Thursday, February 28, 2008

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Anatomy of Hell

Anatomy of Hell (Catherine Breillat, 2004) [5]
Breillat is more a provocateur than a storyteller, and if judging this film solely on its ability to shock and provoke people with its images, it succeeds beyond a doubt. The problem stems from what exactly Breillat is attempting to do simply beyond create a visceral reaction. This isn't some feminist screed against men, even though one of its main themes is men are repulsed by female anatomy, specifically the genital area. On the surface, it shares some of the anti-feminist, pro-pornography ideas stated by people like Camille Paglia. But the film is not really pornography, nor is it pro or anti-feminist, or homophobic as some reviews have stated. Well, then what is this exactly? I really don't know and that's part of my conundrum with its grade. A woman pays a gay man to watch her for a series of nights in what she calls her most "unwatchable" acts. It a series of events and images that really don't have or need to be listed other than as a means to obviously create an uncomfortable feeling for the viewers. One of the points Breillat keeps hammering away at are that men hate women, and more specifically women's bodies. Using a gay man, who supposedly would hate women more than the common man, would emphasize this feeling of repulsion even more. Breillat's main problem may be she may be a little off base on her ideas. If she's trying to create a series of images that would support her argument, she has succeeded in this film. After watching some of the surreal scenes and images, it would create a feeling of discomfort towards the female form. I, however, don't think they are nearly as disturbing or disgusting as the general perception of the them should be. For instance, I don't happen to hate the female form that much, especially the area she mostly concentrates on. Really, the film's images aren't that disturbing; in fact, there the film's strongest element. It's the cloudy ideas that lie beneath that bring Anatomy of Hell down.


Interview (Steve Buscemi, 2007) [4]
This film simply isn't that good because it gets too bogged down in its own conceit. A remake of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh's film of the same name, which admittedly I haven't seen, it takes the surface vapidity of the celebrity interview and tries to make something meaningful and provoking out of it. The problem for me is that none of it really has any truth to it. The film and the actions of the two main characters, the less than enthused reporter played by Buscemi and the tabloid fixture actress played by Sienna Miller, are all just means to execute its conceit. The film sets up these characters with their pre-conceived notions about each other, they don't take the other seriously, the interview is a waste of time, etc., and then allows a series of events to happen to let each one dig into the realm of the personal. It's a way for each to have their true character revealed in all the snarky, detestable means possible. It frankly becomes boring after a while; not simply because it's all talk, it's more than that. None of what comes out of Buscemi and Miller's characters' mouths sounds believable to me. It one after another of loaded lines and scenes that help break down the wall between the characters set up at the start and set up and set up the twist at the end. There is nothing really that revealing or profound coming out of their mouths. All it really shows is how unlikable these characters really are. Buscemi's reporter has integrity issues and comes across more as a lecherous loser than an reporter trying to break down an actress's false exterior. Miller is actually pitch perfect playing a spoiled actress who really isn't that good of one and uses her tabloid exploitation to gain fame more than credibility. Somehow, it doesn't seem like she was stretching herself too much in playing the role. Normally, I don't have a problem with characters who are unlikable but these characters are such solely to set up the film's story. They're petulant, spoiled and have no real connection to reality under the "truths" they supposedly spout. While Interview clearly wants to dig deeper into the process, it actually comes away with nothing more than what it sets out to deconstruct.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Random thoughts for the usesless few

Random thoughts more than often tend to come on Thursdays. This can be explained that our extended family usually heads out to dinner on Thursdays and more than not, I end up drunk. When I'm drunk, I like to ramble on, hence random thoughts:

-If there's any way No Country For Old Men or There Will Be Blood don't win Best Picture, mark my words, there will be blood. I know I said I would boycott the Oscars for eternity after Crash won, but I changed my mind after the two frontrunners are the two films I considered the best of the year. My top ten of 2007 will be coming in days too...

-Thank the invisible, non-existent diety that the writers' strike is over. I really need some new episodes of The Office. Here's hoping NBC has some backbone and actually airs the final episodes of Scrubs. I have a feeling they'll dump the last few in the middle of the summer like they did Freaks & Geeks. And you wonder why they're in last place?

