Thursday, December 30, 2010

35 Shots of Rum/The Headless Woman

35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis, 2009) [7] / The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2009) [8]

Both of these occupy similar space in my head, even if they aren't quite the same films. The Headless Woman feels like a Denis film while 35 Shots is a fairly straightforward film with moments expected out of Denis' work.

Coming after the intriguing but nearly incomprehensible The Intruder, 35 Shots of Rum is about as straightforward as you could get out of Denis. Focusing on a father and daughter and their relationships with a circle of friends and perhaps former lovers, the film is more a lyrical mediation than an actual narrative. Like most of Denis' films, the best moments for me are found in the moments where narrative takes a back seat. The opening sequence of trains moving through Paris sets a tone that anyone familiar with Denis can comprehend. The film's coup de grace is the much noted barroom scene, where the characters dance quietly to The Commordore's 'Night Shift', a moment that finds similar ground as Beau Travail. It's a beautiful moment in an understated film that lack of complexity is its best virtue.

Lack of complexity is not something to be attributed to The Headless Woman, a near inscrutable work that dabbles into class struggle, fantasy, and Hitchockian eeriness. What the film lacks in an understandable narrative it more than makes up for in Martel's formal mastery, as the film is brimming with fantastic shots. The story, from what I can gauge, centers on Vero, a well off dentist, returning home from a party. While driving home, she hits either a dog or a child, what exactly she or the viewer is never quite sure. This leads to Vero becoming more and more detached from her daily tasks, as she passes from scene to scene with only the help of others to get her through. This leads to one of the most striking scenes I've seen in film this year, as Vero is sort of "shocked" back to reality, where a burst of light and noise capture the screen. It's a scene of realignment for Vero, as she returns to consciousness but still racked with guilt over what she hit. Not much is concretely explained beyond that but Martel use of space and focus in composing her shots are excellent, almost mimicking Vero's existence as she navigates the film. I'm not familiar with Martel's previous work but knowing she deals heavily with social satire and class, one of the film's most interesting dynamic is the the class distinction in Vero's world. She, with blonde hair and European ancestry (to my best estimate) has a lucrative position as a dentist in a rural area with a large indigenous ancestry population. Many of these people work for Vero and they help her guide her through her "headless" state. The scene mentioned above is almost the epitome of this master/servant relationship. Outside of that, making much of heads or tails out of The Headless Woman is a fruitless exercise. Yet, its formal excellence makes dismissing it nearly impossible. It's certainly impressive in its inscrutability.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Useless Film Snob's Favorite Music of 2010

Juggling a full time job with master's course work isn't the ideal situation. Lack of content will be a continuous theme for the near future. The very least I can do is post my year-end album list. These are my favorite albums of the year but that's just my opinion:

Honorable Mention:
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros - Up From Below
Local Natives - Gorilla Manor
Shout Out Louds - Work
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Beat the Devil's Tattoo
Mountain Man- Made the Harbor
Woods - At Echo Lake
Trampled By Turtles - Palomino

25) Horse Feathers - Thistled Spring
Low key folk out of Portland for a band that should get more attention.

24) Joshua Radin - The Rock and the Tide
Radin's music is known for being Grey's Anatomy background music but by making things more uptempo, it makes it more interesting. The one unexpected selection that's needed on any list.

23) Blitzen Trapper - Destroyer of the Void
A bit too proggy in spots for my liking but 'The Tree' makes up for that.

22) Band of Horses - Infinite Arms
Nothing much new out of Band of Horses but I liked everything before.

21) Ryan Bingham - Junky Star
Bingham's songwriting is topical and more consistent and 'The Weary Kind' is a great song.

20) Spoon - Transference
Another Spoon album, another solid effort but nothing that overly wowed me.

19) Lower Dens - Twin-Hand Movement
18) Beach House - Teen Dream
Two Baltimore groups that create ethereal music with tinges of psychedelia.

17) Drive-By Truckers - The Big To-Do
Not quite up to my expectations of a DBTs album but not one to just throw out.

16) Old 97s - The Grand Theatre, Volume One
Like Spoon and Band of Horses, I'm going to like anything by the Old 97s even if it doesn't do anything spectacular.

15) Delta Spirit - History From Below
14) Phosphorescent - Here's to Taking It Easy
These feels like very similar albums to me, taking roots elements and blending into distinctive sounds for each group. Phosphorescent has improved with adding more musicians.

13) Ray LaMontagne & the Pariah Dogs - God Willin' & the Creek Don't Rise
It seems ever LaMontagne album has its mopey moments but the new band behind him takes the songs somehwere a bit different.

12) Mavis Staples - You Are Not Alone
The title track shows Mavis Staples can still sing.

11) The Walkmen - Lisbon
A more sophisticated album that has been slowly building interest but the competition is just too tough.

10) She & Him - Volume Two
It feels a bit twee all together but I'll fall for anything with Zooey Deschanel.

9) Dr. Dog - Shame, Shame
Another band that puts out consistent albums, I think the live feel of the record works in its favor.

8) Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away
It has a few too many mediocre songs to be great but when it hits its high marks ('The Curse', 'Folk Bloodbath"), it's really good.

