Saturday, January 26, 2008

Monthly Listening Post - January 2008

After getting the best music of 2007 out of the way, it's back to the monthly listening post. The first month of this year is suprisingly busy, with a large number of recommended releases this month. There are some strong albums here but only time will tell where they rank when 2008 is all said and done.

Drive-By Truckers - Brighter Than Creation's Dark (a return to the prime form of 'The Dirty South' and will surely be a strong contender for best of 2008, even this early.)
Marah - Angels of Destruction!
Cat Power - Jukebox
North Mississippi Allstars - Hernando
The Whigs - Mission Control
The Everybodyfields - Nothing Is Okay

On the film side of things, reviews will be lacking for the next few days as The Useless Film Snob experiences some true fear and loathing in Las Vegas, drinking and gambling myself into a (cashless?) stupor. I hope to have a best of 2007 films list ready soon, or at least a template, as soon as There Will Be Blood plays in Binghamton, which should be next week. There are a few others that I really want to see but I at least want to get a list out there sometime soon. You know, for my ego.

Oh yeah, Coachella's lineup is super weak. Even though I will be in Portland, Oregon by the spring, if Bonnaroo brings it (the early rumors look promising), I'm there.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

First Snow

First Snow (Mark Fergus, 2007) [6]
A competant but by no means spectacular thriller, First Snow has a lot of things that are fairly well done. Guy Pearce's performance anchors the film and it has to, as the slow unraveling of Jimmy Starks's life after a visit with a fortune teller is the entire story. Pearce sells it by letting Jimmy be a truly unlikable character. In the beginning, he's an arrogant hotshot salesman that obviously, pays no serious attention to what the psychic is saying. But once certain things happen to come true, the film as well as Jimmy's psyche, lurch into a more metaphysical realm. Jimmy will be safe until the first snow occurs and as the film progresses to that point, Jimmy has to deal with the possibility of death as well as an unsavory bit of his past. Pearce succeeds in making all this believable because he allows himself as Jimmy to be unwound and completely susceptible to what most around him consider a bunch of nonsense. Jimmy becomes certain that an old friend, Vince, that he happened to send to prison, will try to exact revenge. The last half of the film becomes a kind of cat and mouse game between the two. While the story itself is nothing new, Fergus executes it very well, building a series of tense moments that any thriller should. What helps, especially in a noirish film like this, is an excellent yet minimal score that underscores the anxiety in the air. While all of the auxiliary elements of the film help Fergus, he seems to forgot that story is the film's main weakness. None of the supporting characters have much to do other than Vince, Jimmy's old friend, but even he's not seen until the very end. My main problem is that the characters and story have been told so much in so many variations that it's nothing special. I'm always someone who preaches about not having to have a tidy resolution to a film but here, I feel the ending is completely wrong for the way the film had been heading to that point. No matter how many right things can be done with a film, if there are some glaring weaknesses, they take precedent.

Monday, January 21, 2008


Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007) [8]
I really don't have that much insightful to say about this other than it's hard to find anything wrong with this. Like all Pixar, it's a highly enjoyable story with a lot of clever moments and a heartwarming ending. What makes this a little more impressive for me is the visual flair that Bird gives the film. Granted, I haven't seen an animated film in a bit but there are some shot and sequences that look fantastic. Credit has to go to Bird for making decisions and having some sequences that are quite adventurous for an animated film. The story is pretty simple on the surface: Remy is a rat (voiced by Patton Oswalt) that becomes a gourmand and with the help of the bumbling Linguine, becomes a celebrated chef in a restaurant in Paris. It's all quite cute and creative in its execution, seeing that no one is truly mortified that a rat can cook. Digging a little bit below delves into the ideas of cooking and criticism. There's this idea permeating the film that anyone can cook and while Remy is certainly proof of that, the film is also a celebration of the elitist food snobs that populate the world of fine cuisine. Individual creativity and craft are traits to be celebrated in a cook and it's no coincidence that the mass market foodstuffs to make money that Skinner wants to paste Gusteau's name on is the true villain. The filmic villain, Anton Ego, is a critic, but he is a character that is necessary to the ideas of the film. He is meant on one hand to be seen as cruel and scary but even he is eventually won over with Remy and the idea that anyone can cook. It's also a fact that the food that Remy creates has the artistry and skill necessary to win Ego's approval. Where the film succeeds is saying that criticism is a necessary evil but also letting everyone accept that Remy could do theses things, even though he is a rat. If you've listened to Oswalt's bit on his latest album about how great food is cooked by crazy people, everything that is said in Ratatouille isn't a stretch. In fact, it's a great film about celebrating artistic creativity that wraps itself with a family friendly story

