Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima

Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006) [6]

I always have an issue with people making movies about a foreign culture. Not to get all theoretical but the idea of "the other" always pops up in American cinema when addressing other cultures. This is always more true about the Orient (see Edward Said). While I don't begrudge Eastwood for tackling the battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective, I was wary of this film to say the least. I have no real interest in seeing Flags of Our Fathers so I have no counterpoint to compare to this film. It's well made and is certainly stronger in its first half. By the end however, it becomes too repetitive in its themes. Everything always comes back to the Japanese fighting to their death, the honor of dying coming above survival. We get the character of Saigo to be the argument of this point. The problem with him is that I think Eastwood and Haggis are making him the rational, and therefore American voice in the film. From a Western way of thinking, no soldier would would think of committing suicide on the battlefield. Even though they may not have intended for him to be this way, Saigo is there to show this idea of the other. It just seems to emphasize this displacement of thinking between American and Japanese thought of warfare. Eastwood has made a good standard war film but these ideas keep poking around my head as I watch it. Other critics say that the Americans are the enemy in this film but not really. Outside of Saigo and General Kuribayashi, there is no strong identification with the Japanese side. Even though the film is of the Japanese fight of Iwo Jima, Eastwood can't keep an American perspective out of it. He may be reverential to the Japanese, but he still makes the viewer question why they would fight the way they did. It's not something that makes the film bad, but it leaves some holes that are never really filled.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Death of a President

Death of a President (Gabriel Range, 2006) [4]

Contrary to what the right wing would want you to believe about this film, there really isn't anything that sensationalistic about it. It's not a venomous screed against Bush but is rather trying to be a sober piece of what if alternative history. The problem is that it's a pretty boring film bogged down by too many cloying characters and themes. The history that Range and his collaborators throw up is lazy and pretty far-fetched; it's a kind of wish fulfilment for these Brits of what America should do. Well, most people in America are lazy and apathetic, so even though they say they don't like the war in Iraq, there's not going to be mass protests in the streets anytime soon by ones other than those who already have. The situation with the protesters doesn't ring true all the way down to the loony anarchists that are supposedly leading this. Even worse are the interviews with actors who are clearly trying too hard to be dignified. I found out afterwards that these actors were not told the entire plot of the film which explains why nothing involving the talking head pieces flows smoothly. The only part of the film that has any true resonance is in the aftermath of the assassination, where a President Cheney preys on the fear and mourning of a nation to pass even more draconian laws and the real truth of what happened is never explained because of political expediency. By that point this rolls around the film had no chance to redeem itself. That and its told in such an blunt way that it saps all the drama out of the film.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Good German

The Good German (Steven Soderbergh, 2006) [5]

For all the technical and aesthetic savvy Soderbergh uses in this film, the story, characters, and the film itself still ring hollow. There's no doubt Soderbergh is an expert director, and the template he lays down stylistically here is impressive. The film was shot the exact same way film noirs of the late 1940s would have been shot, from the sets, lighting, fixed lenses and even the matte screen for driving sequences. While it's an achievement with an impressive amount of work and detail put into it, to me it seems to be all flash and no substance. The story, while following the meandering film noir template, is too convoluted and utterly boring. The film limps its way towards the conclusion, with only temporary bits of interest to me. For a film so heavily indebted to its style, there is a clear lack of strong or lasting images. It all looks good but beneath its exterior shine is a hollow core. The images and the characters pass by without creating a strong bond with the viewer. No performance here stands out, even though Clooney's character personally fits the style of his acting, which is never very good. Tobey Maguire and Cate Blanchett disappoint for the most part. Classic film noir is not really about story or even images that much, even though they're important elements. What makes film noir great are characters and this film sorely lacks any of conviction. Grit is always better than glitz and this film lakes the former.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948) [9]

