Monday, March 31, 2008


Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007) [5]
Perhaps it has to do with my personal taste in films that this had an unfair disadvantage to start. I'm no fan of stuffy, upper crusty British films (with a very few exceptions) and there was no way I was going to fawn over this to begin with. Still, I ask what's so great about this film that got critics falling all over themselves to praise it? It looks good and of course it has all the elegant period details but the one thing that most cite about it, the passionate love story, I found almost none of. There is nothing remarkably enthralling about the romantic relationship between Robbie (James MacAvoy) and Cecilia (Keira Knightley), other than the now notable fountain scene, which the sexual tension sparks across the screen. Outside of that, the rest if pretty dull and standard. That may be my prejudices coming out, but then again, these are personal reviews. It was going to take a great deal to win me over with this film, but Wright's direction almost did. The first main segment of the film, before the act that turns around the film, is well crafted in regards to shots and the staccato typewriter soundtrack that really ratchets up the tension. While from a craft perspective it works, from a story one it does not. Not to reveal any spoilers to those who haven't seen it, but the mix-up/event (the letter) that propels the story into its second arc borders on ridiculous and clumsy by the characters of the film. I haven't read the novel to see how its handled but it feels like a cheap convenience. I understand the emotion background of the letter but the execution of the situation doesn't fly right by me. Things only become more drab as the film progresses through the years. Once again, there's nothing in any of the performances to sell me on believing anything these characters think or feel. Wright also looses his footing by throwing in a extremely long tracking shot that shouts "look at me!" but has no relevance to the story. Anybody portraying Briony outside of Saorise Ronan doesn't work. The ending, while appearing clever, isn't. It all results in a film that is another pristine yet sterile class picture about period Britain. If you happened to like Atonement, you may be right; but, this is a type of film I find all too easy to dislike.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Monthly Listening Post - March 2008

It's been a big month for some highly anticipated new releases. I haven't gotten around to getting everything yet, but here's the best of what I have:

The Black Crowes - Warpaint (the first 3 songs are some of the best the Crowes have ever written)
Howlin' Rain - Magnificent Fiend (their debut flew under the radar but this is bringing them more attention and rightly so)
Kathleen Edwards - Asking For Flowers
The Felice Brothers - S/T
She & Him - Volume One

Some sad news also to learn that Richard Widmark has passed away. Widmark is one of my favorite actors of all time, and it was kind of frustrating that he was never really taken that seriously because his best work was done in film noir. Noir or not, his performances were always fantastic. As I posted in my Night and the City review, I think his performance in that is one of the greatest I've ever seen in any film. It's too bad he was never really appreciated.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Assasination of Jesse James

The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007) [6]
Dominik's film is visually stunning and has some very nice moments that are highly reminiscent of McCabe & Mrs. Miller or a film by Terrence Malick. Too bad the rest of the film never lives up to the lofty visual and conceptual standards Dominik yearns to achieve. This clearly wants to be a majestic, epic film and the visuals help it but it's the story structure and the performances that let it down. I wasn't impressed at all by any performances, especially Pitt who plays Jesses James with an almost complete lack of anything. A lot has been made of Casey Affleck's performance as Robert Ford but I'm not buying it. The film plays up his immaturity and his idolization of the legend of Jesse James but to me he comes across as a whiny little twerp who did what he did because he got picked on too much. I don't want it to seem like I'm stealing from Sicinski but he calls Ford "Mark David Chapman with a six-gun" and that was the same comparison I was thinking of while watching the film. Asides from the misguided performances, the story structure really falls flat because of Dominik's ambitions. He tries to tell it both ways: as an epic, historical epic with Ken Burns-like narration but also throws in more introspective, meditative moments a la Malick. By playing everything so close to history, the film becomes clunky, and at times, too plain long. If Dominik would have loosened up the film a little bit, get inside these character's heads a little more, it would have been a more interesting film. The tells a lot without really getting inside any of it. The visual execution of the film only makes it more like a museum piece to be looked at and not really meant to get inside of. If we're going with art analogies, this could have benefited from being a little more abstract. Plus, the epilogue is entirely too long and really unnecessary. All being said, this isn't a terrible film and Dominik has enough craft to create a film that looks great but has some glaring deficiencies.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Graduate

