Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Buffalo Bill and the Indians

Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (Robert Altman, 1976) [7]

Deconstructionist is a word always thrown around with Altman, and Buffalo Bill is no exception. Instead of genre or form deconstruction, this film is more intent on attacking history itself, and the grand myths perpetuated in the name of this nation. Everything of this film smacks of the idea of myth making, all the way down to the character of Buffalo Bill himself, a creation of a mysterious myth-maker (played with zeal by Burt Lancaster, always one of my favorites). Altman centers his film around the show that Bill has created, a series of skits and performances meant to portray a grandiose America that has the best interests of everyone in mind, including the Indians on whose land they raided and took. It's these ideas of the mythical west, perpetuated fully in Westerns as well as the character of Buffalo Bill himself that Altman is going after. Paul Newman plays Buffalo Bill as nothing more than an arrogant charlatan, a creation meant to feed the American public, to give them an ideal character of the west. Altman pulls the veil of the sanctity of Buffalo Bill, and Newman plays him as a man who knows he's nothing but a creation of show business. The conflict of these ideas come to a head when Bill's company is able to convince Chief Sitting Bull to be a part of the show. This leads to a series of events where Sitting Bull consistently outwits Bill and the others as a way to regain some dignity for his people. One of the major elements of the legend of Buffalo Bill was his prowess as an Indian killer and subjugator. By having him be such a buffoon compared to Sitting Bull, Altman has created scenarios where the power of the character of Buffalo Bill is dragged out of its historical lacquer. Buffalo Bill certainly is a film that sides sympathizes with the Indians and is dark and cynical in its portrayal of whites as opportunistic, boorish, and presumptuous of their different brethren. It's possibly the meanest, most jaded film Altman could have made on the subject. Yet, it works because it's at least willing to take on the legends and myths of the American west with some earnestness.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008) [6]

Tropic Thunder certainly has a firm grasp on its targets. But can a movie that skewers big budget Hollywood event pictures have any venom when it's exactly the same type of film that it's meant to ridicule? Some could say that by making a big budget film full of explosions and exotic locales you can't bite the hand that feeds you but the truth is, no matter how Stiller can take shots at studios and actors, it's the same system that's been good and currently employs him. Yes the film is right on in its portrayal of its actors from the dim-bulb action star played by Stiller to the Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. characters but these are pretty obvious targets. The film uses the characters and their situation for laughs but it never has the feeling of being mean or harshly critical, mostly because Stiller will have to work with people like this again. The funniest moments of the film are the ones that dig a little deeper at the whole system, from the "full retard" hypothesis and the faux trailers at the start of the film. The rest of the film is a fairly forgettable story with an ending that I can't decide if it's meant to be that fully over the top or not. It may be meant to be taken satirically but there's something in the execution that don't make it feel so. Downey and Tom Cruise have gotten a lot of attention for their performances but it's Stiller's character that is the most fully formed in terms of its ridicule and vain actorly excesses. It certainly gives off the most laughs. Cruise, just as he almost did in Magnolia, almost single-handily submarines a film by playing a profane Tom Cruise character, only this time he's bald, portly and hairy. If that's the best Tropic Thunder can do, it's not bad but let's not all forget it still is a product of the same system it wants to mock.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Paranoid Park

Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2008) [6]

What keeps Paranoid Park interesting is that Van Sant uses images and his meandering narrative to keep everything from being too formulaic. My main problem is that I have a pre-disposition to not give a rat's ass about a character like Alex. It's not that his character is flat or self-absorbed; in fact, the film Van Sant crafts around him actually does a good job of getting inside his mind. It's just the world that Alex occupies, that of skate parks and typical teenage dialogue, is nothing that I have much interest in. It is to Van Sant's credit that he' created a realistic picture about teenagers, and the series of events that Alex takes on feel real and earned by his character. He was involved in the accidental death of a person and he has to grapple with all the emotional baggage that comes with a event like that. The film's structure, capturing moments and thoughts more than straight narrative, work in the context of examining it the way Alex would. There certainly images and songs that leave a strong impact in my mind. Yet, for whatever reason, none of this helps me get over this feeling that I don't really care about Alex, the people around him, or what's going to happen to him. For all its achievement in craft, there's something lurking inside Paranoid Park that makes me want to cast it off.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) [7]

