Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Closely Watched Trains

Closely Watched Trains (Jiri Menzel, 1966) [5]

For its time, this film could have been considered on the cutting edge of addressing sexuality in a real and frank manner on celluloid. Unfortunately, it hasn't aged particularly well and is definitely a product of a different place and era. The plot centers around Milos, an apprentice train dispatcher who becomes wrapped up into losing his virginity to his conductor girlfriend. Initially, he has some, um, difficulties, and compensates by trying to commit suicide. The rest of the film concentrates on Milos getting some practice before finally consummating his relationship with Masa. That description sounds fairly crude but Menzel handles the material with enough wry humor and respect for his characters that it comes off as harmless and sweet. This isn't some raunchy numbskullery like American Pie. The film has a poignancy to it that isn't often seen in American cinema dealing with this subject matter. But the operating world of the film is weirdly disjointed, as the film is so engrossed in Milos and his quest that everyone is completely oblivious to the fact this is occurring during World War II and the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. The war and its effects pop up sporadically, especially the end, but it feels like the reality of the world at war is being repressed. Sex is probably one of the only topics that could supersede war in a person's mind. It paints a quaint story for this film, but something, that sadly doesn't translate particularly well over the years.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2007) [7]

After viewing this, it's no real surprise that this film has been so critically acclaimed and received Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars. It's the same type of middlebrow, safe picture like Mystic River that can appeal to critics and a general American audience. I don't mean to say these are bad films, they're not. A film like this is so stringent in its narrative and what it wants to say that it really leaves any room for anything else. On one level, that's appealing in that everything is being spelled out for the viewer but it's also a bit disappointing that it leaves no room real risk-taking. What saves this film here is that von Donnersmarck has superbly crafted this film in terms of tone and images that take away from the aggressive thematic and plot elements. He overdoes the entire art triumphing over strict ideology too much, as the characters of Wiesler and Dreymen are too easily encased in their roles. As the film progresses towards the end, it appears to me that the film is riding too much on getting to its pre-determined ending, which ends up being its bittersweet resolution. All this sounds like I didn't like the film, but there's something about it that makes it palatable. von Donnersmarck's direction is solid and the look he has created for the film, especially the contrast of the cold, darker world or Wiesler the stodgy ideologue with the more vibrant, light look of Dreyman the artist. It brings out the argument being made by the film that totalitarian socialism, by restricting and monitoring art, hurts the very same ideals that it supposedly stands for.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Battle In Heaven

Battle In Heaven (Carlos Reygadas, 2006) [6]

Reygadas's film is about many things (the urban landscape of Mexico City, the immense social stratification of that nation, sexual attraction, religion) and really not about anything. This is an extremely rigorous film, a film that needs strict attention to the visuals. Reygadas has stripped any normal sense of plot away from the film, as the film meanders from scene to scene, taking its time. What makes it difficult is trying to decipher just want to take away from this. You can read into the religious angle, the social commentary (the whole subplot of Carlos and his wife kidnapping the baby), and of course, the sex. The film itself never really gives a strong toehold into any of them, only to mention them and then move on to something else. It has been a couple of days since I've seen this and I'm still not sure exactly what to make of it. By stripping his film of so many filmic elements viewers take for granted, it's hard to say I like it in terms of plot and character. But I'm also a person very interested in the visual aspects of cinema, and here with languid, meditative shots, it is something I can really appreciate. Overall, I'm still puzzled by it but know underneath my mental haze, there is something worth being said underneath.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Monthly Listening Post - August 2007

A fairly busy month for new releases, a mix of new artists and old favorites. I don't know how many of these will be on my final top ten but this is a strong group of contenders.

1) Josh Ritter - The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
2) Rilo Kiley - Under the Blacklight
3) Jason Isbell - Sirens of the Ditch
4) Okkervil River - The Stage Names
5) Augie March - Moo, You Bloody Choir

Also, after a lousy summer for concerts, the fall concert season is definitely heating up, especially in Upstate New York. Syracuse has Bob Dylan/Elvis Costello and Phil Lesh in October while the Magic City Music Dump here in the Binghamton area has Gov't Mule, and Umphrey's McGee. The biggest surprise is that Bright Eyes will be playing Magic City in November which is completely unbelievable that an "indie" artist is playing Binghamton. Plus I'm heading out to Portland, Oregon in November to see The Hold Steady (more on that later.) It's definitely going to be an eventful fall.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Spectres of the Spectrum