The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) [9]

Even after all these years of watching films, I had never gotten beyond the first half-hour of The Graduate. After reading Mark Harris's book about the Best Picture Nominated films of 1967, my interest was piqued. This is not a groundbreaking film in terms of aesthetics; Bonnie & Clyde was the film of that year that really ushered in a new brand of filmmaking in Hollywood. That doesn't mean that this film is pedestrian; in fact, I think Nichols direction here is actually pretty good with some nice unique shots and elements. The subject matter of the film is more important in the history of things, in that it seems to have landed perfectly into the generational gap of the late 60s. This was and still is a picture for young people, that speaks to the alienation and bewilderment of entering the "real world." It's acutely appealing to me in, seeing how I come from banal, comfortable, middle-class suburbia, in the way Nichols is skewering the privileged culture of Southern California, and by its outgrowth, the mindless suburbs. Benjamin is bored, and perhaps the affair with Mrs. Robinson will bring him some excitement. More than anything, The Graduate hit the public at just the right time, but in fact, the persona of Ben and what he does aren't that different still today. Young people today are still dealing with the issue of what or whom will speak for them, to voice the worries and grievances that they have. It just so happens a film can do that fairly articulately.

As for more about the film itself, what works best is the deadpan delivery of the entire film. The humor of the film is subtle and dry yet it works because it works with the characters well. Dustin Hoffman as Ben sells the role because he lets the more absurd moments overwhelm and confuse him. Most of the talk of this film centers on the affair with Mrs. Robinson but that's really only half the film. Personally, I enjoyed the second half of the film much more, with Ben's dogged pursuit of the Robinson's daughter Elaine. Now that Ben has found some goal to attain, it makes you root for him to get it. There's something between Ben and Elaine (played by Katherine Ross) that's appealing to me even though I can't quite figure out exactly what. Of course the ending has been appropriated quite well into popular culture, and all this time its greatest attribute is overlooked. Yes, Benjamin gets the girl but Nichols does something remarkable for the time and leaves the ending open. We're left with Ben and Elaine on the bus, their elation slowly turning to 'Now what?' terror and that's it. No tidy resolutions, no real happy endings. These two still don't know where their lives will be headed and that's perfectly fine, not having to know. This, and the rest of the film, handled so well by Nichols, a clever screenplay by Buck Henry and the performances quite rightly make The Graduate a landmark film for ushering a new era.

Side note: another wide known element of the film that goes above and beyond the film is the music of Simon & Garfunkel. The most ironic element of the whole thing is that 'Mrs. Robinson' wasn't even finished when the film was released and only two lines of it (besides the instrumental parts) were used in the film. I happen to think Simon & Garfunkel are the one of the most underrated groups in rock & roll history. I know they sold millions of records and have some great songs but they never seem to have much respect or influence nowadays. They seem to be largely forgotten by my generation and that's a shame.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

When We Were Kings

It's NCAA tournament time so films will take a back seat to basketball for the next two weeks. Here's one I got in before all the games started.

When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, 1996) [8]

