Saturday, March 31, 2007

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001) [7]
It took me a while to come to terms with a grade about this film and I'm still kind of torn. The songs are great, and when they're front and center like in the first half of the film, it's a borderline exceptional film. But the second half delves more story and for whatever reason, I just didn't find myself that interested in it. Even with that, it's not enough to sway my overall opinion that I really did like it. John Cameron Mitchell's performance as Hansel/Hedwig is great at times, especially when he's singing. Mitchell has such a strong stage presence as Hedwig, belting out glam influenced songs that really rock. The performances are clearly the most enjoyable part of the film, and I was disappointed that they occur less frequently as the film progresses. The animation sequences in the beginning also work surprisingly well and don't take the viewer out of the film, as they could easily do. I find Hedwig's story sort of frivolous and borderline silly: the botched sex change operation, the comical depiction of East Germany, and befriending/seducing Tommy. I felt it dragged the film down after the exceptional beginning. The ending, like in Shortbus, tries to be uplifting but it comes across as cloying. I never thought I would say this about a film, but the more frivolous and out there this film would have been, the better it would have been. It still has its moments though.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Monthly Listening Post - March 2007

It's time for a new batch of recommended music before some highly-anticipated April releases such as Kings of Leon, Feist, and Bright Eyes. Here they are:

Bright Eyes - Four Winds Ep
Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter - Like, Love, Lust & the Open Halls of the Soul
Old Crow Medicine Show - Big Iron World (I don't know why I didn't get this earlier but it should definitely be on my Best of '06 Honorable Mention list.)
Tea Leaf Green - Rock 'n' Roll Band (Saw them open for Little Feat last Thursday at the Magic City Music Dump. One of the few post-Phish jambands whose songs I actually like.)
Todd Snider - The Devil You Know

One of the few festivals I've wanted to go to but never been is moe.down, held every Labor Day Weekend by the jamband moe. not too far outside Utica. The lineup this year features Ryan Adams and the reunited Meat Puppets. I'm highly intrigued and being only a couple hours away, I think I'll give it a try.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Shortbus (John Cameron Mitchell, 2006) [4]
I swear I didn't read The Hack's review of this film before I saw it but it's exactly what I thought. For a film that drops itself into a world of hyperactive pansexuality in an attempt to engage and perhaps shock the viewer, I was bored more than anything throughout. Mitchell still gets an A for effort for at least trying to address sexuality in an real, frank way. This is never done in America but has attempted in Europe with films like 9 Songs and Base Moi. Like those films though, the execution leaves something to be desired. The sex here is so outrageous and while it may be meant to be that way, it comes across as silly and practically harmless. Perhaps I don't have the same sensibilities as most of America (I'm sure a good number of people would be absolutely offended if they did see this film) but I find nothing about the sex here. I have the feeling that Mitchell wants to present a challenging film but all that really comes of it is Rent with sex as the Hack puts it. Mitchell said in a making-of doc that he wanted the film to be uplifting instead of negative. The problem in his quest to show 'we're lonely but we can still make it' viewpoint, he takes all the impact his original idea had and sugarcoats the ending leaving me a bit disappointed. I didn't expect to be bored so much.

Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction (Marc Forester, 2006) [6]
A man wakes up one morning to find out that a voice is narrating his life and he has no idea who it is or where it's coming from. Eventually, the voice reveals the man's imminent death which in turn causes the man to live his life the way he's always wanted only to be spared at the end. That's basically the entire plot of this film, which has an interesting conceit that comes across in the film as not that interesting or consistently done. A lot of talk centered around Zach Helm's inventive screenplay but outside of his use of the narration thread, this story doesn't have anything drastically different from other 'man rediscovering life' films that get played out.

What saves the film from being really maudlin is Will Ferrell's performance as numbers obsessed, lonely IRS auditor Harold Crick. I firmly believe that Ferrell is much better in his more downbeat roles, such as here and in Winter Passing, than when he plays the dimwit goofball in his comedies. Ferrell as Harold has a vulnerability and tangible emotion in the character that makes him completely likable. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is why and how it has come to be that Harold is put in this situation. I truly felt that he really didn't deserve to die ; he's too harmless a man. As for the other performances, the chemistry between Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal as an antagonistic baker is solid, and give the best some of its better moments. The Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson characters don't seem that vital to the film; they come and go and are not missed when they're gone.

