Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (Robert Altman, 1976) [7]

Deconstructionist is a word always thrown around with Altman, and Buffalo Bill is no exception. Instead of genre or form deconstruction, this film is more intent on attacking history itself, and the grand myths perpetuated in the name of this nation. Everything of this film smacks of the idea of myth making, all the way down to the character of Buffalo Bill himself, a creation of a mysterious myth-maker (played with zeal by Burt Lancaster, always one of my favorites). Altman centers his film around the show that Bill has created, a series of skits and performances meant to portray a grandiose America that has the best interests of everyone in mind, including the Indians on whose land they raided and took. It's these ideas of the mythical west, perpetuated fully in Westerns as well as the character of Buffalo Bill himself that Altman is going after. Paul Newman plays Buffalo Bill as nothing more than an arrogant charlatan, a creation meant to feed the American public, to give them an ideal character of the west. Altman pulls the veil of the sanctity of Buffalo Bill, and Newman plays him as a man who knows he's nothing but a creation of show business. The conflict of these ideas come to a head when Bill's company is able to convince Chief Sitting Bull to be a part of the show. This leads to a series of events where Sitting Bull consistently outwits Bill and the others as a way to regain some dignity for his people. One of the major elements of the legend of Buffalo Bill was his prowess as an Indian killer and subjugator. By having him be such a buffoon compared to Sitting Bull, Altman has created scenarios where the power of the character of Buffalo Bill is dragged out of its historical lacquer. Buffalo Bill certainly is a film that sides sympathizes with the Indians and is dark and cynical in its portrayal of whites as opportunistic, boorish, and presumptuous of their different brethren. It's possibly the meanest, most jaded film Altman could have made on the subject. Yet, it works because it's at least willing to take on the legends and myths of the American west with some earnestness.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008) [6]

Tropic Thunder certainly has a firm grasp on its targets. But can a movie that skewers big budget Hollywood event pictures have any venom when it's exactly the same type of film that it's meant to ridicule? Some could say that by making a big budget film full of explosions and exotic locales you can't bite the hand that feeds you but the truth is, no matter how Stiller can take shots at studios and actors, it's the same system that's been good and currently employs him. Yes the film is right on in its portrayal of its actors from the dim-bulb action star played by Stiller to the Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. characters but these are pretty obvious targets. The film uses the characters and their situation for laughs but it never has the feeling of being mean or harshly critical, mostly because Stiller will have to work with people like this again. The funniest moments of the film are the ones that dig a little deeper at the whole system, from the "full retard" hypothesis and the faux trailers at the start of the film. The rest of the film is a fairly forgettable story with an ending that I can't decide if it's meant to be that fully over the top or not. It may be meant to be taken satirically but there's something in the execution that don't make it feel so. Downey and Tom Cruise have gotten a lot of attention for their performances but it's Stiller's character that is the most fully formed in terms of its ridicule and vain actorly excesses. It certainly gives off the most laughs. Cruise, just as he almost did in Magnolia, almost single-handily submarines a film by playing a profane Tom Cruise character, only this time he's bald, portly and hairy. If that's the best Tropic Thunder can do, it's not bad but let's not all forget it still is a product of the same system it wants to mock.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Paranoid Park

Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2008) [6]

What keeps Paranoid Park interesting is that Van Sant uses images and his meandering narrative to keep everything from being too formulaic. My main problem is that I have a pre-disposition to not give a rat's ass about a character like Alex. It's not that his character is flat or self-absorbed; in fact, the film Van Sant crafts around him actually does a good job of getting inside his mind. It's just the world that Alex occupies, that of skate parks and typical teenage dialogue, is nothing that I have much interest in. It is to Van Sant's credit that he' created a realistic picture about teenagers, and the series of events that Alex takes on feel real and earned by his character. He was involved in the accidental death of a person and he has to grapple with all the emotional baggage that comes with a event like that. The film's structure, capturing moments and thoughts more than straight narrative, work in the context of examining it the way Alex would. There certainly images and songs that leave a strong impact in my mind. Yet, for whatever reason, none of this helps me get over this feeling that I don't really care about Alex, the people around him, or what's going to happen to him. For all its achievement in craft, there's something lurking inside Paranoid Park that makes me want to cast it off.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) [7]

Let's not get ahead of ourselves here fanboys; yes, The Dark Knight is an enjoyable movie but is it really a great work of cinema? My gut tells me no, but still, it is about as good as you could ask for in a superhero summer blockbuster. Just because a summer blockbuster has a storyline with intelligence and is not solely filled with explosions and ridiculous dialogue does not make it a masterpiece. The film definitely goes deeper than its CGI exterior and attempts to have a dialogue with bigger issue but after all, it's just a comic book movie. If that's harsh, I really don't mean it to be; that's just the way I feel about this type of movie. Unless the Watchmen film can prove me wrong.

As for the film itself, Nolan certainly provides the story and characters with a richness and depth that has been sorely lacking from a film of this type (I haven't seen Batman Begins, so maybe I'm a little behind in the rejuvenation of the Batman franchise). The story deals with more moral ambiguities and gray areas than others. Yes, Heath Ledger's performance is mesmerizing, mostly because it's completely unexpected in the context of Jack Nicholson's Joker. It all works and makes an entertaining film, but still, by playing to the masses, it makes a lot of concessions. All of the important moral ideals being wrestled with are blatantly explained throughout, most notably where Alfred has to explain to Batman and everyone just what the Joker entails. The average, mouth breathing multiplex goer may need this explained to them but I find it a big detriment. Christian Bale as Batman is there simply to exist, to play off Ledger's Joker, as Ledger takes his character to the edge while Bale has no choice but to be restrained in contrast. I've greatly admired Nolan as a filmmaker but here he has earned the capital to take a big risk in a shallow genre and while he does some admirable things, he still plays it too close to the book. The Dark Knight is infinitely better than most films of its ilk and since it does do more than explode and look good, critics have fawned over it. It's certainly entertaining but does it stack up in terms of craft and emotional payoff as Hou's film that I just reviewed. Not really.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Flight of the Red Balloon

Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsai-hsien, 2008) [8]

Flight of the Red Balloon is the type of the film that requires patience. You have to sit back and take it all in, as the film never offers a big payoff but is instead a series of exquisite scenes and shots that resonate far after the viewing is done. Even now after a few days, my appreciation for this film continues to grow. At what first seemed to be a slow, uneventful film turns out to be an exceptionally lyrical examination of childhood and its experiences.

I haven't had any exposure to Hou's films or the famed Albert Lamoriss original, The Red Balloon, which has become almost a cliche for "French film." Hous is obviously paying reverence for the original but is also going in his own way. Hou keeps the film firmly rooted in reality, as most of it is a close examination of a boy named Simon and his family, a frantic puppeteer mother played wonderfully by Juliette Binoche, as well as his Chinese nanny and film student, Song. Hou uses said red balloon as a formal element, hovering above Simon the same way the film hovers over everything, taking all the actions of these characters in, examining but never judging them. It just exists there, much the same way the film does, capturing the harried exasperation of Binoche's character, Simon's piano lessons and video games, and the cramped, cluttered spaces they occupy. Hou creates meticulous and supremely crafted images, ones that are a reflection of Simon's loneliness and other emotions. The character's situations are explored but are never solved, much the way the balloon could never solve these issues, at the expense of having a tidy resolution. Hou has created a world that is downbeat but still exceptionally profound and moving in its own understated way. Flight of the Red Balloon is a film that takes its time and in doing that, creates something immensely beautiful in its simple features.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Useless Film Snob's Best Music of 2008

2008 was and up and down year for music. A rash of quality releases at the beginning and end of the year bookended a year that had more than enough quality albums. Cutting the list down to even 40 was harder than I thought it would have been. A good majority of the list are artists that have been on previous lists as well as some high performing newcomers. When you have so many artists that you already have an interest in, to find something new always takes more time and effort. 2008 was also the first year in the last five that I didn't attend Bonnaroo or many other major concerts, so these albums are what kept music alive for 2008:

