Monday, November 30, 2009

Film Decade List #18: Far From Heaven

Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, USA, 2002)

Haynes ode to Sirkian melodrama is a fantastic film, from its performances to its look, all the while taking a slightly different route than Sirk's most memorable films. Julianne Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, a prototypical upper middle-class housewife in the 1950s with a nice house and a successful husband, played by Dennis Quaid. Cathy's life starts to spiral out of control after spotting her husband kissing another man one night. As Cathy's seemingly perfect life seems to becoming undone, she befriends her African-American gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). As the two begin to find a connection and friendship, the social taboo of a white woman and a black man being seen together creates some unintended dangers. Working with a strong influence from All That Heaven Allows, Haynes does a near perfect job of recreating the look and feel of Sirk's films. The cinematography is gorgeous, with rich, warm colors and with more realistic set pieces. The film also accurately portrays the social climate of the 50s, especially in regards to race and sexuality. Moore plays Cathy as a character ahead of her time, never comprehending the vitriol the community has towards her relationship with Raymond. In their relationship, Haynes is drawing a bit of influence from Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, which itself had a lot indebted to Sirk's films. The racial climate surrounding the characters in each are very similar. Moore carries the film on her strong-willed performance and there's no doubt that the effectiveness of Cathy makes or breaks the film. Everything about the film is done with a reverence toward the 50s melodrama that it works. But that it also a little more forthright in its examination of social issues of the time make Far From Heaven a remarkably perceptive film.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Music Decade List #18: The Hold Steady - Separation Sunday (2005)

The template laid down on Separation Sunday has come to define who and what The Hold Steady are. Almost Killed Me showed moments but here is really where everything came together, from Craig Finn's vocal delivery to a intertwined song cycle to the classic rock-isms. Revolving around a cycle of songs about Catholicism, growing up, going to parties, getting wasted, and meeting an assortment of characters, it can be seen as completely contrived. What makes it work is that The Hold Steady truly believe that Rock & Roll can be meaningful and that you can enjoy yourself and still play music. Songs like 'Banging Camp' and 'Chicago Seem Tired Last Night' have an explosive energy and while completely immersed in classic rock tropes, have infectious riffs in them. Coupled that with Finn's talk-singing, and numerous literary and cultural references, it creates a product that you will surely love or loathe. There seems to be no middle ground with The Hold Steady; you're either a true believer or want nothing to do with them. If you get into Separation Sunday, than unironic rock music can still have some sort of impact.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Film Decade List #19: American Splendor

American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, USA, 2003)

It's a testament to how entertaining a film American Splendor is when its central character is so cantakerous, moody, and difficult to like as Harvey Pekar. But the film, much like Pekar's work, take the mundane, soul-crushing existence that is most of Pekar's life and makes him a sympathetic, endearing character. Harvery as a person and as a character (played by Paul Giamatti) has his faults but his willingness to tell almost everything seems to wash over his less than desirable attributes. The film eschews traditional biography, instead blending fiction scenes with actors and the real-life characters sitting around talking to the directors. What really makes the two blend together so seamlessly is that the performances so perfectly match the people. Giamatti and Hope Davis as Harvey's wife, Joyce, nail every idiosyncrasy in their real-life character's personalities. The one who nearly steals the entire movie is Judah Friedlander as Toby Flenderson, Harvery's co-worker and self-appointed "nerd." Friedlander sticks everything, from Toby's body language down to his distinctive voice. It's a role that could be seen strictly as comic relief but like everyone else, Toby comes across so truthfully and sincerely, you never end up laughing at him but you identify. The basis of American Splendor is in the moments, to pick some semblance of truth in the human experience that make part of these characters present in everyone that lives in a crappy town, has a dead-on job and is looking for some way to seem worthwhile in life.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Music Decade List #19: Neko Case - Middle Cyclone (2009)

