Saturday, December 29, 2007

Paris je t'aime

Paris je t'aime (Various directors, 2007) [5]
Compilation films are almost never really that good and this film is another example. It wants to have one connecting feature, all stories revolving around different areas of Paris, but when you get 20 different directors bringing their own vision the film can't help but get off message. What was surprising to me was how poor overall many of the shorts were. Out of the twenty, most were bad to mediocre, a couple had some salvageable moments, and only two were exceptionally strong. The Sowa and Craven had some good moments but were pretty much blah. Twyker was Twyker, meaning his kinetic style and heavy hand allow me not to like a good story. I just don't know what to make of the Coen Brothers short; it has some humor but reflecting on it later, it seems too mean and odd compared to the rest. It's a disjointing film that really has no place in the greater structure of the film. Plus, it seems a little cheap. One of the two shorts I liked most was the one by Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas starring Catalina Sadino Moreno. It digs a little deeper than the others, dealing with immigration, and it really works because it's not cluttered with cutesy expressions or bossy narration like some of the others. Salles and Thomas keep the focus on the daily tasks of Moreno's character, having to deal with her own child as well being nanny to a wealthy French family. It's told simply and yet it's still powerful. The real saving grace of the entire project is Alexander Payne's film, which if it stood alone could be considered one of the best films of the year. His story of a Denver mailwoman, learning French and heading to Paris alone, starts off as feeling it could prime for mocking. But Payne turns this on its head instead creating a film where by taking this trip, it becomes a journey of reflection for a woman who was all too easy into making a one-dimensional character. The trip to Paris, of being alone and taking a chance, brings out all the loneliness in this woman but also creates a joy in her of being someplace she's never been before. Seeing her discovery is a rewarding experience for the viewer as well as herself. It's careful touch and depth are just so out of character from some of the other ones, it's hard to believe but still refreshing to me that a little something could be salvaged from this collaboration.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Simpsons Movie

The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman, 2007) [5]
Let's just call this a disappointment. In my younger days and in the golden years of the show (Seasons 4-8 or 9), I was a huge Simpsons fan. The last few years has seen the show dip into mediocrity and the looming clouds of disappointment that the movie would surely surround myself in kept me from seeing it in the theatre. It's basically what the television show has been for the last six or so years: a lot of nothing impressive peppered with an occasional laugh. What really bothers me most is that Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and all the writers admitted they wrote this film for the broadest audience possible. That may be good for Fox's box office receipts but it's antithetical to every subversive trait the show has shown over the years. That the film has none of the sharp satire and inside jokes that true Simpsons fanatics like myself is its biggest flaw. I think by now people have made up their minds if they like The Simpsons or not; you don't need a movie to win new converts this late in the game. Besides that, the story is another of the borderline ridiculous/frivolous ones that the show has been using for the past years. The writers could get away with this in older episodes (Frank Grimes, the Monty Burns Casino) because the show used to have one foot grounded in something realistic. The plot of this film is too much like a movie plot. I don't watch The Simpsons to see that; the whole Spider-Pig thing doesn't work for me. The only time the film really finds its groove of years past is the character of Russ Cargill, which should be no surprise since he's voiced by Albert Brooks, memorable for his great characters in the early seasons. It's the only time the humor attempts not to be broad and hence, not stale.

All of this might like sour grapes from another fan who says The Simpsons isn't close to what it used to be. You know what? It isn't but that doesn't mean I don't hate the show now and for all its flaws, I really can't dislike this movie. But after watching and waiting for 17 years, I really wanted something a little better.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Sicko (Michael Moore, 2007) [8]
By toning down the harsh rhetoric and actually spending a lot of time on creating a structurally good film, Sicko should be considered Moore's best film to date. The problem is that Michael Moore has used to his other films to grandstand and confront, which has made him a hugely divisive person. No matter how sober and rational the message of the film will be, the people that have always loved him will love it and those who don't agree with him will hate it. I've always found Moore's films to be entertaining but this one is the most competent and structured film he's ever created. It does mean, however, that the sharp humor has been toned down for this one but it's not really a negative. Those on both sides of the political spectrum would like to boil down the film to a indictment on the HMO/private system in the U.S. and/or the fawning over the socialized systems in Canada, Britain, and France. The ideological points of the film aren't really that black and white. Moore really uses his visits to other countries as an examination as why the U.S. is the only industrialized, Western nation that doesn't have universal health care. Of course what is shown of the Canadian and European systems may be polished a bit but if you don't know what you're going to get out of Moore by now, then you're a bit stupid. Those systems aren't perfect but they're much better than the one here now. Moore's strongest points in the film are telling the stories of the people who do have health insurance and still don't get the coverage they thought or should have. The first hour of this film works so well mostly because Moore keeps focused on the stories of people like that. That, and he reigns in the dramatic confrontations that mark his films. The film's weakest moment is the one stunt he does attempt by taking 9/11 rescue workers to Cuba; it just doesn't fit with the rest of the film. Besides its one misstep, Moore really has made a focused, poignant film, something that just can't be said about his previous efforts. Even without the shrill rhetoric, the film does have its funny moments, most notably the record of Ronald Reagan talking about the perils of socialized medicine. That leads me again to what I think Moore is asking in Sicko: why have American become so ingrained as to think something like universal health care is akin to a Socialist takeover of this country? The result is a strong and sympathetic film for the case for universal health care as well as highlighting that this nation's system has failed many.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Factory Girl

