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.