Nothing on Middle Cyclone is all that different than what Case has been putting out on record for most of the decade. It is a quantum leap forward in precision and confidence of craft that make this album stand out. The number one focal point of Case has always been her fantastic voice but here, she has the consistent melodies to back it up. It's amazing songs like 'This Tornado Loves You' or 'People Got a Lotta Nerve' never became hit songs (though it probably says more for the state of the music business and radio than the public in general). The songs on Middle Cyclone don't follow any genre in particular but they are all crafted with an atmospheric bent that allows Case to belt or be more subdued at any given moment. The hint of reverb in something like 'Vengeance Is Sleeping' adds a little more to a simple guitar track. But once again, it comes back to the melodies, which I'll make the case that this is the strongest and most consistent set on any Case album. Besides the two I mentioned above, later tracks like the title one and 'I'm an Animal' have fantastic hooks. For an artist who always seem to have trouble getting her songs more attention than her voice, Middle Cyclone feels like that Case has discovered the right formula to accomplish that.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Film Decade List #20 - 2046

2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong, 2005)
The one word I use to describe 2046 is ethereal. There's something other-worldly about the film and not that it teeters into science fiction territory. The story feels slight and that a host of strong elements (clunky symbolism, useless f/x or action) would completely overwhelm the delicate film that Wong has created. Operating as more or less a sequel to In the Mood for Love (which we'll get to later), 2046 follows the character as Mr. Chung (Tony Leung), this time as more of a playboy but still dealing with a lot of the same themes as that film. Chung again moves from lovelorn moment to moment while Wong throws in some science fiction elements. It all doesn't have the same emotional resonate of INMFL but in a formal sense, 2046 is much less tethered to reality and exists outside reality at times. Once again, Christopher Doyle's cinematography is enviable beautiful and the larger focus on surface images and color make 2046 a bit more of a visual oriented film. That being said, Wong never completely leaves story behind but it really plays second fiddle to creating that feeling that this film is fleeting and exists ever so briefly in the ether. It's incredibly difficult to describe exactly how I felt watching this. It could have been all too easy for this film to fall into a swirling mess without much grounding it. Wong is such an exceptional filmmaker that it feels like he's pulling important shots and themes out of practically nothing or at least sub-interesting material like science fiction (that's my opinion speaking). It's one of those 'either you get it or you don't films' but for someone like me, this is about an easy like as I can get.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Film Decade List #21: The Departed

The Departed (Martin Scorsese, USA, 2006)

The Departed is by no means classic Scorsese but in regards to the other films he had released this decade, it was a welcome return to what you think a Scorsese film should be. The film works because it has all the hallmark elements of Scorsese's best work, the fast paced, kinetic camera and action, using rock songs in just the right moments, and another fantastic editing job by Thelma Schoomaker. Based on the Asian film Infernal Affairs, the plot focuses on a series of "rats", a criminal infiltrating the Boston Police Department (Matt Damon) and a cop infiltrating his former neighborhood crime racket (Leonardo DiCaprio). Damon and DiCaprio's characters are pretty much mirror images, as they behave and even go for the same woman (Vera Farmiga) as the web of subplots and double crosses unravels around them. It a smart, propulsive screenplay with an ear for Boston, not just in accents but in the behavior of the police and the criminals that occupy the film. Yes, it all makes an entertaining film and there was not many other directors that could have handled the material any better than Scorsese does. The film does get docked some minor points for the ham-handed symbolism at the end and Jack Nicholson seems to lag well behind everyone else in the film in terms of performance. Still, The Departed does enough right to deserve its place on this list.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Music Decade List #20: Ryan Adams - Easy Tiger (2007)

After some highly conceptualized releases before it (the Deadsy Cold Roses, the country of Jacksonville City Nights), Easy Tiger was seen by some to a return to the form of Heartbreaker, in that Adams pares and combines his influences into one concise album. The album can also be seen as a more broad, commercially aiming record after the increasingly insular and niche albums that made up Adams's 2005 trio. Easy Tiger was definitely a grower for me, as further listens brushed the "too commercial" feeling I had about it at the beginning and now, it has become a record I go back to time and time again. Never being as big of a believer in Heartbreaker as legend has made it, I would take the songs here over a lot on that album. Like I said above, the album feels like a mix of the various albums that Adams had covered over the previous part of the decade: 'Goodnight Rose' wouldn't feel out of place on Cold Roses (especially when listening to the jammier live versions), 'Pearls on a String' could come from Jacksonville City Nights, even something like 'I Taught Myself How to Grow Old' could be on 29. Perhaps why I've come to like Easy Tiger so much is that you can pick a little bit out of every other Adams album and say "Yes, this song could be on ___". With that being said, it still works together because it feels like the strongest set of songs Adams put on record maybe ever. Nothing sounds meandering of like filler. I could live without 'Two' or 'Everybody Knows', the two most obvious hand-outs to radio, even though they have some merit. I'll take the acoustic numbers, definitely the strongest since Heartbreaker. 'These Girls' and 'Oh My God, Whatever, Etc.' are really exceptional songs. And even though this is titled as a Adams solo release it does feature the Cardinals lineup with Neal Casal, who I will argue makes a huge difference in Adams transformation as a live performer. With Adams, it seems to make a significant improvement in his recorded output using the same performers on every track. It may not be a great record to some, but Easy Tiger earned its place on this list with repeated listening.