Factory Girl (George Hickenlooper, 2006) [3]
A mess on a formal and story level, Hickenlooper's Edie Sedgwick biopic is only interesting for Guy Pearce's portrayal of Andy Warhol. Manny Farber wrote an article years ago that shows up in film theory classes about white elephant and termite art. It's an interesting concept to me and it's important in this film because Pearce's performance is the embodiment of termite art. Farber's theory defines termite art as when an actor's performance exists and stands out on its own from the rest of the overall tone of the film, Farber's example being John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Pearce here seems to be out on his own, playing Warhol with the kind of commitment and uniqueness that the rest of the film lacks. It's not a great portrayal; it seems to boil down Warhol's complex personality down to he's a fame seeking mama's boy. Still, it starkly stands out from the cluelessness of Hickenlooper's direction. The thing about termite art is that it's usually marked as unique performances in bad films. While not awful, the film never finds any continuity. Sienna Miller plays Sedgwick as the 60's era Paris Hilton that she was, famous for being famous. She offers no real insight into the character emotionally and when the film tries to, Hickenlooper moves quickly on to something else. The film rushes so quickly through Sedgwick's time with The Factory that Hickenlooper never stops to examine anything closely. The only effort he makes is her relationship with "musician", who's clearly meant to be Bob Dylan but can't be through threat of character defamation. Hayden Christensen has zero on-screen charisma with Miller, playing the character about as superficially as every other one outside of Pearce's Warhol. Then there's the whole issue with the film formally. Hickenlooper uses so many tricks like switching film stocks and hyper editing choices that give the film no formal identity. He also tries to recreate Warhol's films, notably Poor Little Rich Girl and Vinyl. Having seen Vinyl and knowing of Wahol's style, the minimalism, static frame, and deconstructionist elements of those films is the complete opposite of the style that is in use here. He would have been better off making the film using the elements Warhol used. At least it would have made more sense formally then. Thinking of that, it would be a film more about Warhol than Sedgwick but after judging Guy Pearce's performance, it may not be that bad of a decision.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited Addendum

