with the message that smoking is a personal decision and a conscious decision that a person makes. That's basically Nick Naylor's speech at the end, but then he goes and ruins it by making the soul-searching gesture and quits. It rings hollow to me for some reason. It doesn't fit mostly because the film is much like Nick Naylor himself, smug. Aaron Eckhart does a good job of portraying the right amount of smugness all the while creating defenses for himself and what he does. Reitman as a director plays right into this, which at times makes the film too proud of itself and "its look who I'm pissing off now" attitude. This had the possibility to really get it right if it just could keep its focus and not cop out at the end.

Monday, January 15, 2007


Idiocracy (Mike Judge, 2006) [6]
This film is most known for being unceremoniously dumped by 20th Century Fox into a handful theatres and not being screened for critics. That would usually mean that it's a piece of crap but it's by Mike Judge and the idea seems brilliant: a man frozen for 300 years wakes up and finds a crass, stupid culture that has made him the smartest man in the world. The result is a bit of a mixed bag but with enough biting, funny satire to make me feel that this film didn't deserve the fate it received.

Luke Wilson is great as an average guy (naturally his name is Joe) that takes part in an experiment that causes him to wake up in a future where crass commercialism has take over everything, people speak in a redneck/ebonics/profanity laced slang, and any form of intelligence gets a person labeled as a "fag." The satire Judge lays down here is clever and often hilarious. The future is a world where Starbucks offers handjobs, the Secretary of State is a pitchman for Carls, Jr., and the President is a former Ultimate Fighting Champion. It's a world where stupidity is celebrated and preferred, evidenced by two of the best scenes in the film, an exchange where the Luke Wilson character is trying to explain that water is best for growing crops but can't get the idea across because the others only can think in stupid catchphrases. The scenes with the Wilson character on trial as well as the Ow, My Balls! scenes are hilarious, mostly because they're not that far removed from the world we live in now.

My main problem with the film deals with the tone. Even though this is a satire, it just seems too mean-spirited at times. In dealing with his material, Judge finds a middle ground that can offend everybody just a little bit. Most troubling is the portrayal of the people of the future, whose language seems as veiled racism (both black and white) making fun of ebonics as well as redneck slang. The film works when it takes on commercialism and the corporate culture that is overtaking America, but when Judge lays into society as a whole, he may go t

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2006) [5]
Maybe I'm missing something but I can't find anything that explains all the hype this film has been getting. Sure, it leaves you with a nice feel-good ending and it has all the eccentric characters that can be found in any Sundance favorite. The problem for me is that there's nothing here that is really refreshing to me; the characters feel like their traits are too forced upon. They're wacky just for the sake of being wacky, something I never particularly care for. The only saving grace is Abigail Breslin as Olive, the one character in this film that has some real grounding and brings the best out of the film, mostly this nation's preoccupation with winners. Her performance is the most real and impressive in the film, even though the Greg Kinnear character is also good as the loser father obsessed with winners. But a grandfather that starts snorting heroin just because he's old? Come on. The ending does redeem the film somewhat as the shameless nature of the Little Miss Sunshine pageant is exposed to the family and the audience. We come to realize that winning isn't everything and that the Hoovers have grown as a family through all the torture they've had to endure in trying to be winners. I guess that makes you feel good but I don't know if that's what I really want out of the ending. For an ending that is somewhat rewarding, it didn't feel that deserving seeing how unimpressive I felt the everything up to that point had been.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

United 93

United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006) [8]
This is one of the toughest films that I've written a review for mostly because I'm attempting to separate the emotional impact that the film delivers, which is undoubtedly the strongest I can remember in sometime, and where this stands as a film. There is no doubt that this film has an emotional impact; for me, it was the feeling of complete helplessness as you know where the film is going and what the final outcome will be. Yet as the film unfolds and the people on that flight are shown, the anxiety within me grows as I know what is coming. That's the extraordinary power this film has, especially for the first hour or so leading to the hijacking of the flight, when you know what's going to happen and are helpless to either stop it or just get it over with.