7) The Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
It has a similar structure and feel to their debut, and it's a better effort than their last.

6) The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang
It may have too much Petty or Springsteen to it for some, but what I like about the Gaslight Anthem is that have no fears about wearing their influences.

5) The Black Keys - Brothers
This sounds like an earlier Black Keys album with more instruments. There's less of the quirks that Danger Mouse brought and that's probably the way I like it.

4) Tom Jones - Praise & Blame
This isn't a joke. Working with Ethan Johns, Jones brings his still strong voice to blues and gospel songs. It's been a tactic for an older artist to re-invent their career with an album of this type but for Jones it succeeds because he knows the music and his voice was made for it.

3) Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More
Let me say for my own smug purposes, I was into Mumford & Sons before they became a fixture in Itunes top 10 albums. Their success is confounding mostly because this is all being done on word of mouth. Yet they still are being relatively successful. I played the hell out of this for the first six months of the year and 'White Blank Page' earns choice track of the year.

2) The Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever
The Hold Steady stretch out a bit musically but Craig Finn is still writing about the same old same old. What I said about the Gaslight Anthem goes for the Hold Steady and the infectious nature of their music holds a place at the top of any list for me.

1) The National - High Violet
The National have created a trio of stunning albums with this as well as Alligator and Boxer. No band uses the studio so intricately to create their sound but also not sound like a product of overproduction. There may not be a bad song on the album. For the second time in two albums, The National have my favorite album of the year.

Monday, October 11, 2010

R.I.P. Solomon Burke

I like quite a bit of music but don't have that many musical heroes. Solomon Burke, who died over the weekend, was one of them. The King of Rock & Soul was in the midst of a late career renaissance and he deserved all the new accolades he was getting. The list of great songs he had ranks up there with any of the soul greats: 'Cry to Me', 'Everybody Needs Somebody to Love', 'If You Need Me', 'Down in the Valley'. The work of his last few albums, the highly regarded Don't Give Up on Me and Nashville show what a great interpreter of material he could be, from Van Morrison to Tom Waits to country music. Here's a great link to a song The Blues Brothers made famous, 'Everybody Needs Somebody to Love'. The man will be missed.

Monday, July 19, 2010


As you can see by a lack of posts, Useless Film Snob Reviews is currently in an indefinite hiatus. Posting, if any, will be sporadic for a while.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Colossal Youth

Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, 2007) [9]

There are numerous times during this viewing that I thought Colossal Youth was tedious and even boring, definitely testing my patience. Even so, I admire the hell out of it in all of its inscrutable glory. Costa makes no effort at traditional storytelling, instead blending fiction and reality into a highly repetitive, minimalist work of observation. Focusing on a handful of characters in a Lisbon slum, the central an older man named Ventura, as he shuffles in and out of a series of settings and characters. In the thinnest elements of plot, Ventura has been forced out of the Fountainhas slum, home mostly to Cape Verde immigrants like himself, and into a new housing settlement. This is the springboard for the examination of memory and identity that Costa gets at through his subtle means. The film is rigid in its execution, Ventura going from scene to scene, each one mostly single takes with minimal action. He is there to be acted upon by characters like Vanda, who scenes are near soliloquies about her life. Another sequence features Ventura and another character with most of the interaction between the two being the constant recitation of a letter Ventura wants the man to write down. While not being much in linear storytelling, these scenes as well as Costa's aesthetics, create a haunting, lonely work that still manages to mesmerize. I am one who normally despises DV but Costa works with it here to give it a documentary feel but also take advantage of natural light to create some interesting images. It creates a film experience that makes it worthwhile to get through it upon later reflection, only because the viewer has not much idea of what's going on while watching. Colossal Youth won't be positive for practically no one but for those who give it a concerted effort, its rewards only come in the days after seeing it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009) [4]

I normally could care less about horror movies. It is by far my least favorite genre and it takes something other than just blood and guts to get me to see one. I was led to believe that Zombieland was a bit different, that it took an ironic wink at the the zombie film subgenre. Not really. It has all the ridiculous gore that seems to be pre-requisite with horror films these days and a few amusing moments but not much else. The problem here is the humor, which is so self-amusing in its writing ("Hey! Let's make the characters go to Bill Murray's house so maybe Bill Murray can be in this!", the stupid rules that keep popping up) that it creates far too many groan-inducing scenes for me. Most of it is a whirlwind of picking off zombies and half-hearted stabs of emotional development as the main characters come to grips with what this world of zombies have left them. That is the film's greatest lost opportunity, to take a serious examination of these characters and meld them into the horror genre, but it does not. Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg have some fairly good moments together early on but as the body count increases, that fades away. What makes something like Dawn of the Dead (the Romero original, the only horror film I think rises above genre) is that it actually has a serious critique underneath its splatter. Zombieland takes moments that one could think have this possibility but then let it fitter away in mostly weak humor.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Listening Post - May 2010

The next couple of weeks find a glut of new releases, many from some of my favorite groups. The National and The Hold Steady albums will definitely be contenders for album of the year. Next week will also see a remastered re-release of Exile On Main Street, which I think is one of the best albums ever made. A lot to keep track of.