I just forgot a couple of points I wanted to make about The Darjeeling Limited. First of all, let me repeat I liked the film a lot more than my review makes it sound. It was enjoyable but my whole point of contention is that I'm not sure afterwards how much it goes beyond its surface. The three brother characters don't go very much beyond their surface quirks and the story is nothing that memorable. All that being said, I think the film goes a little deeper than a lot of critics want to give it credit for. I felt an emotional resonance with the film at the end. I know I'm a cold, distant person so maybe something someone sees as emotionally shallow carries more weight with me. It wasn't that strong but I'm willing to give Anderson a little more credit than some. My theory behind all this is the soundtrack. Anderson has been a master of using a popular music soundtrack to emphasize certain scenes. While I'm a sucker for this, some more academic film critics have raised issues with this. Michael Sicinski, who runs The Academic Hack, was a professor of mine at Binghamton University and in one of the classes I had with him, he raised this issue with Anderson in regards to The Royal Tenenbaums. He argued that Anderson substituted songs for real emotional development in scenes. I can see his point, but if there's one thing I have a weakness for, it's this type of thing (see: Goodfellas, Magnolia, Scorpio Rising). I'm still wrestling with this film and I really think it's a little more serious than a lot of reviews have stated. I happen to be a supporter of the auteur theory and there's nobody making films today that has all the traits of that as Wes Anderson. Maybe, I put too much into that.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, 2007) [7]
I feel conflicted about this film and am not really sure why. I've liked all of Anderson's previous film, even The Life Aquatic, whose reaction was decidedly mixed. This film has had the same type of critical reaction, and while I still like it more than some critics, it's problems are the same raised by Anderson's detractors. He seems so caught up in his visual quirks and formal choices that it feels like the same film over and over again. Setting the film in India is a way to break away a little, the striking images of the subcontinent a clear homage to Renoir's The River. I've never had a problem with Anderson's meticulous formal approach which here he loosens up a little bit by freeing up the frame a little more, allowing it to drift over the landscape and using more zooms and pans to loosen up his typical tightness. What I feel is kind of stagnant is the story, heavy on the WASPy dysfunctional that has become standard in Anderson's films (The Life Aquatic somewhat the exception). Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrien Brody play three brothers, trying to reconnect with each other after their father's death and their mother's lack of support. The brothers all have their particular quirks but I really feel the characters' emotions don't go that beyond the surface. Wilson's character was the most fleshed out to me, using his bossiness and wealth to coax his hopes of spiritual enlightenment on his brothers. He also has a secret agenda: to find their absent mother, hidden in a convent somewhere in India. This is pretty common ground for Anderson story wise and no matter how good the film looks and how entertaining it is while watching it, it still rings a little hollow afterwards. It smacks of a sameness that while it can be reassuring for his fans, definitely isn't going to win a lot of new ones. That may sound harsh and I don't mean it to be since I still liked the film. India here isn't a touristy backdrop; it has a beguiling charm, and at the same time, isn't quite foreign. The train itself has other Western tourists and the staff speaks English. Anderson keeps the setting at a distance, which works in that it doesn't create issues with the film but it at times lacks dimension like the characters. Still, I want to repeat I liked the film. That's all I can really surmise from The Darjeeling Limited. If you like Wes Anderson's previous films, you'll like this.

Hotel Chevalier is a short that played before the actual film that is meant to be a prelude. Seeing it right before the main film hinders me a bit from evaluating it on its own. It has some interesting elements about it, most notably the terse, clipped dialogue between the Schwartzman and Natalie Portman characters. The short also shows off the stylistic flourishes that make the main film stronger. Since it really seems not much different than the feature, it seems unnecessary to grade it on its own.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

12:08 East of Bucharest

12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2007) [6]
The first half of this film is so drifting that it almost ruins the entire film. Porumboiu takes so much time setting up the crux of his story that he almost sabotages himself before he gets started. This film centers on a small-town Romanian television station and its self-important anchor/news director and on a debate on whether a revolution actually occurred in the overthrow of Nicolae Caeusescu''s dictatorship 16 years earlier. Porumboiu uses the first half of the film to set up the three main characters that will make up the debate: Manescu, the self-righteous reporter, Piscoci, an old man known for being the town Santa, and Jderescu, a drunk, broke professor. Really none of this backstory has any importance to the strength of the film, which is the television debate. Filmed in real time, and with aesthetics that make it look like it may actually be a small-town Romanian new program, it is a marvel of dry, deadpan humor. Manescu asks a question that did an actual revolution occur in the town or did people just follow others after Caeusescu's demise. Jderescu claims he and his colleagues were there before 12:08, the time of the overthrow. Piscoci claims that he followed other down to the square. A series of callers refute Jderescu, call him a drunk, and throw the program into disregard. What makes all this work is the futility of the whole thing. Manescu wants to be the intrepid reporter but will never get a straight answer. Jderescu refuses to budge on his original statement that he was there before 12:08. Piscoci is practically useless, every once and a while wondering what the point of the program is. Even the amateur production techniques, which are humorously recreated, add to Manescu's exasperation. Porumboiu purpose of the whole enterprise is to debunk the mythical ideals of revolution. These aren't ideal revolutionary figures; they are petty, squabbling, and aren't really that concerned with the revolution itself. By using a small town and a no account news program, Porumboiu really hits on the point that big ideas like change and revolution are always fleeting. This is a Romania where nobody really remembers the past and the search for answers is met by clueless bystanders.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Manufactured Landscapes

Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal, 2007) [6]
Edward Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer that takes pictures of man-made landscapes that would seem to be gigantic eyesores of globalization and somehow crafts interesting pictures from them. Baichwal's film follows Burtynsky on his photo shoots in China but her film tries to be more than just the portrait of an artist. The images, not just of Burtynsky's photographs but also the ones Baichwal creates are the strongest element of the film. The long, long opening tracking shot of a massive Chinese factory is an achievement on the filmic level but it also is a disturbing result of a globalized economy. Baichwal also creates some interesting Bressonian shots of a workers assembling products that stands out beyond Burtynsky's work. The film tracks how the images Burtynsky captures of massive industrial structures can hold a strange beauty but also show the negative societal and environmental impact of those structures. This is most evident in Burtynsky's trips to the massive dam in China that uprooted millions of people and the massive factory complex that looks more like a military barracks or prison than a factory. My main issue with the film comes from the way Baichwal handles Burtynsky. The photographer makes it explicit that he has no political agenda from what he's doing; he's not an environmentalist but he's not saying he supports massive industrialization. Baichwal clearly wants to get a distinct message across that Burtynsky should be critical of the elements he photographs but she never takes the glove off (clearly, she doesn't want to ruffle his feathers too much or she won't have a film). The first half of the film is interesting, but by reverting back more to Burtynsky in the second half causes the film to lose a lot of steam. This refusal to conflict or confront Burtynsky on his ambivalence seems to be a major issue but Baichwal never addresses it.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Useless Film Snob's Best Music of 2007

I still haven't seen enough of the film I've wanted to to make a best films of 2007 list. For music, however, I made a concerted effort to listen to as many new releases as possible. The result is the most new music I've ever listened to and a greatly expanded list. So, instead of the two part review of 2006, here's my top 40 albums of the year.

Useless Film Snob Top 40 Albums of 2007

40) Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Baby 81
Could be considered the biggest letdown of 2007. While not a bad album, it's nowhere near Howl. Instead of staying with the roots-oriented sound, B.M.R.C goes back to their earlier sound, which I don't find that interesting.
Choice cuts: "Berlin", "All You Do is Talk"

39) Jason Isbell - Sirens of the Ditch
He could always be counted on for one or two good songs per Truckers album and that's what's here: two good songs, a lot of mediocre ones.
Choice cuts: "Dress Blues", "Hurricanes and Hand Grenades"

38) Over The Rhine - The Trumpet Child
A mix of jazz, pop, blues, and Americana that sounds like a more interesting Norah Jones. I'll admit I'd never heard of Over the Rhine before this album, and the album was one of many new bands I discovered this year.
Choice cuts: "I'm on a Roll", "Let's Spend the Day in Bed"

37) Bettye LaVette - The Scene of the Crime
On this album, LaVette finds herself backed by the Drive-By Truckers, which would sound like a mixed bag at most. While there are some good rocking tracks, most find LaVette showing off here soulful vocals on songs by Willie Nelson and Elton John.
Choice cuts: "Choices", "Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)"

36) The Thrills - Teenager
The Thrills have always been a band that's had a sound more in common with California than their native Ireland. Teenager finds them still mining 70s California rock with more orchestral flourishes.
Choice cuts: "This Year", "I Came All This Way"

35) Devendra Banhart - Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon
Banhart combines so many styles here (pysch-folk, samba, doo-wopp, gospel) that the resulting album is a little scattershot. The strength of the albums lies in Banhart moving beyond being a Nick Drake soundalike and letting his backing band get rolling.
Choice cuts: "Seahorse", "Saved"

34) Kings of Leon - Because of the Times
This doesn't sound like a band that was once called the southern Strokes. The songs here veer a little towards bombastic arena rock but they show a band that has grown and can definitely play better and more diverse stuff.
Choice cuts: "Black Thumbnail", "True Love Way"

33) Heavy Trash - Going Way Out With Heavy Trash
Jon Spencer gets a lot of shit for being ironic or tongue in cheek but the thing is, if you're going to make a rockabilly album, you really got to like the stuff. Teamed with Speedball Baby guitarist Matt Verta-Ray and backed by The Sadies, Heavy Trash sound like Gene Vincent and Johhny Cash if they listened to punk rock. It may sound too indebted to its influences, but that isn't going to stop me from liking it.
Choice cuts: "Outside Chance", "They Were Kings"