Gast's documentary on the Ali-Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" took twenty years to find an official release and in that time frame, it became an even more important document of a certain event and time. As the years and Parkinsons erased the Ali everybody knew in the 60s and 70s, this film captures the man at his absolute zenith, the greatest achievement of his career. Most boxing people gave him no chance against Foreman, who has previously demolished Joe Frazier (cue Howard Cosell's "down goes Frazier!" impersonations). Gast's film focuses heavily on Ali before the fight, showing the man as his usual charismatic self in interviews but in more private footage revealing a man much more somber about the reality of the situation. It's these moments with the private Ali that take the film above simply documenting a sporting event. The fight itself takes up very little of the film actually, as greater sociological and political ideas are brought up. George Plimpton and Norman Mailer give well-informed interviews on not just the fight but the odd circumstances of the fight itself, which promoted by Don King, took place in Zaire because the dictator of that nation, Mobutu Seko, put up the cash for the fight to raise the profile of his nation. That the fight took place in a stadium where underneath, thousands of dissidents of the Mobutu regime were being held, tortured, and killed provides a strange dichotomy. By the fight being in Africa, it brings up the ideas of black pride and nationalism that were sweeping across the world by the mid 70s. The most interesting facet of the documentary is the way Ali is treated by the Africans as a conquering hero. It's hard to remember now with Ali being so beloved but his association with the Nation of Islam and his refusal to serve in Vietnam had made him an enemy of much of mainstream America during the time frame. Gast's film goes beyond capturing a fight and showing revealing Ali to be one of the most important figures of the 20th century in any field, mostly because of his role model status not just to Black America but to those all over the world. That he was able to defeat Foreman makes him a much more celebrated figure and the reason this film doesn't center on George Foreman.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Useless Film Snob Book Report - Pictures at a Revolution

It's been quite a while since I posted a book review. That hasn't meant I haven't read anything since then; it's just since that I mostly write about film and music, it would be most useful to post on books with similar subjects.

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (Mark Harris)
Harris's book is definitely an enjoyable read, well written and well researched. Harris goes in-depth into all aspects of the five films nominated for Best Picture in 1967: Bonnie & Clyde, Doctor Doolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night. The book goes into vigorous details with numerous interviews of the pre-production, production, and results of each film. A lot of the book seems to gravitate towards Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate, as examples of the new style of filmmaking that would be called the New Hollywood, hold Harris's thesis. He wants to say that these films, by being so different, refreshing, and above all successful, helped usher in a new era in filmmaking away from the colossal roadshow pictures, evidenced here by Doctor Doolittle. The problem is that the book never re-enforces Harris's thesis that strongly. Yes, 1967 may have been the start of the New Hollywood but there's never anything concrete in book that really create a difference between the pictures. All the films are run through the same way and Harris never really goes into much theoretical analysis outside of the how Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate were handling the issues of violence and sexuality. I'm not saying that he's wrong about his subtitle but the way the book is structured as more of a history than an analysis. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the book; it's still an entertaining read, full of great details of how each film was made. The debacle of Doctor Doolittle could be its own book on the the last creaking throes of the old studio system. The only time this generational shift is really addressed in regards to these films is the Academy Award ceremony itself, as the two middlebrow films, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner fare just as well as the "newer" films. It's the only time that shows that Hollywood wasn't quite ready for the New Hollywood.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Grateful Dead Movie

The Grateful Dead Movie (Leon Gast/Jerry Garcia, 1977) [7]
If you're a fan of the Grateful Dead, as I am, you will no doubt enjoy the movie. If you don't, well I can't help you, you'll probably find it boring. Not quite a concert film and not quite a documentary, the film was the brainchild of Jerry Garcia, who was basically the creative director of the film. Leon Gast headed up the camera crew that captured the concert footage, taken during the Dead's last shows before their mid-70s hiatus. Musically in the Dead world, I think that anything from 1970 to 1974 was the peak period of the band. The performances here are adventurous and energetic and would make an entertaining film by itself. The film itself wants to capture the Grateful Dead experience from all angles; not just the music but the fans. This is the make or break moment for the film. The crowd shots and interviews either encompass everything someone would like about the Dead or allow anyone else to say it's just a group of goofy, spaced out hippies. Essentially it's in the eye of the beholder but personally speaking, the film manages to capture the excitement and the communal atmosphere that make the Grateful Dead unique among rock & roll bands. It's a film truly for Deadheads and no doubt it plays great to that audience.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

