This is the last listening post of 2008 before I'll assemble my list of the best music of the year, which usually results in this site's biggest spike in traffic. This all in turn makes me feel like I'm not really wasting my time posting clunky, poorly executed film reviews. As for a best of film list, I am never able to see enough new releases within a current enough window to have a top ten list that has all the films I want to see or feel should be seen before compiling it. I've said it before and I'll repeat it here, 2008 looks to be one of the worst years for quality releases in some time. There have been hardly any really strong films of the ones I've seen and the slate of films upcoming is at best underwhelming. After what was really a banner year in 2007, 2008 will be the worst film year of the decade. Enough venting and on to the albums:
Ryan Adams & the Cardinals - Cardinology
Horse Feathers - House with No Home
Old Crow Medicine Show - Tennessee Pusher
The Moondoggies - Don't Be a Stranger
Of Montreal- Skeletel Lamping (which one of these is not like the other?)
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Friday, November 21, 2008
Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975) 
I've seen quite a few "unwatchable" films in my viewing experiences but Salo has to be right up there in terms of a continuous stream of shocking and disturbing scenes and images. It isn't quite as shocking to me as it may be to others but there's no doubt that what's in this film is extreme. But should Pasolini get credit for making a great film because his film deals with rape, torture, and murder? I really don't think so.
Based on a work by the Marquis de Sade, Salo is about a group of Italian fascists who, during the waining days of WWII, take a group of young boys and girls to a secluded villa to do Sadist things to and eventually murder them. The title is also a reference to the city-kingdom Hitler granted Mussolini in northern Italy after his government in Rome collapsed. At the villa, old prostitutes sell sexually extreme stories to get the men aroused. Over the course of many days, the men subject their young victims to an increasingly humiliating series of acts that include cacophilia and ultimately the murder of all the victims. Pasolini uses these acts to remark on the role of sex and power, and directly in regards to corrupting influence of power in Fascism. Pasolini uses that argument as his rationale to show what he shows but I don't quite buy the extent to which he goes. These ideas of Fascism and power aren't that strong in my mind and what the film is left with is a variety of scenes meant to make the viewer uncomfortable.
Where the film does succeed is beyond its content or its message. It has more to do with its execution. There is a dark humor running underneath all the sadism, which creates a tension within the viewer. Taken in context of what is on the screen, it's hard to acknowledge that it goes beyond mere shock. But the film's greatest strength is the awareness it creates in the viewer as an observer of these acts. The film is shot in static shots, at mostly medium to long shots with very few close ups. This creates an idea of "the gaze", the viewer becoming as much as an observer as the camera. It creates a self-reflexive notion in the viewer, and it creates a questioning of whether you should actually be watching this. There's no doubt that Pasolini understands these ideas because the ending is a direct representation of this. As the young girls and boys are being tortured in the courtyard, the men each take turns watching out a window through binoculars. It becomes a direct correlation between the viewer and these characters. Salo is meant for the viewer to examine his or her own feeling towards and it does this by making them aware of how uncomfortable they feel by creating this idea of the gaze. The only other film I've seen that's been close to creating this sense of uncomfortable self-awareness is Dyn Amo, a hard to find British film by Stephen Dwoskin. (This entirely paragraph is heavily influenced by a class I took called 'The Gaze Reconsidered' which dealt heavily with Freud and his notion of the gaze as it applied towards film) These elements in regards to Salo make it a constructive viewing experience, even if some of the subject matter and ideas weren't to my liking.
Monday, November 17, 2008
Reservation Road (Terry George, 2008) 
Do we need another film about upper middle class white people and a shattering event that has repercussions for everyone involved? I really don't think so and after seeing Reservation Road, I don't think I want to see one for quite a while. A too overtly mechanical film with listless performances and a turgid storyline create a film that's simply bad. The film centers around a tragic accident and the subsequent effects on the family that lost a son as well as the perpetrator of the accident. George and screenwriter John Burnham Schwartz (who also wrote the novel the film is based on) want to tell a story that focuses on Dwight (Mark Ruffalo), the perpetrator, as an essentially good and trying father who made a bad mistake and is haunted for it. It's meant to put him on the same level as the father of the dead boy (Joaquin Phoenix). The problem is that the film is too heavy-handed in attempting to make them equals. It creates performances out of Ruffalo and Phoenix that are at times ridiculous and other times almost laughable. The mechanics of the story are clunky and ineffective almost directly from the start, making the Learner family picture perfect and showing the flaws in Dwight's family life. Then we get the contrivance of the accident, using a dead child as a means to spurt out a storyline with themes done to death with other films not much better in their mediocrity. More and more contrivances help put the two men on a collision course that never comes to anything satisfying thematically or plot wise. Having never been impressed with George as a director, it comes as no surprise that he can't even get this story off the ground. All in all, Reservation Road never hits any of the marks it wants to and gives me another reason to grow tired of this type of film.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Wristcutters: A Love Story (Goran Dukic, 2007) 
This is a harmless film, fairly boring, that's forgotten the moment its over. Wristcutters is part romantic comedy, part whimsical fantasy, and part road movie and said parts never really form into anything that coherent or interesting. After committing suicide, Zia (Patrick Fugit) ends up in a kind of suicide purgatory, a world similar to reality, only everything is supposedly worse. The only problem with this is that the film never really shows this. It's just like a washed out looking reality with decrepit buildings and lots of power lines. Zia soon finds out that his girlfriend also offed herself and the film turns into a search for her as Zia and his friend Eugene drive across the barren afterlife searching for her. They meet a variety of characters, including Mikal (Shannyn Sossamon), claiming to be wrongfully sent there, and Tom Waits in an obtuse, bizarre performance that must have appealed to only Tom Waits. The film moves down parallel tracks, a romantic comedy between Zia and Mikal, and a whimsical fantasy about a dark subject. The problem is that Dukic never finds an effective way to combine the two. The film often shifts in and out of each subject until it reaches a point that it comes out as a muddle jumble that's never very interesting. Some occurrences go on, things are never really explained that much, and the ending is to be expected. Wristcutters is another good example of an interesting premise being undermined by a clunky execution. That's not to say I hated this; I didn't, it's just that it does nothing to make it stick in my mind.