Friday, January 18, 2008

Eastern Promises

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007) [7]
Eastern Promises is easily Cronenberg's most mainstream film to date but still being able to retain some of the macabre violence that are in his other films. What he's done here is made a tightly structured thriller that for whatever reasons, isn't as psychologically probing as his other work. Part of that could be being thrown out of his element a little bit, the story here taking place with the Russian mob in London. Naomi Watts is a midwife out to find why a young girl died giving birth, which throws her into the world of sexual child slavery and the Russian mob. It's safe to say she gets in a little too much over her head, and needs the help of Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a chauffeur in the mafia that's has a humanistic side. The story winds its way until all Anna, Nikolai, the head of the crime family and his son, as well as others bent on revenge all end up intertwining. This is a tightly constructed film, and Cronenberg plays it a little too close to Steve Knight's humanistic script at times. It's interesting that the crux of the film is sexual slavery of young women from Eastern Europe and yet the film itself never really addresses it up front. The girl, Tatianna, hovers over the film though, as her diary entries, the entry point for Anna as well as our involvement, serves as a voice-over. Even though its well done, it seems like Cronenberg is too pre-occupied with hitting all the points of the script to dig a little deeper into these character's psyche. What I admired about A History of Violence is, even with its central story, its themes addressed the violent nature of this nation, asked questions, and tried to find answers. Here, I think a little more of that would have been to the film's benefit. Even though, the story has some unexpected twists which Cronenberg gets credit for keeping so well hidden. There's excellent performances by Mortensen and Amir Muellen-Stahl as the patriarchal crime boss as well as the infamous bath house fight scene. And for once, a film dealing with a different culture to Western audiences isn't portrayed as some exotic other to be observed but as complex people with defining traits.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Naked City

The Naked City (Jules Dassin, 1948) [6]
When I was at the University at Buffalo, I took a class on narrative theory and film, based heavily on the work of Genet. I first saw this film there and while not explicitly dealing with Genet's theories, this film is most notable for its unique voice-over narration. That's also it's biggest flaw; producer Mark Hellinger's narration is partly omniscient, partly opinion, and part analysis. It's kind of winking knowledge that this is a film and what the character's have to do is just too overtly done for me. The only interesting aspect, which doesn't get done nearly enough, is when the narration flows into characters' minds, mostly the residents of New York. Narration is only one part of the story. The film, directed by noted noir director Jules Dassin, is practically the anti-noir. It's a standard police procedural, which I find relatively staid and boring, and the mystery here, while entertaining, is just standard. The film tracks the murder investigation of a young woman as we follow the detectives as they slowly unwind the whole story. What raises the film above just another procedural is that the film was shot mostly in New York City, which was rarely done in the 40s. It adds a vibrancy and authenticity that otherwise would have been missing and frankly, not made the film any good. Being outside of Hollywood sets allows Dassin and cinematographer William Daniels to capture a grittier film, rooted heavily in Italian neo-realism. The film takes more chances visually, moves the camera more, than just about any film of the time that I've seen. Sadly, that can't take away from some glaring issues, the narration being first. Also, I'm a little concerned with the way ethnicity are portrayed. It all comes down to too much stereotyping, notably Barry Fitzgerald as the somewhat loopy Irish cop. That's relatively harmless as his character is actually more than competent in his work. The problems I raise comes from the film's end, as it descends into the Lower East Side, with its melting pot of Jews, Italians, Chinese, and whatever other divergent cultures of WASPy descent. It's a setting and its characters so much defined as being "the other" that it feels unauthentic and too much a product of Hollywood typecasting and stereotypes. It's a shame because what could have been a very good film gets tripped up by its auxiliary elements.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Once (John Carney, 2007) [6]
I don't what all the critical admiration about this was about because I find nothing that spectacular about it. The songs are good but not great. The film is well-made with the exception of a couple of shoddy scenes but nothing about it or its story really move me as much as some of the gushing reviews. Glen Hansard (of the Irish band The Frames) plays a street musician yearning to make a career in music. One night playing his songs, he meets a Czech immigrant (Marketa Irglova) who appreciates him. The film follows the two as they begin to collaborate on music, hoping to make a demo to send to London. The couple also happens become very fond of each other, even though the Guy maybe has a girlfriend in London and the Girl has a husband still in the Czech Republic, with whom she has a daughter. It's really the complexities of this relationship that the film centers on. As the couple go deeper into their collaboration, it becomes clear that these are relatively lonely people happy to have found someone who shares the same interests. Give Carney credit for this: he doesn't take the easy way out. It's not so simple that these two will fall in love. The Guy's career ambitions will take him away from Dublin and the Girl, who herself wants to her husband to be around to raise their daughter, however begrudgingly. By the time that the two are recording their songs for a demo, it's pretty clear that this relationship will be fleeting. My problem is that I never really have any emotional response about this relationship until this point. Up until this conflict point, the film kinds of just ambles along with no real resonance for me. The ending is different however. It's bittersweet feelings are the most powerful moments of the film, even without the music. Carney achieves this by being a little more strict with the camera and tighter with his composition. The film is just too loose and the camera movements a little too wild to really keep a tight focus on what's going on in the film. The music makes up for this but then again, I liked some of the songs but never really loved any. I guess that's one of the keys of Once; if you like the songs, you'll like the film. In going a little deeper beyond them, I see a nice little film but nothing great.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The River

