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.