...engaging and discerning culture, as a way of life...

June 30, 2005

American Graffiti - 7

This is a very postmodern film. It tells four stories around a common theme rather than one story with common characters. It was also billed as a musical since it focused a lot on the music of the era (none of the actors sing). It is more like contemporary storytelling than the stories of the 70's (George Lucas even mentions this in the extra features). It is a good look into the culture of the 60's and the high school "cruising" crowd. It is an entertaining film, with both some relationship drama and humor. It is hard to watch the actors (Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, and Suzanne Somers) without thinking that they are old, since they have done many films since 1973 when this film was made. The underlying theme is how teenagers struggle with the tough decisions about planning out there futures. A Curt and Steve are wondering about going off to college and the good and the bad that may come of that decision. This is an original and interesting look.

The People vs. Larry Flynt - 5

This is the biography of Larry Flynt, the publisher and owner of Hustler Magazine. It portrays him as a hero for free speech, as he was involved in many court cases, culminating in his case with Jerry Falwell going to the Supreme Court. He was also shot while existing a courthouse which left him paralyzed from the waist down (He then develops a strange accent, maybe a minor acting/directing flaw). The film also shows part of his possible conversion to Christianity by Ruth Carter Stapleton, Jimmy Carter's sister. And his rejection of it after he is shot. This segment is the most confusing of the film because they leave the scenes short so the audience can only imply things rather than hearing it explicitly. Courtney Love does a good job of portraying Mrs. Flynt who became a drug addict and died of AIDS. Edward Norton is also good as Flynt's lawyer, Alan Isaacman. I'm not so sure he is the hero that he is portrayed as, but rather that he was more fanatical than most and gained a lot of publicity by it.

June 29, 2005

October Sky - 6

This is an inspiring film about where visions can take you. The film is the true story of Homer Hickam. He grew up in a coal mining town in the 50's and was inspired by the Sputnik satellite to design his own rockets. The story is really about the relationship of his friends and family, as well as the strain between his father's wishes and his own passion for rocketry. His teacher also plays a key part in encouraging his interests and helps him with the hard work of learning math and chemistry. It is a touching story about the hope for a different world, that requires showing grace and forgiveness, and the reality that people do indeed change.

June 27, 2005

Abre los ojos - 6

Open Your Eyes, is the original Spanish version of Vanilla Sky. Scene for scene it is almost exactly the same--Penelope Cruz plays the same character in both. I think I liked this one better in that it seems more original and the ending makes more sense than in the Hollywood version. Some of the dream sequences are shown with distortion so that you can actually get the perspective of Cesar, the main character. Sorry to spoil it for those who have seen neither, but the scene in which Cesar kills his lover is a lot more intense and shows his insanity better than Tom Cruise can pull off. The amazing thing about both films, and it's ultimate downfall is that it does not take into account that most people have the ability to doubt their perceptions rather than to doubt reality. If I think I have heard something wrongly, I usually ask the other person to repeat themselves. That seems like a better way to deal with reality than threatening to kill them because what they say doesn't seem to conform with my views of things. Overall, an interesting film that can engage people in conversations about perceptions and reality.

Die Weiße Rose - 7

The White Rose is a German film made in 1982 about a group of German students who wrote and distributed The White Rose newsletter at Munich University during the middle part of WWII. Hans (left) and Sophie Scholl (center), and another student, Christoph Probst (right) were killed for treason in 1943. The court reversed the rulings after this film was released. There is a book by the same name with the original articles and some history by Hans and Sophie's sister, Inge. The film shows the resistance movement from within German. Most films about WWII are about surrounding countries resisting occupation. It makes this film distinct in that the characters had to make the hard choice to hope and work for their own government's and military's downfall. In the end, they were willing to die for their views. It is a challenging film. It helps the audience to think about their own civic responsibility, and how one's citizenship is an opportunity to do good and make positive change. To often the responsibility overwhelms us and we are likely to fall into apathy.

June 26, 2005

Elephant - 4

This is Gus Van Sant's fictional, but reminiscent, story of high school students who go on a shooting spree and kill a number of fellow students. The bulk of the film just shows what life is like for a few of the students, most of whom are the victims. All of the actors are actual high school students and most of them go by their own names. There isn't any way to talk about this film with out spoiling the ending, which I also heard about before actually watching the film, so there was the element of anticipation for when the shooting would start. The point of the movie is really to just show the complexity of logic and thought that are behind human behavior. It may initiate some conversation but is not really very enjoyable to watch.

