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

July 27, 2005

Through a Glass Darkly - 7

The first in Ingmar Bergman's trilogy of faith (Winter Light, The Silence -reviews coming soon to this blog). Bergman is the son of a Swedish pastor and has been making films since 1944. His most recent film (made for TV) is from 2003, Saraband. Through film is about the psychology of faith. It is the story of a family on vacation-father, son, daughter, and son-in-law. Karin is convinced that God is speaking to her though a wall, and that he will descend into their house through a closet door, when he does appear it is as a spider who she has to fight off. The final conversation of the film between father and son is interesting, if not a little cynical about God's existence and love being a part of that equation. The DVD extras explanation of the trilogy is that faith develops from certainty, to doubt, to silence-the negative existence of God.

new music: Jason Mraz

Yesterday Mr. A-Z came out. Mraz style is what I call hill-billy-rap. That is that the words on most of the songs have a fast a rhyme scheme most similar to rap (See also G. Love and the Special Sauce, which is more of a bluezy-rap style). But the music and rhythm is more driven by guitar and banjo/mandolin style, almost a bluegrass feel, and the lyrics have nothing to do with the ghetto, racism, or money, pimps, and hoes. This album is on par with Waiting for my Rocket to Come, not worse but not better.

July 26, 2005

Deconstructing Harry - 5

All of Allen's films deal in some way with philosophical issues of happiness, despair, meaning, God, love, etc. This film is no exception and is probably the most transparent and easiest to follow. Harry, the main character, is an author who is trying to relate his life story to the characters that he has written and vice versa. He is married more times than seems possible and all of his friend dislike him for basing his stories on their lives. His written characters start to show up and then explain his life to him, which inspires him to write more. It uses a lot of psychological terms to explain things, a lot of analysis of the subconscious and pill-popping. It is interesting how Allen always stresses the atheism of his characters while showing that meaning can only happen with belief in God, and some unifying theory of existence even amid the chaos of life and behavior. For him the rejection of meaning is true atheism.

An index?

I made myself useful and started to make an index of the films on my blog. I hope it is useful to you (its sort of a pain in the butt to make).

Hollywood Ending - 5

This Woody Allen film deals with the psychological aspect of fear in connection with blindness. In some ways it is the same as all of his other films, the affairs and catchy one-liners. But the plot is actually more coherent as a story than some of his others. The idea is that a struggling director gets a big picture deal from his ex-wife's studio. But then goes psychosomatically blind, makes film that only the French like, and recovers his sight to find life more beautiful than before. The film also deals with the father-son relationship of the main character who has grown apart from his son, but finds that they have more in common than they think. It is funny and a less despairing film than is his usual. And like the title implies, he gets back together with his true love and moves to Paris. The story goes that he wrote the idea for this story on a matchbook and found it years later and decided to make the film.

July 25, 2005

Wedding Crashers - 5

The premise of the film is actually quite original, although there are plenty of the stereotyped characters, acted with hilarity, especially Will Ferrell and Keir O'Donnell. The general story is that two wedding crashers who lie and manipulate their way to sex, end up with hearts after all and "fall in love." All of this in the background of course, as the jokes roll one after another. And just as the film starts to look like it is falling apart Will Ferrell shows up to safe the day. Yes, his character is disturbing and wrong, but hilarious. The film does a good job of showing how our culture sees marriage as just a game, that you can win or lose. It just requires some ingenuity, which may mean being ingenuous (maybe these words are related?). It also creates some good tension (a typical of the Hollywood formula) between cynicism (for the guys) and hope (for the women) about the possibilities of "true love."

July 21, 2005

Manhattan - 6

I feel the need to give a reason why Woody Allen films are half decent, maybe even good films. Everyone I seem to talk to thinks he's creepy and that he should not star in his own films (unfortunately film is a medium that is not immune to ad hominem attack. Acting is one of the areas of critique; if people don't like the actors, then the story is usually shut out). While I might not dispute the second point, although I think he may have the best ability to portray the crazy character's he writes, I don't find him creepy. I think his films are always asking good questions, and he leaves open the possibility that the audience may agree or disagree, the point is not for him to convince you of some way of life, but rather to open up your life to some serious, and often funny, questions and critique. This film does the same as his other films. It is mostly a tribute to Manhattan, the city that Allen loves. But on top of that is the struggle to find the meaning in romantic relationships. I think he comes to the conclusion in this film, at least, that meaningful relationships are not really possible in the full sense because of the screwed-up-ness of the world. This seems to be a very pessimistic view, but have you looked at reality lately? To get back on an optimistic note, there is still love and hope. And both of these just point to the overwhelming tension that is life. There is the good and the bad, which makes us not take things like love, hope and a meaningful existence for granted. In fact, that is how we know these things are worth pursuing. So, my advice: watch Woody Allen films in small doses with an open mind toward a little self criticism, you might just learn something about yourself.