40) Duffy - Rockferry
An album where a few standout blue eyed soul tracks make it worthwhile. Probably the most commercially viable album on the list.
Choice tracks: 'Warwick Avenue', 'Syrup and Honey'
39) Of Montreal - Skeletel Lamping
Sprawling electrofunk indie dance pop that once again sticks out on this list.
Choice tracks: 'An Eluardian Instance', 'St. Exquisite's Confessions'
38) Rachael Yamagata - Elephants....Teeth Sinking Into Heart
It's been quite a few years since Yamagata's debut, and here working with Mike Mogis, creates a set of more atmospheric songs.
Choice tracks: 'Duet', 'Don't'
37) The Broken West - Now or Heaven
This L.A. group's second album is solid but doesn't have near the excitement as last year's debut.
Choice tracks: 'Auctioneer', 'House of Lies'
36) Old Crow Medicine Show - Tennessee Pusher
Big Iron World, which was somehow inexplicably left of my '06 list, is tough to live up to. Tennessee Pusher isn't as good start to finish but it continues to showcase's this bands reinterpretation of bluegrass and traditional folk music.
Choice tracks: 'The Greatest Hustler of All', 'Caroline'
35) Loudon Wainwright III - Recovery
Re-recording tracks from his 70s material, Wainwright offers new insight to a good number of tracks that an older voice bring more meaning.
Choice tracks: 'Motel Blues', 'New Paint'
34) The Moondoggies - Don't Be a Stranger
The last couple of years have seen Seattle become a hotbed of roots and folk influenced bands that seems odd for a place associated with Nirvana and Pearl Jam. This debut is steeped in the Americana like that of The Band.
Choice tracks: 'Ain't No Lord', 'I Want You to Know'
33) Beach House - Devotion
Lush, dreamlike songs by this Baltimore duo.
Choice tracks: 'Turtle Island', 'D.A.R.L.I.N.G.'
32) Old 97s - Blame It on Gravity
The first albums from Rhett Miller & company in a few years throws all their influences together: country, power pop, even some surf music into a welcome return.
Choice tracks: 'My Two Feet', 'Here's to the Halcyon'
31) Marah - Angels of Destruction
The last hurrah of the best lineup Marah ever had, this album has the most polish of any studio record the band has ever released.
Choice tracks: 'Santos De Madera', 'Angels of Destruction'
30) Sun Kil Moon - April
Another album of somber acoustic songs and Crazy Horse like guitar tracks, all with Mark Kozelek's haunting voice.
Choice tracks: 'The Light', 'Like the River'
29) The Black Keys - Attack and Release
In '06, I said you always know what to expect out of a Black Keys album. Working with Danger Mouse, the band has definitely expanded their sound, but is it bad that I my favorites tracks are the ones that sound like the old Black Keys?
Choice tracks: 'I Got Mine', 'Strange Times'
28) Kathleen Edwards - Asking For Flowers
Foul-mouthed when she's rocking, lyrical when she quiets it down, Edwards has definitely matured beyond being a Lucinda Williams acolyte.
Choice tracks: 'The Cheapest Key', 'I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory'
27) The Delta Spirit - Ode to Sunshine
An album where you could debate the exact release, but it's 2008 for my records. Blending 60's influences like the Kinks and Buffalo Springfield, this is a enjoyable retro sounding record (which isn't bad). 'People Turn Around' is second choice for choice track of the year.
Choice tracks: 'House Built For Two', 'People Turn Around'
26) The Dodos - Visiter
Another band taking folk stylings and twisting and using it in ways that don't make it seem like copying.
Choice tracks: 'Walking', 'Fools'
25) Ray Lamontagne - Gossip In the Grain
For me, it's going to be nearly impossible for Lamontagne to surpass Trouble. That being said, this album benefits by not being nearly as dour as his last release.
Choice tracks: 'You Are the Best Thing', 'Gossip In the Grain'
24) Sigur Ros - Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust
One of the biggest disappointments for me was not being able to see Sigur Ros late night at Bonnaroo in person. Of what I've heard, this album had some of the more melodic tracks from the band.
Choice tracks: 'Vid spilum endalaust', 'Festival'
23) Conor Oberst - S/T
Oberst looses some of the earnest emo-ness that Bright Eyes can sink into and instead makes a loose, fun, rocking album.
Choice tracks: 'Get Well Cards', 'Souled Out!'
22) Bonnie "Prince Billy - Lie Down In the Light
A bit more light lyrically, a bit more upbeat musically, this is the type of album that I prefer of out Will Oldham.
Choice tracks: 'Easy Does It', 'So Everyone'
21) The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
This was bound to be letdown record of the year. It's not bad, it's just that it never compares to how great a record Boys and Girls in America was.
Choice cuts: 'Sequestered in Memphis', 'Lord I'm Discouraged'
20) The Whigs - Mission Control
Catchy hooks makes the difference in power pop bands. While The Whigs may bit a bit more muscular than power pop, there's no denying their skills in crafting interesting songs.
Choice tracks: 'Right Hand on my Heart', 'Hot Bed'
19) She & Him - Volume One
Sweet pop songs by Zooey Deschanel with help from M.Ward that run back to 60s pop and Phil Spector.
Choice tracks: 'Change is Hard','Sweet Darlin''
18) Howlin' Rain - Magnificent Fiend
More psychedelic back porch music from Ethan Miller's Comets on Fire side project. Not nearly as revelatory exciting as their debut (No.1 in '06) but right up my alley.
Choice tracks: 'Dancers at the End of Time', 'Lord Have Mercy'
17) Ryan Adams & the Cardinals - Cardinology
Rooted more firmly in classic rock than any Adams since Gold, Cardinology never sounds like its copying its influences but instead creating a defining sound for the Cardinals.
Choice tracks: 'Born Into a Light', Let Us Down Easy'
16) Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
Another album that could be 2007 or 2008 but it's wider availability was this year. Haunting, captivating songs that sound like they came straight out the Wisconsin winter.
Choice tracks: 'Skinny Love', 'The Wolves (Act I and II)'
15) The Felice Brothers - S/T
More shaggy Americana for my Upstate brethren, even if they still are downstate from me. More deftly produced but still with the ragged charms that made their debut so interesting.
Choice tracks: 'Greatest Show on Earth', 'Radio Song'
14) Gary Louris - Vagabonds
Being a big Jayhawks fan, I'm also a big fan of Louris's first solo album, which was produced by Chris Robinson. In fact, it doesn't sound much different than a Jayhawks album, which is a good thing if you're me or a bad thing, depending on who you are.
Choice tracks: 'Omaha Nights', 'Vagabonds'
13) Dr. Dog - Fate
The late blooming record of the year, I was a bit ambivalent about this record until giving it some more listens. The band has sharpened their songwriting greatly since last year's We All Belong and are now becoming one of my favorites.
Choice tracks: 'The Old Days', 'The Rabbit, the Bat, and the Reindeer'
12) Jamie Lidell - Jim
Lidell ditches most of his electronic bells and whistles and comes up with a straight-up blue eyed soul record with a ton of retro charm.
Choice tracks: 'Another Day', 'Wait For Me'
11) Brighblack Morning Light - Motion to Rejoin
To some, this album might sound like one big, slow song. But if you listen more closely, there are tiny moments, whether the R&B influenced backing vocals and horns, or the atmospheric soundscapes that really are impressive considering how the record was recorded.
Choice tracks: 'Oppressions Each', 'Past a Weatherbeaten Fencepost'
10) The Black Crowes - Warpaint
Say what you want about the Black Crowes, they still are one of my favorite bands and Warpaint is their best album since Amorica. The first three songs on the album are perhaps the best the Crowes have ever written.
Choice tracks: 'Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution', 'Oh Josephine'
9) My Morning Jacket - Evil Urges
The positives far outnumber any negatives that are on this album. In fact, I find 'Highly Suspicious' to be kind of catchy. But the songs that sound like classic MMJ are the best ones on the album.
Choice tracks: 'I'm Amazed', 'Aluminum Park'
8) Hayes Carll - Trouble In Mind
In the tradition of smart-asses like John Prine and Todd Snider, Hayes Carll would fit right in. It's a testament to how shitty country music is now that something like this is considered too alternative. Carll's songwriting can switch from satirical to poignant in the blink of an eye.
Choice tracks: 'I Don't Wanna Grow Up', 'She Left Me For Jesus'
7) Horse Feathers - House With No Home
Considered the best discovery of the year, Horse Feathers are another band taking folk stylings and doing something unique. And once again, no surprise they come out of the Pacific Northwest.
Choice tracks: 'Working Poor', 'Different Gray'
6) Jenny Lewis - Acid Tongue
Lewis continues to explore country and soul territory in her solo work even though Acid Tongue has a more 70s Southern California feel to it. 'Acid Tongue' is my choice for choice track of the year.
Choice tracks: 'Acid Tongue', 'Jack Killed Mom'
5) The Walkmen - You & Me
The ragged vocals, the echo laden guitar sound, the dynamic changes. The Walkmen definitely have a unique sound and You & Me showcases a band getting better with each album.
Choice tracks: 'Postcards From Tiny Islands', 'Red Moon'
4) Fleet Foxes - S/T
The favorite of every hipster blog on the Internet seemingly, Fleet Foxes are another band out of Seattle with folk leanings. The harmony drenched vocals are the key on just about every song as the band creates something that just isn't heard that much anymore.
Choice tracks: 'He Doesn't Know Why', 'Your Protector'
3) Blitzen Trapper - Furr
Since I spent a month or so living in Portland, I feel I have a affinity for the eclectic music scene there. There may be no more eclectic band out there right now than Blitzen Trapper. Furr is another mash-up of varying styles but the band find its footing when it sounds most like a Grateful Dead/Flaming Lips mash up.
Choice tracks: 'Furr', 'War on Machines'
2) Okkervil River - The Stand Ins
Okkervil River were last year's sleeper, with the Stage Names rising steadily into my top five. The Stand Ins operates like a sequel, showing the same strong songwriting and musicianship that made me appreciate The Stage names so much.
Choice tracks: 'Singer Songwriter', 'On Tour with Zykos'
1) Drive-By Truckers - Brighter Than Creation's Dark
Speaking of sequels, Brighter Than Creation's Dark could pass as a sequel to The Dirty South (no. 2 in '05). The Truckers return to the exceptional form of that album, even without Jason Isbell. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley return to writing stellar songs that could pose as short stories. Shonna Tucker's songs are solid and the addition of Spooner Oldham on keys add a dimension on certain songs that are a welcome addition. Even at 19 songs, there aren't many throwaways. When the Truckers are on top of their game, as they are here, there's hardly a group out there that can top them. And that's why Brighter Than Creation's Dark is my pick for the best album of 2008.
Choice tracks: 'The Righteous Path', 'Bob'