Matchstick Men - 6

This is a good dramatic and funny film about a couple of con-artists. Like most of these types of film you start to like the characters even if you know what they are doing is criminal. This film involves a phobic con-artist who learns of his 14-year-old daughter and then starts to rethink his criminal ways. The film lets you try to justify coning people, you soon realize how much it hurtful it actually is. The film is fun to watch and keeps you guessing at every turn. Nicolas Cage and Alison Lohman do a superb job acting the parts.

June 25, 2005

Stand and Deliver - 6

This film is the true story of Jaime Escalante, who became a high school teacher and helps his failing students learn calculus and inspires them to value education. It does a good job of showing the assumptions that have shaped culture. Issues of race and school funding are part of the keys to understanding how amazing Escalante's methods of teaching were. The main issue come to a head when the ETS accuses the students of cheating (they all got the same questions wrong on the test). The students take the test again and do better on it the second time. At the end of the film it lists the number of students that passed the AP calculus exam. Escalante was able to change the perceptions that Hispanic students could not do well in math.

June 24, 2005

Crash (2004) - 7

This film is amazing. It was written by Paul Haggis, who also wrote Million Dollar Baby. It deals with the hard issues of race and the emotional intensity of anger that can accompany it. There are quite a few characters and stories that have similair themes and are brought together at the end of the film. It is an easy film to start conversation and dialogue about the issue of race in America and how that defines a lot of reality. The film gets at some of the complexity of racial issues by showing both the personal and some of the institutional ways that it effects people's behavior. It begs the question: How do you actively pursue good? Or, put differently, is it possible to do anything that is not racist? It seems as though perception is everything in our current culture. If this is the case then no real solutions to the problem seem to be with in our grasp. On the other hand, our perceptions often fail to tell us the truth, and the problem may lie in the inescapable human condition. The film implies that humanity is going to need something outside of itself if there is to be any hope for true flourishing as human beings. This film is challenging , but also gives hope that there are indeed miracles, which might be the only thing that keeps humanity from destroying itself.

June 23, 2005

Hard Eight - 6

This is P.T. Anderson's first film, which also goes by the name Sydney (his others are: Boogie Nights - 4, Magnolia - 7, and Punch-Drunk Love - 6). This film is about an older man, Sydney, who mentors a poor younger man named John in the art of gambling and wisdom of street smarts. The film keeps the story coming at you by strategically placed pieces of information. It allows for the first and last scene to be almost exactly the same while the audience has two different perceptions of it. As the story and characters develop the complexity of the situation turns Sydney's past actions from a sort of virtue into vice. The film seems to be a commentary on how situations play into decision making and ultimately the actions taken. The film also asks whether good ends or good means are better if one cannot do both in the given situation, which usually result form bad choices to begin with. It is not so much a moral tale as it is an insight into the human longing for healing relationships.

Boogie Nights - 4

This is a hard film to watch. It is about the pornography industry of the late 70's and early 80's. What makes it hard to watch is that the sexuality of the characters and there views of sex are so distorted and misdirected. The consequences are disastrous for life because sex has been robbed of its meaning, which means that the characters are confused as to the value of it apart from film. For one of the assistant directors, sex has meaning and he cannot live with the meaningless sex of others, which results in a killing spree-including himself. The film is also intense because it is hard to know how accurate a picture this is of some peoples views of sex. This film could also be used as a discussion point since it engages the issues of how culture influences these views and how it responds. In the end, though, it seems like a very sad view of reality.

June 21, 2005

Batman Begins - 7

Over the weekend, I saw this film in the theatre. I had relatively high expectations from the recommendations of friends, and I still walked away amazed at how well that they told this story and developed the characters. This film is not your typical superhero/comic book film (Bruce Wayne actually has no superhuman qualities or powers--like other superheroes, just a good martial artist and creative with technology). The theme of the movie, which is its driving force, is fear and the human responses and coping mechanisms for it. The characters are very well developed through out the film. This allows for the story to flow and for it to develop naturally. This also makes the story believable. I didn't come away from the film trying to think of minor flaws in logic like is the tendency after most movies about superheroes (Like the conversations in Mallrats and Chasing Amy). My only minor dislike of the film was Katie Holmes, who--at least in this film--really isn't that good of an actor. I think that the theme of fear allows the audience to ask good questions about what human fear is and how we fight it and can be controlled by it. This film definitely gets at aspect of what it means to be human. My hope is that this is the final Batman film, a sequel will most likely just revert the series back to the hero versus villain story that lacks the depth that this film has.

