Monday, April 30, 2007

The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia (Brian DePalma, 2006) [4]
First things first: I think Brian DePalma is a hack. I've never cared for anything he's done and I think he lifts too much from other director like Hitchcock that he has no real personal style. There is never any originality in DePalma's films; they always remind me of this film or that film. That's not exactly the case with this film. It doesn't exactly recall any film but it seems that DePalma's goal was to re-create the classic film noir of the 1940s. It really is a big disappointment seeing that I'm a big fan of film noir and this film is muddled, boring, and shabbily acted. The film is based on a James Ellroy novel (I've never read Ellroy so I don't have anything to say on his style) but that book is based on a real, gruesome murder in Los Angeles in the 1947. The novel takes liberties with the Black Dahlia case and that's a major issue with me in the film. The film goes ahead and solves the crime when in fact it's still an unsolved case. It's not that I have problems with taking creative license; it's just that it's really not the way I would have liked to see it handled. In fact, the murder case itself only plays a small roll as most of the film seems to be concerned with the two former boxer detectives and their relationship with a woman caught in the middle. The real problem of the film lies in the performances, especially with the Josh Hartnett robot, who couldn't be any emotionless and wooden and still be a living, breathing human being. Same goes for Scarlett Johansson, who has never impressed me in anything. Aaron Eckhart gets all fiery and excitable (Fire & Ice, get it? - like being hit over the head with a sledgehammer) but seems ridiculous more than serious. Hilary Swank gives a credible performance, and it took me forever to realize that it was actually her in the film. And while the Dahlia herself doesn't play that strong a role, when she is featured in screen tests, Mia Kirshner makes her the only character with some real feeling. I'll say that no actress does more solid acting without wearing clothes as she does. I didn't go into this film expecting much. For once, I wasn't disappointed.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Monthly Listening Post - April 2007

The hours of my new job have made it difficult to watch anything, so the film reviews will be sporadic for the next couple of weeks. But I can still recommend some music for this month. Here's what I've been listening to for April:

Bright Eyes - Cassadaga
Kings of Leon - Because of the Times
Great Lake Swimmers - Ongiara (this isn't for sale in the US until May8 but for some reason it's available for
download at ITunes.)
Amos Lee - Supply and Demand
Brightblack Morning Light - Ala.cali.tucky (their first album produced by Will Oldham. It's a tough find but I
prefer it to their self-titled release last year.)

This week also sees the reissued and remastered albums of Sly & the Family Stone and Leonard Cohen. I suggest to anyone who hasn't listened to either check out 'Stand' by Sly and 'Songs From a Room' by Leonard Cohen. Two fantastic albums.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Proposition

The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2006) [7]
This western, transplanted to the harsh outback of Australia, is quite an interesting film in terms of its dichotomies. A film that wrestles with the issues of savagery and violence, as life in the 19th century Australian outback was versus the need for British/colonial imposed order and civility. The film also has an interesting collision of images, with the vast, brutal desert these characters are dropped into, a land of desolate danger and quiet, only to be interrupted with intense outbursts of violence. Hillcoat does an admirable job of handling such complex issues and still getting the story out. Captain Stanley, solidly played by Ray Winstone, has been sent to be the enforcer of British law and order, both on the murderous Irish Burns Gang, but on the Aboriginal people that populate the unforgiving land. Stanley's character is the most impressive in the film; he's not prone to overly poetic meditation or lonely introspection as some of the other characters are. That's not saying that there's something wrong with introspection here. It's definitely fitting as a rebuke to the world surrounding the characters, but at times it feels off rhythm. The film works best when it lets the images do the talking for it. Most of the time, the film grapples with the tedium that comes with being in a desolate land only to be occasionally broken up with intense violence. But the violence never overshadows the film; it is an inevitable part of life in the surroundings these characters have been placed in. The story, written by Nick Cave, probes into revenge, family, and the meaning of law. Hillcoat balances the story and the images to create a film that knows what moments it needs to be effective.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Fast Food Nation