The film's weakness really hinges on its conceit. The narration never seems to appear in a consistent manner. Since the voice is omniscient, it should be everywhere every time. It only appears in the film at the times when it becomes crucial to move the plot along. I just don't find it convincing enough or that original. It comes across as too put upon Harold. In fact, the film is really much better when the narration goes away and the focus is on the budding relationship between Harold and Ana. My other problem with this film is that it goes into the art of writing and literary theory and it really doesn't have anything of substance to say about either. Now I've taken literary theory and all that stuff so I may be prone to a more in-depth analysis of that aspect of the film, but there's no application of any actual literary theory in the film. The Dustin Hoffman character is a theory professor but what he mostly talks about is genre and style, not actual theory. That may be a minor point for a good majority of the people watching this but it takes away credibility for me. That and the end seems unsatisfactory. It starts to go into the whole moral dilemma Karen Eiffel the author has and cuts it too short. Instead what comes out is an ending to make everyone feel good. While I don't have a problem with it, it could have dug deep. Stranger Than Fiction is a film really too concerned with its appearance and not enough with its substance at times.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Some Changes

Since I've decided to keep this site going, I thought it was time to make it a little better looking. I think this new background looks better and switching the links to the right make everything a little bit better to read. I am still in the process of re-ordering and streamlining the links. Right now, I have the sites that I visit the most. I also added a cool little sidebar I found ( It's called the Netflix widget and for anybody that actually reads this site, it shows what films I have at home so you can find out what reviews are coming up next. I don't know that much about RSS code and HTML but I'm hoping to find a way to post some lists on the sidebar also. Anyway, I hope the new redesigned Useless Film Snob Reviews looks good and a Stranger Than Fiction Review should be coming up soon.

Friday, March 23, 2007


Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006) [7]
The problem with satire is that it's hard to make good comedy out of it. Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen's high wire act, comes close. This is due mostly to the fact that taking the guise of a anti-semitic, misogynistic, clueless foreigner gives Baron Cohen the perfect cover to reveal the true nature of Americans. There are numerous instances in this film of that, such as the drunken frat boys, the gun salesman who doesn't blink an eye when asked what gun to kill a Jew and so on. Baron Cohen earns my respect by taking such risks with the Borat character, always pushing the situation but never breaking. There are numerous times in the film, most notably when Borat first arrives in New York, that the threat of physical harm is present and he never breaks stride. This makes Baron Cohen's performance nearly extraordinary mostly because by immersing himself so deeply in the persona of Borat, he gets ordinary Americans to reveal the ugly underbelly that a lot of people in this country have, all the while still making the audience laugh.

I laughed, but not as much as I was led to believe. This leads me to the the humor of the film. A lot of the film, especially the times when Borat interacts with unsuspecting ordinary people, is based in the humor of embarrasment and humiliation. We laugh at these ignorant rednecks; it's not surprising that most of the more memorable segments have to do with Borat's ventures in the South (frat boys, the vicious homophobe running the rodeo). We laugh at the crazy and stupid things coming out of their mouths partly because we can't believe what they're saying and at least in terms of thinking in the Northern liberal elite, it reinforces our ideas about how backwards and intolerant the South still is. The interactions on the New York subway do the same thing, this time giving everyone a chance to see New York is still full of assholes afraid of human contact. What bothers me is not so much the labeling associated, is that these people are meant to be laughed at, and that's something I'm just not comfortable with. I'm more appalled with what they're saying and acting than laughing. The rodeo scene where the audience applauds America's "War of Terror" and President Bush drinking the blood of Iraqis is scary to me than anything. It probably means a good portion of this nation feels the same way.

