Sunday, February 22, 2009

Frozen River

Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, 2008) [8]

Melissa Leo's performance is really that good, and if there's any justice, it should win her an Oscar tonight. But this is bleak, uncompromising film that is certainly all too depressing for some people. Leo plays Ray Eddy, a woman barely surviving in Upstate New York on the Canadian border. She has a lousy, low paying job, is trying to raise two kids in a dilapidated home, and her degenerate gambler husband just took off with their money for a new double wide. Ray is a woman at rock bottom, and Leo plays her with such a confidence and subtlety that she nails the character perfectly. Ray has reached a point of desperation so strong that she ends up in a smuggling operation of illegal aliens with a Mohawk woman (Misti Upham). It's a situation that is all but to certain to not end up pretty for Ray but that's what is to be expected. Give credit to Courtney Hunt for a story and characters that are true reflections of those living on the bottom of the economic spectrum. There are a few moments that feel a little too manipulative and crafted but it is really Leo's performance that help keep the film grounded in its realm. Leo and Upham are playing characters that have no other opportunities other than the solution presented to them and Frozen River pulls no punches in showing the toll poverty takes.

Friday, February 20, 2009


Blindness (Fernando Meirelles, 2008) [6]

I've read Jose Saramago's novel and found it an astounding piece of work. The word 'unfilmable' also came to mind, as the lyrical nature of Saramago's is structured in such a way that a filmic adaptation would surely pale in comparison. So it was with that trepidation that preceded Blindness, and while the film isn't a masterwork, it's definitely better than some of the negative reviews it has received. The plot centers on an epidemic of white blindness that sweeps through an undetermined urban center. The sickness serves as a vehicle to examine the fragility of human nature and its subsequent breakdown as a result of the chaos the blindness creates. The focus is on a group struck early on, headed by an opthamologist (Mark Ruffalo) and his wife (Julianne Moore), who is hiding the fact that she can still see. They have to ward off an aggressive "king" (Gael Garcia Bernal) and make their way through the disorder that the city has become.

As a director with a history of visual extravagance, it's only fitting that Meirelles directed this. And it's only fitting that he overdoes it with his use of pure white or darkness. He is too much of a kinetic director, and his constantly shifting camera angles and style don't help the big ideas that are present in Saramago's writing. It's true that the film makes Saramago's ideas a lot more didactic and intensifies the gruesomeness of what the characters endure in the story. What were subtle examinations on human nature in the novel often comes across too simplified and action oriented. Still, these characters were meant to be put under horrific circumstances and they endure. For all his technical bravado, Meirelles and the script stay close enough to the novel that they are able to do enough right to make it effective some of the time. It's not perfect, but the end product is probably as close to as good an adaptation as Meirelles and company could do.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Useless Film Snob Book Report - The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule (Thomas Frank, 2007)

Frank's last book, What's the Matter with Kansas? was one of the most fascinating and interesting political books that I've read. That examination of how the Republican party had convinced many people to vote against their economic interests in favor of fanning the fires of the culture wars was well researched and smartly done. The Wrecking Crew comes off as an extension of the ideas present in that previous book. Since conservatives concocted a majority with their inflammation of cultural issues, it would make since to analyze what they've done since gaining power.

Frank paints a fairly bleak picture, how the conservative movement's cynicism, general dislike of government in general, and their slavish devotion to the idea that the free market will fix everything, was a fairly calculated effort to break government. Conservatives have created a federal government so corrupt and inept that it's created a permanent cynicism in the citizenry that government can do nothing right. To Frank, this was a precise plan meant to disable liberalism's ideas of government as an ally of the people as well as a way to have the market(s) become the central governing factor of this nature. Frank gives a history and analysis of the conservative movement's rise to power, starting with the Reagan's presidency and continuing to the work of George W. Bush's administration. Some of the more egregious acts are but not limited to: naming department secretaries who are often enemies of that department, hiring incompetent and under qualified cronies to important positions, politicizing jobs that were never before, and more broadly, creating a government so inept and deficit-ridden that it ties the hands of its Democratic inheritors. For a liberal, it adds up to a series of events that are crass, cynical, shocking, and yet, not that all surprising to someone who's been paying attention to Republican rule for the last 25 years.