Spectres of the Spectrum (Craig Baldwin, 2000) [7]

I'm a big fan of Baldwin's work, especially Tribulation 99 and this film treads much of the same ground as that film. Baldwin is a collage or found footage filmmaker, which means he uses images from other sources to create his films. This film as well as Tribulation 99 use mostly old science fiction footage to create what appear on the surface to be paranoid psuedo-documentaries but do have a critique of American political and business policies. Spectres focuses on a father and daughter who are out to show that a corporate/government monopoly on communications and radar technology to control the population and destroy the natural ionosphere of the earth. It's incredibly complicated exaggeration Baldwin has come up with, the father and daughter having to travel back in time to save the world. This plus while taking tangents into Tesla's alternating current, the creation and subsequent monopoly of radio and television, and political commentary. The first 30 to 45 are difficult to grasp but once the father and daughter get down to actually carrying out their task the film becomes much more streamlined and easy to follow. As with any Baldwin film, there are an overload of images, from everything to 50's science television programs to more modern films like Gremlins. On the surface, this all seems rambling and incoherent but the underlying message of Baldwin's films are its most important points. Baldwin is urging the public to take back their media and ways of getting information. The media conglomerates have for far too long has a stranglehold on determining what information that people can hear. Baldwin makes the point that media like radio and television initially belonged in the public arena and that corporate control is bad for the earth as a whole. It may be hard to grasp from the density of images assembled, but it's there to be found.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

The U.S. vs. John Lennon (David Leaf & John Scheinfeld, 2006) [6]

An interesting at times documentary on the Nixon administration's failed attempts to silence and deport John Lennon for his political views and associations. What's interesting more than Lennon the person are the issues being raised of celebrity, using celebrity for voicing dissent, and the role of the U.S. government in monitoring those individuals. Leaf and Scheinfeld interview numerous people, some like Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky, who have no tangible relation to Lennon. It doesn't work formally because it creates tangents but what they say would be a much more interesting documentary than this one. My main issues here is that this is well covered ground and the filmmakers are bringing nothing that enlightening to Lennon himself. The only real interesting facet that gets revealed but not covered enough is that Lennon's message of peace was extremely naive and that the radicals he associated himself with became more and more confrontational and even violent as the 70s wore on. The film shows that Lennon's power of celebrity was what people like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were really after, not so much the ideas. The actual details of Lennon's immigration case are relatively boring but it is interesting to see how paranoid the Nixon administration was in their belief that one entertainer could have that much sway on public opinion. The sad reality, over the years, has become that no famous person (0r group of celebrities) has any real power to influence the political establishment or stop a war. It sure hasn't been successful with Iraq. What this film shows is that John Lennon was really the last entertainer that has had a broad impact on the culture at large but even he never had the influence to make change.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Strange Brew

Strange Brew (Rick Moranis & Dave Thomas, 1983) [5]

It's hard reviewing this film so many years later because it's basic structure, the adventures of two dim-witted men, has been aped by Wayne's World, Tommy Boy, and almost every Will Ferrel movie that it's hard to remember that this was pretty much the first one. Moranis and Thomas the McKenzie brothers made famous on SCTV and now so more for their beer commercials. They're basically two dim-witted brothers concerned with drinking beer and calling one another hoser and telling everyone to take off. Their Canadian white bread routine is funny for a while (about the length of a skit) but the repetition of eh's and hoser only can get so much laughs. Still, there were moments throughout that made me laugh out loud, especially the scene with the two brothers fighting in straight jackets. That's more that can be said for most comedies today. The plot, loosely based on Hamlet, has no real importance to the film; it could have been anything as long as it propels Bob and Doug along and gets them to act stupid. The film also suffers like most comedies of its era from cheesy 80's syndrome, highlighted by not very effective effects and the corny opening credits song. Some credit has to go to Moranis and Thomas for breaking down the fourth wall, clearly addressing the audience and letting them know that they know they're making a movie, something Wayne's World would copy and make seem like new years later. Also, for being two dim bulbs, the McKenzie brothers are completely likable, something that the smugness of Ferrel's characters lack. Strange Brew isn't great and it shows its age but it certainly has more laughs than Rush Hour 3, which I guess passes for comedy nowadays.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Exterminating Angels

Exterminating Angels (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2007) [4]