(Author's note: The author of this post often spends too much time listening, pouring over, and analyzing the catalog of Ryan Adams. Be prepared for a dissertation-level write up of Cold Roses later on in this decade list.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Jerichow (Christian Petzold, 2009) [9]

A variation on The Postman Always Rings Twice, Jerichow is a different kind of neo-noir. The story is never really focused on the plot twists and surprises that populate noir but more by an evocative tone. Thomas (Benno Furmann) is a Afghan war vet back in his hometown with no money. By chance, he comes across Ali (Hilmi Sozer), a Turkish immigrant who owns a chain of snack shops and just happens to need a driver after getting busted for DUI. Thomas goes to work and earns the trust of Ali as well as becoming attracted to Ali's wife, Laura (Nina Hoss), a woman with a past of her own. The rest of the film settles on this simmering romance with Thomas and Laura with Ali left at the edges. It's a fairly standard noir plot but Petzold reworks the emotional ambiance of the story to a refreshing degree. The film has a detached, almost clinical eye to the story and its characters. Moments of passion, paranoia, and violence all play out the same way. The characters are beaten down but in different ways. Thomas and Laura have ended up in circumstances that as of a result of not having money, have created a situation with nowhere to go for them. Ali, while having a lot of money, is a victim of being a immigrant in a land that never really accepts him even with his wealth. He tells Thomas of going on a trip back to Turkey, where he and Laura are planning on permanently moving to. Or so Petzold lets you think. The only big revelation of the narrative comes after Ali returns from his trip and it shifts his character to a boozy, violent, unlikable man into someone that garners sympathy. Petzold is digging a little bit deeper than just into the passion of the characters and by examining race, wealth, and status, even briefly, he adds a dimension to Jerichow that I find appealing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Film Decade List #22: Talk to Her (2002)

Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2002)

Almodovar has become known with the way that he handles female characters in his film but Talk to Her is almost in reverse as in it focuses on male characters and their interactions in similar circumstances. Marco (Dario Grandinetti) is a writer whose matador girlfriend ends up in a coma. Benigno (Javier Camara) is a male nurse looking after a patient who has been in a coma for a while. The two men bond over their similar circumstances and the ability to care for those women in their lives that are helpless. While that is a fairly simple review, Almodovar throws many more themes and surreal experiences that give the film so much more meaning. One one level, it's about these men coming to terms with tragic circumstances but there's a deeper underlying darkness to it, especially in Benigno's relationship. He has no real ties to the woman he's looking after other than being her nurse but he wraps himself so tightly in her life, there's a feeling of uneasiness about his relationship. That foreboding notion shows itself by the end, where the sympathy earned by Benigno in his actions earlier in the film comes crashing down in a jarring end. That Marco comes to Benigno after attempting to find an explanation shows a lot about the bond the two created earlier in the film. Talk to Her really is a fairly simple film in its execution but Almodovar creates a complete film universe with a caring storyline. He never quite loses his more surreal tendencies, as a silent vignette bawdily shows, but there's no denying how emotionally powerful the film is, despite how poorly I've described it. That Benigno, who does something truly unforgivable, and yet, you feel just as sorry for him as you feel outrage, is a testament to how strong a story Almodovar has wound. Talk to Her has been one of the films over the past few years that has always stayed with me as being a near perfectly constructed film, not just in story and characters but in emotion.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Essential Collection: Z

Z (Costa-Gravas, France/Algeria, 1969)

In retrospect, a lot has been made of the Academy Awards for 1969 when Midnight Cowboy took Best Picture and Z took Best Foreign Film, mostly because the Academy seemed to grow a pair of balls that it rarely has shown in the years since. Aside from its political tone, there is nothing in Z that couldn't be found in a well-made thriller to come out of Hollywood in the 70s. That's more than likely the reason that it was met with an embrace in America. It's a taut, economical film that speeds along on its narrative and takes subject matter that is obscure and inflammatory and makes great entertainment out of it.

