Monday, May 28, 2007

The Last King of Scotland

The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald, 2006) [5]

The string of mediocre films continues with this over-praised one. All talk gravitates towards Forest Whitaker's performance as Idi Amin but I'll admit I didn't find it overly spectacular. I had seen Barbet Schroeder's documentary on Amin before this, and the man's performance in that as himself trumps Whitaker's imitation. Unlike Helen Mirren in The Queen, Whitaker never really embodies the role of Amin and give it any dimension; it feels more like simple mimicry. Beside that performance, the James McAvoy character of the Scottish doctor really pissed me off. At the beginning, he comes across as an over-eager boy just wanting to do good only to get wrapped up in a situation going steadily out of control that he had no idea of anticipating. My main issue with this (and I'm sure it's been mentioned in other reviews) is that we see all this violence and chaos in Africa through the eyes of a white man, who is justifiably horrified by the savagery of "the other." I don't want to get into a deep discussion on race and viewpoint, but while not done overtly or on purpose, the whole idea of this film has a hint of racism. Not derogatory racism, but there is clearly a difference in the thoughts and morals of the Garrigan, the educated white, and the savage and frankly, black society around him. Telling this story through the eyes of an (white) outsider doesn't feel right. What saves this film partly is Kevin Macdonald's direction, which while being unable to decide if I really like it, is definitely interesting. His use of extreme zooms and herky-jerky style are reminiscent of 70s era film, appropriate for the era of the film. Something similar was done in his documentary, One Day In September. The interesting aesthetics, however, don't outweigh the questionable choices Macdonald made in storytelling.

Friday, May 25, 2007

American Hardcore

American Hardcore (Paul Rachman, 2006) [5]

First off, let me state that I'm not a fan of punk rock or hardcore in particular. I am, however, a huge fan of music documentaries and I will watch one no matter what musical genre they happen to be covering. The problem with this film, while it tries its best to cram the entire hardcore movement that sprouted up in the 1980s, its scatttershot history doesn't really reveal anything to those not familiar with the scene. A lot of time is focused on Southern California and Washington D.C., the two epicenters of the movement, but it never goes really in depth with any particulars. Black Flag could be the exception but then again, I don't remember much more than a couple of segments on them. The film briefly mentions bands like Husker Du and The Replacements, both out of Minneapolis, but never goes in depth. While musically this isn't my particular taste, the one facet of the film I found interesting is the sociological context of the movement. Hardcore was more or less a direct response to the Reagan revolution, and while most music of the era was glossy and frivolous, the hardcore scene was one of the few effective counterculture groups of the 80s. I would have liked to seen a little more of that than footage of concerts where teenage boys jump and wail on each other.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Monthly Listening Post - May 2006

With Bonnaroo only three weeks away, this month's listening post is going to be heavy on the bands that are appearing there. Still, this month has seen some highly anticipated releases on my part. Here they are:

Wilco - Sky Blue Sky (I've posted on Stereogum, Jambase, etc. that I think this album is being overlooked in
its so-called "straightforwardness" and "simplicity." Simply, I really like it.)
Feist - The Reminder (Right now, appears to be frontrunner for best album of 2007.)
The National - Boxer
The Black Angels - Passover
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Baby 81 (Not quite what I hoped for considering I thought Howl was the best
album of 2005, but it still has some good moments.)

On an unrelated t.v. note (again), I thought that the Gilmore Girls finale was well-done in its subtlety, and it makes me realize how much I'll miss that show. It was so refreshing to see something that had humor but also addressed its audience with a respect and thoughtfulness that too few television shows do. Also, NBC renewed Scrubs for a seventh and probably last season. I may almost have to take back all the bad things I've said about NBC in the past.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Notorious Bettie Page

The Notorious Bettie Page (Mary Harron, 2006) [5]

This film is a valiant effort, but still left me unfulfilled and/or questioning the choices being made. Gretchen Mol gives a stand-out performance of Bettie Page but the story itself leaves me wondering where the story is. It's not really that interesting. What is interesting is the stylistic choices that Mary Harron uses. The film succeeds in re-creating the look of a 1950s film, from the black and white that composes most of the film, down to the Super 8 footage and splashes of bright Technicolor of the era. I'm not sure if I like this though; I'm certainly impressed with the detail and effort put into creating the look but I find no real strong aesthetic reason why Harron chooses to do what she does. But let's get back to the story. The film isn't so much about Bettie Page herself as a film about sexuality in the 50s. The film plays into the thought of how ridiculous and obsolete sexual mores in the 50s would become with the sexual revolution, as well as all the overblown censorship issues. It comes as a last gasp of innocence and naivety before a more realistic portrayal of sexuality becomes the norm. At least that's how I see it. Bettie herself is the living embodiment of this: a naive (this could be debated) Southern girl willing to do bondage pictorials because it will make somebody happy. That appears to be the outgoing message of the film, but Mol, by her performance makes more of it. She plays Bettie as innocent and just wanting to please, but there's an underlying slyness in her performance in that Bettie seems to know what she's doing is much more than that. The film also makes a point of Bettie's spirituality but another dichotomy lies here to. While no means promiscuous, Mol as Bettie certainly knows how to use her new found sexuality and power to enjoy herself. It's only at the end when everything comes crashing down around her that Bettie finds her true way to me. That very well be true in essence but in the world of the film, it feels unearned. A good performance by Mol almost gets wasted by the confusing nature of the rest of the film.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

On a very special Hannity & Colmes...