July 20, 2005

Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941) - 7

This is one of the only "screw-ball comedies" that Alfred Hitchcock ever made. This is really a film about marriage, and most of the jokes wouldn't work if told today because of the social change that has happened in contemporary life. I found the film hilarious. I have become so used to the crude humor that so many films stoop to these days, it is sort of refreshing to see a film that has more subtle humor. Because of film standards and rules of the 40's there are many things that couldn't be shown, which meant the directors had to be more creative (and I think are better story tellers) than they are now. On a trivia note: according to the DVD extras this film may be the first time pizza is mentioned in a film.

The Godfather - 6

This is actually the first time I have seen this film. It is a good story (Although I am finding out that I don't really like Francis Copolla's style of film making, he tends to draw things out, taking a lot of time that seem disconnected from the story as a whole). The film tells a complex story rather simply, which is hard to do. It also deals with issues of family and the entire set of values that go along with it in an Italian mob family. When it comes to crime issues of justice always come up, there is a great line in the film when Mike is in Italy and he asks where all the men are, and the reply is that they have all been killed because of vendetta against each other (fits with the line, "an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind"). I can see why it is a classic, but it tends to glorify the violence that it shows (I wanted to be in a mob family after watching it, and then I thought "I couldn't kill anyone"). It is worth seeing even if you are not interested in the history of film, the story has a sort of timelessness to it.

July 17, 2005

Changing Lanes - 7

This film was co-written by Michael Tolkin (The Player, Deep Impact, The Rapture). It is really a moral tale about decision making in our bureaucratic and disconnected world (The DVD extras has an interview with the writers which is helpful for understanding the film). It ties in the connections morality has with aspects of relationships, character, and one's view of the world. The story follows the struggle between two seemingly unrelated men who have an accident on the way to important court hearings. One loses an important document, the other is too late to get a fair hearing. The story continues as they both struggle to do the right thing, or simply know that they cannot and the situation soon escalates. The story is intriguing with many twists and turn. In the end it makes the case that small moral choices can give us insight into the kinds of people that we are.

July 16, 2005

Spartan - 6

This is a very good secret agent/thriller film. Written and directed by David Mamet, who does a good job of making the audience work at figuring the film out, rather than having characters explain the movie. The film is really about the main character's search for meaning in his job as a secret agent with a license to kill. As he gets more involved one particular case, the kidnapping of a girl by a prostitution ring, he realizes that his job is more than just following orders. He comes to know that life is not just a system that will work itself out naturally, it will take honorable decisions and integrity for people to be a force for change in the right direction.

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion - 6

This is a more recent (2001) Woody Allen film. This film takes place in a 40's insurance office and involves two co-workers who hate each other and are hypnotized into committing crimes and then, yes, they fall in love. Allen has the gift of writing dialogue and jokes that do not need to be crude to be funny. The insults in this film are just hilarious because no one would think of saying them. This film is also filled with dramatic irony and even plays on a lot of film cliches. Helen Hunt is great in this film, as is Woody Allen who once again plays his nerdy, philosophical self.

July 15, 2005

purpose revisited...

Below is copied from my first post in which I explain what this blog is about, and helpful for deciphering the numbers in my post titles...thanks to all those who have and will leave comments and contribute to this forum for thought and dialogue.

"I am going to post movie ratings and hopefully helpful questions about the movies that I have been watching. I hope that this site can be a sort of forum for movie discussion and insight about cultural engagement.

But, first I want to give readers a disclaimer. I like movies based on the story that they are telling. In other words, I think movies make claims about the human condition. They give us insight into some kind of moral meaning, and a storied kind of living. So, movies can do this well which makes watching them a joy and blessing, and others either fail or miss the mark, leaving me with a bad taste and a sense of a deceptive reality.

So, technical effects and famous names aside, you may be confused as to why some movies are ranked higher than others. I will be ranking them from 1-7. 1, being the kind that I do not enjoy; and 7, telling that I think these are great movies that can lead to great conversations and maybe even changed ways of knowing and doing.

Finally, I am not advocating the watching of any of the movies that are on this site, but am interested in engaging in conversations of discernment in culture, movies in particular. All movies are not for all people. We need to be aware of our own limitations in knowledge, discernment, and emotions. As well as the level of responsibility that we have in the world, toward our neighbor and ourselves."

movies you like...

In an attempt to discover who reads my blogs, and use this more as a forum for "virtual" conversation I am asking that you leave a list of your top ten favorite movies. It doesn't have to be "all time" favorite, just ones that you think are really good and engage discussion about good questions, or are just a well told story. This way I can get to know readers and maybe get some more suggestions of movies I should put on my list (the links may help you with ideas:-). Thank you for reading and commenting.
ps- In the last few weeks I have made the titles of each post a link to the Internet Movie database.