The River (Jean Renoir, 1951) [8]
Film is an image based medium, obviously, and a film that is visually stunning can cover up some less than stellar other qualities about said film. Renoir's The River is a film that should be enjoyed for its stunning visuals. There is perhaps no film of the classic Technicolor era that looks as brilliant as this one. The scenes of the Subcontinent seem so almost ready to burst they're so saturated with color. The images alone are enough to make the film required viewing even if the storyline is a bit maudlin and stilted. As telling the story through a young English girl growing up in India, the film itself will also look at India through Western eyes. This is not unsimilar from what Wes Anderson was doing in The Darjeeling Limited, the two have been compared in subject matter. But it raises the question in me how much of what is seen in this film is the real India? Or is it just a romanticized remembrance of the past? Harriet's narration is in the future, which could create an issue with credibility but I really don't think it matters too much. This isn't a documentary about India and while the exotic and "foreign" elements are present in the film, the story itself is about Western characters. My bigger issue comes from the film is too stilted at times, the result of using non-actors. For being the two main characters at the crux of the story, Harriet and Captain John are just to wooden at times. The story itself isn't above a sentimental coming of age love story that really causes the film to be about average. The end, however, turns the rest of the film completely on its head. Besides some of the best acting, the film really gets out of Harriet's head and lets the cinematic world around her flow more naturally. Renoir handles the complexities of the ending gracefully and ends with a fantastic final shot. Letting the images speak for themselves always work better than trying to say too much.

Saturday, January 05, 2008


Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007) [6]
I was going to give this a five but it's essentially so harmless, and in spots, funny enough that maybe I should give it a little more credit. I still can't see what all the glowing critical response is about, seeing that this is nothing more than a standard teen sex comedy. The key may be in that this film, unlike every other film of its ilk, comes flat out and addresses the homoerotic subtext between male characters that always exists in this genre. For its willingness to address that head on, I have to give it a little respect. The rest of the film is a little scattershot. The two lead performances are completely polarizing for me: Jonah Hill is completely unlikable as loud, vulgar Seth. I can't remember a performance of 2007 that I've loathed at points more than Hill as Seth, who is so overbearing and crass that it's at times dreadful. Granted, that's just my opinion but by this performance and his role in Knocked Up, I really don't like Jonah Hill as an actor. What did resonate with me was Michael Cera as Evan, playing a character similar to the one he played on Arrested Development. His awkward, somewhat uncomfortable comic timing makes the character of Evan enjoyable. Maybe I side with Evan more because that character is more similar to myself than I would like to believe but Cera sells it because he knows how to tone it down when he needs to, unlike Hill. Greg Mottola's direction isn't anything noteworthy but the argument has been floated around in other reviews that he brings more stability formally than if Apatow directed this. My opinion is that a film like this practically throws form out the window, so why even mention it. Mottola keeps the action moving along and that's enough. The story at times falls too much into cheap vulgarity (the whole menstrual blood on the pants thing) and for the film snob in me, juvenile comedy. The ending has a weirdly humanist vibe, as if the film wants to get out a poignant moment but just can't really do it after the dick and vagine jokes. The ideas of valuing friendship and the recourses of sex and drinking try to make themselves known but will the audience really get it after all the raunch? I really don't think so. Even so, any film that has Kevin Corrigan and David Krumholtz in oddball supporting roles will get a few points in my book, as well as Seth's home ec. rant and being the Iron Chef of pounding vag. I really want to like Superbad but there are so many other conflicting factors that make it difficult.

