Sunday, September 30, 2007

Away From Her

Away From Her (Sarah Polley, 2007) [7]

For a first time director, Polley has made a solid but by no means spectacular film, as some reviewers are wont to believe. Julie Christie's performance is solid but not nearly as great as the reviews state. From those reviews, you would think that the film centers around Christie's character but the film is more from the husband's viewpoint, played by Gordon Pinset. The film, after all is called Away From Her. I really don't want to knock Christie's performance because it is good but I found Pinset just as credible and dealing with a lot more complicated emotional issues. It's the nature of the story that Grant, being the husband, has to deal with the brutal realities more directly than his wife. Polley, who also adapted the screenplay from an Alice Munro short story, does a good job of handling the complexities and turmoil that the two main characters' relationship and love go through. What is impressive of her direction, especially for a first-timer, is that she a pretty good hold on a continuity of style throughout. She floods her scenes, especially in the assisted living home, with light, which is always being mentioned by the home's director. Even the elements that I think don't work so well, such as the ellipses in the narrative and too much camera movement in key scenes, aren't too much of a detriment because they are consistent in the style Polley's established. The acting performances also carry the film above any flaws in the style. Christie and Pinset's insightful and emotionally deep performances are key and Polley does a good job of keeping the film's focus on them.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Monthly Listening Post - September 2007

Ken Burns' new documentary on PBS, The War, has been taking up all my viewing time for the past week. While not as good as either The Civil War or Baseball, it still has some pretty powerful moments. A full review when the entire series is done. For now, here's what I'm listening to now:

Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam
Heavy Trash - Going Way Out with Heavy Trash
Devendra Banhart - Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon
Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog
Patton Oswalt - Werewolves & Lollipops

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, 2007) [7]

What Loach does here is very skillful, in that he starts one way (Irish vs. British) and ends up in a completely unexpected place (Irish vs. Irish). The material he's working with is very incendiary, especially if approaching the events with sympathy for the Irish as I was. The film is an unsparing look at all sides of the Irish fight for independence at Great Britain, which Loach turns a critical eye all forces fighting in the struggle. The British occupying force is rightfully vilified, but Loach doesn't let the IRA off that easy either. There are scenes involving them that are just as cold-blooded and villainous as anything the Black & Tans did. That involves the Irish killing their own, as one thing the film does well is shift the identities of those fighting around as events in the film progress. Loach keeps the focus on this by focusing mainly on two characters, a set of brothers, Teddy, more in love with power than ideals, and Damien, the young doctor turned idealist. It's this amorphous identities of the characters that is interesting, especially when Teddy gets into power. The other interesting twist is how Damien moves from nationalist to socialist by the end. There's no denying that the poor where the ones behind the nationalist uprising, but the church and other factors suppressed the socialist tendencies of some especially after Ireland gained some autonomy. This clash of ideals the idealism of Teddy and the compromised power of Teddy is a real interest facet but only comes up in the end. It helps redeem the film a bit, as the second half gets bogged down in two much dissection of ideology and talking. It almost takes the film out of the intense fighting sequences that Loach has established in the first half. Still, he handles the material more than admirably and has made a film that doesn't try to sugarcoat history.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride

Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride (Tom Thurman, 2006) [5]

The first thing I want to say about this documentary on the life of Hunter S. Thompson is that it should be longer. Sure, this will appeal to any fan of Thompson's writings but I also think die-hards will also be disappointed mostly because it doesn't have that much depth. Thurman has constructed the film around interviews with people like Bill Murray, Johnny Depp, and Sean Penn, who became close with the good doctor, and cuts in with some film clips and interviews. What I really wanted to see more of and don't get nearly enough of are interviews with Thompson himself. One of the key points of the film is the Raoul Duke/Dr. Gonzo character Thompson created of himself for the public was not really the real Thompson. That burden of being a pop culture icon is covered, as Thompson has become a cult figure for generations now. All in all, Thurman does the best with what he's given to work with. It's worth seeing this just to see the unintentionally hilarious Gary Busey interview. The problem with this film is that it's appealing to those that are familiar with Thompson and his work and basically, no one else.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