Based on real-life events surrounding the assassination of a leftist Greek political leader, the film follows the attack on the Doctor (Yves Montand) and the subsequent investigation by a dogged investigator (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as he step by step uncovers a police and government role and cover-up in the "accident." Costa-Gravas bring so many elements and characters together, from those directly involved, to journalists, regular people, and government bureaucrats, that it would be easy for the film to devolve in a confounding web of different accounts and stories. It's really to his credit that he's able to take in all the surrounding stories and characters and still keep the kinetic pace of the central storyline. Because of that pace, the film has much more in common with Hollywood films than what people would think of a foreign films. It's incredibly easy to get caught up in this film without having to do much analytical work. That sounds a little like a backhanded compliment but there's something to be said about making a well-structured film that can keep up for two hours plus. It offsets the political tone of the film a bit, which is strongly anti-totalitarian, and while on one side of a fence, never feels oppressive. Z basically makes the viewer have no other options but to sympathize with the leftists, just out of the notions of justice and basic decency. And for that, which seems a bit radical now, is what made Z a fairly big film for its time.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Music Decade List #21: Nicolai Dunger - Soul Rush (2002)

A while back, Allmusic used to have a feature on their homepage that would flip through their album picks for a certain period of time. The cover art on Soul Rush is what was initially intriguing about it, because I had never heard of Nicolai Dunger before. So I clicked to find out more and the first sentence of the review mentions Van Morrison and Astral Weeks. From that, there was no doubt that I was going to like this album. The Van Morrison comparisons are exactly correct as the similarities not just to Astral Weeks but also albums like Moondance and Saint Dominic's Preview are all over this. Dunger mixes in so many various elements, from jazz and country elements to more outright Morrison impressions like 'Something New.' Dunger's vocals have the same timbre as Morrison especially when he handles bluesier, more emotive material like the title track or 'Ballad of a Relationship.' But it's 'Doctor Zhivago's Train' that is the cornerstone of the album, throwing jazz drums and horns, a bluesy vocal and almost inscrutable lyrics into a mixture that was practically stunning. It was amazing to hear something like this come out of an act that even something of a cult act in his native Sweden. Dunger hasn't made quite as an impressionable album since, even though his American profile has been raised by working with Will Oldham and members of Mercury Rev on those albums. The blue eyed soul, blues and country combination that made Soul Rush so impressive should be enough for more people to take notice of Nicolai Dunger.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Film Decade List #23: Syndromes and a Century

Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2007)

What makes a film like Sydromes and a Century great is almost impossible to explain to someone who hasn't seen it. It's a quiet yet vibrant film, full of immensely picturesque images but with a story that never follows a conventional narrative. The film is essentially the same story in two parts, with one focusing on a rural hospital setting and the second in a modern yet not real bustling metropolis. To really get the film, the focus has to be on the characters' interactions, to absorb all the small moments of the film and never look for any greater meaning. Reflecting upon this now, it becomes more clear that the relationship of the characters to the two worlds of the film is the most important aspect of it. There's not much greater meaning beyond the simple moments of sly humor and awkward interaction. Weerasethakul handles the scenes with a dream like delicacy, weaving his camera as easily through the lush rural landscape as he does the sterile lab environment of the city. I really don't know of anything better that I could say that would explain it any better. It's definitely not going to be for everyone but if you look beyond simple straightforward narrative, there's a lot to enjoy about Syndromes and a Century.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh, 2009) [5]