The Decalogue: VIII-X - 6

I have finally finished this 10-part series. This is a really good series that asks some interesting questions about all of life. Some of the stories are a little harder to understand how they fit with the commandments while others are really telling about how we might be able to interpret them in our own day. The final one about coveting is really pretty good, and the most humorous of the bunch. I would recommend watching at least a few of the episodes if not all of them--especially: 1, 5, 6, 7, and 10. Although being about laws, it avoids the legalism that is associated with it, which is probably the stories greatest features.

June 19, 2005

Tape - 7

This another film directed by Richard Linklater (This will be my last in my delving back into his filmmaking history), but the script was written by Stephen Belber (also wrote The Larmamie Project). The whole film takes place in a hotel room with three actors. The story and dialogue is amazing. It brings up issues of trust, friendship, blackmail, and ultimately is about how we perceive events and how we understand how others perceive and remember things. The acting is good, and the story takes many interesting turns that are both funny and serious. I think that it is a good film to help the audience understand their own perceptions and what that means for moral meaning--the everyday decisions that we make and the regrets and forgiveness that we look back on in our past.

June 18, 2005

Thirteen Days - 5

This film deals with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It is an intense movie to watch because of the magnitude of the decisions that needed to be made by the president and his counsel during the thirteen days before the deal for diplomacy was finally made. It is an interesting story to tell and the story is told well, mainly from the perspective of Kenny O'Donnell, Special Assistant to the President. The film shows the tension well, and the stress that is involved in having the weighty decisions on one's shoulders. These major decisions that effect the lives of millions places great responsibility in the hands of our politicians, which made me think maybe voting really is a great responsibility of the common citizen. Then again the politicians we do have don't inspire us to trust their use of the great power that they have. Somehow we will have to let something other than fear drive us.

Miracle - 6

This film is the true story of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team. The came into the tournament a complete underdog and ended up beating the Soviet team who had won all of the contest since 1960. The story revolves around the head coach, Herb Brooks, and his coaching style which is pretty harsh--making the team do skating drills until 3am after one particular game. The players were all recent college graduates, due to the amateur rule. The point of the film is to show that hard work and conditioning is a key to the game. The sentimental part of the film is that the team came together as a community that cared for each other and that allowed them to do something greater than themselves. How much a part of the real story is true is--well, let's just say it's a Disney film. The title is in reference to Al Michaels TV commentary in which he says, "Do you believe in miracles!?" The people who witnessed the event could barely believe what had happened, such an outrageous upset. The team went on to win the gold over Finland, which is a minor point in the film. Since this happened in the middle of the cold war that help to make this game even more meaningful for the country and the players involved. I think the story is well told despite its nostalgia.

June 16, 2005

It's impossible to learn to plow by reading books - 2

Richard Linklater's first film, this is slow moving and is a very passive movie, with very little dialogue. It was also made for $3000, which shows. The title sounded interesting, but it is from a common Russian saying that the main character has on his t-shirt. This film does show some of the early ideas that Linklater had that he included in his much better films: Waking Life and Slacker. You will probably enjoy this film if you are a huge fan, but other than that it is sort of like watching a distant relatives wedding video--no, not the one with the drunk uncle, the one where nothing happens.

June 15, 2005

Slacker - 5

This film was done earlier than Waking Life which was also written and directed by Richard Linklater. It is similar, yet more scattered, as there are no main characters. It is a lot of small vignettes with conversations about almost everything; terrorism, government, aliens, love, relationships, etc. It engages the ideas and dialogue that Linklater is capturing of the twentysomethings at the beginning of the 90's. There are some memorable scenes and quotes despite the disconnectedness of the dialogue. Someone recently told me that films like this work well for teaching or showing to others who won't watch the whole film, because they need almost no context. A film for a weeknight rather than something to watch for entertainment on the weekend.

June 11, 2005

The Decalogue: IV-VII - 6

This is the second disc in the series (I didn't mention this is my last post but this whole series is in Polish with subtitles). This one covers the commandments, honor your father and mother, you shall not murder, and you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal. These middle four are very well done, with interesting plots and stories that expand on the meaning of each of the commands. These episodes also bring up good questions about the death penalty and interesting legal puzzles, which more than likely comes from Piesiewicz, who originally went to law school and practiced law before helping to write these films (The obvious connection is that the ten commandments are ancient legal documents). The second disc is easier to understand and a little less obscure than the first. If you are looking for some film-making with depth this is a good place to start.

The Fugitive - 6

I liked this film on second viewing more than the first time on its release back in 1993. I have since seen so many spoofs of it, that I had lost the original story. It is actually a pretty intense action/drama, and both Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones do a good job of playing the parts. There are many interesting twists that lead to the truth of the situation. Overall, excellently done and entertaining to boot.