-Bonnaroo's lineup isn't really that bad top to bottom but Metallica on there drives me mad. Well, for all you hippie/hipsters out there (which is me and maybe a dozen other people as far as I know), look no further than 4th of July Weekend in Rothbury, Michigan for the Rothbury Festival. Panic, Phil & Friends, MMW, Ray LaMontagne, The Black Keys, Gov't Mule, Secret Machines, Drive-By Truckers, Yonder Mountain, and Of Montreal make Bonnaroo irrelevant as far as I'm concerned. Hopefully, the Snob as well as his inner circle will make the trip from Oregon and have a truly great weekend.

-Some grade changes: Sicko is now a 7, Away From Her a 6. This will all make sense when my Top Ten is released. I'm waiting for Sicinski to release his first.


Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007) [7]
One of the suprise hits (critically and commercially) of the year isn't some relevatory piece some would like to believe. At its essence though, it's watchable, endearing, and not half bad. The cultural watchdogs would like to think a film about a 16 year old girl deciding to keep her pregnancy makes the film automatically conservative and while it basically is, Reitman and writer Diablo Cody never bring ideology or politics into it. The film works because it eschews this and stays inside the head of Juno, giving a portrait of a young girl going through all the conflicting emotions that a pregnancy would raise. Juno on a more personal track, with Reitman and Cody clearly showing compassion for their main character as well as understating the other characters, especially the young couple yearning for a baby played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. The Garner character especially, with her by-the-book examination of pregnancy wrapped up in an uptight, yuppie exterior, could have easily gone too far into broad or overblown characterization. They are meant to be played as the exact opposite of Juno and while I don't completely buy into it, it serves it's purpose in the story. It's Ellen Page as the title character as well as Michael Cera, playing his standard awkward character, as the boyfriend/father that work well. The two's chemistry and hitting the right notes of the tough to define nature of teenage romance as well as the problems a pregnancy can bring are the bright spots for me. I'm no fan of the show-offy, snarky dialogue Cody pumps out in the first half to two-thirds of the film, but when she actually tones it down and examines these two beyond smart-aleck remarks, it's a very compassionate view of these characters. To me, the first half of the film keeps at bay any real emotional validity in the film or its characters but when Juno lets her guard down, it makes her real for lack of a better word, and validates her character beyond a wise-cracking teenager. This last third of the film is layered with depressive overtones that create a emotional grounding in a the film world that I feel was sorely lacking for a lot of it up to that point. This more plaintive, somber nature of actually examining the realities of the situation save the film from being a bunch of overblown hype. By it's essence, the end is inherently conservatively but there's nothing wrong with that as long as it succeeds. Reitman, while doing nothing more than workmanlike direction for most, frees up a little more at the end and actually give the film some personality beyond its script. The performances hit their spots when they're supposed to. The songs of Kimya Dawson, plaintive and somber like the film, work much better in the film than they would on their own. It all makes a nice little film that is sincere and likable and good but not great.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Sweet Land

Sweet Land (Ali Selim, 2006) [8]
After receiving this and reading the synopsis on the sleeve, I wasn't that enthusiastic about viewing this. Period romance pictures just aren't something that I have that much interest in. Sweet Land proved me wrong as I was pleasantly surprised by numerous elements of the film. Selim's direction is suberbly poised for a first time director. This is a slow-paced, subdued film, mirroring the setting, post WWI Minnesota. A quiet farmer named Olaf (Tim Guinee) sends for a mail-order bride from Norway, Inge (Elizabeth Reaser). Olaf finds out that Inge is in fact German, which doesn't sit well with the pre-conceived prejudices of the community. Plus, Inge has no proof of citizenship, which means the couple cannot get married. The film centers on the blossoming relationship between the two as they come under scrutiny from the local community, especially the local minister. Selim shows great restraint in not stereotyping characters or overdoing his story, overloading it with too much dialogue or quirk. The film's strongest asset is its quietness, just letting Olaf and Inge awkwardly interact and find out about each other. Selim never rushes anything or tries to tell too much or reveal anything before its necessary. While the pace of the film could be considered slow, it's aided greatly by the look of the film, vibrant 35mm, which in my opinion, isn't seen enough. There are some exceptions when the film jumps in progression but it's not an issue because the center of the film is the love story. Guinee and Reaser give performances that could easily have been made mawkish but they are subtly nuanced and understated. That's what makes them work so well. Supporting roles by Alan Cumming, Ned Beatty, and John Heard are also well done. The roles aren't that big but they don't take anything away from the film