In the Name of the Father

In the Name of the Father (Jim Sheridan, 1993) [6]
No offense to Gerry Conlon and the horrible injustice done to him but I find this story a little boring. What actually happened to him, being framed for an IRA bombing of an British pub in the 1970s and being wrongfully imprisoned for 15 years is a travesty. The filmic account of that is just a story that's been told so many times and in the same strident way that it holds nothing for me. Maybe if I had seen this film upon its initial release I would feel different but now, it's hard to find much film wise to get excited about. Sure, it kept my attention throughout and the performances of Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite anchor the film and keep it interesting. The problem for me is that film is crafted too much to be about its important message than what's actually in the film. The problem I believe is Jim Sheridan, who I just have no real endearment to as a director. His middlebrow style, heavy on emotionally charged moments, is just something that I've never found intriguing. His utter of lack of any style here hurts the film immensely, essentially wasting large portions of Day-Lewis's performance because the film just clunks along with no real ups of downs. The first half-hour to forty-five minutes are much stronger, mostly because the film propels to Gerry's imprisonment and the film has some freedom. Once everything gets bogged down in the prison scenes, Sheridan almost allows the film to come to a screaming halt. If it wasn't for Day-Lewis and Postlethwaite's endearing interaction with one another, this would be a boring mess. Liberties were taken with Conlon's story and I have no problem with that. I just would have liked to see Sheridan do something a little more adventurous with the film but the film's determination to show how Gerry Conlon was wronged doesn't do justice to his story.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

My Kid Could Paint That

My Kid Could Paint That (Amir Bar-Lev, 2007) [6]
This film holds particular interest for me since its subject, a 4-year-old abstract painter named Marla Olmstead, is from here in Binghamton. I have never met the Olmsteads or have seen Marla' work but story that Bar-Lev tells in his documentary is well know to me. Perhaps that's why I don't see this as engrossing as some reviews have stated is because I know the story fairly well to begin with. That and Bar-Lev never really settles on one topic instead sending himself off into various topics and never really coming back to a concrete point. The film at its center is trying to capture the "story" of Marla rather than a portrait of her and her family. Granted this is tricky since she is only four and seems to have no real interest in all the hoopla surrounding her. What is most interesting for me is the issues of modern art that a situation like Marla bring up. That a 4-year-old can create supposed masterworks of modern art bring up the idea that it's nothing more than a scam and could be done by just about anybody. NY Times art critic Michael Kauffman is present to continually hammer this point home. Another fascinating aspect of it is this idea that modern art sells not by the quality of its work but the story surrounding it. Marla's paintings are selling for so much and attracting so much attention because of who Marla is, not so much how good they actually are. I only have a base interest in modern art so I don't really know if they're good or bad but that really doesn't matter because it's the story behind them driving it. When the 60 minutes piece basically debunks Marla as the creator of her works, the demand drops with it. This is where Bar-Lev should have stuck but instead he goes into the more personal interest vein of the story. Mark Olmstead as well as Anthony Brunelli, Marla's de facto agent, appear to relish the attention the paintings are getting without any regard for what it's doing to Marla and her family. It has the whiff of exploitation around it that never appears good in any situation. Bar-Lev then almost ruins the film by having to interject himself into it by questioning not only the authenticity of Marla's work but also his own moral role in the story. He recognizes he's using the Olmsteads for his own personal gain and begins to have second thoughts about the whole thing. If that's the case, he should have just packed up his camera and headed home. Instead, he muddies his film down with his own introspection which isn't needed. He's just as guilty of exploiting the story of Marla as the other adults around her. By the end, the question of did Marla really create these paintings is a mute point, not just because Bar-Lev avoids addressing the issue but because he loses focus of the strongest elements of his film that have nothing to do with Marla or himself.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Syndromes and a Century

Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2007) [9]
There really isn't much use in trying to find a coherent story line in this film, there isn't one. What makes the film is the evocative images and meditative qualities of it. This is my first exposure to Weerasethakul but from what I've heard, convention is not one of the traits to look for in his film. He's created a film, quite frankly, that I have no real idea what it's really about (if anything) but is still something that is appealing on its visuals and endearing moments. The film is based on the courtship of Weersasethukal's parents and split into two parts. The first is in a rural hospital setting with an emphasis on the tropical setting while the second transplants essentially the same story in a modern, sterile urban environment. This split of practically the same story, down to the opening of each section, represents a sort of personality split as the first half is more from the woman's perspective and the second more of the man's. But nothing is really that simple here and I even have the feeling that none of that really matters. What works completely to the film's advantage is the moments it captures: the deadpan Q&A sections that open each half, the monk who wants to be a DJ, and most important, the simple beauty of the interaction of the characters. The film manages to reveal all the complexities and awkwardness of the beginning of a relationship but never handles it mawkishly or cynically. There isn't anything to really dig deep into here, but just taken on the surface, and being able to experience the film in moments and images make it all worthwhile. I like this film a lot but I can't really tell you anything about it. And that may be its greatest attribute.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Lady Eve

The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941) [7]
Not quite a screwball comedy and not quite a romantic comedy, The Lady Eve is certainly an enjoyable film. But to me, it feels slight compared to Sturges's Sullivan's Travels, a film I feel is much superior. That film is also part screwball comedy, but it has a insight into humanity that gives it depth. There really isn't much here other than the story and characters given. While that shouldn't automatically depreciate its value, it doesn't have enough depth, or laughs for that matter, to really make me think it's the masterpiece it's touted to be. Henry Fonda plays a wealthy brewery heir that is far from a man of the world. Barbara Stanwyck is a con artist who along with her father see Fonda's character as ripe pickings. Things aren't so easy however as the two fall into a tricky romantic situation which sees them together, apart, together again under false circumstances, apart, and back together again. Things all become complicated when the Stanwyck character actually falls for Charles instead of just taking advantage of him. Of course Charles is too dim to realize what he gets himself into and then back into. Fonda plays him with the correct amount of obliviousness and charm that make him passable. The pratfalls get to be much over time though. The film really centers around the Stanwyck character, who has to jump in from calculating grifter to a dumbstruck lover. Her presence has a cloaked sexiness to it, in that she's not overtly using her sexuality on Charles as well as the audience, but that certain qualities of her performance bring this out. The scene when she first takes him back to her cabin and realizes she's going to fall for him is a perfect example. It's not a role meant to be a sex kitten type of role but there's definitely something there that is enticing and yet refined. It helps because the story just seems so marginal to me. There's not enough laughs outside of some supporting performances that really make it a great comedy for me. Still, it's better than a great majority of what comedies are released today.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Margot at the Wedding

Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, 2007) [6]
Here's a film with completely unlikable characters, and yet somehow, manages to pull some interesting things out of it when a lot of people will see only how unpalatable it is. This comes across as a more "serious" film for Baumbach, not just that he scales down the humor (which may be good or bad depending on the situation) but that formally, this is an improvement on the other work of his that I've seen. The film pulls no punches in the rancor and depression these characters feel and Baumbach reflects this is a handheld style that emphasizes the various shades of grey and wind of the landscapes, as well as the darkness of the interior scenes. On a simply formal level, it fits the mood of the film perfectly. The story, however, carries all the problems the film has with it. Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her son come to her sister, Pauline's (Jennifer Jason Leigh) wedding. Only that the two haven't talked in years and that Margot is using the wedding as an way to carry on a extra-marital affair. Once there, Margot manages to alienate everybody with her withering observations, mostly that Pauline shouldn't be marrying the borderline manic-depressive Malcolm (Jack Black). Much of this dysfunctional family drama played out in The Squid & the Whale, Baumbach's last film. He certainly has the ability to craft scenes that tell of the ways family members can cripple one another with words. The problem here is that unlike that film, the story here comes out too thin. Other than the key point that Margot seems to appropriate a lot of her family in her stories, there isn't that much to really tell how the sisters got to the point they're at. Margot is emotionally devastating to her son and seems completely oblivious that her words cause as much harm as good. While none of this characterization is bad, it seems to be a lot of style over substance. Black's character in particular never reaches out beyond a muted variation on the manic energy he usually displays. I guess what I'm trying to say is that not a lot of what these characters express feels that earned to me. But for whatever reason, it doesn't make me not like the film. Baumbach has enough control in what he's doing to a least make it a little interesting.