Let's not get ahead of ourselves here fanboys; yes, The Dark Knight is an enjoyable movie but is it really a great work of cinema? My gut tells me no, but still, it is about as good as you could ask for in a superhero summer blockbuster. Just because a summer blockbuster has a storyline with intelligence and is not solely filled with explosions and ridiculous dialogue does not make it a masterpiece. The film definitely goes deeper than its CGI exterior and attempts to have a dialogue with bigger issue but after all, it's just a comic book movie. If that's harsh, I really don't mean it to be; that's just the way I feel about this type of movie. Unless the Watchmen film can prove me wrong.

As for the film itself, Nolan certainly provides the story and characters with a richness and depth that has been sorely lacking from a film of this type (I haven't seen Batman Begins, so maybe I'm a little behind in the rejuvenation of the Batman franchise). The story deals with more moral ambiguities and gray areas than others. Yes, Heath Ledger's performance is mesmerizing, mostly because it's completely unexpected in the context of Jack Nicholson's Joker. It all works and makes an entertaining film, but still, by playing to the masses, it makes a lot of concessions. All of the important moral ideals being wrestled with are blatantly explained throughout, most notably where Alfred has to explain to Batman and everyone just what the Joker entails. The average, mouth breathing multiplex goer may need this explained to them but I find it a big detriment. Christian Bale as Batman is there simply to exist, to play off Ledger's Joker, as Ledger takes his character to the edge while Bale has no choice but to be restrained in contrast. I've greatly admired Nolan as a filmmaker but here he has earned the capital to take a big risk in a shallow genre and while he does some admirable things, he still plays it too close to the book. The Dark Knight is infinitely better than most films of its ilk and since it does do more than explode and look good, critics have fawned over it. It's certainly entertaining but does it stack up in terms of craft and emotional payoff as Hou's film that I just reviewed. Not really.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Flight of the Red Balloon

Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsai-hsien, 2008) [8]

Flight of the Red Balloon is the type of the film that requires patience. You have to sit back and take it all in, as the film never offers a big payoff but is instead a series of exquisite scenes and shots that resonate far after the viewing is done. Even now after a few days, my appreciation for this film continues to grow. At what first seemed to be a slow, uneventful film turns out to be an exceptionally lyrical examination of childhood and its experiences.

I haven't had any exposure to Hou's films or the famed Albert Lamoriss original, The Red Balloon, which has become almost a cliche for "French film." Hous is obviously paying reverence for the original but is also going in his own way. Hou keeps the film firmly rooted in reality, as most of it is a close examination of a boy named Simon and his family, a frantic puppeteer mother played wonderfully by Juliette Binoche, as well as his Chinese nanny and film student, Song. Hou uses said red balloon as a formal element, hovering above Simon the same way the film hovers over everything, taking all the actions of these characters in, examining but never judging them. It just exists there, much the same way the film does, capturing the harried exasperation of Binoche's character, Simon's piano lessons and video games, and the cramped, cluttered spaces they occupy. Hou creates meticulous and supremely crafted images, ones that are a reflection of Simon's loneliness and other emotions. The character's situations are explored but are never solved, much the way the balloon could never solve these issues, at the expense of having a tidy resolution. Hou has created a world that is downbeat but still exceptionally profound and moving in its own understated way. Flight of the Red Balloon is a film that takes its time and in doing that, creates something immensely beautiful in its simple features.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Useless Film Snob's Best Music of 2008

2008 was and up and down year for music. A rash of quality releases at the beginning and end of the year bookended a year that had more than enough quality albums. Cutting the list down to even 40 was harder than I thought it would have been. A good majority of the list are artists that have been on previous lists as well as some high performing newcomers. When you have so many artists that you already have an interest in, to find something new always takes more time and effort. 2008 was also the first year in the last five that I didn't attend Bonnaroo or many other major concerts, so these albums are what kept music alive for 2008:

40) Duffy - Rockferry
An album where a few standout blue eyed soul tracks make it worthwhile. Probably the most commercially viable album on the list.
Choice tracks: 'Warwick Avenue', 'Syrup and Honey'
39) Of Montreal - Skeletel Lamping
Sprawling electrofunk indie dance pop that once again sticks out on this list.
Choice tracks: 'An Eluardian Instance', 'St. Exquisite's Confessions'
38) Rachael Yamagata - Elephants....Teeth Sinking Into Heart
It's been quite a few years since Yamagata's debut, and here working with Mike Mogis, creates a set of more atmospheric songs.
Choice tracks: 'Duet', 'Don't'
37) The Broken West - Now or Heaven
This L.A. group's second album is solid but doesn't have near the excitement as last year's debut.
Choice tracks: 'Auctioneer', 'House of Lies'
36) Old Crow Medicine Show - Tennessee Pusher
Big Iron World, which was somehow inexplicably left of my '06 list, is tough to live up to. Tennessee Pusher isn't as good start to finish but it continues to showcase's this bands reinterpretation of bluegrass and traditional folk music.
Choice tracks: 'The Greatest Hustler of All', 'Caroline'
35) Loudon Wainwright III - Recovery
Re-recording tracks from his 70s material, Wainwright offers new insight to a good number of tracks that an older voice bring more meaning.
Choice tracks: 'Motel Blues', 'New Paint'
34) The Moondoggies - Don't Be a Stranger
The last couple of years have seen Seattle become a hotbed of roots and folk influenced bands that seems odd for a place associated with Nirvana and Pearl Jam. This debut is steeped in the Americana like that of The Band.
Choice tracks: 'Ain't No Lord', 'I Want You to Know'
33) Beach House - Devotion
Lush, dreamlike songs by this Baltimore duo.
Choice tracks: 'Turtle Island', 'D.A.R.L.I.N.G.'
32) Old 97s - Blame It on Gravity
The first albums from Rhett Miller & company in a few years throws all their influences together: country, power pop, even some surf music into a welcome return.
Choice tracks: 'My Two Feet', 'Here's to the Halcyon'
31) Marah - Angels of Destruction
The last hurrah of the best lineup Marah ever had, this album has the most polish of any studio record the band has ever released.
Choice tracks: 'Santos De Madera', 'Angels of Destruction'
30) Sun Kil Moon - April
Another album of somber acoustic songs and Crazy Horse like guitar tracks, all with Mark Kozelek's haunting voice.
Choice tracks: 'The Light', 'Like the River'
29) The Black Keys - Attack and Release
In '06, I said you always know what to expect out of a Black Keys album. Working with Danger Mouse, the band has definitely expanded their sound, but is it bad that I my favorites tracks are the ones that sound like the old Black Keys?
Choice tracks: 'I Got Mine', 'Strange Times'
28) Kathleen Edwards - Asking For Flowers
Foul-mouthed when she's rocking, lyrical when she quiets it down, Edwards has definitely matured beyond being a Lucinda Williams acolyte.
Choice tracks: 'The Cheapest Key', 'I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory'
27) The Delta Spirit - Ode to Sunshine
An album where you could debate the exact release, but it's 2008 for my records. Blending 60's influences like the Kinks and Buffalo Springfield, this is a enjoyable retro sounding record (which isn't bad). 'People Turn Around' is second choice for choice track of the year.
Choice tracks: 'House Built For Two', 'People Turn Around'
26) The Dodos - Visiter
Another band taking folk stylings and twisting and using it in ways that don't make it seem like copying.
Choice tracks: 'Walking', 'Fools'
25) Ray Lamontagne - Gossip In the Grain
For me, it's going to be nearly impossible for Lamontagne to surpass Trouble. That being said, this album benefits by not being nearly as dour as his last release.
Choice tracks: 'You Are the Best Thing', 'Gossip In the Grain'
24) Sigur Ros - Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust
One of the biggest disappointments for me was not being able to see Sigur Ros late night at Bonnaroo in person. Of what I've heard, this album had some of the more melodic tracks from the band.
Choice tracks: 'Vid spilum endalaust', 'Festival'
23) Conor Oberst - S/T
Oberst looses some of the earnest emo-ness that Bright Eyes can sink into and instead makes a loose, fun, rocking album.
Choice tracks: 'Get Well Cards', 'Souled Out!'
22) Bonnie "Prince Billy - Lie Down In the Light
A bit more light lyrically, a bit more upbeat musically, this is the type of album that I prefer of out Will Oldham.
Choice tracks: 'Easy Does It', 'So Everyone'
21) The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
This was bound to be letdown record of the year. It's not bad, it's just that it never compares to how great a record Boys and Girls in America was.
Choice cuts: 'Sequestered in Memphis', 'Lord I'm Discouraged'
20) The Whigs - Mission Control
Catchy hooks makes the difference in power pop bands. While The Whigs may bit a bit more muscular than power pop, there's no denying their skills in crafting interesting songs.
Choice tracks: 'Right Hand on my Heart', 'Hot Bed'
19) She & Him - Volume One
Sweet pop songs by Zooey Deschanel with help from M.Ward that run back to 60s pop and Phil Spector.
Choice tracks: 'Change is Hard','Sweet Darlin''
18) Howlin' Rain - Magnificent Fiend
More psychedelic back porch music from Ethan Miller's Comets on Fire side project. Not nearly as revelatory exciting as their debut (No.1 in '06) but right up my alley.
Choice tracks: 'Dancers at the End of Time', 'Lord Have Mercy'
17) Ryan Adams & the Cardinals - Cardinology