The National - High Violet
The Hold Steady - Heaven Is Whenever
Dr. Dog - Shame, Shame
Local Natives - Gorilla Manor
Horse Feathers - Thistled Spring
Josh Ritter - So Runs the World Away

As for Josh Ritter, the new album is a little bit of a letdown. It's still quite good but even after quite a few listens, it doesn't seem to have the three or four fantastic songs that his previous two albums had. I went down to Baltimore to see him live last Monday, and even in the live format, where his material often sounds better, most of the new songs feel a little disappointing ('Change of Time' and 'Rattling Locks' the two biggest exceptions). I still like the album quite a bit but it seems like it was bound to suffer from letdown syndrome. As for the crowd, it was quite different from what I experience up here in Central New York. Almost no chatter through quiet material and a good majority of the crowd knew all of Josh's material. It could be that Ritter is a cult act with a devoted following (part true) or that people down there actually know how to behave at a concert (part true also). Anyway, it was one of the better concert experiences of the year.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Up In the Air

Up In the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009) [5]

Let's stop all the bullshit with this being some 'film of the moment.' From accounts, Reitman had been working on making this film before the economic meltdown and he fortunately stumbled into such a series of events that somehow makes it seem like he has the pulse of the current climate. In fact, Up In the Air fits perfectly into the current anxiety but like all Reitman's material, never actually manages to say anything important about what his film's are supposedly talking about. What you have here is a story of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a smug guy whose job consists of going around the country firing people. In his frequent flier world, he has built up his own walled-in philosophy, the one element of the film that makes the most sense. His world gets thrown into turmoil by two events; one being a young hotshot (Anna Kendrick) convincing the company to fire people via video-conference, and the other being a romance with a fellow traveller (Vera Farmiga) who makes Ryan question the philosophy he's laid out for himself. The "prescient moments" of people being fired talking to the camera have really nothing to do with story. The biggest error Reitman makes is that almost all these scenes don't directly address the Clooney and Kendrick characters. This displacement loses any credibility that the film wants to have about having a message. With that particular hurdle out of the way, there are moments in the film that are not bad, especially Clooney and Farmiga together near the end. Anna Kendrick is the only real character that you could say works in the moment; she's a smart, pro-active idea person with no idea how the complexities of what she's doing will affect her or other people. That is something which could have been used more effectively. Jason Reitman is a competent director but he has a habit of taking socially relevant material and making it less effective for my liking. If everyone would get off thinking 'this is an important film' bandwagon, Up In the Air could have been an alright character study. But if you want this extra baggage attached to your film, than this is not what everyone thinks it is.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Broken Embraces

Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar, 2009) [8]

Hitchcock has always been in Almodovar's back pocket and Broken Embraces is probably the most overt homage that the man has made. This is also the strongest Almodovar film since Talk to Her, in a highly productive decade of solid filmmaking. At this point in my film-viewing career, the main elements of Almodovar's work come shining through: a focus on female characters, lush, colorful visuals, Hitchcockian plot twists and an adaptation of Sirkian melodrama. This film has all of that as the story centers around a blind former film director (Lluis Homar), whose intense affair with an actress, Lena, (Penelope Cruz) led to his blindness and her death. Complicating matters is Lena's husband, an industrial magnate with a dangerous obsession with her straight out of Hitchcock. We also come to learn that Harry/Mateo the director is just as obsessed with Lena as her husband and the film gets entwined in a series of events that lead to the main characters' demise. The first two-thirds of Broken Embraces is expertly constructed, perhaps the best filmmaking that I've seen from Almodovar. The only issue is the last third, which delves a little too much into syrupy melodrama and tepid revelations that it take some of the punch out of the ending. Almodovar has a way working with Penelope Cruz that is at times spellbinding, and he always manages to get the best of out of her performances. Here she ranges from being incredibly sexy to vulnerable and tortured by a horrendous marriage with ultimate confidence. Almodovar always has a way of writing strong female leads and Broken Embraces is no exception. It's not quite a great film but in the hands of Almodovar, is something better than almost anything else working with the same themes and genres.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Some quick reviews to prove I'm still here

There have been some difficulties here of late but none the less, I'll make a quarter-assed effort to get some reviews out there.

Post Grad (Vicky Jenson, 2009) [3]
I like Alexis Bledel. I try to hype myself up into believing that she can pull off a good performance outside of the rigid Gilmore Girls universe. Her performance in this doesn't help matters much. Everything about this is borderline insufferable, hacky, and pretty much not funny. It sums up everything I hate about studio comedies; instead of trying to meet their audience with a shred of intelligence, it has to dumb down everything to try to attract a general audience, all the while creating a film no one will like. Someone give Alexis Bledel a role that doesn't make her some innocent over-achiever. And why the hell can't Michael Keaton do better than this? He was Batman, for fuck's sake!