32) Blood Meridian - Liquidate Paris!
Blood Meridian adopt a little more of the so-called Psych-Folk movement that's gaining steam. I said of last year's Kick Up the Dust that it had an underlying weirdness to it, and while not as good as that album, Blood Meridian should be seen as more than a side project.
Choice cuts: "The Burning River of Guilt", "She Calls Me"

31) Richard Thompson - Sweet Warrior
My preference for Thompson is as a guitar player, but he also is a really good songwriter. A few of the songs here deal with the Iraq war but the slower folk ballads are the real strong point to the album.
Choice cuts: "Dad's Gonna Kill Me", "She Sang Angels to Rest"

30) The White Stripes - Icky Thump
I've never been a huge fan of The White Stripes but when they stick to bluesier material, the limitations of their sound are much better hidden. A good but not spectacular albums that a lot of other reviews have stated.
Choice cuts: "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told)", "Bone Broke"

29) Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer
Even a year ago, I would have had no interest in Of Montreal. Even though, for whatever reason, it appealed to me.
Choice cuts: "Suffer For Fashion", "Labyrinthian Pomp"

28) The Shins - Wincing the Night Away
The most musically adventurous Shins album to date but no real stand out song.
Choice cuts: "Sleeping Lessons", "Turn On Me"

27) Deadstring Brothers - Silver Mountain
Talk about endebted to your influences; this sounds like Exile-era Stones outtakes with a little bit of the Faces mixed in. I really like that so I really like this.
Choice cuts: "Queen of the Scene", "You Look Like the Devil"

26) Blitzen Trapper - Wild Mountain Nation
The two best tracks are the rootsy, Deadish rockers. The rest are all over the place. Definitely the most eclectic album of 2007.
Choice cuts: "Wild Mountain Nation", "Country Caravan"

25) The Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
The comparisons to Springsteen and U2 are obvious here but I think it's not nearly as good as Funeral.
Choice cuts: "Keep the Car Running", "The Well and the Lighthouse"

24) Patton Oswalt - Werewolves & Lollipops
Comedy albums are albums too, and Oswalt is one of the few comedians of today who can make an album as good as comedy album's heydey of the 60s and 70s.
Choice cuts: "American Has Spoken", "The Miracle of Childbirth"

23) Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter - Like, Love, Lust & the Open Halls of the Soul
Another album that could be considered psych-folk highlighted by Sykes' alluring, smokey vocals.
Choice cuts: "The Air is Thin", "Station Grey"

22) Dr. Dog - We All Belong
A mix of classic rock styles, from the Beatles to the Beach Boys to the Band, Dr. Dog perfects songs that sound older than they really are.
Choice cuts: "My Old Ways", "Alaska"

21) Bright Eyes - Cassadaga
An album much more in tune with alt-country than emo, maybe Conor should leave the earnest shouting behind for good.
Choice cuts: "Four Winds", "Classic Cars"

20) The Felice Brothers - Tonight at the Arizona
I saw the Felice Brothers open for Bright Eyes, knowing next to nothing about them. Their shaggy Americana with vocals that sound exactly like early Dylan are right to my liking.
Choice cuts: "Lady Day", "Mercy"

19) Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog
Sam Beam get more musically adventurous as well and his use of reggae and African styles don't overshadow his songs.
Choice cuts: "White Tooth Man", "Resurrection Fern"

18) The Broken West - I Can't Go On, I'll Go On
California power pop that is done smartly and catchy.
Choice cuts: "Down In the Valley", "Brass Ring"

17) Radiohead - In Rainbows
I've never been a big fan but after hearing most of these songs at Bonnaroo 2006, I got the album and liked it much more than I thought I would.
Choice cuts: "Bodysnatchers", "Faust Arp"

16) Mavis Staples - We'll Never Turn Back
Staples revisits songs of the Civil Rights Movement and with help from Ry Cooder, makes them sound fresh and just as relevant as forty-five years ago.
Choice cuts: "We Shall Not Be Moved", "Jesus On the Mainline"

15) Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Spoon always makes great albums and the best songs here find the use of horns much to their advantage.
Choice cuts: "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb", "The Underdog"

14) Augie March - Moo, You Bloody Choir
A band that's huge in their native Australia, their sound has more in common with American roots music than the AC/DC copycats that are known here. "One Crowded Hour" is my choice for song of 2007.
Choice cuts: "One Crowded Hour", "Bottle Baby"

