Friday, January 30, 2009

Monthly Listening Post - January

Welcome to an expanded monthly music feature. In addition to posting the newest releases that I'm listening to, I'll also get more into other music news as well as concert and expanded album reviews. So here it goes:

Coachella's lineup is out today (finally) and it's pretty much what I expected. There are plenty of solid acts in the supporting slots but as usual the headliners don't do much. Paul McCartney, The Killers, and The Cure don't make me want to go anymore than the quality of acts below them. Bonnaroo's announcement is Tuesday and the rumor mill is buzzing of two nights of Phish and Bruce Springsteen as headliners. I've never been much more than a casual fan of Phish and have seen them live (they're not bad) but I'm skittish about them at Bonnaroo. It's surely going to bring out the young fans who have never seen Phish before are going to come out, which in turn will bring out the drugs, and those who don't know how to handle themselves. I'm not against drugs, you can do 'em if you want, but I have no sympathy or patience for those who take more than they can handle. Still, if Springsteen is on the bill, it's an automatic go. And I hope some of those bands on the Coachella bill come to Tennessee in June.

The other big news for me in the music department is the Spring reunion tour for The Dead. A lot has been posted at Jambase among others complaining about the high ticket prices. It's the same old bitching and moaning by some in the "jam band" scene that if anything doesn't adhere to what some mythical standards are, they are labled corporate and a sellout. This has been a standard complaint of Bonnaroo, that they have sold out or gone MTV (which is complete BS) because they've moved beyond the base. This is reason number one why I've lost almost all my interest in that style of music, with The Dead the only real exception to that. The simple fact is that there is a demand for tickets. They have certainly earned the right to charge whatever they want. There are people willing to pay that price. I did. I was only fourteen when Jerry Garcia died, I never got to see the Grateful Dead live. This is the closest to that experience I could get. I will gladly pay the ticket price for that opportunity.

Enough with the ranting, here are the albums:

The Gaslight Anthem - The '59 Sound (Every year there is one album that I discover after posting my year-end list. This album, had I found it earlier, would have been a probably top ten album.)
Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
Bon Iver - Blood Bank Ep
Derek Trucks Band - Already Free

Friday, January 23, 2009

Useless Film Snob Version 3.0

I have mostly kept this site up as a way to write about film and other topics on a fairly regular basis. The lack of any consistent readership and continuing irrelevance of some review have made it difficult over time. I know this site exists solely for myself and even posting this is a egomaniacal act of some delusion (yeah everyone out there who doesn't come here, let me tell you what I'm going to do). Anyway, to sum things up, I've decided to head to grad school to get my MFA in creative writing. I am taking the time to get my non-blog writing up to a standard that I feel is of a level to be considered. This will be mean less posts and a revised form of operation here at the site. The new rules are as follows:

-I will no longer review every film I see. This will mean less reviews but hopefully the reviews I do decide to write will have a bit more focus and examination to them.

-I will try my best to review more films during their theatrical release. I've said this before but in a place like Binghamton, seeing what I want to see in a timely manner isn't always possible. I know the possibility of torrents are out there, but I can barely operate blogger let alone figure out and take the time to download torrents. Older films will still be covered, but only if I feel I have something significant to write about them.

-There will be more "bloggy" posts, for lack of a better word. These will be treatises, ramblings, and other personal views on film, music, and political issues. I never really wanted this site to boil down to personal ramblings all the time so I will try to have an intellectual argument to what I post.

Over the past few months, I have picked up thoughtful comments and feedback from people, which is greatly appreciated. Even if it is a small number, after years of toiling away for practically nothing, to have someone take the time to post a comment, I thank you.

Friday, January 16, 2009


Liebestraum (Mike Figgis, 1991) [4]

Liebestraum is still the only major theatrical film to be filmed here in Binghamton, which is perhaps why the film is more a curiosity to me than anything else. It's hard to objectively review a film when you're picking apart each scene for every landmark and other signifiers of the town. I give Figgis credit for this at least: he's made a film that an overwhelming majority of people in Binghamton would be positively bored watching. All that said, this is a film where style definitely trumps story, a sort of neo-noir full of interesting shadows and light but bogged down by an all too predictable story with too many clunky scenes. An architecture writer (Kevin Anderson) comes to a small town to visit his ailing mother only to run into an old friend (Bill Pullman), planning to demolish a historic cast iron building (the crux of filming this in Binghamton was that we have one of the few cast iron exterior buildings left standing in the world). Nick, the writer, becomes embroidered in the standard noir role, thrust into extraordinary circumstances, falling into a relationship with his friend's wife (Pamela Gidley) and uncovering a murder mystery that happened in the building years earlier which is some how connected to him. The problem with the story is that it all comes together too neatly in the way you expect it to, with a resolution and ending that is all too obvious too early. A lot of scenes become bogged down in clunky dialogue and dream sequences that would only be considered avant-garde to those who never leave the multiplex. That all combined is probably too much for the film to overcome but Figgis certainly gets his lighting and shadows down pat for a noir. It's by far the most interesting aspect of the film but only in a few cases can style overshadow substance. It's also a little too slick and polished for me, missing the gritty, dirty look that I find engrossing about film noir.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2008) [5]