The film's best moments always revolve the humor around the Borat character himself. This is when the satire is really sharp. Baron Cohen, making his character a bumbling reporter from a nation where a good majority of people wouldn't be able to locate on a map is a perfect way to characterize the alien nature of the rest of the world that America seems to hold. His lack of sophistication is the most consistently funny thing in the film, whether it be washing his face in the toilet or saying something completely inappropriate. The funniest moments in the film focus on Borat's own anti-semitism (being trapped in a Jewish home) and the homo-erotic/homophobia conflict (the naked wrestling in the hotel is one of the most hilarious and daring scenes I've seen in a film this year. Even with all that, I still am conflicted about the film overall. But I doubt I'll see a more daring piece of mainstream cinema for a while.

By the way, I forgot to mention the one time in the film where Borat interacts with regular people that is truly terrifying to me. When Borat ends up at the Pentecostal revival, Baron Cohen and Charles just document the happenings; they don't attempt to humiliate anybody. The actual events of this are shocking enough. That people have that much faith in a concept so abstract as religion and God that they practically lose all control of themselves is beyond comprehension for me.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Talladega Nights

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Adam McKay, 2006) [4]
I watched this film back to back with Borat and a little surprisingly, found that both deal with a certain class of American society. To an extent. This is a film about NASCAR and a film not really about NASCAR. Car racing is something I have absolutely no interest in, but Will Farrell and McKay make it clear that you don't have to know who Tony Stewart is to laugh at the film. The film isn't interested in any real examination of NASCAR or the strange (to me anyway) sociological implications of it. It deals heavily with a certain class of people, Southern mostly, that are stereotyped, true or not, as overtly macho, homophobic, jingoistic, naive, and less than intelligent. Borat does this by re-enforcing those ideas, while in Talladega Nights they're played off as lovable and harmless. It creates an interesting paradigm of American society.

As for the film, with any Will Ferrel vehicle, it's completely hit and miss. The film can be really on, but it also has its moments when it just drags on with no real purpose. The story here is a bit more concrete than Anchorman, but reigning in on the story keeps out the out-of-left-field jokes and tangents that gave that previous film more laughs. When the film does fire, such as Sacha Baron Cohen's character, a gay Formula One driver that reads The Stranger while out on the track, and the shameless product placement and commercialization that define NASCAR, it borders on some sharp satire, but Farrell and McKay never have the onions to dig in. Baron Cohen's character comes of as completely harmless when I have a feeling someone like that could never set foot in a NASCAR track without something bad happening (I hope I'm wrong, but I worked at the Watkins Glen race one year, and from the people I saw, I don't think I would be). But mostly you judge a comedy by its laughs and this film just doesn't have enough. I've never thought that Ferrell is consistently funny in any of his leading roles, and here is no different, as he's upstaged by John C. Reilly as Ricky Bobby's dimwit pushover best friend. The problem with these two characters is they're so completely naive that they're absolutely harmless and of no importance to me once my viewing of Talladega Nights ended. Sometimes, it's not enough just to be silly.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Science of Sleep

The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry, 2006) [6]
This is a frustrating film to me at times, mostly due to the childish nature of it, which could also be perhaps its greatest strength. The film, just as the Stephane character, has a hard time distinguishing between dreams and reality. I can't say that I really enjoyed the narrative skipping back and forth; it becomes too disjointed and irritating at times, but I can see its purpose in the overall structure. This film succeeds in what it wants to do to and for that, I have to give it some respect. Gondry's unique visual style is certainly on display here, most notably his use of stop-time animation. The whimsy and inventiveness of the visuals highlight the dream segments but never quite translate over to reality reliably. The performances are solid, especially Gael Garcia Bernal as the perpetual man-child who makes naive drawings of disasters and sleeps in his childhood bed. His relationship with Stephanie, while refreshing that it focuses heavily on the neuroses of a relationship, never has any real emotional significance in it for me. It's a series of fleeting moments that never really have a chance to develop any qualities outside of Stephane's mind. Stephane's dreams can be the most interesting part of the film at times, and at others, become the most irritating. But I give Gondry credit for taking a risk on something so different.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

It's Tournament Time Again

The film reviews take a back seat for the next two weeks (even though I'll post a review of The Science of Sleep sometime soon) as the NCAA basketball tournament begins tonight with things getting into full swing on Thursday. Living relatively close to Syracuse, the Orange have always been my favorite team and it's downright robbery that they were left out in favor of goobers like Arkansas and Illinois, who I'm sure that Syracuse could beat both easily. Overall, I think this was the worst tournament I can remember; anyone on this year's selection committee should be barred from college basketball forever. Want a list of things they did wrong?