July 14, 2005

It's about time I got to some music...

Last night , Jason and I went to Club Cafe, on the southside of Pittsburgh, to hear Anders Parker and Richard Buckner. Both were pretty good, Anders on guitar and keyboard, Buckner on electric and acoustic guitar using some cool looping. Lately I have been listening to Coldplay (X&Y) and Keane (Hopes and Fears) a lot, both albums have grown on me. I have also been listening to Dave Matthews Band's new album Stand Up. It is pretty good, but for a jam band the songs are awfully short (3-4 mins).
In other news, here are some music sites I have heard about recently. First is firstlisten.org, it is site that will send you free music if you agree to fill out a survey about it. The second site is metacritic.com, it has a formula for reviewing music, film, books and video game reviews and then giving it a percentage. I am currently listening to Sting's Brand New Day as I write, and am surprised at how good this album still is, his new album (Sacred Love) is good but second to this one.

July 13, 2005

Million Dollar Baby - 6

Written by Paul Haggis (Crash (2004)- 7), the film is really about a father and his daughter. Frankie, Clint Eastwood's character, takes on Maggie to train for competitive boxing. Through this their lives becomes more and more intertwined. In the end, it is really the only family that either of them has. It is a touching story that shows the transformation of the characters from antagonistic toward a loving relationship, and the joy and pain that go along with it. I realize this all sounds like the description off the back cover, but the story does sort of conform to this formula, with a somewhat more shocking ending. The cinematography is really good, like most Clint Eastwood movies they start out rather light and end in low light, not unlike the plot turns (Unforgiven - 6 and Mystic River - 6).

Full Frontal - 4

The supposed "sequel" to Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape (see below), this film is way more disconnected, and although it has some interesting scenes and dialogue it somewhat fails as a coherent story. The scenes with Hitler in contemporary situations are actually quite funny, it is really hard to imagine Hitler breaking up with a woman who is completely in love with him. Their is also a story-line about a couple contemplating divorce that shows the complexity of life and relationships. It attempts to do the movie within a movie thing as well as make references to other films and filmmakers that seem obscure and I would imagine too subtle for most audiences (ok, maybe just me). If the editing had been different the story could have held together a bit more.

sex, lies, and videotape - 7

The title makes it sound like a porn film, but actually it is an interesting film about telling and living lies. The film does a good job of showing how trust and intimacy are tied to being truthful. Lying can only lead to the breakdown of good relationships. The story involves a married couple, the wife's sister who is having an affair with her husband, and an old friend who spends his time interviewing, and videotaping, women talking about their sex lives. As the story develops the themes of truthfulness about sex and intimacy show how this gives insight into people's character. In answering the question what would you be willing to lie about, one can get to know what others are really about. By looking at lies, the truth soon becomes evident.

July 09, 2005

Sleepers - 6

What is justice? How do humans do justice? This film shows the vigilante version (somewhat similar to A Time to Kill). Based on the memoir of Lorenzo Carcaterra, the story follows the life of four boys who were abused by a guard in a juvenile facility keep silent about the abuse and then exact their revenge on the perpetrators. All of the characters in there own way have to deal with the moral complexity of the situation. It does not take these questions lightly, which makes it a worthwhile film.

July 08, 2005

a little summer reading...

I just started reading a novel called The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. That passage below caught my attention, because of the connects it makes between history, truth and the responsibility required if this connection is made. It is not often that people talk about history this way. This book does a good job of connecting history with the telling of stories.

"The thing that most haunted me that day, however, as I closed my notebook and put my coat on to go home, was not my ghastly image of Dracula, or the description of impalement, but the fact that these things had--apparently--actually occurred. If I listened too closely, I thought, I would hear the screams of the boys, of the "large family" dying together. For all the attention to my historical education, my father had neglected to tell me this: history's terrible moments were real. I understood now, decades later, that he could never have told me. Only history itself can convince you of such a truth. And one you've seen that truth--really seen it--you can't look away." p. 37

After having finished the book this weekend, I can say it is really good at getting at the historical aspects of Dracula, but the story itself is somewhat disappointing in that it reads like a typical action/adventure book, it didn't have the dramatic climax that I thought it would. Here are some possible options that I was looking for: a more complex relationship between the Roman church and the eastern orthodox church during the 15th century; or that the story was actually told by vampires rather than by humans; or that Dracula was actually a Muslim, and that is why there is the tension between Christian symbols (crucifixes, holy water, stakes, etc.) and vampires; or SPOILER ALERT: that Dracula doesn't get killed, or was never alive to begin with. My guess is that the author wanted to keep the facts historical while placing fictional characters into them to make the story an adventure rather than an academic article (One of the chapters is indeed suppose to be from an academic journal). I still cannot figure out why vampires are inherently evil. The explanation that they embody all of human taboos seems to make sense for more ancient cultures but does not seem to make sense in our modern scientific context where we claim there are no taboos? Any ideas, let me know.

