Sunday, May 25, 2008

Death on the Oregon Trail

For a while your humble film snob has been ranting and raving about how shitty a place Upstate New York is and how I can't wait to get to Portland, Oregon. Well, I've been out here a month now and let's just say that things didn't turn out the way they played out in the mind. So, it's with my tail between my legs and with great humiliation that I'm packing up all my shit and heading back to the comfort that is the place that I've railed against since the inception of this useless blog. One part of this is musical, since I'm heading back just in time to go to the Radio Woodstock Mountain Jam at Hunter Mountain in the Catskills. Since I'm not going to Bonnaroo, a lineup that features the Drive-By Truckers, Dr. Dog, Ray LaMontagne, and the Felice Brothers being a short drive from my home is too inticing not too take up is one reason. The other is being the piss poor economy, which hasn't been helped by this incompetent administration. I know that the President doesn't have that much influence over the economic system, but still, this guy has fucked up so much that you can't blame it on him at least a little...

Anyway, the point being of this post is that I'm wussing out and heading back to Upstate New York even though I said that Portland would be so much better. The truth is that the neighborhood I've been crashing in has shown me all I've need to know about the Portland hipster. And while you're Useless Film Snob may seem like a hipster from his musical likes, the truth is I can't stand most of them. So, the best thing I can think of is to retreat to the Hippie-friendly paradises of Ithaca (and to Binghamton to a lesser extent, even though it's full of bat-shit crazy fascists) to get my views on music and film across.

All of this is meant to say that the Useless Film Snob will be relocating to the liberal oasis that is Ithaca, New York (and this is for real, no more b.s.) After being on the West Coast for a month, I've now come to realize that having a crappy job in Ithaca and being able to post useless shit on this blog is more important than being out here in the Pacific Northwest, unemployed and completely miserable.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe, 1984) [5]

It's hard to not like a film like this because it makes you feel like you don't give a care about the situation in Cambodia that this portrays. That's not to say what the Khmer Rogue did was wrong but there is definitely a difference between history and film. This film is no different than any other kind of middlebrow picture Hollywood has put out about world situations, mostly in the third world. The plot is based on Sydney Schanberg's time in Cambodia during the Civil War and Khmer Rogue take over. The first half of the film deals directly this. The second half deals with Schanberg's colleague and translator, Dith Pran, as he struggles to free from the forced agrarian labor camps set up by the Khmer Rogue. The main problem is the same flaw that hampers all films of this sort: it creates such a sense of guilt and shame in the Western viewer seeing what to them are barbaric actions by a people different from them. My problem doesn't have to deal with anything with the situation itself; the actions were clearly barbaric but in strictly film terms, the entire situation is manipulative. Joffe uses Dith Pran's ordeal and suffering to further his own sense of self-approval for telling the world of the horrific situation in Cambodia. It's not to say that he shouldn't but the whole film smacks so much of a sense of superiority in the filmmaker that he's doing a deed that so many other aren't that it completely taints the film. Couple with that that the film just isn't executed that well, with performances that are too stilted and emotionally empty that it really almost does a disservice to the story being told. Then again, the ending in all its standard uplifting glory is just too hard to be completely removed from, so Joffe must have done something well enough to work. Just for once, though, I would like to see a major film that handles third world affairs without such a heavy hand and tells its story without the sanctimonious babble.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Southland Tales

Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2007) [4]

This isn't quite the complete disaster that many reviews have made it out to be but it's way too messy to make me think it's any good either. A terrorist attack on American soil has turned the nation into a quasi-police state headed by a surveillance agency with ties to a vice-presidential candidate and a company producing a new form of energy called Liquid Karma. A group of "neo-Marxists" is attempting to overthrow the government by exploiting an action star with amnesia (Dwyane Johnson, or The Rock) who happens to be married to a the vice-presidential candidate's daughter. A lot of other characters come and go all leading to an ending steeped in supernatural gibberish, a la Kelly's last film, Donnie Darko. Kelly's script has so many different tangents and characters with so many stories that it creates a film that is so meandering that it's too difficult to really know what's going on. Just because the story is sprawling doesn't automatically make this a bad film. Kelly makes the film convoluted because he is trying to say too much and a lot of what he saying is complete nonsense. The main problem with this film is that Kelly often diffuses any criticism of the film by certain defense elements. The political ideology of the film is fairly half-baked, especially the neo-Marxists, whose knowledge of Marxism must not gotten beyond reading dorm room posters. Kelly compensates for this by having a character mention that these Marxists know next to nothing. Right there, I lost all respect for any political ideas the film attempts to make. Another defense mechanism is that Kelly fills the film with a cavalcade of B-list and character actors like John Laroquette, Wallace Shawn, and SNL relics like Cheri Oteri, Nora Dunn, and John Lovitz. It comes of as an ironic, wink-wink, remember this guy type of move that says don't take this film that seriously. Aside from these actors, the main performances pretty much stink, especially Sarah Michelle Gellar and The Rock. The only real credible performance, surprisingly enough, is Justin Timberlake, helped by his surreal sequence lip-synching The Killers' 'All These Things That I've Done.' It's the only real moment where the film goes beyond the story and shows some sign of craft. The ending is more confusing and sloppy than the rest of the film. In spite of this, there were never really any moments that I absolutely hated about this film. The problem is that there weren't enough moment in that I actually liked either.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007) [6]

