Friday, October 31, 2008

Listening Post - Late October/Early November

Still trying to get caught up with all the new releases before attempting to assemble my end of the year best-of.

Jenny Lewis - Acid Tongue
Brightblack Morning Light - Motion to Rejoin
Ray Lamontagne - Gossip In the Grain
Racheal Yamagata - Elephants...Teeth Sinking Into Heart
Blitzen Trapper - Furr

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

La Chinoise

La Chinoise (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967) [7]
Not as radical in form as Weekend, La Chinoise does share the same radical political sensibility that defines Godard's work of the late 60s. Both as an examination and critique of the Maoist influenced left in France, the is certainly stamped in its place and time. That doesn't mean it's an excruciating bore to watch; in fact, it was a much more enjoyable film than I imagined. The film centers on a group of student radicals, left alone in a Paris apartment for the summer, as they talk and plan revolution. There's a constant argument about the "true communists", the Maoists and Soviet revisionists. It boils down to a lot of bluster and very little action, which could be take as a dig against the radical movement, but I really don't believe it is. The group decides to attempt to shut down the universities by a campaign of fear and bombing. This leads to a fantastic scene with one of the students and her professor, on a train, discussing the merits of the plot. The film ends with the summer gone, parents back, and nothing accomplished. While Godard does send up some of the pompous navel-gazing done that characterizes the left, he and the film seem more emboldened by the student's earnest thoughts and actions more than trying to demean it. He uses this fixed place, the confined walls of the apartment, to concentrate on the arguments and dissection of Maoist ideas and to a more general extent, the ideas of the radical Left in general. It could have been nothing more than some actors shouting political rhetoric, but Gordard elevates it by breaking down form to an extent. Through vignettes, music, and breaking down the forth wall, the film mixes itself up enough not to make just a recital of works. I happened to like the use of color in the film, a lot of contrast of stark white and red. While I'm sure a lot of people will find the film stuck in its place in time, I happen to see it as an interesting document in history.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure/Taxi to the Dark Side

Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, 2008) [5]/Taxi to the Dark Side (Alex Gibney, 2007) [6]

Both of these documentaries deal with the issue of interrogation and torture in regards to the War on Terror with varying degrees of effectiveness. Morris's film leaves some serious questions left hanging in the wind and Gibney's film needs to focus.

Standard Operating Procedure deals exclusively with the scandal that erupted out of Abu Gharaib and the now famous pictures that leaked out. Morris employs his trademark style and questions those directly involved in the situations involved in the pictures. The problem is that Morris doesn't get any deeper than where the situation already is. Everyone involved says they were just following orders but the film never manages to pinpoint the culprits beyond the low ranking MPs in the pictures. What did we learn from this? That Lyndie England is a country bumpkin? That her rationale was she was in love with a man who appears to be a borderline sadist seems like the perfect explanation. The real problem hinges on Sabrina Harman, who is meant to be the voice of reason in Morris's construction. That Harman had private misgiving about the prisoner abuse but never raised her voice and was the main photographer/documenter of the instances of abuse don't add up to what Morris wants us to believe. Sure, what happened at Abu Gharaib was beyond just a bunch of "schmuck MPs" acting foolishly but by never being an attack dog, Morris slips off the high ground and ultimately, SOP holds no one sufficiently accountable.

While Taxi to the Dark Side definitely has more partisan bite in it, it suffers from a lack of focus that definitely lessens the blow it should have had. Gibney uses the instance of a Afghani taxi driver imprisoned and ultimately murdered in U.S. military custody as a springboard to venture in the Abu Gharaib mess and the overall issue of "enhanced interrigation techniques." If Gibney would just stick to the story of Dilawar, the cab driver and how the military's own death certificate listed his death as murder, and stuck to it, it would be much more effective. Instead, he uses that one scenario to make a case against the entire system the U.S. has set up in this war on terror when this specific case make all his points for him. But at least unlike Morris, he lets his partisan outrage show, something that SOP tries all too hard to supress. While not perfect, at least these films push the issue of the Bush Administration's gross overstepping of the law and morality in general in their conduct of these wars.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Wings of Desire

Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987) [8]

Wings of Desire is, more than anything else, a love letter to the city of Berlin. For a city that has had much made of it through cinema (Berlin: Symphony of a City, Berlin Alexanderplatz), Wenders still manages to find unique and visually arresting images of Berlin on the verge of reunification. There really is no plot to speak of as the film follows the path of two angels as they move about the people and the city. It is an ideal premise to allow a meditation on the city and its inhabitants, as the is able to weave in and out of people's minds and thoughts. It creates a Berlin as these angels see it, but it is also able to create an incredibly poetic, lyrical film. The black and white cinematography is terrific, and the looming crane shots, obviously from the angel's point of view create a very fluid, meandering pace to the film. Eventually, one of the angels (played by Bruno Ganz) falls in love with a trapeze artist and yearns to become human. As the film progresses into the angel's transformation, it looses a little bit of its luster. Essentially, when story and plot progression become too up front in the film, it looses the poetic qualities that make the film what it is. Add to that the unexplainable Peter Falk scenes and Wings of Desire falls a bit out of rhythm. Yet despite any issues the latter part of the film raise, it never fully takes the viewer completely out of the film. It's too good of a film overall not to appreciate what Wenders wanted to say about Berlin.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Be Kind Rewind

Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2008) [6]