The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh, 2009) [6]
This is one of those Soderbergh projects that becomes so ingrained to a particular style that it almost becomes taxing. From Matt Damon's rambling voice-overs to the lilting Marvin Hamlisch score, The Informant! adds a lighthearted gloss to a story that has a lot of serious threads running through it. Upon a little reflection, the story of Marc Whitacre blowing the whistle at ADM because of his own delusions makes a little more sense but the collision of the the tone of the film and what actually went on doesn't sit that comfortably with me. The film plays so much like a 70s picture like The Sting that it's hard to see beyond its stylistic structure. It's all impressive on a certain level but it never comes across as a much more than a film stuck playing between genres.

Both of these films are extremely strange in that they have an abnormally large number of pretty funny comedians in them. Post Grad has Fred Armisen, Demitri Martin, and Kirk Fox while The Informant! has practically every supporting role filled with them, from Paul F. Tompkins to Patton Oswalt to Tom Papa. I'm not sure if it means anything or not but it's certainly an interesting coincidence.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) [8]

It may seem useless to review a film that has been cemented as a classic but how could this site live up to its name if it didn't? All kidding aside, I've never been a true believer in Hitchcock. Vertigo definitely falls on the better part of the spectrum but I have no doubts in calling this just a good thriller. It has all the standard Hitchcock elements (blondes, landmarks, rousing finish) but I've never found any of that impressive for myself. There is no doubt that Hitchcock is an expert craftsman, knowing when to pull his punches. I actually quite liked the revealing of the story as John Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) falls into his web of deception and vulnerability. There's a fairly predictable one-eighty to turn the story around and some of the visual tricks look like someone with a rudimentary knowledge of what experimental film should be about. Even so, what seals this as a favorable film for me is the performance that Stewart morphs into. Through years of popular thought saying how Jimmy Stewart always is the nice guy, there's a bit of surprise seeing him turn into an obsessive, somewhat crazy, unlikable guy. Credit should also be due to point out that the film doesn't let Ferguson off the hook for his behavior as the film ends with a less than favorable ending for films of the time. Vertigo isn't quite an impeccable film for me, but then again, I don't care much for Psycho and North by Northwest is my favorite Hitchcock film. Hitchcock seems to be one of those directors that I just can't form a concrete opinion on if I want to like him or not.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Listening Post - March 2010

It's been a while since the last listening post column, so here's the best of what I've been listening to recently or the best of what's just been released:

Drive-By Truckers - The Big To-Do
She & Him - Volume Two
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Beat the Devil's Tattoo
Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More
Big Star - #1 Record/Radio City (for obvious reasons)

As for Mumford & Sons, they seem to be getting a lot of shit (especially from the holier-than-thous at Pitchfork) for being unoriginal and derivative of the Avett Brothers, Bon Iver, etc. So, what? They've made an engaging album that makes for any supposed deficiencies in the earnest belief in the music the group performs. I've been on the fence about going to Bonnaroo but after really getting into this album, going to see Mumford & Sons might be worth it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Lorna's Silence

Lorna's Silence (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2009) [7]

I've never been overly infatuated with what I've seen of the Dardenne's work but after seeing Lorna's Silence, I'm beginning to get it. The Dardennes take characters, drop them into trying social circumstances, stand back, and examine what goes on. On the surface, it's seems very passive, minimalist cinema. Within their clinical, incessant examination comes a subtle, lyrical portrait of their characters, decisions, and societal norms. Lorna's Silence focuses on Lorna, a recent Albanian immigrant, played by Arta Dobroshi. Lorna is in a sham marriage to a junkie to get citizenship and then marry a Russian, all to open a snack bar with her share of the money. The film comes in as all the arrangements have been made and the plan is already started. What complicates the entire situation is that Lorna has grown compassion for Claudy, the junkie as he attempts to get clean. This new-found clarity of herself complicates everything else for Lorna, as well as her agreements with Fabio, the small change gangster arranging all this. The plotline here follows the same sign posts that have defined the Dardenne's cinema but they execute their films so well repetition is not really an issue. In fact, I like this film much more than their previous effort L'Enfant, mostly because I understand the brother's style a bit more but also I think the film, like Lorna itself, shows a bit more compassion for those involved. Lorna is the focus and Dobroshi plays her with the right amounts of stoicism and wounded spirit to make everything believable. The ending is up for a little debate if it fits the rest of the film. I find it intriguing but on further thinking, find it out of step with the social realism that defines most of the rest. Make no mistake, Lorna's Silence is still fairly bleak and unrelenting in its social accuracy but by opening up just a little from their previous work, maybe there's a new road coming through the brother's cinema.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Serious Man

A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009) [8]

I've had my issues with the Coen's more serious material but have seen to turned a corner after loving NCFOM and finding Burn After Reading lackluster. A Serious Man is a bleak yet blackly comic story of a physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) who finds his life engrossed in a series of Job-like tribulations. His wife has divorced him, his tenure at the university he teaches at is trivialized by anonymous disparaging letters and a troublesome student, and his unemployed brother (in a great small role by Richard Kind) in legal trouble. It's a series of trying experiences that Larry can't comprehend and seeks guidance through a trio of rabbis, whose interactions are the comedic highlights of the film. The film has Jewish characters and is set in the Midwest of the late 60s so a lot has been made of it being somewhat autobiographical in regards to the Coens. Knowing their films, I don't see much other than using time and place to tell a standard Coen Brothers story. Judaism is prominent but is never the featured element of the story as the tenets of faith are used for Larry to question whether he is really a serious man. I happen to feel the film treats Judaism lovingly but isn't afraid to throw a barb or two in. The scene near the end with Rabbi Marshak and Larry's son Danny is superb. It circumvents the notion of this esteemed man being someone of great insight or resolution. The film ends with little explanation for Larry and the viewer for why he had to go through with this exactly. Questions are never answered and perhaps that's a good thing. Like the Uncertainty Principle, the closer the film gets to knowing one element, the less everything else becomes.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Crazy Heart