Fast Food Nation (Richard Linklater, 2006) [4]
Eric Schlosser's book was a fantastic piece of muckraking journalism, highly engrossing and yet disturbing at the same time. For the film, he and director Linklater have tried to translate the basic facets of the book and made a narrative out of it. Sadly, this film doesn't come anywhere close to the book in terms of skill as well as impact. Linklater focus is on three main character threads: the fast food company suit, the teenage employee of said fast food chain, and an illegal immigrant who ends up working in the meatpacking plant that supplies the fast food company with their beef. The problem with this is that even though it shows the interconnectivity of all three even though each has no direct contact with the other, each character and their story seems to really have no consequence on the other. There has to be something to thread them together, which almost comes together with Greg Kinnear as the executive and Ashley Johnson as the teenager both coming to an enlightenment of the "evilness" of the fast food industry. But that still leaves out the Mexican workers who always seem too distant from the other stories. The performances are o.k. but nothing spectacular even though Kinnear is interesting as a dim bulb. The Amber character is problematic in her transformation from good worker to young idealist. She ends up in some kind of symbolic idealism, a group of college students who seem to act in the way older people (in this case, Linklater and Schlosser) want them to. I don't believe a minute, not because I'm cynical about what is being discussed; it just seems to be taking the easy way out. Clearly, even after this film and the book, many people have chosen to ignore the disgusting facts and still frequent McDonald's and their ilk. It's hard to muster righteous indignation in a film when it seems its own characters are resigned to basic hopelessness. Linklater and Schlosser have taken all of the force out of the book and end up with a film that is too defeatist in its outlook.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple

Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple (Stanley Nelson, 2006) [8]
This is a spellbinding, engrossing documentary that is just as frightening as any good horror movie. The story of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple is a familiar one to most people, at least the aspect of the mass deaths at the Temple's compound in Guyana. Nelson digs deeper to give a thorough journalistic coverage to the story, going back into Jones' troubled childhood in Indiana and the Temples early, idealistic days in rural Northern California. The most interesting coverage the film gives is to the idea of The Peoples Temple itself. Jones was preaching a forcefully integrated, pro-socialist message that appealed to the poor (and mostly African-American) by offering them some glimmer of hope. What's fascinating is how Jones adapted the black Pentecostal tradition and adapted it to fit his church. It can be seen as a very shrewd move in terms of attracting African-Americans as well as using the socialist message to attract whites. The film really focuses on the character of Jones himself, as he starts off as an idealistic, admirable preacher and ends up an authoritarian and completely paranoid of losing all the substantial power he has gained over his followers. I get the feeling that Jones used his philosophy of hope purely as a way to put himself in a position of power and influence. Jones often used his congregation as instruments in political protests and was involved in political decision making in San Francisco. It's clear by the Temple's end in Guyana, Jones was more concerned with hanging on to his power than actually caring about his congregation or the original message he preached to them. As for Jonestown, it's been told so many times that it's hard to get much new out of it, but from the interviews Nelson conducted, a frightening picture of the church's final days is shown which should leave many viewers disturbed and shaken.

Two issues always brought up with Jonestown and the Temple are should they be considered a cult and was the ending at Jonestown a mass suicide or murder? This is where the film still leaves questions but my personal opinion is divided. Many people joined the Peoples Temple in true hope that what Jones was preaching was to come about. It's hard to argue against what he was saying, but by Jonestown it's clear that his personality was more important than the message. That to me makes the Temple a cult. About the mass suicide? From the interviews of those who escaped, it sounds like the people were surrounded by armed guards with no choice but to drink the cyanide laced Kool-Aid. That to me sounds like murder. But there is no clear answer to both, as the film shows. But it still is an informative and disturbing look at its subject.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Children of Men

