Saturday, August 30, 2008

Chicago 10

Chicago 10 (Brett Morgan, 2008) [6]

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

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Gone Baby Gone

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

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

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Times of Harvey Milk

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

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

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hiroshima Mon Amour

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

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

Sunday, August 10, 2008


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

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

Monday, August 04, 2008

Killer of Sheep

Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977) [8]

It's always nice to be reminded that you don't need a Hollywood studio and a budget into the millions and millions to be able to make effective cinema. And it's all too often the case that Hollywood ignores social realism in favor of frivolous escapism. A film like Killer of Sheep re-affirms everything that can be great about moviemaking. Burnett made this film as a masters thesis while at UCLA, and its depiction of black life in Watts is not just one of the great achievements of African-American filmmaking but one of the great portraits of American life period. The movie plays out episodically, giving brief glimpses into the life of Stan, a slaughterhouse worker trying to care for his family and find personal and economic happiness. While I feel the first half-hour of the film, with its larger depiction of the Watts neighborhood, is a little too broad, the more the film focuses on Stan, the better it becomes. It's not so much that since the story is more focused means it's better; the scenes and moments that Burnett captures are much more powerful. Scenes like Stan and his wife dancing in their home, the family in the car on their first trip out of the neighborhood, even the slaughterhouse scenes are powerful. They capture precise moments but they also speak for a broader message that hangs over the film. It's that these people have no real opportunities, economic and otherwise, and their scraping to try and overcome those hurdles is almost impossible. It's in Stan's exhausted body coming home from work barely able to acknowledge his wife and kids. It's in the junk strewn dirt lots that the children in the neighborhood play in. And yet there's something so cinematically pure in how Burnett captures all of it that he allows little moments to shine so brightly. It's an astounding accomplished piece of work for someone who was still a student at the time. That since its initial release, it still stands as such a benchmark of a portrayal make Killer of Sheep all the more impressive.

Listening Post - June/July/August

I've decided to get rid of the monthly listening post and instead post when I have a handful of new releases. This batch features new material from a strong lineup of artists, especially the highly anticipated albums from My Morning Jacket and The Hold Steady. My take: Evil Urges is better than some of the critical reviews written about it while Stay Positive is solid but not close to the Hold Steady's last two albums.

The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
My Morning Jacket - Evil Urges
Dr. Dog - Fate
The Avett Brothers - The Second Gleam
Amos Lee - Last Days at the Lodge
Fleet Foxes - S/T