Rooted more firmly in classic rock than any Adams since Gold, Cardinology never sounds like its copying its influences but instead creating a defining sound for the Cardinals.
Choice tracks: 'Born Into a Light', Let Us Down Easy'
16) Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
Another album that could be 2007 or 2008 but it's wider availability was this year. Haunting, captivating songs that sound like they came straight out the Wisconsin winter.
Choice tracks: 'Skinny Love', 'The Wolves (Act I and II)'
15) The Felice Brothers - S/T
More shaggy Americana for my Upstate brethren, even if they still are downstate from me. More deftly produced but still with the ragged charms that made their debut so interesting.
Choice tracks: 'Greatest Show on Earth', 'Radio Song'
14) Gary Louris - Vagabonds
Being a big Jayhawks fan, I'm also a big fan of Louris's first solo album, which was produced by Chris Robinson. In fact, it doesn't sound much different than a Jayhawks album, which is a good thing if you're me or a bad thing, depending on who you are.
Choice tracks: 'Omaha Nights', 'Vagabonds'
13) Dr. Dog - Fate
The late blooming record of the year, I was a bit ambivalent about this record until giving it some more listens. The band has sharpened their songwriting greatly since last year's We All Belong and are now becoming one of my favorites.
Choice tracks: 'The Old Days', 'The Rabbit, the Bat, and the Reindeer'
12) Jamie Lidell - Jim
Lidell ditches most of his electronic bells and whistles and comes up with a straight-up blue eyed soul record with a ton of retro charm.
Choice tracks: 'Another Day', 'Wait For Me'
11) Brighblack Morning Light - Motion to Rejoin
To some, this album might sound like one big, slow song. But if you listen more closely, there are tiny moments, whether the R&B influenced backing vocals and horns, or the atmospheric soundscapes that really are impressive considering how the record was recorded.
Choice tracks: 'Oppressions Each', 'Past a Weatherbeaten Fencepost'
10) The Black Crowes - Warpaint
Say what you want about the Black Crowes, they still are one of my favorite bands and Warpaint is their best album since Amorica. The first three songs on the album are perhaps the best the Crowes have ever written.
Choice tracks: 'Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution', 'Oh Josephine'
9) My Morning Jacket - Evil Urges
The positives far outnumber any negatives that are on this album. In fact, I find 'Highly Suspicious' to be kind of catchy. But the songs that sound like classic MMJ are the best ones on the album.
Choice tracks: 'I'm Amazed', 'Aluminum Park'
8) Hayes Carll - Trouble In Mind
In the tradition of smart-asses like John Prine and Todd Snider, Hayes Carll would fit right in. It's a testament to how shitty country music is now that something like this is considered too alternative. Carll's songwriting can switch from satirical to poignant in the blink of an eye.
Choice tracks: 'I Don't Wanna Grow Up', 'She Left Me For Jesus'
7) Horse Feathers - House With No Home
Considered the best discovery of the year, Horse Feathers are another band taking folk stylings and doing something unique. And once again, no surprise they come out of the Pacific Northwest.
Choice tracks: 'Working Poor', 'Different Gray'
6) Jenny Lewis - Acid Tongue
Lewis continues to explore country and soul territory in her solo work even though Acid Tongue has a more 70s Southern California feel to it. 'Acid Tongue' is my choice for choice track of the year.
Choice tracks: 'Acid Tongue', 'Jack Killed Mom'
5) The Walkmen - You & Me
The ragged vocals, the echo laden guitar sound, the dynamic changes. The Walkmen definitely have a unique sound and You & Me showcases a band getting better with each album.
Choice tracks: 'Postcards From Tiny Islands', 'Red Moon'
4) Fleet Foxes - S/T
The favorite of every hipster blog on the Internet seemingly, Fleet Foxes are another band out of Seattle with folk leanings. The harmony drenched vocals are the key on just about every song as the band creates something that just isn't heard that much anymore.
Choice tracks: 'He Doesn't Know Why', 'Your Protector'
3) Blitzen Trapper - Furr
Since I spent a month or so living in Portland, I feel I have a affinity for the eclectic music scene there. There may be no more eclectic band out there right now than Blitzen Trapper. Furr is another mash-up of varying styles but the band find its footing when it sounds most like a Grateful Dead/Flaming Lips mash up.
Choice tracks: 'Furr', 'War on Machines'
2) Okkervil River - The Stand Ins
Okkervil River were last year's sleeper, with the Stage Names rising steadily into my top five. The Stand Ins operates like a sequel, showing the same strong songwriting and musicianship that made me appreciate The Stage names so much.
Choice tracks: 'Singer Songwriter', 'On Tour with Zykos'
1) Drive-By Truckers - Brighter Than Creation's Dark
Speaking of sequels, Brighter Than Creation's Dark could pass as a sequel to The Dirty South (no. 2 in '05). The Truckers return to the exceptional form of that album, even without Jason Isbell. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley return to writing stellar songs that could pose as short stories. Shonna Tucker's songs are solid and the addition of Spooner Oldham on keys add a dimension on certain songs that are a welcome addition. Even at 19 songs, there aren't many throwaways. When the Truckers are on top of their game, as they are here, there's hardly a group out there that can top them. And that's why Brighter Than Creation's Dark is my pick for the best album of 2008.
Choice tracks: 'The Righteous Path', 'Bob'