It's hard to dislike this film because it's central message, of finding some kind of optimism in a horrible situation, is something that most humans are programmed to react favorably to. I have no qualms with what the film says but I don't completely buy into the way it's constructed. Schnabel has received a lot of accolades for his decision to make the camera a first person device, letting the viewer experience what Jean-Dominique Bauby experienced after he suffered a massive stroke. It's not a bad decision but to me, it feels that Schnabel is doing too much of the work. Of course it's going to be incomprehensible to know that experience that Bauby was in, but it feels put upon by Schnabel is this is how the viewer should feel. I'm never completely comfortable having this made up for me before I really get into the film. Perhaps I'm making too much out of this but I feel this is the one element that is causing the film to be praised. It's skilled filmmaking, no doubt; however, its force of perspective doesn't enthrall me. If you want visual flair, go watch some Brakhage or Ernie Gehr. Outside of that, I found when the film removes itself from Bauby's perspective, it becomes better. Mathieu Amalric is in a tough position as Bauby, playing a difficult role that by its nature, doesn't call attention to itself. This may not sound like me, but the moments that speak truest are the ones that border on middlebrow melodrama, family strife and the connections the paralyzed Bauby makes with his caretakers. Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josee Croze, and Anne Cosigny are all very good but it's Max Van Sydow as Bauby's ailing father that's the real unsung character of this. The scene where he calls his paralyzed son does more to express the themes of life and death, the optimism over despair that Schnabel spells out through the rest. Only a heartless cynic could find this film trite but let's not fall over ourselves praising it either. The story may be inspiring but there are stylistic flaws I just don't agree with.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

No End In Sight

No End In Sight (Charles Ferguson, 2007) [7]
Because it has no political axe to grind, No End In Sight is being seen as the more levelheaded of all the Iraq documentaries. It may also have to do as much with style as substance. Ferguson crafts a film straight-forward in its goals and executions without a any loud, partisan tactics. It's this textbook like approach to the film, laying out all its information very succinctly, that will get it called non-partisan. But it also makes it a bit lackluster. For a film that documents all the catastrophic blunders and arrogance of those in the Bush Administration that concocted the Iraq War, it should make me feel a bit more outraged. Instead, it comes out as a depressed resignation that it's a situation that we're (I'm referring to the American public in the collective we) stuck in for quite a long time. Ferguson doesn't handle any of the ideological ideas behind going into the war but instead sticks to what happens after the move for war was made. Without going into a laundry list, it's a series of mistakes and reckless action by those in the Bush administration (Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz) that ended up causing a cavalcade of problems in Iraq that should have been avoided. What's most interesting is that the top of the Defense department, more than likely with Cheney's assistance, overrode every red flag raised by others like the State department and their own generals. Ferguson interviews key figures in the planning of the occupation who tell of blunders like de-Baathifiqation and dissolving the Iraqi army, which subsequently led to the collapse of any infrastructure and helped embolden the insurgency. It paints a picture of key figures in the administration as either so blindly arrogant or so incredibly incompetent that it should be appalling to every American. The sad conclusion of the film is that this is really everything that most everyone should already know. Instead of attempting to ask or give some answers, Ferguson cops out and gives a recap montage that is the film's only weak spot in terms of construction. It is weak enough that it causes the film not to be as strong of a statement that it could have been. But then again, if you needed this film to change your position on the war, things may be just as bad as I think they are.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Savages

The Savages (Tamara Jenkins, 2007) [7]