Friday, January 04, 2008

I'm Not There

I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007) [9]
By eschewing the traditional story arc that has begun to symbolize the musician bio picture, Haynes creates a film much more exciting and daring than a standard picture. It is a bit surprising to me that this film has been generally accepted by critics because it is quite possibly the most experimental narrative film made by an American filmmaker in quite some time. Haynes uses the many lives and music of Bob Dylan to create a portrait of the artist and all he's been called over the years: a poet, a fraud, a voice of a generation, mostly an open-ended man. By using six different actors to embody Dylan, Haynes is able to go many more places and capture a different phase of Dylan. There's Dylan as a young black child, attempting to pass himself off as Woody Guthrie and creating his own existence. There's Christian Bale as the earnest folk singer Dylan, bristling under the expectations and adoration as the voice of his generation only to go away and be born again. There's Dylan simply as the poet, as Arthur Rimbaud, made to give answers. Heath Ledger plays an actor that once portrayed Bale's character in a movie only to see his celebrity cripple his marriage. There's Dylan as the mythical outlaw Billy the Kid, hiding from the outside world to live down his legend. And we get the pill-popping, press antagonizing Dylan of Don't Look Back, played by Cate Blanchett. This section of the film is mesmerizing filmmaking, taking heavy influences from mid to late 60s Godard and Fellini. Blanchett captures Dylan as a man against the world, playing games with the press who take him too seriously. It's the centerpiece of the film, in one way because it's the most interesting but also because it's the jumping off point for where the mythologizing of Dylan begins. Bruce Greenwood as the dogged journalist who eventually uncovers the real Jude Quinn stands for the probing fascination the world has had with the man. That he never gets a straight answer isn't a coincidence. This isn't a film meant to have any answers about the man's life. Haynes creates a structure that allows him to move fluidly between each of the six characters with no semblance of continuity in the narrative. What I'm Not There does is capture a series of ideas and examinations. The Billy the Kid scenes with Richard Gere may not seem like it makes sense but after thinking about it, those scenes are an examination of the Greil Marcus mythologizing of an Americana that Dylan embodies. Stylistically, it it Haynes playing Sam Peckinpagh, as Dylan once played in a role in his film about Billy the Kid. Haynes is really playing with the idea of myth and everything that the culture has put into or upon Dylan over the years. His one binding factor through all is the music, both original and covers that while not telling the story, definitely reinforce it. Instead of searching for answers, Haynes lets the music and his images say all that needs to be said.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Doctor Zhivago (2002 TV Miniseries)

Doctor Zhivago (Giacomo Campiotti, 2002) [7]
Having still never read Boris Pasternak's novel, I have no way of comparing this film and David Lean's 1965 so-called masterpiece to see which one is more authentic to the novel. I don't think I'm going out on the limb and saying that Lean's film boils down the book into a standard Hollywood love story. One could make the case that in this newer adaptation Campiotti sexes things up too much, but this film captures the romantic essence of the book better than Lean's film did. After seeing this again, I'll go ahead and say it: this is a much better film than Lean's. This film does an excellent job of showing Zhivago as he really is, a undying romantic under siege by all the forces of revolutionary Russia. He is a man of no political allegiance, nor has much interest in the greater world at large. What Campiotti recognizes in Pasternak's writing is the intense focus on the personal, Zhivago being a man only concerned with his relationships, his emotions, his interaction with the world. Pasternak's book has always been considered anti-Bolshevik but personally, I think it's more of a stand against not allowing the artist and creativity to flourish, a trampling of the soul and expression. It, like its main character, isn't so much concerned with political minutiae but more with broader terms of humanism and freedom. As for the film itself, everything is solid if not spectacular. Campiotti does a good job of being consistent stylistically and the cinematography is above average. The performances of Hans Matheson as Zhivago and Keira Knightley as Lara are good but are a little lacking in some more emotional moments. There is much more sexuality in this film than Lean's but that seems to fit the theme of Pasternak's novel than the simple sentimentality of the former. This version of Doctor Zhivago, while by no means a masterpiece, captures the essence of the story much more clearly than its more well known and admired adaptation.