It's Been a Long Time Since Some Random Thoughts...

but I got to get some things out there:

1) There's been a lot of panning of the new Rilo Kiley album, or at least mixed reviews. Let me go on the record and say for the most part, it's a fairly good album. Older fans may take umbrage that the album is too "mainstream" or whatever other half-assed argument they have, but I find the wide range of sounds there appealing. Granted, not everything is that strong but I'm really digging on "Close Call" and "15." (I know I'm using hippie verbs but some things are too hard to break)

2) The ads on television for the Dane Cook/Jessica Alba cinematic abortion (thanks Stereogum!) that is Good Luck Chuck seem to be nonstop for weeks now. If people getting bit in the balls by penguins and hitting shit a lot is your idea of comedy, this will be right up your alley. Personal declaration: I used to think Dane Cook was funny when I first saw his Comedy Central Presents special but have sense come to my senses. His popularity is one of the reasons why I boycott MySpace.

3) It's getting pretty close to the end of the year and I know everybody is looking forward to my year in review in music (humor me here, I know I'm the only one who visits this site). I said a while ago I thought Feist would take the title but don't count out The National and as a potential sleeper, Okkervil River. But 2007 will still see releases by Band of Horses, Devendra Banhart, and Drive-By Truckers. I've been really trying to keep up with all releases so a comprehensive review will be coming in December.

4) And finally, the Useless Film Snob will be relocating to Portland, Oregon after the new year, which will hopefully mean a more relevant film review site as well as concert reviews and coverage of other stuff that doesn't happen in a cultural backwater like Binghamton, New York. While I'll always have fondness for my hometown and its gradual growth as an arts community, the Snob is looking forward to attending the Portland International Film Festival in February.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

I'm Reed Fish

I'm Reed Fish (Zackary Adler, 2007) [4]

The only element I really liked about this film is the setting; not the way the town of Mud Meadows is portrayed but the physical setting seems like a nice place to live. Nothing in this film is that strong: the characters are thin and dull, the story is lackluster, and the ways screenwriter Reed Fish and Adler try to spice it up are superficial. Besides putting your name in title , the whole film-within-a-film aspect feels pandering to sophisticated film goers and critics. Average film goers may see it as clever but it really doesn't make much sense in the world of the film. It allows Fish to have a somewhat interesting twist in regards to his two main female characters but I'm still not buying its usefulness. With the exception of Schuyler Fisk's performance at times, nobody else does anything impressive in this film. Some reviews I've read state it's hard to believe Jay Baruchel's character is in the middle of these two women because of his physical appearance. I feel that's a shallow observation; I happen to like Baruchel as an actor, especially in Undeclared. What I do have a problem with the character he plays is that the character of Reed Fish is constantly sabotaging himself with both relationships. This allows him to perpetually wade in a pool of self-pity which the film tries to mask as melancholy which I'm not buying. Alexis Bledel doesn't do anything to break away from the rigid box that Gilmore Girls has placed on her acting. Overall, these characters and the film itself are completely dull with the exception of brief instances. There's nothing that Fish the writer and Adler can do from dragging the film out of the hole it dug for itself by trying too hard to be cute and clever.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Protocols of Zion

Protocols of Zion (Marc Levin, 2005) [6]