Give Jenkins credit for not turning this material into sympathetic schmaltz and handling the issue of the mental deterioration of a parent with some cold realism. Of course it's easy in doing that to make the film a continuous bummer and yet again, Jenkins carefully handles her situations and characters with enough thought and humor to make it all go down a little easier. Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman play siblings who end up having to care for their ailing father, who they have been estranged for for most of their adult lives. Both are people so wrapped up in all their personal misery and problems that having to care for a man that both of them don't care much for is that it creates the central conflict. The problems of their father let both characters to vent their personal issues with each other, which is done with enough wit and laughs to keep both Linney and Hoffman lively. They both play sad-sacks and it could have easily been a display of full-on loathing and a depression that is all too often done to death in independent film. What works is that these characters, no matter how much they might want to not care about a man that they feel didn't care enough for them, is that they actually do. It's these poignant moments crafted by Jenkins that gives the film it's heart when it could have easily all heart, overly sentimental, or distanced and snarky, afraid to deal with the issue at hand. Philip Bosco, as the dementia-addled father, helps this because his actions and dialogue interject the sibling bickering and remind them, as well as the viewer, what the real crux of the film comes down to. The Savages is a powerful film in spots, with the ending feeling a little disjointed in terms of emotions from the rest of the film, but overall it paints a fairly true picture of an issue few films would want to seriously deal with.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

One Bright Shining Moment

One Bright Shining Moment (Stephen Vittoria, 2005) [5]
I just finished reading Hunter Thompson's fantastic book on the George McGovern '72 Presidential bid, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, and this seemed like a natural follow-up. While Thompson uses his wit and offbeat tangents to deaden some of the political venom in his book, this film get tripped up by its starry-eyed canonization of McGovern as well as their all too easy demonization of the Nixon era. If a documentary is going to be so blatantly one-sided in its portrayal, it has to do something with humor or other sleight of hand to soften some of the edges. This film is only going to appeal to those who truly believed in McGovern or the followers of the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party he created. It's probably just what it wants to do but a good film it does not make. For a film whose title refers specifically to McGovern's presidential campaign, it shouldn't take more than half the film just to get there. The first half of the film is nice in setting up who McGovern is, what a nice guy he is, how he was respected, and so on. It's all good but it pales in interest compared to the nuts and bolts of running for President. There are a number of interesting facets to McGovern's run that get covered. The weakness is that they aren't gone to in an in-depth way that would have made a more credible film. The basic thesis of the film, that an principled, ethical liberal such as McGovern, who was thought to have a snowball's chance in Hell of being nominated, and then actually succeeding, says a lot about the political process. The addresses it but never really gives an acceptable discussion on it. That the delegate rules of the '72 made the old labor/city boss style of politics in the Democratic party is interesting but discussion never goes beyond the inclusionary values of the new system. Nixon is handled in too broad of terms but the raising of the Southern Strategy and the veiled racism it entailed, could have been brought out more because of its resonance. I think George McGovern was a good guy. He ran a Presidential campaign as close to my own beliefs as anyone of the last half-century. It's too bad that Vittoria couldn't make a little bit better film out of the information given.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Swindle

The Swindle (Claude Chabrol, 1997) [7]
The plot is fairly straight-forward in terms of the standard grifter/crime picture but Chabrol handles his basic material with a nuanced style that make of the film than it really is. Isabelle Huppert and Michel Serrault play small-time grifters that con businessmen and take just enough for them to think nothings missing. As the two set up for another con, Betty (Huppert) has plans of her own. She has methodically ingratiated herself into a seemingly innocuous money-runner who's transporting 5 million Swiss francs to the Caribbean. Suffice to say, the two get way in over their head, or at least it appears. What works simply beyond the standard caper premise is that Chabrol frames the film with enough twists and questions so that the viewer is never sure who is swindling who. It seems like Maurice, the runner, was planning to scam some of the money to begin with, with Betty and Victor (Serrault) ready to scam him. The problem is nothing is ever certain and Chabrol is smart enough in handling the key scenes never to give too much away. The final scenes in the Caribbean with the somehow humanistic crime boss let the viewer know as much as the characters on the screen know. If this had been a Hollywood picture, everything would have been explained in such nauseating detail that it would be boring and unoriginal. That, and the crime boss (played here by Jean-Francois Balmer) would have been a sadistic, over the top caricature instead a an actual human. Only at the end do we find out what really happened to the money, and it comes as almost an inconsequential element. Chabrol works with his characters in such a way that the relationship between Betty and Victor is much more interesting and honest than any elements of the crime or the money. Once again, in a mainstream American picture, any form of character development would have been sacrificed with unnecessary plot twists. I've always felt that Chabrol has a deft touch with handling complex human relationships and The Swindle shows that there can always be a little more to grifters than the crimes they commit.

Special note: This marks my last post from/in Binghamton. I am finally flying out and re-settling in Portland, Oregon. This site will be on a short hiatus while I get situated. I'm hoping that aside from more relevant reviews in regard to time, there will also be opportunities to view some experimental work, which I have not been able to see on a regular basis for a while. No matter what I've said of it, Binghamton has some charm, but the opportunity to experience more in terms of the arts is too strong a pull.