The Virgin Suicides - 5

This is Sofia Coppola's second film, the first major release (Lick the Star and Lost in Translation). It is a sad story that is confusing in that there are both moments to laugh at the irony of the situation as well as sadness for those who lived a confused existence. It attempts too much in trying to critique contemporary society, as well as try to explain the reasons for peoples actions, suicide in this case. It doesn't seem to fully take into account the complexity of the emotions and character that lead to suicide. The narrator (Giovanni Ribisi, one of my favorite actors) does a good job of making the film make sense when the actors and scenes fail, which is both helpful but also disappointing. In the end, it sort of begs the question: does anyone take responsibility for their relationships or is imagination and nostalgia enough to carry the weight of the world? I hope it is the former but I think the film shows that only a few resist the easy, submissive path of the latter.

L.A. Confidential - 7

This film is powerful. It's main theme is justice and how that might be worked out in the 1950's L.A. police force. The stories three main characters are all police officers and each has there own reasons for being, and style of "fighting" crime. The question of the film is whether the truth will win out in the end or will the bureaucracy and the crime have the last laugh. It is a well done whodunit and the acting is superb (Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger, and Kevin Spacey). I can't believe that it took me this long to see this film.

July 06, 2005

Glengarry Glen Ross - 6

Thanks, Jason for the recommendation. A story written by David Mamet (The Edge, Hannibal, State and Main, Wag the Dog, etc.) with an all-star cast: Jack Lemon, Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino, Ed Harris and Alan Arkin. The basic story-line is about four real estate salesmen and their manager. It gets more complex however when their jobs are on the line if they don't sell more with bad leads. The theme is really about the bureaucracy of our modern work spaces, and how this can drive us to both indifference to policies as well as possible criminal activity in resistance to the system. I can only be thankful that my work is not as hostile as in the film, but there probably is just as much politics. There are some great lines about how career tends to define us (Usually the initial question when meeting someone new is: what do you do?). It also speaks to the murky divide that tends to happen between a public workspace, and private family affairs, it is usually assumed they have nothing to do with each other. This film shows that most work places are in need of a more human way of doing things, that both respects people as well as makes a profit for all involved. For a film with similar themes I would recommend checking out Boiler Room (don't worry, Vin Diesel doesn't take off his shirt).

July 05, 2005

Apocalypse Now - 5

A controversial film about the Vietnam war adapting Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as a story of war in the jungle rather than a trader's view of the Congo. After 3 hours and 20 minutes, I felt almost as crazy as the characters, it didn't help that I was tired. The view in the film is that the Vietnam war was useless and managed from afar rather than seeing the insanity it inflicted on those that fought. This is not the most interesting view of the Vietnam war, for some reading check out Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. The cinematography is really amazing, it definitely has the smell of hot napalm. The story of insanity in the jungle is told well, it shows the interaction that happens between people's character and the environments that influence and shape their actions.

The Rapture - 6

Michael Tolkin's first film (he wrote The Player - 6, Deep Impact - 5, and Changing Lanes). It is also an early, pre-X files, role for David Duchovny. The film deals with the idea of a world ending rapture well. It asks the challenging questions: Can actions really be forgiven? Is heaven (in the other worldly sense) an escapist belief? What does death mean? does it have meaning? Through out the film the main character, Sharon, is constantly trying to make sense our of her beliefs. In the end it she is asked the ultimate question, if the consequence is forever how would you choose, or is there really a choice? Of the small number of religious films I have seen this seems to deal with it the most honestly.

July 02, 2005

War of the Worlds - 6

This film is fundamentally about what humans will do to survive. The film will require some research on my part into what H.G. Wells story was about. My hunch is that Spielberg may have taken some liberties in this version. Although the narration at the beginning and the end of the film sounds like it came directly from the book. The struggle I had in watching the film was the question survival for what? The main character is a dead beat dad, played by Cruise, tries to save his two kids when all hell breaks loose, his is determined to reunite them with their mother. He uses everything at his disposal to survive. What is interesting is how dependent our culture is on technology, when all electricity is lost the people in the film have nothing to do, no stories to tell, books to read, or songs to sing that can comfort their fears. The fear of losing home has arrived and the hope of a family is all that can drive them to survive at whatever cost. There is some humor in the film but that is only to help the audience separate themselves from the events of the film, the humor is lost on the characters in the film. The best part of this film is that the audience can walk away with the opportunity to ask good questions about things that matter most. My fear is that the questions will be lost on most of the millions of viewers that this film will have this weekend.