It's been Soderbergh's career to follow up big box office pictures like the Oceans series with these more "experimental", low budget films. Focusing on an upper-class escort (Adult film star Sasha Grey) and her interactions with her New York clientele, The Girlfriend Experience definitely takes more chances visually and structurally than Soderbergh's popcorn fare. Grey's character is more than an escort; she's a representation of the title, someone who these men can feel more attachment and share candid feelings, more than just a sex worker. Most of these interactions are dealing with the economic meltdown and the 2008 Presidential election, as the men run on about how each of them is being fucked by the poor economy. It's at these moments that the film turns as its not really so much about a high-class hooker. Soderbergh uses Chelsea as a vehicle to get in and examine the upper class of New York and the film becomes a reflection of a certain culture at a certain time. Even Chelsea's boyfriend, a personal trainer, gets caught with some Wall Street douchebags as they take the company Gulfstream to Las Vegas, where they get a suite at the ultimate starfucker casino, The Palms. Chelsea also takes the time to namedrop what designer shoes, dress, and have lunch at Craftsteak. It's this interaction of the film and its characters with a certain element of society that I find most interesting. I never find Chelsea or Grey herself to be that interesting. There are scenes where Chelsea is being interviewed by a journalist who wants to get to the "real" Chelsea. Grey, like her character, throws the wall up at the right time, to a predictable result. The viewer is left with questions unanswered even though we really don't need to have them either. Chelsea falls for a client but brief glimpses are all that are seen until it's called off. That sequence is sort of a general analysis of the film; that there is never much going on beyond the surface of the film, that nothing ever really goes beyond the experience and not the real thing.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Music Decade List #22: Marah - If You Didn't Laugh,...You'd Cry (2005)

Marah's two previous albums before this one were hampered by not enough stanout tracks and a glossy production that never seemed to fit the band's more freewheeling tendencies. If You Didn't Laugh,...You'd Cry is a return to a more loose, live sound and it is a fantastic Marah album. Sporting the group's strongest lineup, the album consistently strong, full of maybe the best group of songs the group committed to one album. The strongest point of the album is the variety of songs the album has, from the raucous opener, 'The Closer', to more introspective numbers like 'So What If We're Outta Tune (With the Rest of the World)' to Dylanesque numbers like 'The Dishwasher's Dream.' Dave Bielanko lyrics have always revolved around street life and the assorted people that occupy his worldview and songs like 'Poor People' or the great 'Walt Whitman Bridge' show a more introspective side of songwriting not really seen on Marah's previous albums. Even though the album manages to throw every kind of sound and influence you can conjure up listening to Marah (The Replacements, Springsteen, Dylan), it works because it all sounds infused with an energy that had been missing on something like 20,000 Streets. People looking for something other than energetic, roots based rock & roll may be disappointed in If You Didn't Laugh,...You'd Cry but for Marah fans like myself, it was a big welcome back to the band that exploded out of Kids In Philly (more on that one later).

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Film Decade List #24: 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (Christian Mungiu, Romania, 2008)

The abortion issue grabs much of the attention of 4M,3w&2D but I've always felt the main issue was living in the crumbling last days of the oppressive Ceausescu regime. Everything in the film is dirty, grimy, crumbling, not pleasant in general. Reflecting again upon the film, it's this overbearingly bleak setting that allows the other actions in the film to take place. The focus of the plot is on two women, Gabita, who needs an abortion, and Otila, her roommate who becomes involved in her helping her find one. What makes the film work is Mungiu knowing how to handle the material without being sensationalistic (to a point) and how to craft tension. Like the setting the two characters are living in, there is a climate of constant surveillance and paranoia hovering over Gabita and Otila, from them checking into the hotel to Otila getting back to check on Gabita after a family dinner. It's Mungiu's tactful pacing and manipulation of tension, even when there isn't much of it in reality, that draw the viewer in more than the social drama present in the plot. If the film wasn't so well-crafted, it would allow for the more dubious moments of logic to expose and hamper the film. Mungiu also creates a lot of sympathy in Gabit and Otila, even through their torrent of bad decisions. The only caveat is that the way they are portrayed leaves the door open for a bit of a feminist argument and how the two aren't strong women. While it could be a problem, the fact that it hasn't been brought up much and that world around is a partial explanation of their actions, it never hampers the film in my mind. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days showed that strong social drama can come from all places, except Hollywood.