Thursday, June 28, 2007

Al Franken: God Spoke

Al Franken: God Spoke (Chris Hegedus & Nick Doob, 2006) [5]
Entertaining but not very insightful and preaching to the choir. Those are my main thoughts about this documentary. It plays out as an over-enthusiastic portrayal of Franken, someone who I do happen to think is very funny. The filmmakers are playing to a particular audience and why not?, political documentaries more than ever drawn down ideological lines. What this film does show that Franken, a brilliant satirist in print, comes off as a hothead and a little egomaniacal in person. And not as funny. That's not really all bad; Franken has the nerve to stand up to the conservative bullies in the film (Coulter, Hannity, O'Reilly) and operate on the somewhat crass level they do. It may not be pretty but someone on the liberal side of things should fight as dirty as the conservatives do. Franken isn't as dirty as them but he is relentless in calling out lies and misquotes. What is telling is how people like O'Reilly and Hannity take offense at being attacked as someone like Franken giving his opinion on them when their entire careers are built on the same ground. The left needs more smart attackers like Franken but even he gets too full of his idealism. The film slides as Franken descends more and more into exploring a run for Senate in Minnesota, realizing he'll have to defang his persona. That and the film is just too scatter shot to really be effective.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006) [7]

If I were have written a review right after viewing this film, it would have been gushing with praise. But as I've thought a little bit more in depth about it, the film, while still very good overall, has lost some of its luster. Reason number one is the genre: I've never been a big fan of fantasy and/or movies overloaded with special effects. Even with that being said, del Toro has created a world so convincing and emotionally relevant to the real world of the film that any apprehensions I would have had went away by the end. Pan's Labyrinth is a exceptionally constructed film in how it blends the real world of fascist Spain of 1944 and the fairy tale world Ofelia finds, and how they are one and the same. del Toro does draw a direct distinction between the horrors of the Franco regime and the monsters and fear Ofelia meets on her journey. The point I want to nitpick is that del Toro really hammers this home too blatantly. I'm not one to defend a corrupt fascist regime, but the sheer brutality and blind loyalty shown by Captain Vidal begins to border too much on cartoonish villainy by the end. It's too easy to have such a characterization of him as pure evil, even though I know that's del Toro's intent. This leads into the violence, while handled carefully by del Toro, begins to descend into overuse by the end also. For me, it's too much (I can handle graphic violence in cinema but here it's overkill).

What works to the film's benefit is its reliance on Ofelia. When del Toro keeps the focus on her and her tasks in the fantasy land, the film keeps grounded despite being in a fantastical realm. For fantasy to work for me, I have to believe there's characters with depth occupying those worlds. It's all too easy to forget about this when crafting the creatures and images in this world, but del Toro makes it work because the entire time we can still remember Ofelia is a young girl, often afraid of the world(s) she's in. That, and the fantastical visuals blend perfectly into the film. While no means the masterpiece some critics have been calling it, there's still a lot I like in Pan's Labyrinth for a film I could have found many reasons not to.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Notes On a Scandal

Notes On a Scandal (Richard Eyre, 2006) [6]

Dench and Blanchett's performances carry this film, and they have to, mostly because a lot of the story rings hollow after all is said and done. It's not that the situation that I find these characters in are unbelievable; by the end, the whole situation feels unearned to me. My main point in regards to this is the screenplay, which comes off as too heavy-handed and wordy. This is especially the case with all of the Dench character's narration; it just becomes too much. I always like actions and images to propel a film along more than words and this film really doesn't do that. The two main performances are strong enough that they cover up enough of the issues that the rest of the film raises for me. Dench does a great job at keeping Barbara restrained early in the film only to let her become less and less rational as the scandal grows and festers. I initially found Blanchett's performance a bit underwhelming, but after thinking it over a bit it's just as strong. Her character has to have an emotional nakedness that allows Barbara to be able to get to a point of manipulation. This leads me back to the ending, for whatever reason feels off the mark a bit from where the film had been going in terms of character development. There's no true punishment outside of losing a job or so on. What I really wanted was some kind of emotional punishment for these characters self-centered actions and that never really factors into the film at all.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Bonnaroo Report

Bonnaroo was beyond great, in terms of music; other things, not so much. It was hot especially Sunday, which the sun felt about three feet away all day. Couple that with the ever-present dust clouds being kicked up by 80,000 pairs of feet and it made conditions less than ideal. But that didn't stop me from enjoying what may have been the best lineup Bonnaroo has offered yet. The only headliner I was interested in was The Police and just as I expected, it left me ambivalent. They just didn't seem like a right fit. But there was plenty of other great music to catch, with these five performances highlighting my weekend:

5) Mavis Staples - She opened Sunday playing a set heavy on standard Staple Singers songs and classics like 'The Weight' and 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken'. She and the crowd were clearly enjoying the atmosphere before the heat really became unbearable.