June 10, 2005

The Decalogue: I-III - 6

The Decalogue was originally show on television in Poland from 1987-1989. It is the work of Krzysztof Kieslowski (director of the trilogy Blue, White, and Red, as well as Heaven) and Krzysztof Piesiewicz (co-author with Kieslowski of The Decalogue and Three Colors trilogy). Each episode is "based" on each of the corresponding commandments and are about an hour long each. The first disc contains the first three commandments (no other gods, no created image of God, and no abuse of God's name). These films take a lot of patience. They are artfully done, but that also means that you will miss something if you don't have a somewhat long attention span. These films are good at asking good questions: the meaning of life, God, death, love, etc. These films seem to show how applicable the commandments might still be in modern life.
note: I promise to drop the film snobbiness and get back to popular culture soon.

The Merchant of Venice (2004) - 5

The way this film is shot you are constantly waiting for the blood bath to begin, as is the usual for Shakespearean tragedies. As far as I can tell this is actually one of his comedies; justice wins out and there is even some cross-dressing deception (I use the word comedy in its classical sense, it doesn't have any bathroom jokes like most of the movies that we call comedies in our culture). The director takes a lot of liberties with the story by shooting scenes with no dialogue but are still apart of the storytelling. When it comes to Shakespeare the burden of story telling is on the actors, although in film the director has more sway than the actors. I think I still prefer to see Shakespearean plays live. This film does a reasonable job considering the constraints of this medium of film.

June 08, 2005

Coldplay Fix You

The new Coldplay album, X & Y, is really pretty good. It is close enough to the other albums to still sound like Coldplay while they move freely within those boundaries. My current favorite song, musically anyway, is Fix You, here are the lyrics:
when you try your best but you don't succeed
when you get what you want but not what you need
when you feel so tired but you can't sleep
stuck in reverse
and the tears come streaming down your face
when you lose something you can't replace
when you love someone but it goes to waste
could it be worse?
lights will guide you home
and ignite your bones
and i will try to fix you
high up above or down below
when you're too in love to let it go
and if you never try, you'll never know
just what you're worth
lights will guide you home
and ignite your bones
and i will try to fix you
tears stream down on your face
when you lose something you cannot replace
the tears stream down on your face
and I...
lights will guide you home
and ignite your bones
and i will try to fix you

Crimes and Misdemeanors - 6

This is one of Woody Allen's best films. It is more seamless than some of his other work. He has a gift for introducing great philosophical discussion into his stories. This particular story is less wacky than most of his others, which makes it more believable that the characters are struggling to make sense of life. Their is an interesting dialogue throughout the film about if there is any morality. And if there is: is it in human nature? do we make it up culturally? All of this goes along with and compliments the main story of a man with a dilemma of fidelity. In the end he comes to the conclusion that guilt is merely a state of mind for a time and it passes. Allen has a way of making the audience think twice before accepting this "blindly" (I don't think it is an accident that the main character is an eye doctor). Allen is good at making the dialogue flow so that these deep conversations can happen without it feeling like a stale philosophy class. This film lets the audience decide whether it is a tragedy or a comedy, or maybe both.

June 07, 2005

What time is it?

Recently I have had conversations that have tested out my ranking system and have caused me to think about the very subjective views taken in my blog. One of the keys to understanding my entries it to consider the time that I watched the film. I don't mean this in the literal sense of it was exactly 8:03 when the scene with the guy with the mustache and the eyes shot the women with the hair and the ears. What I mean is that their is a context, a story that it resides in, to the viewing which adds or subtracts meaning from the film. A good example of this is that some films relate very well to what I am reading, and the connection allows me to see the story in a wider context and judge the film based on the added connections to my own wider world. One's reaction to art always happens in time and I think that it is an important aspect of how we view it and respond to it. So, while my entries will remain subjective I don't think that takes anything away from other's views of the same films, or that I haven't hit on a theme or idea that is true of the film. But then again I could just as easily miss some good connections. Comments have been a good way for me to reconsider the films in a new light.

June 06, 2005

Dazed and Confused - 5

This is an interesting period piece. Not one from the 19th century mind you, but an interesting look at a typical high school in the mid-70's. It is actually a quite nostalgic look at this time period, except the junior high hazings. It has plenty of ironic lines like, "The 80's are going to be great, how much worse could it get." This film is really a look at a group of people rather than a story or plot. It is really about teenagers trying to live life to its fullest, or maybe just what they think that is.