-no Syracuse, Kansas State and Drexel but Arkansas, Illinois, and Stanford
-Butler as a no. 5 seed when they've stunk for the past month.
-Washington State a 3 and Texas a 4 having to play UNC
-shafting the Big East in general

Anyway, here are my picks:

East Regional: Texas over Georgetown
Upset Special: Texas over UNC and Georgetown

South Regional: Ohio State over Nevada
Upset Special: Nevada over Memphis and Texas A&M, Albany over Virginia

Midwest Regional: Florida over Oregon
Upset Special: Old Dominion over Butler

West Regional: UCLA over Kansas
Upset Special: VCU over Duke

Final Four: UCLA over Florida
Ohio State over Texas
UCLA over Ohio State

Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Prestige

The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006) [10]
Very often the film that I pick for the best of a certain year is a film that gets solid reviews by most critics, but is never a film that finds its way onto many critics' lists or awards (Munich kinda sorta being the exception). This film, barring there are many more strong contenders out there (and from what I deduce, there may not be), will be my pick for Useless Film Snob Reviews' Best Film of 2006. While I may be too wowed by it after just seeing it, Christopher's Nolan film of magic, jealousy, and macho one-upmanship is a dazzling piece of filmmaking.
Nolan is always a story focused filmmaker and this film contains some of the same high-wire writing and plot twists that made me a fan of his with Memento. The story focuses on the careers of two magicians, Angier the gifted showman played by Hugh Jackman and Borden, the better magician played by Christian Bale. The film revolves around the rival career arcs of the two men and the macho posturing and sabotaging of each by the other, all the result of a tragic accident that I don't want to reveal for anyone who hasn't seen the film. Nolan really focuses on the two men and their collision of egos which does cause the peripheral story elements to fall back. The magicians' motivations are so interesting that the lack of a strong surrounding story doesn't become an issue for me. The performances all around are good, especially Bale who comes across much more menacing than Jackman's character and Michael Caine is a great supporting role. The Scarlett Johansson character comes and goes without much thought but then again this really about the magicians and the role of magic.
I could go into a long discussion about the role of magic and its collision with science in the Victorian Era and its relation to reality and the importance of illusion but I don't want to sit here all day. (It would make a great paper though). Let's just say it creates a really interesting story with enough twists that rival any illusion or trick performed in the film. Nolan is often credited as being a very story focused writer and director but here, the visuals really appeal. The film deals very much in dark/bright contrasts but still manages to create a warmth as well as a coldness when the film needs it. On the entire filmmaker spectrum, The Prestige is the most accomplished film Nolan has made to date and a film that I have great respect for.

Saturday, March 03, 2007


L'Enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2006) [6]
It's interesting that the title plays such a dual role in this film; it can be seen literally about the baby that Bruno and Sonia have to care for, or the way I see it, it really describes the character of Bruno himself. The Dardenne brothers focus the film squarely on his shoulders, focusing on a character that is still stuck in an arrested adolescence and is forced to now have to care for a child himself. Formally, the brothers focus on the daily existence of the characters, painting a sociological picture that can create a situation where a character like Bruno would consider selling his newborn son the same as try to sell a stolen camera. The baby itself doesn't quite come across for me as a real character; it never cries or seems to need anything. While that may not be such an important point for the Dardennes as their focus isn't on the baby, to me it leaves something lacking. From an aesthetic standpoint, the film does a very good job of expressing a certain setting, and I really like how the brothers spend a lot of time showing Bruno and Sonia pushing the stroller around. Visually, the film is very much in tune with what it wants to say. Emotionally, I can't really say the same thing. The Dardennes have stated this is a love story, but with the exception of the last scene, I don't see it. That scene has to much compassion in it for a film for the most of it, keeps its distance emotionally. I felt that the Bruno character was too cold and calculating, only concerned with getting money. For him to have a revelation by being placed in jail muddles what was a solid film, but by no means a masterpiece as some critics have done.