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Step Brothers

Step Brothers (Adam McKay, 2008) [7]

Step Brothers is juvenile, slight, crude, and ridiculous. It also happens to be consistently hilarious which is all you can ask for of a comedy. In my previous reviews of other Will Ferrell comedies, I've state that the best moments of those films are the totally random, improvisational moments. This film is really nothing more than a collection of loose moments, only very loosely being tied together with some semblance of a plot. Ferrell and John C. Rielly play two thritysomethings with the emotional maturation of ten year olds. The two still live with their parents and when those two get married, the pair are forced to move in together and you get the title. Anything plotwise that occurs is playing second fiddle to Ferrell and Rielly playing foul-mouthed, immature man children to hilarious effect. There are numerous funny scenes but the best involve certain body parts on a drum set and a slow-mo karate montage in a garage with Hall & Oates on the soundtrack. The film may be stupid, crude, and dumb but comedies can play by different rules than drama. Story and character can take a back seat and laughs can cover up for any deficiencies in those areas. Step Brothers does that because it continually pushes the edge of actually being a film and not a collection of improv moments. It's something I've always wanted to see more of in Ferrell's comedies and finally, and when finally executed, it works they way I thought it would. Also, unlike all the other Apatow man-child movies of recent years, it has none of the borderline sappy, humanizing moments that I've always been ambivalent about. Brennan and Dale are just ridiculous, extreme characters, and when accepted at face value, Step Brothers consistently brings the funny moments.