Crazy Heart (Scott Cooper, 2009) [6]

This one is a bit of a disappointment. Jeff Bridges's performance certainly is good, the whole film relies on him to pull it through. While Bridges instills Bad Blake with all that we expect to see in a broken down country singer, the flaws with the film rest in the character itself. It feels to me that every thing in Crazy Heart has been seen in any other musician picture. The problem is that going over the same territory again; Bad Blake is a faded star, struggling to get by, consumed by alcohol, with only a new relationship with a reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) to pull him out of it. It's pretty much the same old story, told with nothing new or innovative about it. It's a bit of shame because I'm a huge fan of Bridges and to not be impressed by his performance as Bad is pretty hard. The music is certainly one of the best elements of the film, especially Ryan Bingham's Oscar winning 'The Weary Kind' which actually has a key role in the film. These work to get me over the hump into liking it but the film never engages me much through plot or visuals. What's left is good performances left in a mix of standard plot points that make it much of nothing extraordinary.

Thursday, March 04, 2010


Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008) [10]

Living in a place like Binghamton can be hard when you really want to see a film. Even with an independent cinema in town, some films will always manage to slip through the cracks. Hunger has been on my radar for over a year and has finally seen the light of day on DVD. With no understatement, it is a masterful film. The best of 2008 as well as the best of the last decade. It is visually spectacular, no surprise considering McQueen's background. What makes it more than just visually striking is that McQueen tinkers with the idea of a message picture. Telling the story of IRA volunteer/prisoner Bobby Sands is going to fall in the realm of political picture. Yet McQueen never really makes the film solely about Sands and his ultimately fatal hunger strike. The film covers quite a bit of ground, giving a greater picture of "The Troubles" than just Sands' act of martyrdom. There's an examination of the stress and peril that the prison officials face, on the inside and the out. The film actually starts out focusing on other prisoners other than Sands. What I think McQueen is attempting to do is not make the Bobby Sands martyrdom picture that so many would expect and instead make a more nuanced, less black and white view of the situation. I approve of this maneuver even though some will not. Above all else however, the poetic nature of the visuals trump all themes and politics. The feces smeared walls of the prisoners' cells, the flying batons and crumpled bodies being beaten, Sands's (played with an act of physical bravado by Michael Fassbender) emaciated figure at the end, they're all ingrained in my mind with their visceral nature. There's a sixteen minute long take, between Sands and a priest, that is dazzling filmmaking, not just in its length but its composition of the figures bathed in shadows. For a first time feature director, McQueen has created an enviable result. Even days later, there are still moments I'm in awe over. I feel to really get Hunger, you have to really appreciate it a visual level, no matter how unsettling and jarring some of them may be. If you have strong feelings about Irish Republicanism, which I do, it may not be the type of film politically you'd expect. Yet, the film resonates for totally different reasons other than its main character.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The Duchess of Langeais

The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, 2008) [7]

Rivette has always been a director willing to take his time to tell a story and The Duchess of Langeais is a perfect example of that. There are some extraordinary moments in this film but it also contains moments that can try your patience and become cumbersome. The story is really an examination the maneuverings of a relationship as well as a conflict between courtly high society in Europe and the more romantic ideals that were becoming popular in the mid 1800s. General Montriveau (Guillame Depardieu) falls for the married Duchess (Jeanne Balibar), who coyly exploits Montriveau's feelings knowing that the society she occupies will never allow the relationship. Rivette gives a subtle yet effective examination of the Duchess and Montriveau's back and forth, a clash of emotions and social standing. About midway through, the film switches its power structure, with Montriveau dictating the two's actions and revealing the way the Duchess really feels about him. It succeeds because Rivette keeps the camera fixed to capture the complexity of the two's relationship. The film takes its time to get to its finish but for only the occasional stray scene or two, it never loses its focus. There are some great moments of emotional sparring between the two leads. In terms of a character study, it's hard to do much better. Twenty minutes or so cut out would have made it classic.