June 03, 2005

Being Julia - 4

The last twenty minutes seem somewhat valuable, while the stuff before it seems to not really amount to much. A lot of people will probably see this film because Annette Bening was nominated for an Oscar in her role. While she does a good job, I think actors like seeing themselves portrayed in films especially as heroes and heroines, or at least in a very positive light (Much the same way that journalists are good at creating a buzz about writing and journalism). Near the end, Julia's son makes the most interesting point of discussion in the movie, which is the masks and roles that we have in our life and how we are actors in our own lives. This statement is not taken very seriously by the film, but the audience can easily start to see the doubt in the question: who is our "real" self? Or do we memorize the scripts and merely use others so that we can be the star of the show (For a better film that address these issues see About a Boy - 7). Although it engages these good questions it does so on a somewhat shallow level, which is disappointing.

Pi: Faith in Chaos - 6

I suspect very many people have seen this film or will in the future (Not only is it in black and white, which makes it an "artsy" film, but because it deals with the psychology of the main character it involves a lot of sharp noises and is at times hard to follow, notice the double meaning in the sub-title). It is one of those films that is not passive enough for the contemporary viewer. It is about a mathematician who sees the world in the patterns of numbers, and who is convinced that patterns can explain even social institutions like the stock market. He also happens to be on a lot of meds. The director (Darren Aronofsky, who also did Requiem for a Dream) lets the viewer into that world, which is mostly scary. It is a rather dark film as the Max slowly looses sanity as his obsession with the pattern of numbers grows. The film is a really good example of epistemology in film. Max, know that the reality and the world are knowable, but he is unable to grasp the meaning that might should by definition be in the pattern.

Kinsey - 5

While this is yet another biopic to come out in 2004, this one is somewhat different in that it deals also with the topic of Alfred Kinsey's research and the questions that involves, as much as it involves the details of his life. It deals with the questions of the time, how to deal with sexuality in the modern age of science as the authority on truth. I think that gives the film the tension that it does, because it is trying to show societal change from the enlightenment project to deconstructionism. In some ways I think the film compromises the character of Kinsey's story in order to tell the story of the development of sex research. The film does fudge some of the historical data in order to put the research and current societal views compatible. For example from the movie alone you might get the idea that he studied many different racial groups when in fact his actual sample only included whites. It also seems to assume that Kinsey used the random sample method, which in fact, he rejected. Later in the film the discussion gets better when the researchers themselves find that the struggle to distance themselves from the moral dimensions of science is difficult and maybe impossible. The film does a good job of leaving the viewer to think over their own views of what is normative, not only for sexuality, but for all of life. And, ultimately how that worldview is fleshed out in their choices and decisions.

June 02, 2005

Miller's Crossing - 6

This is the Coen brother's third film, which is very well done (I have now seen all of the movies that the Coen brothers have written, and made). This film takes place in the 30's and is mobster movie. The cinematography is really well done. The story follows Tom who is crosses and double crosses his bosses and other mobsters in order to save his own skin. His gift, or curse, is that he can lie well, and that his heart has been numbed to the world. He learns throughout the film that the more he cares the more he has to loose, this brings him to the crisis point at the end of the film. He is successful in the mob only because he has learned how to hide his own humanity. The Coen brothers are some of the best writers in Hollywood in my opinion. Here is a list and ranking of all of their films:
The Ladykillers (2004) - 6
Intolerable Cruelty (2003) - 4
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) - 6
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) - 7
The Big Lebowski (1998) - 6
Fargo (1996) - 6
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)- 6
Barton Fink (1991) - 3
Miller's Crossing (1990)
Raising Arizona (1987) - 7
Blood Simple. (1984) - 6

June 01, 2005

Amores Perros - 6

The English title of this film is: Love's a Bitch. And in this case they are using both meanings. Each of the three separate, yet connected, stories involves people's love for their dogs, and broken human relationships. The first story is one of two brothers who are in love with the same women that the older, and abusive, brother is married to. The younger brother tries to provide a better life for his sister-in-law and her children by getting the family dog into betting fights. The second story is of a man who leaves his wife and two children to start a new life with his mistress. The doubt and the dog come between them to unfortunate consequences. The third story is about a man who went to prison and has a daughter who thinks he is dead, the father is trying to keep a promise to the now dead mother not to contact his daughter. To see the failure of human love and the struggle to know how to survive and keep on loving is hard to watch. In the end, this film shows that love can indeed be a bitch. It is good to sometimes see this harsh reality, as long as it does not result in total cynicism.