Frank's work is well-researched and in-depth, but it all comes off as a bit too wonkish at times. There is a little too much inside baseball, as dry explanations of Saipan and the Jack Abramoff scandal show. There's also a little bit less interesting stories as What's the Matter with Kansas? The one here that sticks out the most is how the conservative movement has supported some horrendous groups and governments over the years in their defense of "freedom" and free markets. The apartheid government in South Africa, Jonas Savimbi and his brutal, wreckless civil war in Angola, and Central American death squads all received support from Conservative organizations in the past. And yet through despicable actions like these, conservatives have mostly succeeded in creating a government beholden to the free market and corporate interests. Frank is bleak in assessing the future, saying that it will take a immense change in Washington.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Two Films by Aki Kaurismaki

The Match Factory Girl (Aki Kaurismaki, 1990) [8]/Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismaki, 2007) [6]

Kaurismaki's films deal with downtrodden people, lonely, desperate, and yet all too sympathetic. These characters exist as solitary figures against a expansive, industrial metropolis. Kaurismaki handles his characters in a deadpan, minimalist style that lacks much of anything: emotion, dialogue, hope. Yet through his style comes character studies that are finely attuned with the members of society that no one would really care to make a film about.

The Match Factory Girl may be the best example of all of the attributes listed above. There isn't a line of dialogue spoken until twenty minutes in and not much there after either. Kati Outinen plays Iris, a factory worker constantly browbeaten by her parents and yearning for some kind of human contact. She finds it in a one night stand only to become pregnant and being rejected by the callous man. All this creates a series of crushing events where Iris has no choice but to seek revenge on all those who've made her life miserable. Kaurismaki makes all the points he needs to without exerting much of any emotion or speaking. By simply moving through scene after scene, a portrait of how miserable Iris's life is becomes all too clear. The opening sequence of the match factory at work lays the setting for the monotonous workings of the film. The film never tells, it shows, and that's its greatest strength. Even with its minimalist style, Kaurismaki is still able to create a film that understands its central character.

Watching Lights In the Dusk, I get the feeling that I'm almost watching the same film again. Koistinen is a desperately lonely security guard, beaten down by his job and life. He meets what he thinks is a affections woman, who is really only using Koistinen to rob the shopping plaza where he works. It sets up a series of events that end up having Koistinen take the fall for the crime. After being released prison, Koistinen's life is just another series of unfortunate events. It all feels a little too close to the film above, all the way down to Koistinen deciding to exact revenge on all those who made his life miserable. The only real difference is that the film throws in another woman, Aila, who has feelings for Koistinen, which he chooses to ignore. Because of Kaurismaki's style, the repetitious nature of Lights In the Dusk compared to The Match Factory Girl makes the film seems stuck in its tracks. Most of it boils down to the characters of each. Iris's situation involved the acts of others towards her. It seems here that Koistinen's troubles are a result of his actions. It makes it harder to be a sympathetic character when you choose the road you take.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Best Bonnaroo Lineup Ever.

Bonnaroo just handed every other American music festival its ass this morning. I've been to five Bonnaroos and this is by far the best lineup top to bottom that I've ever seen for any festival, let alone Bonnaroo. Best group of headliners since '06. Best overall lineup since '04. Phish will bring out the more sketchy element of the jamband scene but it's worth it to hear Springsteen, Wilco, Bon Iver, Yeasayer, Todd Snider, Jenny Lewis, Neko Case, and Okkervil River among many others. If the weather stays nice for that weekend in June, I will guarantee this will be my favorite 'Roo.

Check out the full lineup here.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Wrestler

The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008) [9]

I believe I've said this before but I believe the right performance can overshadow any detriments the story or film as a whole may have had. This is certainly true of The Wrestler, as Mickey Rourke's performance casts a huge shadow over everything else about the film. It should. Rourke's performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson is near flawless in almost every way. It's an astounding work of physical acting as well as making Randy a sympathetic character. Every part of Rourke's performance oozes pathos and it's not just because he's playing a has-been wrestler trying to make ends meet. It really boils down to the fact that you recognize that experience and you become invested with Randy as a character, no matter what you're opinion about professional wrestling is. The film and Rourke's performance cut through the world of wrestling and gives a character study of a man who does what he does because that's all he's really good at. As for the film itself, it does create a series of events or moments that funnel the film to that central theme to Randy's existence. I felt that Marissa Tomei's character is used too much in this way. That's not to say that I didn't like her performance; it's very good, but it's clear she's there a lot to push the story a certain way. The same can be said of Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), Randy's daughter. All that doesn't really matter because the performances of all elevate beyond what they could have been. It's a great compliment for a film and a filmmaker that he or she knows how to rise above some of the lesser elements of the story. As for Aronofsky, this is nothing like his prior efforts, and the film is better for it. His showboaty camerawork and editing would have definitely sunk the gritty realism that is on screen here. It results in a film that works because he knows the strength lies in the characters, and not his overwhelming visual style. The Wrestler is a change for the better.