One word I keep going back to when describing this film is subtlety. This isn't a film that's going to win anybody over with over the top performances and lots of action. There's not even a big romantic resolution to Olaf and Inge's situation. They end up being accepted in the community but there's not a lot personally revealed. The film goes back and forth in time to show Olaf's and Inge's death and even then, I'm not completely sure if the realtionship is based on romance or a common reliance formed with each other during the main portion of the film. While this may be maddening to people that want more, it's this idea of restraint, in terms of film and story, that make Sweet Land a quiet surprise.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Rescue Dawn

Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2007) [5]
This film, much like its central character, Dieter Dengler, is filled with such a single-minded determinism that it creates a bit of a problem. Obviously, Herzog wants to tell the story of Dengler, a pilot shot down and imprisoned during the early days of the Vietnam War and his heroic, near miraculous escape from his captors. The problem for me is the film is so centered on Dieter's struggle and his own drive to escape that it becomes it not repetetive, at least ambivolous to the events around him. Everything in the film, from the jungle landscape to Dieter's Vietnemese captors, are used completely as obstacles for Dieter to overcome. They never have any real qualities or emotions other than they exist to be conquered. There's no mention of the greater aspects of the war, other than it seems like every Vietnemese is ready to kill someone at the drop of a hat. All of this may be functional in the grand scheme of things, it is essentially Dieter's story, but the lack of other elements doesn't make this a great film to me. Herzog has used the massive size of the jungle as crucial themes in his other films, bordering on being characters themselves. Here, he doesn't do any of that which is the biggest disappointment for me. Christian Bale certainly is interesting as Dieter, a man filled with so much optimism and ambivilence to his situation, it makes you wonder if he isn't a little mentally diminished in some ways. Bales at least sells the character by consistency. The real powerhouse performance of the film is Steve Zahn as Duane, the polar opposite of Dieter, a man who captivity has crushed all optimism and will to escape let alone survive. Dieter operates as the catalyst to stir one final push in Duane, and Zahn hits all the right points in playing the character. It would have been interesting to have a film from Duane's point of view with Dieter being one of the supporting characters. Unfortunately, that's not what's here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The King of Kong