Sunday, December 07, 2008

Step Brothers

Step Brothers (Adam McKay, 2008) [7]

Step Brothers is juvenile, slight, crude, and ridiculous. It also happens to be consistently hilarious which is all you can ask for of a comedy. In my previous reviews of other Will Ferrell comedies, I've state that the best moments of those films are the totally random, improvisational moments. This film is really nothing more than a collection of loose moments, only very loosely being tied together with some semblance of a plot. Ferrell and John C. Rielly play two thritysomethings with the emotional maturation of ten year olds. The two still live with their parents and when those two get married, the pair are forced to move in together and you get the title. Anything plotwise that occurs is playing second fiddle to Ferrell and Rielly playing foul-mouthed, immature man children to hilarious effect. There are numerous funny scenes but the best involve certain body parts on a drum set and a slow-mo karate montage in a garage with Hall & Oates on the soundtrack. The film may be stupid, crude, and dumb but comedies can play by different rules than drama. Story and character can take a back seat and laughs can cover up for any deficiencies in those areas. Step Brothers does that because it continually pushes the edge of actually being a film and not a collection of improv moments. It's something I've always wanted to see more of in Ferrell's comedies and finally, and when finally executed, it works they way I thought it would. Also, unlike all the other Apatow man-child movies of recent years, it has none of the borderline sappy, humanizing moments that I've always been ambivalent about. Brennan and Dale are just ridiculous, extreme characters, and when accepted at face value, Step Brothers consistently brings the funny moments.

When accessing the reviews of this film at metacritic, the top two reviews were from Kyle Smith of the New York Post and Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post. I only say this because I think these two are the worst film critics in the country and I'm almost repulsed that I would agree with them on this, especially since a lot of the reviews are lukewarm to negative. It really doesn't say that much other than I hope this film is an outlier and that I would have the same tastes as these hacks.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters


Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader, 1985) [6]

Seeing this some years ago, I thought the new Criterion treatment was worth another viewing. While it may be expertly crafted, there's something about Schrader's style and execution that is a little too calculating. It also doesn't help that Yukio Mishima is an unlikable personality to me personally. For those unfamiliar, Mishima is perhaps Japan's more notable writer and someone who became a well-known cultural figure in Japan before committing ritual suicide in the early 70s. But Mishima was also a reactionary with ideas rooted in Imperial Japanese tradition that don't agree and are foreign to me. Schrader tries to get the audience to understand Mishima's ideas by breaking the film into chapters, highlighting key ideas of his work such as art as beauty and the harmony of pen and sword. The film is further deconstructed into three areas: Mishima's biography, the present-day actions occuring on the day of his suicide, and performances of his work. For me, the film performances are the expert part of the film, done in vibrant technicolor and avant-garde sets. Everything about Mishima and his ideas can be derived from these works: his ideas on the body and beauty, nationalism, and this idea of the harmony of pen and sword, of using his writings as a weapon to reclaim the ideals of the Samurai and Imperial Japan. Outside of these sequences, the rest of the film is fairly uninteresting to me and only goes to further my dislike Mishima the man, who was just as concerned with his media image as his status as a literary figure. While his writings may have some power and craft, as the film clearly shows, there's no denying he was a polarizing figure. Schrader attempts to come to a deeper understanding in the film and while some may get it, I never really can fully accept all of its parts.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Promotion

The Promotion (Steve Conrad, 2008) [5]

Conrad gets some points for his story and the portrayal of its characters but The Promotion just isn't consistently funny enough to recommend. The film snakes its way between sly humor, broader slapstick and tender, humanizing moments that never seem to give the viewer or the film a foot to stand on. Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly play two men vying for a managerial post of a new supermarket opening. Scott is the uptight assistant manager who appears to be a shoe-in for the post until Reilly's character, playing a Canadian interloper shows up. A series of hi jinks ensue which get increasingly competitive and play the two directly against each other. These are characters that work because Conrad has a keen sense of observation and is never patronizing towards them. Both Scott and Reilly's characters are people with flaws but the film never uses them to be laughed at. One of the films stronger suits is that Conrad recognizes that these guys are in pretty thankless jobs in a stale, restrictive corporate culture where the acts of sabotage they commit are a form of release from the constant drudgery of their lives. Reilly's character is a recovering addict now addicted to self-help tapes but instead of laughing at his glibness, you end up sympathizing with him. Scott's character is the more unlikable of the two but still, the film does enough for you to recognize why he's doing the things he does. The flaw in the system comes from the all over the map nature of the film. Conrad creates characters and a story so enmeshed in an unfunny corporate world that it's hard to really make this a comedy. As someone who has had experience in the retail world, they're not exactly the best jobs in the world. If the film was just broad slapstick humor, it might have worked better because it doesn't bring up all the rotten elements of working in the service sector. The problem may be that since the characters and their world are all too bleakly real, a lot of the humor gets sucked out of the picture. As a comedy, The Promotion doesn't quite cut, or if you're Canadian, crack it.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Last Listening Post of 2008