Every once in a while there is a Coen Brothers film that comes out and falls flat with me. Miller's Crossing had been the best example so far but Burn After Reading may take that title on the mantle. A Coen brothers version of a political thriller, its uneasy mix of humor and dark cynicism never really gel. The story focuses on two nit witted gym employees (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) who stumble across what they think is classified information of a CIA analyst (John Malkovich). Eventually the tangled web of failed espionage brings in the analyst's estranged wife (Tilda Swinton), her less than honest lover (George Clooney), and other assorted characters that could only come from a Coen Brothers film. A lot has been made how farcical the story and the characters are, and how much contempt the Coens seem to have for them. Of course it's meant to be a farce and the characters bordering on screwball. I don't find that the problem; unlike some of their other films, there's nothing in these characters that are that memorable or endearing to make them believable. The Big Lebowski may be just as frivolous and messy as this film but it had characters and situations that transcend the simple machinations of its story. This film has some funny moments but it never comes close to making an impact. And unlike the tightly constructed chaos of No Country for Old Men, this feels too loose and cluttered with too many ideas that never gel. The funniest moments may be between the two CIA higher-ups trying to decipher the situation and come to the same realization as the viewers: that we really have no idea what all that just happened meant.

Berkeley in the Sixties

Berkeley in the Sixties (Mark Kitchell, 1990) [6]

While it may be well-researched and informative of a certain era, Berkeley in the Sixties smacks of so much self-centered smugness that it's hard for anyone to really appreciate what these people did. And this is from someone who while not born till much later, has a strong affinity for the political and social ideas of the 1960s counterculture. The interview subjects range from pragmatic and critical to those who are blowing hyper-inflated nostalgia out of their asses. It's these type of people that make others think of baby boomers as self-absorbed and entitled. That shouldn't cloud the fact that what went on at Cal in the 1960s is important in American history. There's no denying that Berkeley was one of the main hubs of radical and countercultural activity in the 60s but there were plenty of other universities that cultivated the same movements and ideas. Yet some of those interviewed take the view that what they were doing in Berkeley is somehow more special than what was happening at other places. For all its pomposity, the film still does a good job of explaining the origins of what became the student movement and how the anti HUAC and Free Speech movements at Berkeley were catalysts for greater things throughout the decade. What did occur at Berkeley offers a nice little window into the greater issue of what the counterculture and student movement wanted and what little they gained. The one thing that can be said about the people involved is at least they felt it was important enough to become engaged, something that is all too lacking in young people today (myself partially included).

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Man on Wire

Man on Wire (James Marsh, 2008) [7]

Man on Wire has everything needed to make an entertaining documentary: an eccentric central character, a dazzling achievement that is rife with issues that could derail it, and an execution that heightens the tension and wonder of the event. Philippe Petit's achievement, tightrope walking across the two towers of the World Trade center in 1974, was an amazing accomplishment and something that recent events have made it resonate even more. Where the film succeeds is giving an in-depth analysis of how and why Petit did what he did. The behind the scenes action leading up to the event are just as interesting and filled with tension as the actual walk. It certainly helps that Petit explains everything with an impish enthusiasm that can't help but come through to the viewer. It's an awe-inspiring achievement and something for which a film should capture to explain for history's sake. It's that sheer interest in Petit and why he did what he did that hide a few formal flaws in the film. The re-enactments of certain scenes never really integrate fully into the archival footage of the film; they feel too much like set pieces, scenes that stick out too much from the rest. Marsh gives us plenty of reasons why Petit walked between the towers and some how but not the main 'how': where does Petit get the time and money to be able to accomplish the feat? The very idea of it is never mentioned and the glossing over of the entire subject raises more questions than any other aspect of it. It's creates this notion that there's something of Petit's character that he is shielding from the film. All we ever get of his background is he's a street acrobat/magician. By leaving this information out, it feels like Marsh and Petit don't want us to know something that would tarnish this accomplishment. But it's the spectre of this accomplishment that make Man on Wire a film that is difficult not to be engrossed by.