Levin has made here a earnest, inquisitive documentary that has real interesting moments but ultimately trips on itself trying to do too many things at once. It was a little different than I expected; the Netflix review specifically mentions how supposedly all Jews were told to stay home from the World Trade Center on September 11th, which is what I was expecting this to mainly be about. Instead, Levin uses that as a jumping-off point to examine anti-semitism in general, especially focusing on a book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion supposedly telling how the Jews were to go about ruling the world. The book is a proven forgery from Czarist Russia but Levin wants to find out why it is still popular in so many circles. Besides Muslim fundamentalists, Levin also interviews white supremacists, born-again Christians, and other assorted nutjobs to find a root cause for anti-semitism. What Levin finds out is not any hatred towards particular Jews; "the Jews" act more as a figurehead for disgruntled people to place their blame. That's how Levin gets such statements out of people that Rupert Murdoch must be Jewish because he's a media mogul and Rudolph "Jew"-liani isn't what he appears to be. What's fascinating about all this is how blind the delusion of these people are, how anti-semitism has become so ingrained in certain cultures that it trumps all sort of rational thought. There are moments and comments that border on comedy they're so ludicrous. The film brings out the realization that anti-semitism is still something that is large and so deep in certain elements of society that it may never be eradicated. What the film really lacks are suggestions on how to do that. Levin presents the wide array of material but never really gives any answers. He still seems as confused as when he started his project. That the film goes in so many directions really makes it lose a central focus which Levin could have addressed. He just puts too much in and the whole Passion of the Christ subplot didn't feel necessary. Still, Levin gets credit for going out there and somehow, staying calm and rational when confronting so many lunatics.

Sunday, September 09, 2007


Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985) [8]

I really don't know how much I actually like this; I may be too easily swayed by the positive accolades over time and there's no denying how fully immersed into its own world the film is. For me, this is by far Gilliam's most accomplished film, at least in terms of what you think of a Terry Gilliam film to be. All that being said, I tend not to care that much about the film when it was over. It's certainly an achievement on a visual level and I found the story to be compelling but the complete lack of a concrete opinion about it bothers me. That doesn't mean I didn't like it, it's well made, but I just have the feeling that if I were to watch this a couple of years down the road, either I will completely get it or lower the grade.

Gilliam treads into Orwellian territory with a story about an omnipresent totalitarian society enslaved to technology and corporate brainwashing. What is impressive was how much this film is on the mark in terms of technology and computers controlling peoples' lives. Against all the jackbooted thugs and endless bureaucracy, a lone man is fighting to regain his imagination. What I find most weak about the film is the story of Lowery. The entire situation with him and his dreams and his relationship feel weak compared to the menacing presence of the world that he occupies. This appears to be one of the themes of the film, as Sam is trying to break free of the deadening control of his life and fulfill his dreams. The less personal, man against the system story here is better in my opinion. In regards to the much publicized trouble of ending the film, Gilliam's original ending is really the only logical one. The system in which Sam lives in is just way too big and powerful for one person to have any success in changing it. It may be downbeat but it really does fit the world of the film.

As with all Gilliam films, there are memorable images and effects. Much of my admiration for the film centers on how complete the world Gilliam created for the film works, especially the scenes dealing with the giant, never-ending bureaucracy of the monolithic state. And there was sly little Battleship Potemkin homage towards the end.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Intruder

The Intruder (Claire Denis, 2005) [7]

On the narrative level, this film is extremely difficult. There really is no linear narrative in this film. On a purely visual level, in terms of images, it is riveting and typical Denis. Her filmmaking has always been about the sensory experience of images, of letting the camera linger over bodies and landscapes. This film really has to be appreciated on a visual level with an almost complete disregard for plot. That's not to say there isn't one, but it is there. What story there is basically comes down to is a man living in rural France needs a heart transplant which soon his body begins to reject. The man then goes on a travelogue to Tahiti to make amends with his long lost son. Denis does not spend that much time on explaining anything and instead captures the happenings. It's this lack of explanation that makes the film difficult to follow in narrative terms. On a more abstract level, it is a much more rewarding experience. As with all her films, Denis captures numerous captivating images and they themselves speak of the important elements of this film: the man's loneliness, his need to make amends with his son, and the themes of intrusion. There are numerous intruders in the film, from the unexplained psychical intruders on the man's property to the man's other son and family to the heart itself. Who or what are the intruders are never really concrete. The distinction between dreams and actual existence are never really defined. It all creates a baffling experience. However, if the viewer can detach themselves from the constrictions of narrative and experience the film as a sensory experience and interact with it on the emotion of its images, it can be appreciated.