The director of United 93 is Paul Greengrass, who made Bloody Sunday, an amazing film about the violent 1972 clash between Irish Catholic demonstrators and Protestant, British police in Northern Ireland. The docudrama style of that film fits perfectly here, as it allows to capture everything just as it happens, not allowing point of view to come into play, which would have crippled the film. Greengrass does a great job of creating a taut, streamlined film that conveys the frantic action on the flight as well as the bewilderment and near incompetence of the people on the ground trying to figure out what to do and what's going on. The first half of the film is immensely effective, creating a powerful amount of nail-biting tension that is released as the hijackers take over the flight. From then on, Greengrass does a good job of keeping the film focused and not becoming emotionally manipulative. He does a good job of keeping the hijackers human and not some kind of action movie villain cliches. And all in all, the film becomes a memorial to those who did what they did on that flight without turning the events into a jingoistic rallying cry. But as a film, it seems too preoccupied in being a memorial, evidenced in the title cards at the end. The actions of those onboard were no doubt heroic but the film differentiates between those who acted and the ones that did nothing. We can never be sure what happened down to exact details, what actually happened and what we want to believe happened. Even though, this is still an impactful film.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) [10]
Ever since Robert Altman's death, I've been going over his body of work and have come to the conclusion that he is quite possibly my favorite director. This is the third Altman film I have given a perfect score to, along with The Long Goodbye and Short Cuts. A lot of reviews state this film is an anti-western, a perfect example of the genre deconstructionist that Altman was. That's not quite true; the film isn't a western in the typical Hollywood style but the characters, McCabe, a gambler who thinks he's smarter than he is played by Warren Beatty, and the humanistic prostitute played by Julie Christie are archetypical western characters. It's how Altman portrays them on the screen that raises them above standard characterization. There is an underlying melancholy in the characters, not just in their actions and mannerisms but in the film as a whole. The setting is consistently dreary, cloudy, and always raining and snowing. You can just get the feeling that the only result for McCabe and Mrs. Miller is failure. They, like the town, are doomed from the start.

This all leads back to the most prominent aspects of the film, the look and sound of it. Almost every review mentions the muddy overlapping sound, an Altman trademark, as well as the look of the film, most of which was accomplished by flashing the negative before filming. This is where the film truly lies for me. The look and sound of the film is key for the overall theme of the film. When I think of this film, I think of muddiness, not just the aesthetics, but also the town of Presbyterian Church as well as the characters themselves. The opening scene where McCabe first comes into town is as close to a perfect sequence as I could imagine. But its also the jumping point for many. The scene is so dark and the soundtrack so muddled that if you don't get it, it's better to just turn off this film and forget about it. Altman lays it all out early; this isn't going to be some pristine John Ford western, in look or theme. It's the complete difference in form that makes McCabe & Mrs. Miller so difficult yet so rewarding to those who understand what Altman wants out of it.

Also, the use of the Leonard Cohen songs in the film are absolutely phenomenal, especially the scenes when the prostitutes first arrive and 'Sisters of Mercy' is playing. Brilliant.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Useless Film Snob Book Report - Rebels on the Backlot

Rebels On the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System - Sharon Waxman, 2005

In an effort to diversify this site and make it a little better, we're starting a new feature called Useless Film Snob Book Reports, where I'll try to give my opinions on what I've been reading as inarticulately as possible. First up is New York Times Hollywood reporter (not a great first description) Sharon Waxman's account of how Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, David Fincher, and Steven Soderbergh invaded the studio system and against all odds, somehow managed to make credible, artistic movies in the vacuous, money-grubbing world that are the major studios. At least that's what Waxman wants you to believe. Actually, it's a little more nuanced than that. Let's be honest here; these filmmakers aren't exactly breaking the mold that much. While these films they made may be good, some great, some had major stars in them, made a sizable profit, or were prestige pictures made for awards. There is some truth that these weren't exactly "safe" pictures but the glaring failure of Waxman's book is she is trying to equate these directors and their work in the studio system to what was going on in the late 60's and 70's. What the current directors lack is the cultural significance and widespread appeal that people like Coppola, Friedkin, Altman, Scorsese, and others had in the 70's. So problem number one is Waxman overreaches here a bit. Pulp Fiction may have been a zeitgeist film, but the others covered in the book didn't become cultural benchmarks.

Another problem Waxman has is that she clearly read Peter Biskind's two fantastic books, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls about the 70's period and his Sundance/Miramax book, Down and Dirty Pictures, and cribs heavily from them, especially the latter. She lifts entire sections dealing with Tarantino from Biskind's book and plops right into her story. While Biskind's book had its fair share of gossip and innuendo, everything is told in such a fair and entertaining matter. Waxman seems to have a pre-occupation with showing every director's personality flaws that she practically forgets about the films themselves, which is especially the case with Anderson and Tarantino. This makes Waxman seem more like the shallow Hollywood reporter more concerned with gossip and celebrities' personal lives than a true author really getting into the art of filmmaking, which Biskind does a lot better.

All this leads to the more glaring weakness of the book, the number of factual errors in the book, which are astounding seeing this was published through a major company. All the examples have been discussed other places but two of the ones I can't get out of my mind is that she states that Rushmore was Wes Anderson's first film and that Julia Stiles played Michael Douglas's daughter in Traffic. It seems Waxman and her editor(s) haven't actually seen the films of the directors she's writing about, which would explain the lack of any credible analysis of the work besides Fight Club is violent and Magnolia is long. A book with glaring errors like this makes it hard for me to take it as a serious work by an author who knows what she's talking about. I bought this book because I happen to like the films that these directors made and wanted to know more about the process of how they got made. But Waxman does such a slipshod job of making her argument in the book that I came away thoroughly disappointed.