4) Gillian Welch - The most reserved set of the weekend but it was highly enjoyable. John Paul Jones joined David and Gillian for three songs to rowdy applause. It's tough in a festival atmosphere to keep a rapt audience but she somehow managed.

3) Wilco - They could have been performing in heat that was close to 100 degrees but that didn't stop Jeff Tweedy & company from looking like they were actually enjoying playing, a big difference from their '04 performance. Tweedy remarked that he usually hates festivals but was enjoying himself and the crowd. Plus, the Sky Blue Sky material sounds really good live.

2) The National - This was one of the truly impressive performances of the weekend. They played Thursday night, which usually draws a more curious than die-hard type of audience. I admit I didn't know much outside of the new album, as probably much of the crowd didn't either. But the passion of their performance quickly won over a somewhat surprisingly big and enthusiastic crowd.

1) THE HOLD STEADY - I've been to every one of these since '03 and I never had a more enjoyable experience at one performance than this one. Opening with 'Stuck Between Stations', they had everyone won over in fist-pumping glory for the entire set. I was ten feet in front of stage right and it was infectious excitement all around, with everyone singing the choruses to 'Chips Ahoy' and 'You Can Make Him Like You'. I couldn't really see what was going on behind but from what I've read, it seems like the band won over more than just the rabid fans near the front. This, like the Flaming Lips in '03 or My Morning Jacket in '04, could be one of those breakthrough performances that Bonnaroo can be known for. For that portion of Saturday afternoon, The Hold Steady were the best rock & roll band in the world. And they just may be still.

I know I said I would try to post pictures but my camera's batteries died before I could even get a picture. Besides, no one was being allowed to bring cameras in because Tool were being pricks about photography. I'm glad I didn't catch their set.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Off to Bonnaroo

I head out early tomorrow for Bonnaroo so there won't be much action on the review front. I just finished Michael Chabon's new novel and will attempt to give my ideas on it when I get back. Right not, it's just Bonnaroo on the brain. I've got a pretty hectic schedule for the weekend and there looks like a chance for some rain but the chance to see so many bands really trumps lack of sleep or being dry. I hope to be able to get a recap going with some pictures on the site since I now have a digital camera. I'll just have to see what happens and get caught up when I get back.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Documentary Double Feature: Six Days in June/Shut Up & Sing

Six Days In June (Ilan Ziv, 2007) [6]
This is a well researched, with much in-depth analysis and interviews but it still leaves out the consequences of the war. Now this wouldn't really be a problem but in the beginning of the film, it states what consequences Israel's victory and occupation have wrought, but then never does explain them. What I find most interesting about the historical impact of the Six Day War was that it probably has done more to hurt the Israel-Palestine peace process than help it. The occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights and their population by Zionist settlers has been one of the main problems and one of the biggest consequences of Israel's victory but is never touched upon. Another major consequence was by the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies in 1967, it can be directly linked to the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism as the main voice of the Arab people, not the pro-socialist pan-nationalism being championed by Nasser. Again, mentioned in the beginning but never covered. Those ideas interest me just as much as the war itself, which is thoroughly covered and explained in the film with no bias towards any side. Ziv did just about as good as he could on the war, but I felt addressing the aftermath was just as important.

Dixie Chick: Shut Up & Sing (Barbara Kopple, 2006) [6]
What's most amazing is that Natalie Maines made a statement that was essentially a joke and had no real anti-war ideas in it but somehow all the rednecks in this country went apoplectic. I could see how what she said could be offensive to Texans but how one simple statement made them pariahs is hard to believe. Kopple plays it safe too much at times, especially as the film progresses and the events in Iraq seem to vindicate what Maines had said. The one aspect that Kopple handles subtlety but I feel is the most important aspect of the Dixie Chicks' entire situation is the gender issue involved here. I don't find it surprising that most of the people shown protesting in the film are male. There's something about conservatives in general, not just men, that can't stand to here a woman actually have strong opinions. It's not surprising to me to see men being the most upset and names like 'Dixie sluts' being used. A conservative world like country music preaches conformity and when someone, especially a woman that' s supposedly part of that movement happens to disagree, it sets those people off. Freedom of speech obviously doesn't apply to country music.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Regular Lovers

Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel, 2005) [8]

I have been eagerly awaiting this film to be out on DVD and kudos to Netflix for actually getting it out there. There has been no film in the last couple of years I've been waiting for, mostly on the basis of The Hack's glowing review. While not as big of a fan, this film does paint a vivid picture of a certain time and place (Paris, May 1968) and does it with equal parts reverence and disappointment. It's a picture of big ideas and revolutionary zeal that ends up taking a back seat to a more personal struggle of a relationship. The film begins with a extended sequence of the May '68 upheaval, and Garrel lets the camera do all the talking, panning and meditatively focusing on the events. It's not trying to explain ideology; it comes across more as an intense study of that time. While Garrel wraps up a lot of thought into these events, it drags a bit. The film for me really finds its foundation in the aftermath, when the young idealists' revolution has been squashed and the main characters fall back into opium and broken dreams. This film works when the focus goes to Francois and Lilie as they grow deeper in their relationship as well as attempt to reconcile their failed dreams of revolution. For Francois, his relationship has for the moment, staved off he and his comrades inability to change the system. It's the sad reality that the old system won in 1968 and by the end of the film, those who tried to make change come to abandon all thoughts of anything positive occurring. Francois's support system is gone; Antoine, the friend he's staying with goes to Morocco, and even Lilie leaves for New York, leaving him exposed against his failures. Regular Lovers is a film of a filmmaker looking back and seeing the sad reality that begat the ardent ideology of youth.

The physical look of the film, shot in black and white is remarkable in that it looks like it was actually shot in 1968, not 35 years later. A lot of this could be credited to the lighting and aspect ratio, which give the film the look of being shot on old 16mm. It certainly adds to the overall effectiveness of the film.

Friday, June 01, 2007

A Change In the Works...Hopefully

I know this site is for the most part irrelevant. Reviewing films that have been out for months before doesn't really have any positive benefits, mostly it causes a backlog in my viewing seeing that I have to get everything through Netflix. Hopefully, that will all change. The Art Mission here is Binghamton has finally opened their Art House theatre but the bad news is that they still don't have any projectors. According to the article in the Press & Sun-Bulletin, projectors should be arriving soon, and that means I will be able to review films within a relatively close time of their U.S. theatrical release date. It's been a long time coming and hopefully, the Art Mission will actually get the projectors (it's never a safe bet to assume around here.) So, hopefully, some more relevant reviews will show up here in the near future, though I know no one really visits here anyway.

On a completely unrelated note, Bonnaroo is two weeks away and I got my tickets today. I'm always psyched about the trip, especially since I'm going VIP, but this year's scheduling leaves a lot to be desired. I know some of it is out of Superfly's hands, but there seems to be a lot of similar bands playing against each other, most notably being the Decemberists/Wilco/Feist clustef*&k on Sunday evening. I've been every year since '03 and I can't remember having as many serious conflicts as this year. Still, even though I said last year was going to be my last, I just can't keep away from the best music festival in the country.

Half Nelson

Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006) [7]

A lot has been made of Ryan Gosling's performance here, and while very good, the film for me really hinges on the subdued yet nuanced performance of Shareeka Epps as the student struggling to find a kind of father figure in her teacher. (Side note: Epps happens to go reside here in Binghamton, and sadly, the film was never shown in theatrical release here, nor did any media pick up the story until she started to receive awards. Just goes to show how culturally inept a place Binghamton still is in regards to film.) Anyway, the film really succeeds in that it offers no real redeeming ending. A film of this nature, heavy-handed at times in its liberalism, all too easy could have made an uplifting ending to make everyone feel good that these characters were able to rise above their struggles. But it goes much beyond that. The film talks a lot about dialectics and the struggle for change, and it leaves us with these characters still struggling. It's refreshing to see this film portray the white teacher in a inner-city neighborhood not as a savior but as someone going through as many problems as the students around him. Gosling as Dan Dunne is someone who while talks of change is someone who is caught in his own struggle. He has no willpower to bring about change. This brings out a theme that Dunne's kind of liberalism hasn't really done much to help or empower the situation of the inner-city. It would have been all too easy for him to clean up his act and help Drey in her situation, but life in these situations is rarely that clean-cut. Epps, in her performance, goes much farther in her character, raising it out of a simple caricature, as a young girl wrestling with her place and where her future lies. Half Nelson doesn't go for simple answers or resolutions. It succeeds in that it doesn't fall into the cheap manipulation that films with a similar message all too often do.