This is the last listening post of 2008 before I'll assemble my list of the best music of the year, which usually results in this site's biggest spike in traffic. This all in turn makes me feel like I'm not really wasting my time posting clunky, poorly executed film reviews. As for a best of film list, I am never able to see enough new releases within a current enough window to have a top ten list that has all the films I want to see or feel should be seen before compiling it. I've said it before and I'll repeat it here, 2008 looks to be one of the worst years for quality releases in some time. There have been hardly any really strong films of the ones I've seen and the slate of films upcoming is at best underwhelming. After what was really a banner year in 2007, 2008 will be the worst film year of the decade. Enough venting and on to the albums:

Ryan Adams & the Cardinals - Cardinology
Horse Feathers - House with No Home
Old Crow Medicine Show - Tennessee Pusher
The Moondoggies - Don't Be a Stranger
Of Montreal- Skeletel Lamping (which one of these is not like the other?)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Salo

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975) [6]
I've seen quite a few "unwatchable" films in my viewing experiences but Salo has to be right up there in terms of a continuous stream of shocking and disturbing scenes and images. It isn't quite as shocking to me as it may be to others but there's no doubt that what's in this film is extreme. But should Pasolini get credit for making a great film because his film deals with rape, torture, and murder? I really don't think so.

Based on a work by the Marquis de Sade, Salo is about a group of Italian fascists who, during the waining days of WWII, take a group of young boys and girls to a secluded villa to do Sadist things to and eventually murder them. The title is also a reference to the city-kingdom Hitler granted Mussolini in northern Italy after his government in Rome collapsed. At the villa, old prostitutes sell sexually extreme stories to get the men aroused. Over the course of many days, the men subject their young victims to an increasingly humiliating series of acts that include cacophilia and ultimately the murder of all the victims. Pasolini uses these acts to remark on the role of sex and power, and directly in regards to corrupting influence of power in Fascism. Pasolini uses that argument as his rationale to show what he shows but I don't quite buy the extent to which he goes. These ideas of Fascism and power aren't that strong in my mind and what the film is left with is a variety of scenes meant to make the viewer uncomfortable.

Where the film does succeed is beyond its content or its message. It has more to do with its execution. There is a dark humor running underneath all the sadism, which creates a tension within the viewer. Taken in context of what is on the screen, it's hard to acknowledge that it goes beyond mere shock. But the film's greatest strength is the awareness it creates in the viewer as an observer of these acts. The film is shot in static shots, at mostly medium to long shots with very few close ups. This creates an idea of "the gaze", the viewer becoming as much as an observer as the camera. It creates a self-reflexive notion in the viewer, and it creates a questioning of whether you should actually be watching this. There's no doubt that Pasolini understands these ideas because the ending is a direct representation of this. As the young girls and boys are being tortured in the courtyard, the men each take turns watching out a window through binoculars. It becomes a direct correlation between the viewer and these characters. Salo is meant for the viewer to examine his or her own feeling towards and it does this by making them aware of how uncomfortable they feel by creating this idea of the gaze. The only other film I've seen that's been close to creating this sense of uncomfortable self-awareness is Dyn Amo, a hard to find British film by Stephen Dwoskin. (This entirely paragraph is heavily influenced by a class I took called 'The Gaze Reconsidered' which dealt heavily with Freud and his notion of the gaze as it applied towards film) These elements in regards to Salo make it a constructive viewing experience, even if some of the subject matter and ideas weren't to my liking.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Reservation Road

Reservation Road (Terry George, 2008) [3]

Do we need another film about upper middle class white people and a shattering event that has repercussions for everyone involved? I really don't think so and after seeing Reservation Road, I don't think I want to see one for quite a while. A too overtly mechanical film with listless performances and a turgid storyline create a film that's simply bad. The film centers around a tragic accident and the subsequent effects on the family that lost a son as well as the perpetrator of the accident. George and screenwriter John Burnham Schwartz (who also wrote the novel the film is based on) want to tell a story that focuses on Dwight (Mark Ruffalo), the perpetrator, as an essentially good and trying father who made a bad mistake and is haunted for it. It's meant to put him on the same level as the father of the dead boy (Joaquin Phoenix). The problem is that the film is too heavy-handed in attempting to make them equals. It creates performances out of Ruffalo and Phoenix that are at times ridiculous and other times almost laughable. The mechanics of the story are clunky and ineffective almost directly from the start, making the Learner family picture perfect and showing the flaws in Dwight's family life. Then we get the contrivance of the accident, using a dead child as a means to spurt out a storyline with themes done to death with other films not much better in their mediocrity. More and more contrivances help put the two men on a collision course that never comes to anything satisfying thematically or plot wise. Having never been impressed with George as a director, it comes as no surprise that he can't even get this story off the ground. All in all, Reservation Road never hits any of the marks it wants to and gives me another reason to grow tired of this type of film.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Wristcutters: A Love Story

Wristcutters: A Love Story (Goran Dukic, 2007) [5]

This is a harmless film, fairly boring, that's forgotten the moment its over. Wristcutters is part romantic comedy, part whimsical fantasy, and part road movie and said parts never really form into anything that coherent or interesting. After committing suicide, Zia (Patrick Fugit) ends up in a kind of suicide purgatory, a world similar to reality, only everything is supposedly worse. The only problem with this is that the film never really shows this. It's just like a washed out looking reality with decrepit buildings and lots of power lines. Zia soon finds out that his girlfriend also offed herself and the film turns into a search for her as Zia and his friend Eugene drive across the barren afterlife searching for her. They meet a variety of characters, including Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), claiming to be wrongfully sent there, and Tom Waits in an obtuse, bizarre performance that must have appealed to only Tom Waits. The film moves down parallel tracks, a romantic comedy between Zia and Mikal, and a whimsical fantasy about a dark subject. The problem is that Dukic never finds an effective way to combine the two. The film often shifts in and out of each subject until it reaches a point that it comes out as a muddle jumble that's never very interesting. Some occurrences go on, things are never really explained that much, and the ending is to be expected. Wristcutters is another good example of an interesting premise being undermined by a clunky execution. That's not to say I hated this; I didn't, it's just that it does nothing to make it stick in my mind.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Good Life

The Good Life (Stephen Berra, 2008) [8]

Berra's debut feature is surprisingly good, mostly because it's completely uncompromising in its downbeat nature. That bleak outlook is sure to be a major turn off to many but hey, the world isn't always sunshine and lollipops. Jason (Mark Webber) is an outsider in a football crazed Nebraska town, working two jobs to support his family as well as being a caretaker to a mentally deteriorating theatre owner (Harry Dean Stanton). He meets a young ingenue (Zooey Deaschanel), the two become partners in alienation, and Jason dreams of leaving his miserable existence. The story doesn't have much that hasn't been done before but the film works because the characters are believable and accurate to their situations. Webber and Deschanel fit well together as two misfits brought together by their mutual apathy. Even the supporting performances, especially Donal Logue as the football mad, meat head brother-in-law, help reinforce Jason's feelings and situations. Events progress and get worse for Jason until he has to make an ultimate choice. I won't give away the ending but it's the only element of the film that doesn't fit in my opinion, mostly because of it shift in mood. But besides that, this really was a surprise. The story and look of the film match and are consistent throughout. Berra creates a clever little sub story and twist involving the Deschanel character that is revealed at the right moment. Maybe it's because of its bleak nature but this film is being compared with Donnie Darko, to which I have to disagree with. Darko is so wrapped up in its ironic, fantasy tinged world to be take literally. The Good Life is all too real, and that hits too close to home for those who aren't going to like it. It's that attention to the characters and their problems that create a solid film.