13) Rilo Kiley - Under the Blacklight
Apparently, I like this album a lot more than most of the people who've posted on Stereogum. Rilo Kiley have always had pop elements in their songs, so why should it be any suprise that they've made a pop album?
Choice cuts: "Close Call", "15"

12) Band of Horses - Cease to Begin
Ben Bridwell and co. move to South Carolina and more southern elements end up in their music. It's an interesting new direction but could have been a little more consistent throughout.
Choice cuts: "Is There a Ghost", "The General Specific"

11) Ryan Adams - Easy Tiger
Adams clearly made an attempt to make a much more accesible, streamlined record and while it didn't achieve much chart success, it' clearly his best effort since Cold Roses.
Choice cuts: "Goodnight Rose", "Pearls on a String"

10) The Cave Singers - Inviation Songs
A band from Seattle that sounds a lot like they'd be from out in some mountains. Another band that could be lumped into the pysch-folk category.
Choice cuts: "Seeds of Night", "Helen"

9) Vietnam - S/T
From their look to their sound, everything about this band is reminiscent of the 60s. The songs are right out of the Lou Reed/Bob Dylan songbook. But like Howlin' Rain last year, there's something about that type of music that I find appealing.
Choice cuts: "Toby", "Summer In the City"

8) Wilco - Sky Blue Sky
The most straightforward sounding Wilco album in some time which I think makes it deceiving to some people. It's not supposed to be anything more than what it is: direct. Sometimes, it's good to hear a band strip down their sound a little.
Choice cuts: "Hate It Here", "What Light"

7) Great Lake Swimmers - Ongiara
I guess I'll call this my best discovery of 2007 since I've never heard them before. Tony Dekker's haunting vocals are the key here, with very subdued, melancholic sounding songs for the most part.
Choice cuts: "Backstage With the Modern Dancers", "There Is a Light"

6) Josh Ritter - The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
Like some other acts on this list, Ritter brings a lot more musically to this album than his past ones. Not as strong as The Animal Years but still very good.
Choice cuts: "The Temptation of Adam", "Empty Hearts"

5) The Avett Brothers - Emotionalism
The Avett Brothers aren't just bluegrass: there's a little bit of punk rock, latin and classic pop in them as this varied records shows.
Choice cuts: "Salina", "Living of Love"

4) Okkervil River - The Stage Names
Nothing much to say except well-crafted songs with excellent songwriting.
Choice cuts: "You Can't Hold the Hand of a Rock & Roll Man", "John Allyn Smith Sails"

3) Feist - The Reminder
Before she was selling Ipods and becoming a "new" artist, Leslie Feist released an album that I was sure was going to be near the top of this list. A smartly done album can also have a pop sensibility to it, which nowadays, isn't so easy to see.
Choice Cuts: "My Moon My Man", "1234"

2) Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam
Not too long ago, my tastes would not have run to this. It would have been too weird and foreign sounding. Now, I think it's the most adventurous album of the year. In terms of the way this band uses sound, they create something based in improvisation that is much more interesting and pyschedelic than anything coming out of the stagnant jamband scene.
Choice cuts: "Peacebone", "Fireworks"

1) The National - Boxer
I liked this album before I saw their impressive performance at Bonnaroo but ever since then, this has been the album I've listened to and enjoyed more than any other this year. I really don't know exactly why I like it or how to describe it in any concrete way other than it's the best album of the year.
Choice cuts: "Slow Show", "Apartment Story"

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

No Country For Old Men

No Country For Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007) [10]