Sunday, February 28, 2010


Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) [8]

Moon hearkens back to when Science Fiction films were challenging films that told human stories more than special-effects laden fantasy pieces. Existing somewhere in the realm of 2001 and Solaris, Moon is not quite in their realm but is a very accomplished film with a great performance by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell plays Sam Bell, who has been solitary stationed at a helium mining moon base, his only companion a HAL-like robot voiced by Kevin Spacey. It's getting near the end of Sam's three year contract and thing begin to go haywire. Sam's psychical and mental state being to deteriorate. Out on a routine maintenance mission, Sam's state causes an accident. Sam awakens in the base's infirmary with no memory of the accident, except with a hint that things may not be right. Sam ends up finding another version of himself and the rest of the film attempts to unravel the mystery of why there are numerous cloned Sams running the base. That that particular question is never concretely answered is both the appeal and confusion with Moon. The film addresses the notions of isolation and identity in a human way, not having any omniscient answers. Yet there are holes in the logic of the story that are frustratingly not answered (why the Sams life spans are only three years and why do they even need clones in the first place come to mind). For all its unclear answers, there's no denying that the acting and execution of the film are first rate. Rockwell's performance is surely underrated, playing at one point three different versions of Sam. That he occupies almost all of the film's running time and manages to keep rapt attention on his performance is a really good achievement. The film itself has the look of classic science fiction, down to the non-CGI special effects. Duncan Jones for the most part, has a command on the film and story that keeps its from delving into crackpot babbling. It's a superb effort in a genre that all too often is overly concerned with visuals and nonsensical characters or settings (this may or may not refer to Avatar).

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Hangover and Big Fan, A Pair of Sixes

The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009)/Big Fan (Robert Siegel, 2009) [6]
The Hangover is by no means the comedic masterwork that its word of mouth and box office had led me to believe. I had known Phillips is a one-note director, as his male bonding over crazy situation comedies all follow the same basic template. Here a group of various guys head to Las Vegas for the standard crazy bachelor party. Where The Hangover differs a little is in its structure, where it places the viewer in the same predicament as its characters in putting together the pieces to figure out what happened. Outside of that, the film is consistently amusing but has few truly hilarious moments. Not surprisingly, Zach Galifinakis provides the funniest moments, many of them ad-libbed or taken from his stand up act. In a testament to the sad state of Hollywood comedies, this passes for something considered hilarious where I find nothing that remarkable about it.

Big Fan features a great performance by Patton Oswalt but is bogged down by its lackluster direction. Oswalt is at times hilariously out of touch and tragically demented as Paul Auifero, a Staten Island parking garage attendent whose entire life is wrapped up in the New York Giants. A chance encounter with the Giants star linebacker ends up with Paul getting beating up which puts the Giants' season and Paul's alliegance in limbo. What Siegel does right is nail the fine line between being a die-hard fan and being a borderline delusional fanatic. This is highlighted best in Paul's calls to a sports radio show. Paul works all day on these rants/responses and the end result is nothing more than the nonsenical drivel that is spewed out daily on sports radio. But it also captures the idea that this these rants are the only element of Paul's life that he actually cares about and how his fandom overrules evertyhing else in his life. Siegel highlights these points well but the film offers nothing more than a blank space to show all this. The only instance where the film seems to grasp Paul's character and mental state is at the end, which has a amusing twist that saves Big Fan from being underwhelming. Where The Hangover mostly maxed out its potential, the main issue with Big Fan is that it could have a bit more visual substance to match its main character's performance.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

You, the Living

You, the Living (Roy Andersson, 2009) [10]

Some reviewers have stated that You, the Living is more or less part two of Songs From the Second Floor, Andersson's previously lauded feature. While the two have their stylistic similarities, You, the Living may be the better film, and I'm a huge fan of Songs. Andersson works in a very recognizable visual style, heavy on offbeat characters and situations, with a static camera and lots of long shots. While not as visually striking as Songs, You, the Living embodies with its look what its characters feel. It's full of lots of ugly, miserable people describing their ugly, miserable lives. The film is unrelenting as it depicts of the failures of life and love as almost all the characters are mired in depressing circumstances. What's most amazing is how Andersson makes these characters so physically unappealing, and how the manufactured landscapes these characters occupy only enhance the dour, absurdist elements of it all. Yet through its absurdities and depressions, the film is punctuated with fantastic moments of black humor, often with help from a brass band highlighted by a tuba. It's not an understatement how the music shapes the moments of humor in the film. The major difference from Songs is that that film was almost unrelentingly bleak and you get the feeling here that Andersson is much more sympathetic to his characters. That through all their trials and tribulations, the film attempts to get at a true understanding and appreciation of human nature. Andersson never treats his characters with contempt or flippancy. It's a fantastic blend of pathos and humor, absurdity and seriousness that makes it worth the time.
Blogger's note: I am counting this as a 2009 release because of its U.S. commerical theatrical release. Most sites list its release date as 2007 but I try to keep film organized by their commercial dates, since that's the only way I'm going to be able to see them.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Che (Steven Soderbergh, 2008) [7]

For a film over four hours long and split into two parts, Soderbergh's Che Guevara biopic is never boring or overly didactic. It's a testament to Soderbergh's craft that he created a very good visual film that has its striking moments. The film is very much defined by its two parts: part one, The Argentine, that follows Guevara's rise through the Cuban Revolution and the cementing of his legend and part two, Guerilla, which shows everything that went right in Cuba go wrong in Bolivia. Understanding the failure of Che in Bolivia clearly hinges on understanding what he accomplished in Cuba. Soderbergh also casts distinct look and feels for each part, as the vibrancy of Cuba is replaced in Bolivia with cooler hues of blue and green. All throughout, the film has an even-keeled tone of observation. The success lies in that is not an outwardly political film but gains its efficacy from its focus on Che and his actions. Benicio del Toro is solid as Che not playing him as an epic figure but as someone whose knowledge and understanding of Latin America made him an admired figure. His performance, like most of the film, is lack of any fireworks but very carefully goes along to get the details right.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009) [6]