Monday, November 10, 2008
The Good Life (Stephen Berra, 2008) 
Berra's debut feature is surprisingly good, mostly because it's completely uncompromising in its downbeat nature. That bleak outlook is sure to be a major turn off to many but hey, the world isn't always sunshine and lollipops. Jason (Mark Webber) is an outsider in a football crazed Nebraska town, working two jobs to support his family as well as being a caretaker to a mentally deteriorating theatre owner (Harry Dean Stanton). He meets a young ingenue (Zooey Deaschanel), the two become partners in alienation, and Jason dreams of leaving his miserable existence. The story doesn't have much that hasn't been done before but the film works because the characters are believable and accurate to their situations. Webber and Deschanel fit well together as two misfits brought together by their mutual apathy. Even the supporting performances, especially Donal Logue as the football mad, meat head brother-in-law, help reinforce Jason's feelings and situations. Events progress and get worse for Jason until he has to make an ultimate choice. I won't give away the ending but it's the only element of the film that doesn't fit in my opinion, mostly because of it shift in mood. But besides that, this really was a surprise. The story and look of the film match and are consistent throughout. Berra creates a clever little sub story and twist involving the Deschanel character that is revealed at the right moment. Maybe it's because of its bleak nature but this film is being compared with Donnie Darko, to which I have to disagree with. Darko is so wrapped up in its ironic, fantasy tinged world to be take literally. The Good Life is all too real, and that hits too close to home for those who aren't going to like it. It's that attention to the characters and their problems that create a solid film.
Plus: the film had no real commercial release date, so for my purposes, it will be considered a 2008 release. And from what this year has already produced and seeing what's yet to come, The Good Life is a strong contender for my best of '08 list.
Saturday, November 08, 2008
The Go-Getter (Martin Hynes, 2008) 
I just don't know what to do with this one. It's definitely going to need another viewing sometime down the road. The grade is based on my initial reaction and while at first I didn't really care for this, the tide is turning a little bit. It isn't that Hynes is a horrible director; in fact, the images and the construction of the film aren't really that bad. I have a real problem with the story and everything else associated with. Lou Taylor Pucci plays a mopey teenager named Mercer, determined to head out on a road trip to find his estranged half-brother to notify him of their mother's death. To do this, he steals a car only to have the car' owner (played by Zooey Deschanel) keep track of him by a cell phone in the car. The two strike up a relationship as Mercer traipses across the West, meeting the standard oddball character associated with the road movie. That hardly any of this passes the plausibility test is the overriding factor to me. The entire relationship between Mercer and Kate doesn't make any sense to me whatsoever. The rest of Mercer's journey is too much of a stock road movie to make me feel any apathy towards him or it. That Deshcanel's performance, somehow intriguing in spite of its context, is the only thing keeping the story above water (my feelings may be a bit biased in this regard..see here). And yet I have the feeling that I'm take the literalness of the plot too literal and that it's completely blinding my appreciation for the film overall. That this review took several days of wrestling with these issues and still not coming a conclusion is proof that I'm not 100% confident in my feelings for the film. As it stands right now, it has some nice moments but the plot has too many incongruities for me to approve, even though I really want to.
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle, 1958) 
Malle's debut feature is a confidently crafted French noir that is surprisingly accomplished film in terms of style for a first time director. Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet play lovers conspiring to murder the woman's husband. In covering up his tracks, Julien (Ronet) ends up getting stuck in an elevator. This one events leads to a series of events that involve more two teens, a stolen car, another set of murders, and the eventual undoing of everyone that happened to be involved. The story itself is serviceable but never quite as good or engaging as it could be. The film's best moments are the more lyrical ones that break away from the traditional structure of the film. These focus on Moreau, looking smoldering without makeup, as she walks the streets of Paris grappling with the idea that Julien has abandoned her yet still determined to find her. The film could have been done without any of these scenes, but it adds something beyond the standard noir story template. Eventually, every storyline comes to its conclusion in kind of a formulaic way that leaves the viewer wanting something more. It doesn't really sink the film, however, mostly because of Malle's skilled direction and the fantastic black and white cinematography. Couple that with Miles Davis's improvised Jazz score, and the look and style of the film win over any flaws in the story. Maybe the greatest attribute that could be given is that this film would be what one would think of as French New Wave noir.