Plus: the film had no real commercial release date, so for my purposes, it will be considered a 2008 release. And from what this year has already produced and seeing what's yet to come, The Good Life is a strong contender for my best of '08 list.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Go-Getter

The Go-Getter (Martin Hynes, 2008) [4]

I just don't know what to do with this one. It's definitely going to need another viewing sometime down the road. The grade is based on my initial reaction and while at first I didn't really care for this, the tide is turning a little bit. It isn't that Hynes is a horrible director; in fact, the images and the construction of the film aren't really that bad. I have a real problem with the story and everything else associated with. Lou Taylor Pucci plays a mopey teenager named Mercer, determined to head out on a road trip to find his estranged half-brother to notify him of their mother's death. To do this, he steals a car only to have the car' owner (played by Zooey Deschanel) keep track of him by a cell phone in the car. The two strike up a relationship as Mercer traipses across the West, meeting the standard oddball character associated with the road movie. That hardly any of this passes the plausibility test is the overriding factor to me. The entire relationship between Mercer and Kate doesn't make any sense to me whatsoever. The rest of Mercer's journey is too much of a stock road movie to make me feel any apathy towards him or it. That Deshcanel's performance, somehow intriguing in spite of its context, is the only thing keeping the story above water (my feelings may be a bit biased in this regard..see here). And yet I have the feeling that I'm take the literalness of the plot too literal and that it's completely blinding my appreciation for the film overall. That this review took several days of wrestling with these issues and still not coming a conclusion is proof that I'm not 100% confident in my feelings for the film. As it stands right now, it has some nice moments but the plot has too many incongruities for me to approve, even though I really want to.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Elevator to the Gallows

Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle, 1958) [7]

Malle's debut feature is a confidently crafted French noir that is surprisingly accomplished film in terms of style for a first time director. Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet play lovers conspiring to murder the woman's husband. In covering up his tracks, Julien (Ronet) ends up getting stuck in an elevator. This one events leads to a series of events that involve more two teens, a stolen car, another set of murders, and the eventual undoing of everyone that happened to be involved. The story itself is serviceable but never quite as good or engaging as it could be. The film's best moments are the more lyrical ones that break away from the traditional structure of the film. These focus on Moreau, looking smoldering without makeup, as she walks the streets of Paris grappling with the idea that Julien has abandoned her yet still determined to find her. The film could have been done without any of these scenes, but it adds something beyond the standard noir story template. Eventually, every storyline comes to its conclusion in kind of a formulaic way that leaves the viewer wanting something more. It doesn't really sink the film, however, mostly because of Malle's skilled direction and the fantastic black and white cinematography. Couple that with Miles Davis's improvised Jazz score, and the look and style of the film win over any flaws in the story. Maybe the greatest attribute that could be given is that this film would be what one would think of as French New Wave noir.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Listening Post - Late October/Early November

Still trying to get caught up with all the new releases before attempting to assemble my end of the year best-of.

Jenny Lewis - Acid Tongue
Brightblack Morning Light - Motion to Rejoin
Ray Lamontagne - Gossip In the Grain
Racheal Yamagata - Elephants...Teeth Sinking Into Heart
Blitzen Trapper - Furr

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

La Chinoise

La Chinoise (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967) [7]
Not as radical in form as Weekend, La Chinoise does share the same radical political sensibility that defines Godard's work of the late 60s. Both as an examination and critique of the Maoist influenced left in France, the is certainly stamped in its place and time. That doesn't mean it's an excruciating bore to watch; in fact, it was a much more enjoyable film than I imagined. The film centers on a group of student radicals, left alone in a Paris apartment for the summer, as they talk and plan revolution. There's a constant argument about the "true communists", the Maoists and Soviet revisionists. It boils down to a lot of bluster and very little action, which could be take as a dig against the radical movement, but I really don't believe it is. The group decides to attempt to shut down the universities by a campaign of fear and bombing. This leads to a fantastic scene with one of the students and her professor, on a train, discussing the merits of the plot. The film ends with the summer gone, parents back, and nothing accomplished. While Godard does send up some of the pompous navel-gazing done that characterizes the left, he and the film seem more emboldened by the student's earnest thoughts and actions more than trying to demean it. He uses this fixed place, the confined walls of the apartment, to concentrate on the arguments and dissection of Maoist ideas and to a more general extent, the ideas of the radical Left in general. It could have been nothing more than some actors shouting political rhetoric, but Gordard elevates it by breaking down form to an extent. Through vignettes, music, and breaking down the forth wall, the film mixes itself up enough not to make just a recital of works. I happened to like the use of color in the film, a lot of contrast of stark white and red. While I'm sure a lot of people will find the film stuck in its place in time, I happen to see it as an interesting document in history.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure/Taxi to the Dark Side



Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, 2008) [5]/Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney, 2007) [6]

Both of these documentaries deal with the issue of interrogation and torture in regards to the War on Terror with varying degrees of effectiveness. Morris's film leaves some serious questions left hanging in the wind and Gibney's film needs to focus.

Standard Operating Procedure deals exclusively with the scandal that erupted out of Abu Gharaib and the now famous pictures that leaked out. Morris employs his trademark style and questions those directly involved in the situations involved in the pictures. The problem is that Morris doesn't get any deeper than where the situation already is. Everyone involved says they were just following orders but the film never manages to pinpoint the culprits beyond the low ranking MPs in the pictures. What did we learn from this? That Lyndie England is a country bumpkin? That her rationale was she was in love with a man who appears to be a borderline sadist seems like the perfect explanation. The real problem hinges on Sabrina Harman, who is meant to be the voice of reason in Morris's construction. That Harman had private misgiving about the prisoner abuse but never raised her voice and was the main photographer/documenter of the instances of abuse don't add up to what Morris wants us to believe. Sure, what happened at Abu Gharaib was beyond just a bunch of "schmuck MPs" acting foolishly but by never being an attack dog, Morris slips off the high ground and ultimately, SOP holds no one sufficiently accountable.

While Taxi to the Dark Side definitely has more partisan bite in it, it suffers from a lack of focus that definitely lessens the blow it should have had. Gibney uses the instance of a Afghani taxi driver imprisoned and ultimately murdered in U.S. military custody as a springboard to venture in the Abu Gharaib mess and the overall issue of "enhanced interrigation techniques." If Gibney would just stick to the story of Dilawar, the cab driver and how the military's own death certificate listed his death as murder, and stuck to it, it would be much more effective. Instead, he uses that one scenario to make a case against the entire system the U.S. has set up in this war on terror when this specific case make all his points for him. But at least unlike Morris, he lets his partisan outrage show, something that SOP tries all too hard to supress. While not perfect, at least these films push the issue of the Bush Administration's gross overstepping of the law and morality in general in their conduct of these wars.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Wings of Desire

Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987) [8]

Wings of Desire is, more than anything else, a love letter to the city of Berlin. For a city that has had much made of it through cinema (Berlin: Symphony of a City, Berlin Alexanderplatz), Wenders still manages to find unique and visually arresting images of Berlin on the verge of reunification. There really is no plot to speak of as the film follows the path of two angels as they move about the people and the city. It is an ideal premise to allow a meditation on the city and its inhabitants, as the is able to weave in and out of people's minds and thoughts. It creates a Berlin as these angels see it, but it is also able to create an incredibly poetic, lyrical film. The black and white cinematography is terrific, and the looming crane shots, obviously from the angel's point of view create a very fluid, meandering pace to the film. Eventually, one of the angels (played by Bruno Ganz) falls in love with a trapeze artist and yearns to become human. As the film progresses into the angel's transformation, it looses a little bit of its luster. Essentially, when story and plot progression become too up front in the film, it looses the poetic qualities that make the film what it is. Add to that the unexplainable Peter Falk scenes and Wings of Desire falls a bit out of rhythm. Yet despite any issues the latter part of the film raise, it never fully takes the viewer completely out of the film. It's too good of a film overall not to appreciate what Wenders wanted to say about Berlin.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Be Kind Rewind

Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2008) [6]

Be Kind Rewind certainly is whimsical and slight on its appearance but it does go beyond its somewhat goofy premise to attempt to say something about the movies and what they mean to us. That is falls a little short is a summation for the film as a whole. Jack Black and Mos Def play two guys who work/hang around a thrift and video store on a corner in Passaic, New Jersey. After becoming magnetized, Jerry (Black) accidentally erases the information off of all the tapes in the store. The two's plan to remedy the situation is to recreate films such as Ghostbusters and Rush Hour 2 among others using an old VHS camcorder. Jerry and Mike's versions somehow become favorites in the neighborhood, and the store has a new way to attempt to ward off gentrifying developers. Gondry is one of the few people that could take this offbeat, halfway believable idea and at least make it passable. His whimsical nature (see The Science of Sleep) make what's going on here believable and endearing. There's something in these crummy VHS re-creations that is oddly appealing. It has a certain pure joy of cinema; that it's not really about how a film looks, it's more about what's behind it. It's this idea that cinema is important in the memories it makes in our minds. It's not that important if Mike and Jerry get the story right; what's more important, for the film and Gondry, is the DIY aesthetic and the personal experience of it. It doesn't hurt that there are some genuinely funny moments that come out of those recreations either. The end of the film gets a little bogged down by being too Capraesque and a Fats Waller subplot/film that while impressive, is a little too disjointed from the rest of the film. The film stretches its theme of 'film as interpretation of memories' a bit too much at the end. And yet, it still manages to have some endearing qualities out of ideas that seem slight.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller, 2008) [5]

The Apatow factory seems to be cranking out the same movie over and over again and this is the point where it starts to get a little old. Once again, another arrested development man-child is the focus of a story that goes for ribald humor but also has a heart of gold. The problem with this film is that is does nothing to make it any better or different than The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, or Superbad. Nor is it consistently funnier than any of those. Jason Segel, who also wrote the screenplay, play Peter, the above mentioned man-child. Peter, heartbroken over his girlfriend (played flatly by Kristen Bell) decides to take a vacation to Hawaii only to find Sarah there with her new Lothario boyfriend, played by Russell Brand. Peter is the main problem of the film because his constant whining, crying, and neediness are a little pathetic. But then again, Segel is playing off the pathetic nature of the character for laughs, using embarrassment as the main form of humor. Say what you will about the other Apatow films but the main characters of those other films were never there to be laughed at. Segel tempers this by making Peter harmless and ultimately sympathetic, but to me, it's still a character that feels lazy and cheap in a lot of ways. The plot of the film is never really that important as it bounces from one situation to the next, getting enough laughs out of it to make it passable. Peter becomes involved with another girl, a receptionist at the hotel, played by Mila Kunis about as forgettable as Bell plays Sarah Marshall. (It's no surprise that all these Apatow films have women's roles as essentially filler). The only character that makes a somewhat memorable performance is Brand, mostly because he's doing what amounts to his stand up act. Like any Apatow film, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is basically harmless but I think it's time for these guys to slow down a little bit or else any positives of these films will be washed away by the same tired jokes and characters.


Plus, stop giving Jonah Hill a reason to be in movies. The guy's not funny. At all. Period.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Amandla

Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony (Lee Hirsch, 2003) [4]

If this wasn't so scatter shot, it might have actually made a pretty interesting documentary. Instead, its lack of focus makes it a complete disappointment. In attempting to tell the story of how song helped in the anti-apartheid movement, Hirsch creates a film that has no real focal point and instead it drifts from idea to idea and never gives enough information from said ideas. The problem isn't in the ideas themselves; it's in the execution, or lack thereof that hampers the film. The main idea here, that since a majority of black South Africans could not read or write, that song became the main way to get the ideas of the protest movement heard and understood, is rock solid. That the film only gives cursory glimpses into the larger sociological impacts of Apartheid is a big let down to me. Instead, a lot of time is spent of people talking or performing after the fact. The film would have been much more effective if historical footage would have been used and explained more. The film's strongest moments are in fact those times. While it no doubt has good intentions, Amandla! is far from a perfect document on a story that could be better told.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Snow Angels

Snow Angels (David Gordon Green, 2008) [9]
As a director, David Gordon Green has always been more about images and atmosphere than story. Snow Angels is really the first film of his that put story and characters in the forefront, and it works. What could have easily teetered into overblown melodrama or a disjointed mess, with Green's direction becomes a dark yet captivating film. The film tells two story lines, one of a teenage boy's (Michael Angaran0) family and love life, the other of his former babysitter (Kate Beckinsdale) and her estranged husband (Sam Rockwell). The two plots converge with a tragic event that propel the film to an even more tragic end. This really is a character drama and the performances, especially those of Beckinsdale and Rockwell, are exceptional. They're both deeply flawed characters, likable on one level, unlikeable on another. They could have very easily slipped into over the top performances but Green and his actors know how to handle the material. This focus on story and character doesn't repress the atmospheric touches of the film, as they help to underline each character and their emotional impact to the viewer. Some could say the story lines as too disjointed but I don't think that's really important in the overall scheme of the film. They are used to paint a broader picture, not just of the lives of these characters but as a mood for the film. The film's visual touch accents the bleak nature of it by capturing the nuances of the winter setting. Green does everything right in getting the best out of the actors' performances and his stylistic touches create a cold, dreary setting that gets the most emotional impact out of the story.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Band's Visit


The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin, 2007) [7]

What could have very easily been a one-joke premise film, The Band's Visit is injected with enough filmmaking skill and understanding of character to actually make it funny, endearing, and smart. It would have been all too easy to milk the overall premise of the film, an Egyptian Police band becoming stranded in the Israeli hinterlands, into a film with a lot of cheap fish-out-of-water jokes. Or it easily could have boiled down to simplified ideas about Arabs and Israelis. Instead, Kolirin goes beyond the surface and uses the stranding of the band to get deep into his characters. There isn't much political hand wringing and no greater social message Kolirin is trying to squeeze out of the situation and his characters. He tells the story of his characters regardless of who they are, and the film works because of it. What comes out of it is a story of loneliness, of two characters, the uptight band conductor (Sasson Gabai) and a Israeli restaurant owner (Ronit Elkabetz) who find camaraderie in their shared experiences. There are some peripheral story lines but none really capture the mood of the film and what it's trying to say more than the interaction of these two. It all comes across as not trying to say too much about larger issues but instead uses the personal story to create sympathetic characters. The film, shot in a static, deadpan way, helps accent the stark emptiness of the setting, which in turn emphasizes the traits of the two main characters. It all creates a film that works in not taking itself that serious but still saying something about its characters.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Listening Post - September 2008

This past Tuesday saw a huge amount of intriguing new releases but since I haven't been able to hear all of them yet, I feel I should get what I have been listening to out of the way.