The Hurt Locker may be a visceral, taut, well-made thriller that gives an in-depth and intense point of view of the soldiers charged with disposing IEDs. Yet I get the feeling watching this that Bigelow has sacrificed any nuanced discussion of the Iraq War and political policy in general in favor of all action all the time. The Hurt Locker does what it does exceptionally well - give a glance into a hectic situation with a good amount of formal accomplishment. Focusing mostly on the macho posturing of Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) and the idea of war being a drug, the film is practically stridently apolitical. And for what benefit? It apparently drags all sense of nuance out of what James and his crew are doing. They hop from situation to situation diffusing roadside bombs as if in a video game, with Sgt. James perfectly cast as the ballsy hero. The film asks no questions and has no willingness to probe into the geopolitical situation or even address the psychological nature of their characters except to assign traits on the characters. Bigelow has a background in large budget action films and this really operates no differently, the exception being that it has to deal with the Iraq War. Aside from the fact that it is a well constructed film, I have no idea why critics would fawn over this. If they're saying an apolitical film like this says more about the war than some of the other more strident films that have been released, they're wrong. At its core, the macho bluster of action pictures overtakes any keen political discourse The Hurt Locker may have had.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Monthly Listening Post - January/February 2010

The new year is off to a busy start as a number of favorite bands have already released or planning on releasing new material in the next couple of weeks. Here's what I'm listening to:

Spoon - Transference
Beach House - Teen Dream
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros - Up From Below (there's always one album that never quite makes my best of the year list and 2009's would be this)
Sam Cooke - One Night Stand - Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 (may be the best live Soul recording ever)
Lucinda Williams - Little Honey (I know it's from 2008 but I just recently got it)

On a music related note, tonight are the Grammys, which happen to be the most ridiculous and worthless awards in anything. The Grammys either award popularity over artistic achievement or act as some kind of lifetime achievement award for established acts. Going over the nominees in the major categories makes my head hurt. This steaming pile of shit is the best music of the year? I know the Grammys actually want people to watch and the music busyness has become so fractured and niche driven that it's hard to find anything good that appeals to everybody, but this is terrible. There's the worthless throwaway pop of Lady GaGa and the Black Eyed Peas. You have the Kings of Leon, a once promising band that threw away any credibility they had with me by wanting to be the next U2. The Dave Matthews Band is nominated and will probably win for Best Album even though they haven't made an album worth listening to since I was in high school ten years ago. That leaves the ubiquitous Taylor Swift, who is apparently a country act, even though none of her music actually sounds like country music. I don't begrudge the girl for having success and the amount of records she's sold in this age is astounding but her shtick has worn out its welcome. Playing the puppy dog, lovestruck teenage girl gets a little worn out after a while, especially when you have a flat, uninteresting singing voice. She is the musical equivalency of the teenage girl who makes a masturbation video and sends it to the boy she wants to like her.

Friday, January 29, 2010


Adam (Max Mayer, 2009) [4]

Dear Fox Searchlight and Mr. Mayer,

Please immediately stop releasing this schmaltzy pablum and passing it off as having an independent sensibility. Adam is nothing more than a standard romantic comedy with characters that just happen to be a little different than what is see in Hollywood pictures. This goes for all your films Fox Searchlight, which have fallen into an all too predictable formula that gives real independent cinema a bad name. This film in particular is full of cloying moments and dialogue, all under the guise that it's a little different because one of the main characters has Asperger's Syndrome. Mr. Mayer does his best to manipulate Adam's disability to garner sympathy not just from the female lead but from the audience also. Your film was nothing more than trite fluff that was almost redeemed at the end when you actually tried to seriously address the problems with your characters. Instead you wrapped it up a little too perfectly, mostly because it makes the audience feel good. That is the easy way out sir. It's seems all too simple and shallow that everything worked out for Adam and Beth when something as complex as Asperger's is used as a plot crutch. Mr. Mayer, you also deserve some shame for not making me able to hate this as much as I want because I can't direct that hate towards a character with Asperger's. Mr. Mayer, I expect better. As for Fox Searchlight, will you please stop making me so mad with your films. There's only so many films I can reluctantly like but deep down want to hate so much more. Choose one or the other.