What is so refreshing about this film even after so many years have past is that , for a film considered the equivalent of a blockbuster for its time, it is so dark and dour. Of course time has made famous two elements of the film that really aren't its most important aspects: the "We don't need no stinkin' badges" line (which is incorrectly quoted) and Walter Houston's much parodied dance. These are celebrated more than the film, which in itself, isn't really something to be. For a major studio picture of the era, it's certainly an anomaly, with actual location shooting and a completely unlikable protagonist. It's a film that could only be made because of who was associated with it. John Huston wrote and directed and doesn't spare the bleak nature of the novel. His direction is exceptional, capturing the harsh, desolate landscape as easily as the harsh emotional nature of the film. The adventure/treasure aspect of the story only sets up the real crux of the film: what materialism and greed do to the true nature of man. Bogart's Fred Dobbs is the ultimate example of the poisoning of greed. As the film progresses, Dobbs becomes more and more paranoid and irrational until he meets his untimely end. He is a completely unlikable character, full of flaws and awful character traits. It plays so completely off of the archetypes of films of that era that it's no wonder the film was a commercial disappointment. It's an overwhelmingly impressive performance by Bogart and proves he an actor beyond being the tough guy type. What is also impressive is that the good guys don't save the day; the film ends on failure on one level. It's this failure of material fortune that finally makes the characters reveal that their happiness exists outside of the treasure. It's a mixed ending, but Huston sells it by his near flawless direction.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Passenger

The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975) [7]

Camus' The Stranger kept running through my mind while viewing this. They both take place in the overbearing desert of North Africa, both are overtly existentialist, and in each the protagonists make choices with no real explanation much beyond they did what they did. I'm a fan on Antonioni (L'Avventura being one of my favorite films) but his films always raise questions and never really answer them. Here, Jack Nicholson plays David Locke, a reporter who assumes the identity of a man he befriends in a remote hotel. He proceeds to be caught up in the man's profession of an arms dealer and attempting to avoid his old journalism colleagues and government men who want him dead. What is never really explained why David Locke makes this decision. Nicholson throughout the film plays it the same each way; he's not any different as an arms dealer than he was a reporter. More than likely that's the point Antonioni wishes to make, that identity cannot overtake the true soul of a man. But then again plot has never been the focus of his films. They always deal more with the relationship between man and the spaces he occupies, and the quiet gaps held within. That's no different here as there are tremendous shots of Nicholson alone against the desert, and the final scene. Even that being said, the questions left unanswered still eat at me afterwards. The Maria Schneider character, while being sort of an enabler for Locke, has just as many questions. My wanting to know the answers and not getting much, like in The Stranger, leave me conflicted on just how to feel about this.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Swimming to Cambodia

Swimming to Cambodia (Johnathan Demme, 1987) [9]

Spalding Gray is a fantastic storyteller. That's what makes this film successful. A filmed monologue more than not would be pretty boring unless the person talking can keep your attention. Gray does this not by being over-dramatic but by being able to blend the various threads of his monologue into something that is funny, entertaining, and enlightening. He can go from the somber history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge genocide to his own self-aggrandized film role to the seedy sexual underworld of Thailand as cleanly and easily as anyone could. What also works in this film's favor is that Demme doesn't attempt to do too much to punch up the film. It doesn't need anything beyond some occasional lighting and sound effects. The power of the film rests entirely with Gray's words. He places just the right amount of reverence and somber remembrance of the horrors that occurred in Cambodia with his own humorous personal experiences. Overall, it creates a film that while no means aesthetically adventurous, is something that was well worth viewing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Tokyo Olympiad

Tokyo Olympiad (Kon Ichikawa, 1965) [8]

With the Olympics now becoming such a media saturated and commercial highlight reel, it's incredibly refreshing to see this film, which treats the games and the games themselves, are treated as something more reserved than the bloated spectacle it now has become. If someone wanted to do what Ichikawa did for the games in Bejing next year, it would be on deaf ears. Any artistry that were in the Olympics have long been replaced by cheating, professionals, and massive capitalism. This film shows the games as what they're original intention was: as pure sport. Ichikawa isn't focused on winners or losers; sometimes the winner of the event covered is never even mentioned. Missing that doesn't really matter here as the power of the images on the screen trumped individual achievement and medal counts. There are moments here of pure gold in terms of images in all their CinemaScope glory. The Criterion transfer, as always, is flawless. While the images stand on their own, Ichikawa also has an underlying story of how the Olympics are the true bastion of peace for the world, being especially sure to mention the games that were cancelled by war. Tokyo Olympiad is a true celebration of the positive competitive nature of humanity, win or lose. The images find all the right things: the kinetic energy of the 100 meter dash, the pure artistry of gymnasts, and in the film's greatest strength, the psychical and mental agony of running a marathon. The only thing that brings this film down (just slightly) is the manic narration. It's just not necessary with the craftsmanship the images show.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Little Children