The Walkmen - You & Me
Okkervil River - The Stand Ins
Loudon Wainwright III - Recovery
The Broken West - Now or Heaven

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Coming Home

Coming Home (Hal Ashby, 1978) [8]

By eschewing a heavily polemic view of the Vietnam era, and instead focusing on a love story, Coming Home is a film that is much more thoughtful and accessible than if you were to look who made it. It's a thoughtful, earnest film that's never preachy and while it doesn't want to tell you how to think, it really reinforces that the conflict in Vietnam hurt more than it helped. Jane Fonda plays Sally Hyde, a wife of a Marine captain (Bruce Dern) that decides to volunteer at a VA hospital in her husband's absence. She meets Luke (Jon Voight), a former high school classmate and veteran who became a paraplegic. The two form a romantic relationship as both Sally and Luke have to come to terms with how the war is/has changed them. Sally, always the obedient wife in the shadows, really comes to grips with how many men are coming back from the war scarred, physically and psychologically. Luke has to adjust to a world where everyone is trying their best to ignore that a war even happened. Looking back on this and knowing Fonda and some of the other actors' political history, the film is remarkably rational and thoughtful. Even though the war may have been wrong, the film still shows compassion for those who fought it. Conservatives may not agree but their idea of a accurate portrayal of Vietnam would be The Green Berets. A lot of credit has to go to Hal Ashby to recognize that the personal story in these characters still takes precedent over making a political point. The film is an anti-war movie but it attempts to address and understand veteran's issues that not many at the time would want to hear about. Ashby knows how to get the best out of the actors, to make them well thought out people with earned problems and emotions rather than a series of symbols. It leads to an ending that is incredibly effective as well as a right way to end. While it has no battle sequences or military analysis, Coming Home is still one of the more honest portrayals of the Vietnam era put on film.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Last Detail


The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, 1973) [6]
The Last Detail is an alright film, but I find nothing about it that's very exceptional. It's not flashy stylistically, and Ashby gives his actors plenty of room to go where they want to go; while normally positives in Ashby's work, the film seems slight. The film feels to go along at one steady pace the entire time, never ratcheting or relieving the tone of it. It makes sense to be this way, since the film is documenting the mundane, strangling existence of Navy life but it doesn't resonate with me for whatever reason. Jack Nicholson and Otis Young play two Navy lifers assigned a duty to transport a young sailor (Randy Quaid) to Portsmouth Naval Prison. They find out Meadows (Quaid) is going to do 8 years for stealing a collection box for a Polio charity. That crime is where the film takes an anti-authoritarian voice as the trio drink it up and try to give Meadows some fun before his imprisonment. Nicholson plays the type of character that screams 'Jack Nicholson character' and that may be an unintentional consequence of history seeing the film thirty-five years later. Quaid is good at playing a green young man that ended up in a bad situation. The real saving factor of the film is Robert Towne's script. It's profanity and moments of freewheeling anarchy add an anti-authoritarian undertone to the film. All three characters bristle at some of the domineering aspects of being in the Navy. The one thing that the film does recognize is that as much as these characters have their problems with Navy life, there's no way they can really fight it. The really do have no where else to go. Perhaps that's what makes The Last Detail a little disappointing. No matter how much you think or want these characters to do something, to show they wont take this drudgery, they are completely incapable.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Putney Swope

Putney Swope (Robert Downey, 1969) [5]

Putney Swope certainly hasn't aged that well and I'm never quite sure how effective a piece of satire it really was to begin with. There are moments in the film's take no prisoners approach that work successfully, most notably the advertising sequences, but the larger issue of race and late 60s radicalism don't feel that fleshed out and are there to be taken advantage because they can. Downey may get some credit for addressing the issue at the time but his execution, while barbed, comes off as too superficial and amateurish to be called great satire. Some of this can't be faulted too much because the film is a low budget indie but the execution leaves something to be desired. The story centers on the title character, the token black man at an advertising agency. When the president of the agency dies, and with the other board members unable to vote for themselves, Swope accidentally gets voted in because the others think that no one else will vote him in. Swope proceeds to fire everyone except one token white and replace the board with black radicals. Swope vows a new form of advertising, to get truth and soul out. This is where we get the commercials featuring an orgy used to sell airlines and a limbless man praising an insurance company. The faux ads are by far the cleverest satire in the film, as the stiff and unoriginal portrayal of Swope and his radical counterparts falls flat. Swope eventually becomes no better than the men he replaced, being consumed with the greed and hubris that come with his "remarkable" ideas. That Swope's comeuppance is never really earned fuels the uneven nature of the film.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Counterfeiters

The Counterfeiters (Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2008) [6]

When I was in film school, one of my professors was the noted experimental filmmaker Martin Arnold, who was from Austria. He once told a story that Austrian feature filmmaking was one of the most incompetent and awful bodies of cinema in the world. That really has nothing to do with The Counterfeiters but the thought ran through my mind the entire time watching this and perhaps clouding my judgement about this. After all, this was the first Austrian film to win a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, which says something about Arnold's theory. Ruzowitzky creates a fast-paced, tightly constructed film that unfortunately, doesn't do anything film wise or plot wise to make it rise above "been there, seen that" material in regards to Holocaust material. The only difference here is the story, based on Operation Bernhard, a operation by the Nazis using Jewish prisoners to counterfeit British and American currency to help fund their last ditch efforts at the end of WWII. The film is filtered through the character of Sally (Karl Markovics), a master counterfeiter and Jew brought to the operation to be the quality control man. Once the Sally the character is established, a lot of what happens next is to be expected. We get the moral quandaries of the ones working on the project, spared by their skills while others are dying among them. There's the archetypal martyr character, determined to let principle stand above all else. There's also the ambiguous nature of the SS man in charge of the camp (played with pitch perfect smarm and sleaze by Devid Striesow), more concerned with his own personal well-being than any ideology. While it all makes for an intriguing story, the film still falls short in being great. Ruzowitzky handles the material enough to make it work, but his direction falls into too may telegraphed shots and scenes. The film never raises itself above the middlebrow standard of films that usually win the Foreign Language Oscar. Despite its taut nature, The Counterfeiters still has a way making me feel less than enthused about it.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

3 Marx Brothers Films













Prolonged sickness has put me behind on my viewing and writing. These Marx Brothers films have been gestating for a while but am now just getting out.

The Cocoanuts (Robert Florey & Joseph Santley, 1929)/A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, 1935)/A Day at the Races (Sam Wood, 1937) [4]/[7]/[6]

The only other Marx Brothers film I had seen up until these three was Duck Soup, the critical pinnacle of their film career but a film also notable for being a commercial flop. That film is almost straight front to back comic anarchy, with jokes and gags flying haphazardly all over. The three film being reviewed here all pale in comparison because there are too many elements present in them that take away that anarchistic spirit or take the brothers out of certain films completely. It may have been what audiences at the time would have wanted to see but it seen through these eyes, almost pointless in its misdirection.

The Cocoanuts is pretty much a complete mess with the exception of a couple of scenes involving Groucho and Chico. The film is just poorly structured with too many pointless, overlong musical numbers that have not much to do with the film's plot. Granted that plot has not a lot to do with any Marx Brothers film, but this one is even more frivolous than most. The transfer leaves a lot to be desired in spots but that's a bit of nitpicking. This one does deserve a pass because it was the brothers' first film.

After the commercial flop of Duck Soup, the brothers headed to MGM and made their two most commercially successful films, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. While the improvement in production values is certainly a plus, once again the ability of pointless musical numbers to suck the life out of the film at moments is no less present here. A Night at the Opera is a little bit better overall, mostly because it can have these musical moments a bit more plausible. Each film has its share of memorable scenes and gags but I feel that A Day at the Races is a bit better in terms of Groucho's one-liners and scenes that go closer to careening out of control. It would have been the better film except that it has an inexplicable, racially insensitive and stereotyping musical number with African-Americans that is wholly unnecessary.