Thank you,
Useless Film Snob Reviews

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Up (Pete Docter & Bob Peterson, 2009) [9]

While not quite leaning on the auteurist side of thing like Ratatouille and WALL*E, Up may be the most sincere, funniest, and most entertaining film Pixar has produced. It's really the first Pixar film to focus primarily on human characters, and yet the film has heavy elements of fantasy and adventure, which to say the least, test the waters of believability. That the film can move through its variety of action and adventure and still connect with an audience on a human emotional level is its greatest testament. Up focuses on Carl Fredrickson (voiced by Ed Asner), who we see from an adventure loving young boy to his long marriage to his wife, Ellie, to her death, to Fredrickson being alone, his home engulfed by commercial development. The first ten minutes of the film, which tell Carl and Ellie's backstory, is the best work Pixar has ever done and are the best moments of anything I've seen from a 2009 release. It's emotionally resonant and it does it all with a minimum of explanation. It's a bit of real life that feels a bit out of place with the rest of the film, the only reason I didn't give this a 10. The rest of the film follows Carl, his house, and an interloping child, Russell, head for Paradise Falls, Carl and Ellie's dream destination. There, they run into Carl's childhood explorer hero, who has been in the falls attempting to capture a bird that ruined his career. The story is a mix of old adventure serials, fantasy, and humor (the scenes with the dogs are sure to get laughs out of any dog lover). Through all of it, there's still real character development as Carl starts to become a father figure to Russell, and while their relationship may be nothing that couldn't come out of a Spielberg picture, it still roped me in. The animation may have a lot to do with it. The vibrant color scheme as well numerous sequences where the action looked like live action show how advanced Pixar has become in making superb animation. That they consistently put out quality stories to go with that animation (this will be the 3rd consecutive Pixar film to make a top ten list for a particular year), only makes this as well as all they do so remarkable.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

In the Loop

In the Loop (Armando Iannuci, 2009) [8]

Good political satire is a difficult accomplishment, and In the Loop succeeds because of its verbal fireworks. Following the path of a partially incompetent British cabinet minister (Tom Hollander) as he continually sticks his foot in his mouth in the run up to war with a certain Middle Eastern country, the film borders on sharp satire and vulgar absurdity. The film is filled with big talkers and cutthroat political opportunism and is big on profanity and laughs. Peter Capaldi steals just about every scene as the extremely foul-mouthed Scottish press officer attempting to wrangle the minister's gaffes. Often it feels that a lot of the political action of the film gets taken over by the mesmerizing profanities, but since they are the funniest moments of the film, it's hard to say they aren't the best part. The seemingly useless scenes with Steve Coogan as a near-crackpot concerned about the minister's constituency's crumbling wall offer some of the funniest moments. When the film does get the political points right, from David Rasche's arrogant neo-con to the nuts and bolts of fudging the intelligence to get to war, it reveals the chilling cynicism behind its colorful characters and language. The best satire reveals an uncomfortable truth behind its humor and in its simplest execution, In the Loop does just that.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Limits of Control

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009) [6]

The Limits of Control is certainly a film to be examined on its surface. It's a character study that never really delves into its character. The story is filled with quite a bit of existential discussion on seemingly nothing and a lot of repetitive actions and dialogue but never moves anywhere with any immediacy. Lone Man (Issach De Bankole) is a perpetually suited hitman planted in Spain to carry out a job, the pieces revealed by a series of eccentric characters. Lone Man' activities are structured round a series of repetitive actions, drinking two espressos in seperate cups or exchanging match books with his auxiliaries. The repetition suits the style of the film to a T, as it blends effortlessly with Jarmusch's minimalist style. Christopher Doyle's cinematography adds a vibrancy of color and a tone of coolness to the proceedings. But the real question is what comes out of the film? Outside of its impressive structure and images, there is a void of anything substantial in the film. Lone Man gets his instructions and carries out his mission and nothing seems that important about it. If it was Jarmusch's intention or not, the film ends up feeling completely void of any lingering sentiment about what was just seen. Even though it looks good, The Limits of Control vanishes almost as quickly as the credits roll.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock (Ange Lee, 2009) [5]

It's near ridiculous to make a film about Woodstock. Michael Wadleigh's documentary is such a landmark piece of cinema, essentially creating the Woodstock mythology, that anything else is going to pale in comparison. Lee has the right idea in Taking Woodstock, in that he goes into a specific person's interesting story of how Woodstock came to Bethel, New York. The problem with the film is that it can never decide if it wants to be a dysfunctional family comedy or a larger, more profound coming-of-age story with the biggest musical event of the 60s as the backdrop. Demetri Martin plays Elliot Teichberg, an interior designer who has packed up and headed back to help his parents run a dilapidated Catskills motel. Elliot lucks into finding that the Woodstock festival needs a new location and he just happens to have a permit and knows of available land. The film plays out as partly the telling of how Woodstock took shape and the happening at the motel, with Elliot trying to get his stereotypical Jewish parents to lighten up and accept these Hippies. There's just too much going on in the story with too many minor characters that no aspect is that effective. Lee is smart to keep the action on the periphery of the festival, showing no concert footage, to differentiate Elliot's story from the festival. The problem is I never found his story that interesting. His story arc follows the standard coming of age storyline with his homosexuality tossed in at times but never examined deeply. Martin is o.k. in the role but his comedic background interferes with seeing him ingrained in the character. Lee does his best I guess, and his re-enactment of certain iconic images in the Woodstock film are intriguing one level but serve no real purpose in his film. The air of nostalgia and near sickening idealism hangs over everything involving Woodstock, making it hard for anything involving it to escape from its large shadow. Taking Woodstock definitely got swallowed up in that cloud.