I know I'm breaking two rules I made for this site by posting on politics and television, but this is too good to pass up. Knowing that Jerry Falwell, who was always a shining figure of compassion, had just passed away, I just had to see how the fair and balanced "journalists" at Fox News would canonize him. I happened to catch Hannity & Colmes at just the right moment, as the Irish gorilla and Colmes were interviewing Christian toady Ralph Reed and noted prick and anti-theist Christopher Hitchens about Falwell. What transpired may have been the single most gleeful television event I've ever seen. Hitchens, who normally I'm no fan of, teared Falwell apart. While some make scoff at treating a recently deceased man so poorly, there's probably no one that deserved it more than Jerry Falwell. Hitchens then destroys an indignant Hannity by arguing (rightly) that he was invited on the program to give his opinion on the man, which he certainly does. Hannity then dissolves into babbling incoherently until Colmes finally gets his nerve up to go to commercial. Watch it here. Television gold.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Queen

The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006) [6]
I have the belief that sometimes a great performance of an actor or actress can sometimes obscure the flaws of the film in general, my feelings about Zooey Deschanel in Winter Passing for example. Helen Mirren's performance as Queen Elizabeth in Stephen Frears' much lauded docudrama plays the same way for me. It is a little surprising to see such a restrained, inward performance such as the one Mirren gives receive so many awards since the Academy especially seems to award over the top performances. This film clearly rests on Mirren's shoulders and she completely carries it to being watchable. Her turn as Elizabeth never borders on mimicry; it goes well beyond that as she embodies both royal stoicness but all the while letting little pools of her character's real emotions bubble up. The issue for me is that there's nothing much anywhere else in this film that rises to Mirren's level. The rest of the royal family is portrayed as less than assertive or downright clownish; James Cromwell as Price Phillip gets some points on the unintentional comedy scale. I think why I don't like this that much is that it is essentially dealing with a subject that I could care less about. Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan take a media-saturated event and dissect even more, making a discourse on the role of the monarchy in the modern world, how out of touch they became with Britain over Diana, and how the young, charismatic Tony Blair came to save the day as well as to be there to re-enforce that Britons still love their Queen. I say, so what? That doesn't mean the film doesn't have some merit. But it rests squarely on Helen Mirren's shoulders.

Friday, May 11, 2007


Volver (Pedro Almodovar, 2006) [7]
This film somehow manages to continue and break with the darkening path that Almodovar has taken with his last two film, Talk to Her (fantastic film) and Bad Education (solid, but not great). It is much more light-hearted and affectionate in tone, but it still has darker undercurrents laying underneath its glossy exterior. Incest, abuse (psychical, mental, and sexual), and murder all play a role here but they never are as menacing as they could have been. Almodovar uses these themes to help underscore the strength of the woman in the film, and like all Almodovar films, he writes fantastic parts for his actresses (even though I could make the argument that Talk to Her focuses more on its male characters, but that's here nor there..). Almodovar's films always contain somewhat trashy or taboo themes, but this is the first film that really plays those off as almost inconsequential. That doesn't mean that they shouldn't be taken seriously; even though Raimunda, expertly played by Penelope Cruz, murders her husband, it comes across in a way that makes her a stronger woman. Of course there's the parallel between her and her mother, but that acts as a bonding between the two, an attempt to mend their fractured relationship. It is the character of Raimunda that holds the film together, as its doesn't really succeed in the scenes where she is not present. Cruz's portrayal defines the film, not so much the story, which is why I still feel a bit underwhelmed by it. The visuals still are strong as always in Almodovar films, the bright colors and his construction of images are nearly seamless. There were just times it seemed like Almodovar removed all the sharp commentary that I really enjoy. While not a throwaway by any sense, I would have liked to see this film be just a little more daring.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Useless Film Snob Talks Television (Somewhat Reluctantly)

I never talk about television much because simply, I don't watch that much television. I'm not one of those people that like to brag that they never watch television; the simple fact is that there isn't much that I find interesting. When I say this, I mean network television; there's always something to be found on cable that I would probably like. But there are other things that I do with my evening, mostly watching films, that are infinitely better than a good majority of television.