Little Children (Todd Field, 2006) [5]

There are points in this film where it really moves along and I think to myself, this is a pretty good film. And then there are times when it all comes crashing down into sanctimonious babble and sledgehammer symbolism. I get it. Sarah and Brad are little children themselves, behaving on the same selfish level as their kids. Brad's wife makes PBS documentaries hence the Frontline style narration which is smug and should have been cut out completely. Everyone talks of castrating the pervert so he does it himself. These points, for lack of a more eloquent term, piss me off, more than any film I've seen since Crash. In his review, the Hack takes this film to task as being moralistic and reactionary but I don't know if I really see it that way. I don't find Field to be condemning these characters even though I must admit that I find them fairly unlikable for the most part. That seems to be the m.o. for the film; none of these characters have their heads in the right place. They're supposed to be looking after their children but I don't think Field and Perrotta place any moralistic hierarchy on anyone. They appear to be just as critical as the stereotypical suburban moms in the park as the selfish main characters. The problem is that the entire story comes across as Todd Solondz light, a film harshly critical of mundane suburbia but with not enough balls to be completely venomous as Solondz or as disarmingly funny as American Beauty.

What saves the film enough for me to give it a respectable grade is that I think that Field formally constructed a film that isn't that bad. It's a bit long but when the narration goes, it becomes a film that is worthwhile in little bits. Kate Winslet as Sarah rises above the lazy suburban moms around her and shows a character that realizes she's in losing situation. There are still times I don't like her character but she makes it go down easier than the others. And the character I ended up having the most sympathy for is Ronnie, who portrayed by Jackie Earle Haley, has a childlike vulnerability (get it?) underneath a truly creepy exterior. He's a man at the will of his own troubling psychology and the hysteria surrounding him. The end loses me completely but up until that point he could be seen as the only character I could actually have sympathy for. And I don't know if that's what Field was going for.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Monthly Listening Post - July 2007

Having Bonnaroo on the mind for the whole month of June keeps me from compiling a thorough listening post for that month, so July's is a bit early. On the festival front, it's been announced that Rage Against the Machine will be one of the headliners for Vegoose Halloween weekend in Las Vegas with another rumor from Britain's NME.com saying that Smashing Pumpkins and Red Hot Chili Peppers will be the other headliners. As someone who's been to both Vegooses so far, I think that rumor's pretty unlikely seeing that there are three headline caliber acts for a two-day festival. Plus, I think the other headliner would have to be from the jamband universe, a la Widespread Panic or maybe The White Stripes seeing how big a crowd they attracted at Bonnaroo. I would be interested in seeing Rage but the other two bands don't interest me at all. That's all beside the point; here are my choices for this month:

Ryan Adams - Easy Tiger
The White Stripes - Icky Thump
The Avett Brothers - Emotionalism
Blitzen Trapper - Wild Mountain Nation
Moby Grape - Listen! My Friends (In my opinion, they could have been a legendary band but they got screwed over with crazy marketing by their label and Skip Spence did have a nervous breakdown.)

Monday, July 02, 2007

Not Enough Rocketsauce

Tenacious D & the Pick of Destiny (Liam Lynch, 2006) [4]

Tenacious D's shorts on HBO were near perfection, capturing all the ridiculous subplots and self-reference in little tiny bits. Sadly, that's where the strength of the D lies. In short intervals it's funny but it never translates into consistency over the 90 plus minutes of this film. What works about Tenacious D is that both Jack Black and Kyle Gass commit themselves so much into the cheesy stereotypes of metal and all its pre-occupation with Satan, sex, and self-grandeur that it borders on irony. With this film, in trying to create an entire back story for the band and the mythological quest for the pick of destiny, they lose a lot of the loony energy and kind of WTF?! moments that make their shorts and their album so funny. Another bad choice was not using any of the songs that were on their 2001 release in the film. On one level, it would seem to be filler and regurgitating old stuff, but songs like 'Tribute' and 'Rock Your Socks Off' give a better idea of how funny they can be more than this film did. It seems lost in a stoner haze, all the way down to the sound system parody at the beginning. Their earlier work seems more focused and thought out, which makes it funnier.