All in all, you don't go to Marx Brothers films looking for classic cinema. What these films offer are moments of comic brilliance and that's all you can really ask out of comedy: to give you a laugh for that brief moment. The Marx brothers' film history is cemented not in the overall quality of their work but in moments of inspired comic anarchy.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Chicago 10

Chicago 10 (Brett Morgan, 2008) [6]

Morgan's documentary takes footage of the chaos at the1968 Democratic Convention and the subsequent trial of those accused of inciting the riots and violence with the hopes of enlivening history. In theory it's all well and good and I can see Morgan using the trial of these radicals in hopes of inspiring today's younger generation. The problem for me is he creates a film that works in its standard mode but trivializes the material (the trial) that he updates. I see this as more of a personal view, since I'm one who has had nothing but positive reviews for the Ken Burns, stodgy and historically reverential. You can't blame Morgan for at least trying, but his idea creates two distinct elements that don't quite work in harmony. If this was a film using solely found footage, it would be a very good one and it already does most of the work of the film. It lays out what was happening in Chicago in August 1968, who was there, who led the radical protests, and what ultimately happened. What the film lays out is that Mayor Daley and his police force set up a quasi police state and treated the protesters in a way that a confrontation was inevitable. That the footage shows that the police were the ones who started the violence only re-inforce Daley's culpability. All of it is highly fascinating in its own regard and could stand alone (just don't try to use Eminem to make it feel up to date). Morgan then tacks on the trial of those the government accused of inciting those riots, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, and Bobby Seale among them. Since no footage of the trial exists, Morgan takes transcripts and re-creates the events with rotoscope animation. I've never been a fan of rotoscoping to begin with so visually, it plays out in is swirling miasma. The bigger problem is that Morgan doesn't know how to treat the trial. It plays out as a Yippie exercise, politics as theatre, no doubt helped by Hoffman and Rubin's presence. There is a point that the trial itself was a kind of absurd theatre, but it was because of what the actions of the court, not of the defendants. The film equates the trial as just another showpiece, a platform to raise the absurdity of just what the government was trying to prove. It's a bit dangerous because there was certainly more to it than that. Also, it trivializes it and the defendants to an extent that for me, is too easy to explain. You can take liberties with history to an extent, to broaden an appeal but there's a point where the air just gets too cloudy. Chicago 10 does that enough to where it's just not effective enough as a historical piece of work.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Gone Baby Gone

Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007) [6]

A lot of praise has gone onto Affleck the director since probably most critics didn't see anything in his persona that would have made it possible for him to make a film that was any good. While I happen to agree that Gone Baby Gone is above average, it's never really does anything to raise it above a standard crime thriller. Its greatest attribute is its sense of propriety, that Affleck nails down the lower-class Boston existence of the characters in the film, and imbues the film with the knowledge of the city the same that Dennis Lehane's novel does. Even so, I find the film's plot straining credibility at times and Affleck never handles the material with anymore than a middle-of-the-road style. Casey Affleck and Bridget Monahan play a pair of P.I.s hired to investigate a missing child case. Affleck's character is one of these guys who has risen out of his rough neighborhood only to have to be brought back into it only to have it become an all-consuming obsession. The story weaves itself through a number of twists and turns, the standard operating procedure of any crime thriller (I won't give anything more away for those who haven't seen it). The plot does its job dutifully but its two other elements in the story that are somewhat secondary that have the most interest for me. The film has moments where it captures the media feeding frenzy a story like a missing child creates. Affleck shows the viewer how the media chews up and spits out the people involved in events that are much more beyond quick sound bites. The other interesting question is the moral one raised by the film's ending. The film asks what should the role of parenting be and when should the welfare of a child overrule the bonds of family. Amy Ryan's character (overrated by the way) as the drug-addicted mother is present to play this friction point. The answer is left unanswered as it should be but it holds much more interest to me than any plot twists involving cops and drug dealers. If Affleck had concentrated on these themes just a bit more, this had the potential to be a really good film. Even in its current form, it's a fairly good, safe picture.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Times of Harvey Milk

The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein, 1984) [7]

While not quite an overall biography of Milk, who rose to prominence as one of the first openly gay elected members of government in the U.S., Epstein's film does a good job of covering the most influential times of Milk's life. The isn't simply about Milk being a gay man who got elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors; it serves as that, but it also as a rallying point, that Milk stood not just for gay rights for equal treatment for all downtrodden minorities. The way the film does this makes it an effective piece of work if you're sympathetic to Milk's ideals but could also be considered the weakest link in the picture's narrative thread. Epstein chooses to interview only those close to Milk and while this isn't necessarily bad, it treads into that territory of lionizing Milk instead of just praising the man and his causes. The film gives a little of that with the union mechanic won over by Milk's values but it would have been nice to see a little bit more of that. There are times when the film raises the points that Milk was a shrewd, media savvy politician but once again, there's not enough as the film centers on the greater issue of Milk fighting for the gay community's rights in San Francisco. There's nothing wrong with that but it all fits too easily into the film's latter conflict, the dichotomy/rivalry of Milk and fellow supervisor Dan White, the man who shot Milk and mayor George Moscone. White's persona serves as the counterpoint to Milk's and it almost backfires, as White and his ridiculous defense for his actions threaten to take over the film. Smartly, Epstein knows to hold back just enough to the greater ideas of Milk up front. All in all, the film works because it's an honest, heartfelt portrayal of a man who needed to have his story told.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hiroshima Mon Amour

Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959) [5]

I think that this will need a second viewing after some time but for whatever reason, at the present moment, I don't particularly care for this film. It's not that I think it's horrible because it's not; it is effective at times but for whatever reason I never got into it. I understand Resnais's rationale for the film, that the only way to make a film about an event like Hiroshima is to not make a film about it, but I don't necessarily agree with that. The first ten minutes or so of the film is much more direct in addressing the atomic attack on the city and is the most effective part of the film. The juxtaposition of the images of the museum with the audio of the more personal relationship that takes over the film is a fantastic contrast of themes. It would work so well on its own as a short film. The rest of the film centers more on the relationship of a French actress (the striking Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) as they reconcile with their own histories of the tragic event. Once again, I understand that Resnais feels this is the best way to deal with the bigger ideas of nuclear destruction, guilt, and peace but the two characters' actions are too obtuse for me. If the film were about these two and their relationship without a bigger issue hanging over their head, perhaps it would be successful. Here, it feels too removed in its own "arty" (for lack of a better word) way. I am one who appreciates art film but this film really pushes it into that territory ripe for parody. These characters and their story border so much on such self-absorbed behavior so distant from the viewer that it's hard to like them. Again, I may have just caught this film on an off night for me but it feels too pretentious in its execution to really make me empathize or fully understand it. And I happen to like self-absorption and a pretentious attitude in my cinema. For whatever reason, Resnais's direction here doesn't sit well with me.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Persepolis

Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi, 2007) [7]

In the Pixar age, when we come to expect almost lifelike qualities in animation, it's refreshing to see something a little simpler and unique. That isn't meant to mean the new age of computer animation is cookie cutter like but there's a romantic tinge to hand-drawn animation that scores some points in my book. I feel the same way about 16mm compared to DV but that's irrelevant here. In regards to this film, Persepolis is a charming, endearing film mostly because it stands out so much stylistically. An adaptation of Satrapi's graphic novels about growing up in revolutionary Iran, the film has its stronger moments when it focuses more on history and culture than on personal memoir. Maybe because it seems so foreign to someone like me, the first part of the film, going more into a historical background and examination of the state of Iran politically is the most intriguing. The thought that the overthrow of the Shah wouldn't and directly lead to the Islamic Revolution is a fact that often gets overlooked but is a focal point to Marjane's story. When the film discusses Iranian history and culture, it is a great film. The second half bleeds into a more personal memoir, where we have to deal with Marjane and her obnoxious adolescence, with only brief moments to take us back to the culture clash which is infinitely more interesting than Marjane's all too predictable rebellion. Still, all that is not enough to keep me from recommending the film and that the film's positives really outweigh any negatives I have about it. The animation style, done mostly in black and white, is such a contrast to what is seen now that it keeps Persepolis from being just another animated film.