It's hard to get people to pay attention to the message of your film when all people are going to remember is hot girls masturbating. Brisseau has always been a director that's going to push the envelope in terms of sexuality, but here he goes so far overboard that he ends up drowning his film. This treads some of the same ground as Secret Things, his previous film (which I happened to like). That film, however, dealt more with the issue of power in relation to sexuality and had campy elements that made it much more enjoyable to watch than this one. Exterminating Angels and especially the character of Francois take themselves way too seriously. Francois especially, since he acts as a vessel for these women to bring out their desires and taboos, which is just a little too convenient for what Francois is looking for. Francois doesn't say or make anything profound out of what he's doing; he comes across as being underhandedly manipulative and eventually, his transgressions (real or imagined) result in tragedy at the end. The only thing that really comes out of the film, mostly because it's repeated, is that Francois doesn't realize what he's getting into. The meeting with Julie at the end reinforces this idea even more. Besides that, Brisseau doesn't offer up anything more. The angels themselves appear haphazardly and don't take on any significance until the end. Brisseau aims for provocation and there's no doubt the sexually explicit scenes here will both intrigue and offend people. The real problem with this film is that there's a lack of anything worthwhile about the sex that's shown beyond titillation.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Live Free or Die

Live Free or Die (Gregg Kavet & Andy Robin, 2007) [3]

The quirky indie comedy is starting to go the way of the studio romantic comedy, so full of standard archetypes and characters that it's hard to make it good. This film, from two former Seinfeld writers, should be a lot funnier but falls back into the pitfalls of quirky just for the hell of it characters and a plot that doesn't really go anywhere. The plot issue isn't that big but the characters here are so unlikable and treated with such indignation by the writers that the end result is completely homeless. Kavet and Robin are so concerned with their convoluted plot and character quirks that they forgot to make a comedy with laughs in it. Granted, there are a few but they mostly involve the hilarious comedian Judah Friedlander, who sadly, isn't in this film enough. The two main characters are treated with such disrespect by the writer/directors by having so little intellect that it's insulting to the viewer as well. Aaron Stanford plays a two-bit loser that tries too hard to be a hardened criminal. Besides being stupid, his character is so over the top in his wannabe macho nature that he's completely unlikable and lacks any real personality. The other, played by Paul Schneider, is even worse. He plays the dim bulb and is there to be laughed at and nothing else. There's something wrong with playing a character's lack of intelligence purely for laughs and not giving him any humanity. I may be a cynic at heart but I like my films to have some human qualities in them and these two walking cartoon characters are so blatantly offensive to my sensibilities that I wanted to strangle the ones responsible for them. It's too bad because the story itself does have some funny moments but the down ending is completely off base for the rest of the film. This film's lack of consistency makes it a muddled mess that doesn't work at all.

Saturday, August 04, 2007


Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007) [8]

I've never been that big a fan of Fincher's work, finding the queasy opulence of films like Seven and Fight Club not to my taste. Here, he tones it down and plays his hand relatively straightforwardly about the notorious serial killer who terrorized the Bay Area in the late 60s/early 70s and vanished, never to be solved. This film on one hand contains the standard procedural drama, laying out the facts of the case which have been well covered over the years. What makes this film work and how Fincher differentiates it from banality is the thread of male obsession that runs through. Obsession and compulsion can be used to describe the killer himself, as the Zodiac claims in the film. But the obsession of knowing the truth is what really drives this film. The three other main characters, the boy scout cartoonist, the hardened, boozy reporter, and the earnest detective at some point become all consumed with the details of the case and are unable to let it go. The performances of the three, Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr., perfectly embody the determination and obsession that come with wanting to know what happen. They perfectly stand in for the audience as everybody wants to know who the Zodiac was and why he did what he did. But Fincher also succeeds in not really answering anything. The film wants to tag Arthur Leigh Allen as the Zodiac but all the psychical evidence in the case cannot be linked to him. The film doesn't have any more answers by the end than when it started. The strength of the film is that it can still be effective even though the entire course of it was a search for answers and it turned up nothing.

Fincher as the director here is a near perfect match. Someone who is notoriously detail obsessive as he fits the overall theme of the film perfectly. No detail in matching the period of the early 70s is spared all the way down to the studio cards at the beginning of the film. I've found Fincher's style to be a little overbearing in the past, but with this film, it fits consistently with the theme of the film.