When accessing the reviews of this film at metacritic, the top two reviews were from Kyle Smith of the New York Post and Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post. I only say this because I think these two are the worst film critics in the country and I'm almost repulsed that I would agree with them on this, especially since a lot of the reviews are lukewarm to negative. It really doesn't say that much other than I hope this film is an outlier and that I would have the same tastes as these hacks.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader, 1985) [6]

Seeing this some years ago, I thought the new Criterion treatment was worth another viewing. While it may be expertly crafted, there's something about Schrader's style and execution that is a little too calculating. It also doesn't help that Yukio Mishima is an unlikable personality to me personally. For those unfamiliar, Mishima is perhaps Japan's more notable writer and someone who became a well-known cultural figure in Japan before committing ritual suicide in the early 70s. But Mishima was also a reactionary with ideas rooted in Imperial Japanese tradition that don't agree and are foreign to me. Schrader tries to get the audience to understand Mishima's ideas by breaking the film into chapters, highlighting key ideas of his work such as art as beauty and the harmony of pen and sword. The film is further deconstructed into three areas: Mishima's biography, the present-day actions occuring on the day of his suicide, and performances of his work. For me, the film performances are the expert part of the film, done in vibrant technicolor and avant-garde sets. Everything about Mishima and his ideas can be derived from these works: his ideas on the body and beauty, nationalism, and this idea of the harmony of pen and sword, of using his writings as a weapon to reclaim the ideals of the Samurai and Imperial Japan. Outside of these sequences, the rest of the film is fairly uninteresting to me and only goes to further my dislike Mishima the man, who was just as concerned with his media image as his status as a literary figure. While his writings may have some power and craft, as the film clearly shows, there's no denying he was a polarizing figure. Schrader attempts to come to a deeper understanding in the film and while some may get it, I never really can fully accept all of its parts.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Promotion

The Promotion (Steve Conrad, 2008) [5]

Conrad gets some points for his story and the portrayal of its characters but The Promotion just isn't consistently funny enough to recommend. The film snakes its way between sly humor, broader slapstick and tender, humanizing moments that never seem to give the viewer or the film a foot to stand on. Seann William Scott and John C. Reilly play two men vying for a managerial post of a new supermarket opening. Scott is the uptight assistant manager who appears to be a shoe-in for the post until Reilly's character, playing a Canadian interloper shows up. A series of hi jinks ensue which get increasingly competitive and play the two directly against each other. These are characters that work because Conrad has a keen sense of observation and is never patronizing towards them. Both Scott and Reilly's characters are people with flaws but the film never uses them to be laughed at. One of the films stronger suits is that Conrad recognizes that these guys are in pretty thankless jobs in a stale, restrictive corporate culture where the acts of sabotage they commit are a form of release from the constant drudgery of their lives. Reilly's character is a recovering addict now addicted to self-help tapes but instead of laughing at his glibness, you end up sympathizing with him. Scott's character is the more unlikable of the two but still, the film does enough for you to recognize why he's doing the things he does. The flaw in the system comes from the all over the map nature of the film. Conrad creates characters and a story so enmeshed in an unfunny corporate world that it's hard to really make this a comedy. As someone who has had experience in the retail world, they're not exactly the best jobs in the world. If the film was just broad slapstick humor, it might have worked better because it doesn't bring up all the rotten elements of working in the service sector. The problem may be that since the characters and their world are all too bleakly real, a lot of the humor gets sucked out of the picture. As a comedy, The Promotion doesn't quite cut, or if you're Canadian, crack it.