The main reason I'm writing about t.v. now is that one of the few shows I do happen to watch is ending after seven years. That show is Gilmore Girls, and yes, it took me a while, but I'm finally ready to admit that I watch Gilmore Girls. And I thoroughly enjoy it. I will admit that I started watching it after stumbling upon it during Season 2 for purely superficial reasons but I ended up getting sucked into the storylines, which were much more clever and better written than 99% of what was on. Over the years, it has been one of the few shows that I never miss and I will be sad to see it go. But the show had clearly been hit or miss for that last 2 or 3 seasons, not just this year. I will say that I was never a huge fan of Amy Sherman-Palladino's over-caffeinated, look-how-clever-I-am-referencing-so-many-hip-indie-references writing but she always put enough emotion with a connection to real world that always made it worth watching. I will be in the minority that says this season isn't that bad, especially the last few episodes, even though it looks like the series will end on the same tired cliches of marriage and birth that t.v. shows always lazily fall into (it's one of the main reasons I don't watch network t.v.). Even so, a good show will be going off the air, but unlike Arrested Development, Freaks & Geeks, or Undeclared, it had time to show that good t.v. is out there. And while I'm babbling about t.v., here's the short list of what I regularly watch:

Scrubs - Another show that's perpetually in danger of cancellation, it's another show whose, sadly, its best days are behind it. This show has fallen into the marriage/baby laziness for a while, but even so, I'm going out on a limb and saying that last week's episode was the best Scrubs episode maybe ever. There isn't a sitcom that mixes comedy and melancholy any better, and they even though it's a sitcom, it has more grounding to medical and emotional reality than trite garbage like Grey's Anatomy or House. I hope it comes back next year.

The Simpsons - Who are we kidding? It's been at least five years since this has been consistently funny. I never thought I would ever say this, but I think it's time that Matt Groening & co. hang it up. For the past couple of seasons, every episode has only one or two laugh out loud jokes. Man, I miss seasons 5 & 6. At least I have my DVDs.

Good Eats/No Reservations - Cooking can be interesting if you have more personality beyond yelling "Bam!". No Reservations is interesting because Anthony Bourdain is basically a dick, and the locales he visits but at times it feels too scripted. Good Eats works because it goes beyond cooking into science, which is surprising since I don't really like science. The problem is saturation overload; it's on too much.

Mythbusters - See Good Eats.

South Park/The Daily Show/The Colbert Report - When I remember it's on, I'll watch but it's not like I never not miss them. The first ten minutes of Stewart and Colbert are always the best.

Family Guy - The strangest thing: I don't think Family Guy is that funny and it's structure is pretty stupid and a cheap way to fall into jokes (see the South Park episode), but for some reason I never miss an episode. I'll even watch the repeats on Adult Swim. I don't know what's wrong with me.

The Office - Simply, the best show on television. Nothing is more consistently funny. It's amazing a network as inept as NBC didn't cancel it after season 1 and now it's it flagship show.

Side note: congratulations for Ithaca on naming today Grateful Dead Day in the city on the 30th anniversary of the band's epic show at Cornell University. If you're interested, it can be downloaded here. It's been called one of Bob Weir's best shows, but Jerry's on fire during 'Not Fade Away.' That's the difference between Ithaca and Binghamton: Ithaca has Grateful Dead day and Dark Star Orchestra re-creating the show (I wish I could go) while Binghamton gets Larry the Cable Guy and Ted Nugent. I hate this city.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Old Joy

Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, 2006) [9]
This film has been much praised in the cineaste community, and if anyone has been coming to this site with any sort of regularity, they should figure this would be right in my wheelhouse. Well, you're all right, as this short, lyrical gem is one of the few films I've been yearning to see lately that hasn't let me down in any way. Reichardt's debut is lyrical and minimalist in its flow yet still has a depth and meaning that goes well beyond its relatively short running time. For a film that's only 76 minutes with relatively no action, it captivated my attention for the entire time, making it feel like a half hour, leaving me wanting more. But what is most refreshing about this film is that Reichardt has the nerve to let her simple setup go and work and either you're going to get it or you're not.

The premise is simple enough: two friends, one yuppieish, one hippiesh, head out into the forest in Oregon searching for some hot springs and hopefully to re-kindle a friendship that seems frayed with years and minds apart. The film captures the simplistic beauty of the the woods with simple landscape shots that are allowed to speak for themselves. The biggest key to the film are its silences, something that seems antithetical to most moviegoers. There is little interaction between the two main characters, Mark and Kurt, other than some quick blurtings and explanations. The silence between these passages reveal more about the two than any lengthy conversation could. While to many this silence seems like nothing is happening, it really focuses on the mannerisms of people, their reactions, and the way that time and distance can strip a friendship. It appears that time has caused a rift between Mark and Kurt, in the way they live, they way they think, etc. that cannot be repaired, something far beyond a couple of days camping and visiting hot springs. Daniel London and Will Oldham give subtle yet nuanced lead performances, especially Oldham as spacey, needy Kurt (it's hard to remember with his music career, but Oldham was an actor first). Their jagged, mostly awkward interactions, while sparse, show all that needs to be said between the two. The landscape shots, prolonged and meditative, help to enforce the distance that has crept their way into their friendship. Old Joy is a film filled with silence and minimal action but that should not be taken as this is a film where nothing happens. It's lack of action is its most important feature.