Children of Men (Alfonson Curon, 2006) [9]
It's sometime in the near future and the entire world in a disintegrating chaos. Women have become infertile. Something akin to a fascist police state has been set up, with the forced relocation and torture of illegal aliens. Through all this, a young woman has mysteriously become pregnant and an unsuspecting man is thrust into a situation to save the future of mankind. That's essentially the plot of Children of Men, and while story and ideas-wise, it leaves a few holes, there is no doubt that Alfonso Curon's latest effort is dazzling filmmaking. I really don't want this review to get into nitpicking political viewpoints and ideas, of myself and the film, mostly because the film's politics exist in some cloudy middle. Curon's source material, a novel of the same name by P.D. James is a right-wing Christian allegory. Curon twists the notions present, most notably the idea of the miracle birth, but skews the perspective to reflect a more modern reflexive allegory. The political ideology to me is a bit confusing. For instance, the importance of the miracle birth is never really explained in depth for me to really get an idea of its importance. Why the character of Theo is chosen for his path also has questions; he clearly has no political motivations, and that may be the point. The world the film is thrown into is in total chaos, and that may be purposeful. It's a society so far down into chaos and beyond repair, that any clear definition of politics or a worldview may be impossible to find.

Sometimes, holes in a film's story can be overlooked. The sheer breath of Curon's filmmaking here is enough to outshine any lingering questions I may have had. Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is absolutely perfect, dark and devoid of color but still striking. The world that Curon has created is perfect in portraying a world that has no future. One quick scene sums it up: a spot of graffiti says, "Last one to die turn out the lights." Curon shows a huge amount of virtuosity but never lets it get too showy. It took me until almost the end, at the refugee camp, to realize how long Curon's takes were, and how seamless and perfect they worked, especially when Theo is following after Kee in the camp. The camerawork never overshadows what's happening in the film; in fact, I feel it intensifies the action, making a more thrilling film. The performances are solid without being showy or spectacular, most notably Clive Owen and Michael Caine. This is the most skillfully made film of 2006 and will definitely have a place near the top of my list (which should be almost finalized sometime soon).

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

For Your Consideration

For Your Consideration (Christopher Guest, 2006) [5]
I wouldn't consider this a total disappointment but it certainly not of Christopher Guest and company's better efforts. I don't usually take this into effect when judging a film but I think this could have been better if it was a little longer and a had a bit more character development. As they stand in the film, I feel the characters are too thin, with only the Catherine O'Hara character reaching any sort of depth. There is a hint of pathos in her that I would have like to seen more of. Then again, this is a comedy and treading down a more dramatic path could take away from the laughs. That's the problem I see here however. The characters and all the plot being wrapped up in the anticipation of receiving an Oscar nomination only to be let down leads to more pathos in this film than previous Guest efforts. It's hard not to feel bad for these actors who get completely wrapped up in a whirlwind only to be greatly let down. The laughs here come from these actors being completely out of whack, but I feel bad laughing at their naivete and gullibility. The redeeming laughs come from Fred Willard, who as in every Guest film, steals every scene he's in. That and the Love It/Hate It show segments. Outside, the laughs come too infrequently for me to really recommend this film. Perhaps Guest's focus is on too narrow of focus. The hype and politics surrounding Hollywood awards doesn't seem like it would translate to great comedy; at least here it doesn't.

Monday, April 02, 2007


Beerfest (Jay Chandrasekhar, 2006) [3]
As the title of this blog says, I'm a film snob. Still, I try to make an effort to once and a while see something outside of what parameters I have for film. Usually, that means comedies since their laughs cover up things I would pick apart. Comedy troupe Broken Lizard don't make great films to be sure, but they could do a lot better than this. Super Troopers had its moments that were really funny, but nothing in this beer-soaked bore is that funny. The plot is half-baked and stupid, revelling in humor that would appeal to any meatheaded frat boy that spent college playing beer pong and being a jackass. Since I spent my college experience wholeheartedly avoiding situations and people like that, it's no wonder I found the adolescent humor in this film to be less than hilarious. Outside of that audience, I can't see how this film would be appealing to anyone else. It may be a little unfair that I hold this film to higher standards than what it's aiming for, which appears to be the lowest brow possible. But if you want to waste my time, add some better jokes.