As this site and my film viewing have been intensified, my discretion has also become much more nuanced. 2006, for example, has yielded only one film to receive a ten. The simple fact of the matter is that what qualifies as a near perfect work of filmmaking has to be really good. No Country For Old Men is that good. A story that grabs you, partly exhilarating an yet jarring. Performances that are pitch perfect for the film. And more than anything, the superb execution of story, acting, editing, cinematography, and whatever else to show that the filmmaker has full control. The Coen brother exhibit all this in this, the best of 2007 so far, and their best film to date.
On the surface, the story deals with a drug deal gone bad and the violent consequences for those who happened to be involved in its details. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) just happens to stumble onto the bodies and the money, takes it, and a little while realizes he's done something he probably shouldn't have. Llewelyn is a typical noir hero, an ordinary man thrown into events and consequences way beyond his handling but somehow unaware of it. The pull of the two million dollars is too much for Llewelyn to just leave it alone; the inherent greediness of man, whether it be money or blood, is a key undercurrent of the film. Even from the outset, Llewelyn knows everything may not end smoothly but yet he still takes his chances. It's an intriguing element especially as he digs his grave even deeper. The man after Llewelyn and the money, Anton Chigurgh (Javier Bardem) will stop at nothing to do what needs to be done. Anton is one of the most mesmerizing and terrifying characters I've come across in film in quite some time. He is a man so psychologically twisted that a coin flip will decide whether a man lives or dies but yet it still operates as part of his moral fiber. As one character says, Chigurgh does have principles, no matter how they jet out from accepted morality. He sticks to his word and he will get the money back even if numerous others have to be murdered. Chigurgh exists in the film as a mythical figure, a ghost, as he almost miraculously slips away from situation after situation with almost no trace of him ever being there. Bardem imbues him with a eerie calmness, an emotional flatness that makes Anton almost not human but still a truly terrifying person. The film focuses on the cat and mouse game between the two, with Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) haplessly trailing behind. I won't give away too much of what happens but things turn out they way they were expected.
The Coens have been remarkably faithful to Cormac McCarthy's novel while still giving the picture a little more. Roger Deakins is masterful, capturing the desolate isolation of the deserts of West Texas, encasing the characters in a rugged, vast emptiness which allows for anything goes. What the Coens do so well is create a taut, thrilling storytelling while still capturing the meditative rumination of McCarthy's prose. Sherriff Bell is the moral signpost of the film, a man too old and not ready to adapt the new type of criminals like Chigurgh running around. Jones plays Bell as a man exasperated at the audacious violence of these crimes as well as a man resigned to know he can't handle what's in front of him. This leads into the ending, which I know a lot of people will say there isn't one. Those people should realize that films don't need to have a tidy resolution. There is no resolution to this story. Crime and violence like this are going to continue and what Bell and the film are trying to explain that there are always going to be people who feel that the times have passed them by wondering how they got that way. Most filmgoers have been so indoctrinated by crappy Hollywood films to expect and feel entitled to an easy, tidy resolution. If they can't handle that a film is going to be a little open-ended and challenging, I feel sorry for you. The ending makes sense in the grander metaphorical world of the film. To say it plainly, the Coens have made a film that stands far above almost anything else released this year.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

La Vie en Rose

La Vie en Rose (Olivier Dahan, 2007) [6]

Haven't we had enough of musical biopics with their protagonists overcoming personal demons and tragedy to achieve stardom? I would expected a little bit more with a film about French singer Edith Piaf than pictures like Walk the Line and Ray but sadly, Dahan plays it just as safe and middlebrow as them. Formally, it is much more adventurous than the American films but the story still falls into the same formula that I've grown tired with. Everything gets covered in this film: Edith's poverty ravaged childhood with an itinerant parents, her childhood bout with sickness only to be "saved", her near miraculous discovery and her subsquent stardom only to be scarred with personal demons and tragedy. The one main difference for Piaf is that her career highs seem to come paired with something just as tragic. Louis Leplee, the man who discovered her, is murdered by people out of Edith's shady past. Her only true lover, boxer Marcel Cerdan, dies in a plane crash on his way to meet her. Morphine and alcohol dependency as well as arthritis and a car crash slowly cripple her body until she finally dies at the age of 48. This continuing undercurrent of inescapable tragedy is the real thematic core of the story and it is refreshing to see Dahan not shy away from it and try to end the film on a brighter note. This leads to the fractured narrative of the film, where Dahan uses Piaf's last few years as an anchor to be able to go back into the past and explore the deeper tragedies that shaped how Edith ended up much older than her years. A lot of review have called Dahan's jumbling of narrative a mess, which I just don't see. Are American filmgoers and critics reached a critical mass of stupidity that the use of the narrative device is so perplexing? It has a thematic resonance for the film and its really the film's strongest plus for me. Most every review raves about Marion Cotillards's performance but I'm less sold on it than them apparently. No matter how hard they may think they're not trying to mimic Piaf, Dahan and Cotillard are making a film about a real person and mimicry is almost impossible to avoid in re-creating a character. Cotillard's performance has a little too much showmanship and excessive emotion for my liking. I don't know that much about Edith Piaf but Cotillard's go for broke moments just aren't what I'm looking for. Still, her performance and the film are an admirable effort but this film gets too trapped in its conventions to get above mild approval.