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (Seth Gordon, 2007) [8]
I would have never expected an entertaining interesting film about adults playing Donkey Kong of all things. The King of Kong centers on the rivalry of two men vying for the world record of Donkey Kong. Billy Mitchell has had the high score since the mid 80s, and apparanetly hasn't changed his hair and fashion sense since then either. Bragging of his "accomplishments", he comes of as the most self-important asshole on the planet who has no idea he's practically nobody. Steve Wiebe is a mild-mannered father of two who breaks Billy's record in his garage. You couldn't ask for two more divergent yet cinematically rich personalities than these two, as the film charts their rivalry, as Steve and Billy go back and forth with the record. Gordon portrays Steve as the nice guy playing by all the rules sent down in front of him while Billy is engaged in mind games, manipulation with the head gamers, and a constant battle of oneupsmanship. It's clear that Gordon is intentionally structuring the film to make Steve the downtrodden family man and Billy the unlikable alpha male. Still, it makes highly entertaining cinema. The film also succeeds when it goes a little deeper, beyond the simple rivalry and into the world of competetive gaming. The film gives us profiles of the other people in the gaming universe, arrested man-children, frankly nerds. What the film uncovers is the insular world these people operate in, as all of them of highly skeptical of Steve, mostly because he is not really one of them. These people clearly hold Billy in awe but I feel that Billy's aggressive personality is exactly the type that would intimidate people like this. The film's strongest moments are the tracking of their slow acceptance of Steve as a worthy player and apologizing for the inconsiderate treatment they gave him. It also shows the true love that these people have for video games and the impact Donkey Kong and other games have had on Steve, Billy, and the others life. Gordon is never condescending about this, he treats everything her with consideration and gets a fascinating story as the result.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens (Albert & David Maysles, 1976) [7]
Along with Crumb, this is one of the more interesting character study documentaries I've ever seen. But while Robert Crumb was an endearing in his eccentricities, I can't help but find "Big" and "Little" Edie Bouvier Beale not that likable. Their tendencies to shout over and at one another and constantly making efforts to show off for the Maysles tended to be grating for me. The Edies, aunt and cousin to Jackie Kennedy Onassis, live in squalor with cats and racoons in their dilapidated mansion in the Hamptons on Long Island. The woman live in their own little world, shut off from their rich neighbors, and the Maysles meet them head on in that bizarre little world. It's a world that is built almost entirely on the past, what happened to the past, and decisions missed and should have been made. Big Edie makes a point of saying how acclaimed a singer she used to be and how much she had until her husband divorced her. Little Edie was pretty much a Renaissance woman until having to move back out to Long Island to care for her mother, who she constantly threatens with leaving and heading back to New York. The woman bicker and fight over pretty absurd reasons, like the words to a song, and there never seems to be that many quiet moments between the two. To me, a lot of it feels like showing off too much for the cameras, as both Edies drag the Maysles into the film. This isn't a central theme but it is odd seeing how the Maysles are closely associated with the Cinema Verite movement. This familiarity is ultimately beneficial, as it gets to the sad exterior beneath these women. These were two women, from socially prominent families with extroverted personalities that for whatever reason withdrew from a world associated with glamour and money to share a dirty, run down mansion with racoons (the most humorous moment in the film). This preoccupation and sadness with the way things happened is shared by Little Edie at the end, one of the true moments of the film. Her aside to the camera that she should be in New York City, enjoying herself and life instead of where she is caring for her mother, shows her true feelings for the situation. The familial bonds are just too much for her to actually get up in do it. Beneath all the bickering, there's a deeper admiration for each other the Edies. It makes the film more than just a bizarre character piece.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

They Live

They Live (John Carpenter, 1988) [3]
The ideas present in this film could certainly make an interesting film but it's just not this film. Carpenter takes a film with grand ideas and creates a B-movie that no amount of absurd humorous moments can redeem its overall poor execution. Former pro wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper plays a man with no name and no past who happens to find a pair of sunglasses. The thing is, these sunglasses reveal to our man Piper that the world is run by an alien race that wants the human population to become subserviant and complacent. Along with no buddy Keith David, Piper teams up with other guerillas in order to stop the aliens in their dastardly plot...You know what? Nothing about this story had an interest for me whatsoever and that's hard to say with a movie starring the Rowdy one and Keith David. What intrigues me is what Carpenter clearly wants to address, the issue that corporate and more specifically here, Reagan's America, has created a culture pre-occupied with distraction and complacent behavior in regards to authority. The problem is that the film gets sidetracked trying to make a valid point by taking forever to get to the point of the story. The film's almost half over before Piper finds the glasses and I can't figure out who made the sunglasses or how they work. Logic is one thing to throw out here as how else to explain the borderline ridiculous fight scene (which was the reason I rented it, on account of the South Park parody). I'm not that much of a film snob that I don't hate camp or B movies but there is a line between being enjoyable to watch and boring. Any laughs or ironic commentary that can be found in They Live still don't make it that close to being enjoyable.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