Be Kind Rewind certainly is whimsical and slight on its appearance but it does go beyond its somewhat goofy premise to attempt to say something about the movies and what they mean to us. That is falls a little short is a summation for the film as a whole. Jack Black and Mos Def play two guys who work/hang around a thrift and video store on a corner in Passaic, New Jersey. After becoming magnetized, Jerry (Black) accidentally erases the information off of all the tapes in the store. The two's plan to remedy the situation is to recreate films such as Ghostbusters and Rush Hour 2 among others using an old VHS camcorder. Jerry and Mike's versions somehow become favorites in the neighborhood, and the store has a new way to attempt to ward off gentrifying developers. Gondry is one of the few people that could take this offbeat, halfway believable idea and at least make it passable. His whimsical nature (see The Science of Sleep) make what's going on here believable and endearing. There's something in these crummy VHS re-creations that is oddly appealing. It has a certain pure joy of cinema; that it's not really about how a film looks, it's more about what's behind it. It's this idea that cinema is important in the memories it makes in our minds. It's not that important if Mike and Jerry get the story right; what's more important, for the film and Gondry, is the DIY aesthetic and the personal experience of it. It doesn't hurt that there are some genuinely funny moments that come out of those recreations either. The end of the film gets a little bogged down by being too Capraesque and a Fats Waller subplot/film that while impressive, is a little too disjointed from the rest of the film. The film stretches its theme of 'film as interpretation of memories' a bit too much at the end. And yet, it still manages to have some endearing qualities out of ideas that seem slight.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller, 2008) [5]

The Apatow factory seems to be cranking out the same movie over and over again and this is the point where it starts to get a little old. Once again, another arrested development man-child is the focus of a story that goes for ribald humor but also has a heart of gold. The problem with this film is that is does nothing to make it any better or different than The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, or Superbad. Nor is it consistently funnier than any of those. Jason Segel, who also wrote the screenplay, play Peter, the above mentioned man-child. Peter, heartbroken over his girlfriend (played flatly by Kristen Bell) decides to take a vacation to Hawaii only to find Sarah there with her new Lothario boyfriend, played by Russell Brand. Peter is the main problem of the film because his constant whining, crying, and neediness are a little pathetic. But then again, Segel is playing off the pathetic nature of the character for laughs, using embarrassment as the main form of humor. Say what you will about the other Apatow films but the main characters of those other films were never there to be laughed at. Segel tempers this by making Peter harmless and ultimately sympathetic, but to me, it's still a character that feels lazy and cheap in a lot of ways. The plot of the film is never really that important as it bounces from one situation to the next, getting enough laughs out of it to make it passable. Peter becomes involved with another girl, a receptionist at the hotel, played by Mila Kunis about as forgettable as Bell plays Sarah Marshall. (It's no surprise that all these Apatow films have women's roles as essentially filler). The only character that makes a somewhat memorable performance is Brand, mostly because he's doing what amounts to his stand up act. Like any Apatow film, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is basically harmless but I think it's time for these guys to slow down a little bit or else any positives of these films will be washed away by the same tired jokes and characters.

Plus, stop giving Jonah Hill a reason to be in movies. The guy's not funny. At all. Period.

Sunday, October 05, 2008


Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony (Lee Hirsch, 2003) [4]

If this wasn't so scatter shot, it might have actually made a pretty interesting documentary. Instead, its lack of focus makes it a complete disappointment. In attempting to tell the story of how song helped in the anti-apartheid movement, Hirsch creates a film that has no real focal point and instead it drifts from idea to idea and never gives enough information from said ideas. The problem isn't in the ideas themselves; it's in the execution, or lack thereof that hampers the film. The main idea here, that since a majority of black South Africans could not read or write, that song became the main way to get the ideas of the protest movement heard and understood, is rock solid. That the film only gives cursory glimpses into the larger sociological impacts of Apartheid is a big let down to me. Instead, a lot of time is spent of people talking or performing after the fact. The film would have been much more effective if historical footage would have been used and explained more. The film's strongest moments are in fact those times. While it no doubt has good intentions, Amandla! is far from a perfect document on a story that could be better told.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Snow Angels

Snow Angels (David Gordon Green, 2008) [9]
As a director, David Gordon Green has always been more about images and atmosphere than story. Snow Angels is really the first film of his that put story and characters in the forefront, and it works. What could have easily teetered into overblown melodrama or a disjointed mess, with Green's direction becomes a dark yet captivating film. The film tells two story lines, one of a teenage boy's (Michael Angaran0) family and love life, the other of his former babysitter (Kate Beckinsdale) and her estranged husband (Sam Rockwell). The two plots converge with a tragic event that propel the film to an even more tragic end. This really is a character drama and the performances, especially those of Beckinsdale and Rockwell, are exceptional. They're both deeply flawed characters, likable on one level, unlikeable on another. They could have very easily slipped into over the top performances but Green and his actors know how to handle the material. This focus on story and character doesn't repress the atmospheric touches of the film, as they help to underline each character and their emotional impact to the viewer. Some could say the story lines as too disjointed but I don't think that's really important in the overall scheme of the film. They are used to paint a broader picture, not just of the lives of these characters but as a mood for the film. The film's visual touch accents the bleak nature of it by capturing the nuances of the winter setting. Green does everything right in getting the best out of the actors' performances and his stylistic touches create a cold, dreary setting that gets the most emotional impact out of the story.