I'm Ambivalent about Bonnaroo

Unlike past years, I wasn't going to post anything about Bonnaroo because I wasn't planning on going. Then, a couple of days ago when it began popping up that the lineup was coming out, I thought about postponing my move to Portland (again) and heading back down to Manchester for a sixth year. But after seeing it, however, I think I'll head West. Obviously, the biggest issue is with Metallica as a headliner. I've been one of the few people that have really liked the ever diverse lineups that Bonnaroo gets, but Metallica is the wrong choice. I don't know how many metal meatheads would actually make the trip but the threat of them showing up just to see Metallica and not give two shits about any other band is not some place I want to be. I've been supportive of Superfly and their decisions to make Bonnaroo the most accomodating (musically speaking) festival in this country but there comes a point where crass commercialism overtakes the spirit of the event. Musically, it hasn't quite happened but now that the early-bird tickets are more than $200. That plus my travel expenses make it not worth it, especially with a move in front of me. All that said, the lineup isn't that bad but a lot of the acts I would want to see I've already seen in past years or at other events. It's the first time I can say I've been disappointed about Bonnaroo. It'll be weird not being there after the last five years.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) [10]
I've been a huge fan of Anderson's previous films, and this film is pratically nothing like those but in a good way. His previous efforts have been known for their manic energy and penchant for flashy form but There Will Be Blood is his most patient, reserved film and it's better for that. Anderson's influences still hang heavy all over this film, Altman and Days of Heaven especially but it never seems like he's copying them stylistically for once. While I think Boogie Nights and Magnolia are great films, this is the film that finds Anderson working at the top of his craft. The film is helped immensely by two excellent elements: Daniel Day-Lewis's amazing performance and Jonny Greenwood's avant-garde influenced score. Day-Lewis simply carries the film as Daniel Plainview, a ruthless oil speculator/driller in turn of the century California. He plays Plainview as a slick salesman, a charmer, a devoted family man, and as a ruthless man ready to crush everyone and everthing in his path to achieve his goals. Where the greatness of the film really lies is that even though the film is essentially a character study of Plainview, it never becomes exactly clear what his goals are. Early in the film, it's clear Plainview is searching for personal wealth and even as he achieves that, it never makes him a satisfied man. There are moments when Daniel truly cares for his "son" but he throws away all familial ties in search of greater greed. Plainview comes to the town of Little Boston to drill but finds a nemesis in a young preacher, played by Paul Dano, who has his eye on the oil's riches to help his fledgling church. The two engage in a series of scheming and humilitating the other in order for both to get what they want. It's this idea of greed, captial as well as personal that runs through Plainview and the film. The film how the all-corrupting influence of the oil encases these men's souls. Both Daniel and Eli fall under the greedy grasp of capitalism, as the money triumphs over any other tenets these men have. But Day-Lewis gives Daniel an inner fire, a need to be able to crush anyone that seems a threat to him, that takes this beyond a film about greed and wealth. It's mesmerizing to see the transformation of the man as wealth has only made him grow more unstable and vicious. The ending sequence of the film is incredibly jarring, as Daniel becomes so consumed by his demons that he takes it out on everyone around him. It's a slow, simmering self-implosion that makes the film. Day-Lewis's performance sells it but Anderson also knows how to restrain himself enough not to give too much away and let Plainview's actions speak for themselves.

Greenwood's score is also interesting in that it has no concrete connection to the time frame of the film. This isn't a period score but it contains avant-garde elements as well as older classical pieces to create something that is incredibly refreshing to hear in a film. From the jarring opening creshendo to the Kubrick like ending, it works because it's so different and unexpected. The score makes the first 20 or so minutes a great film, as no dialogue is uttered. That sequence shows how Anderson has developed as a filmmaker in creating a great film like There Will Be Blood. Now there should be no doubt he being considered one of the best of his era.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Ten

The Ten (David Wain, 2007) [5]
The Decalogue, it ain't. Less a morality play than an excuse to a different array of zany stories, the latest outing from Wain and writer Ken Marino is pretty much the same scattershot outing as their last film, Wet Hot American Summer. Sure, the film is has some really funny moments but for me, a comedy has to have more than just laughs. There has to be some craft and understanding of filmmaking present and Wain simply doesn't show any more development of creating a tightly structured film as his previous outing. The structure of this film, being able to tell ten different stories, is helpful in that it allows the film to go off on tangents purposely. The real glaring error is that if the viewer weren't told, it would be hard to figure out that these stories have anything to do with the Ten Commandments. With the exception of the 'thou shall not covet they neighbor's possesions' with Liev Schrieber and his neighbor seeing who can get the most Catscan machines and using prison bitches as "wives", most of the other stories fall a little flat. They have some good jokes but they don't real have a real distinct link thematically. Watching the opening film, it has one mention to the commandment its representing and nothing else. A better concentration of the ideas of the commandments would have made this better. I said after seeing Wet Hot American Summer that it would have worked better as a series of skits. The Ten is basically a film of skits but sadly, it isn't any better.