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

October 30, 2005

The Outsiders - 4

Based on the novel by S.E. Hinton, this film is the story about a group of lower class high schoolers labeled, the "greasers," and the conflict that develops between them and the other cliques in the school. The story is suppose to be about the struggle between the poor kids and the rich kids in high school and how this effects social views of good and bad behavior. The idea seems a lot better than the way it is executed by Francis Coppola in this film. It becomes scattered, some scenes don't fit. The characters are mostly underdeveloped. And it all becomes unbelievable when the two main characters start a discussion of a Robert Frost poem (not that discussing Robert Frost is strange, but it is when the context is some high school freshmen running from the scene of a murder). I'm assuming that the book focuses on the characters own reflection on life and the situation they find themselves in, the film can't quite pull that off. The characters seem shallow, and the plot line doesn't draw the film together into a coherent whole. The main thing the film has going for it is its allstar cast of Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, and Ralph Macchio.

October 29, 2005

Ghost Busters - 7

This is a surprisingly funny film. I had seen sections of the film on TV but only now have seen the it in its entirety. Bill Murray plays his regular role as his early comedy films (apparently the role was written for him). I thought the funniest character is actually Dr. Egon Spengler, played well by Harold Ramis, he plays the serious one who pretends to not get his own jokes (I saw the smirk on his face). The plot doesn't really have to go anywhere, it is about the supernatural after all, anything is possible. But the dialogue and characters are hilarious. Apparently it gets watch mainly around Halloween, mostly because its strange not because it scary. Definitely a film to watch in a group and the lines are very quotable:
Dr Ray Stantz: I think we'd better split up.
Dr. Egon Spengler: Good idea.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Yeah... we can do more damage that way.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Ray has gone bye-bye, Egon... what've you got left?
Dr. Egon Spengler: Sorry, Venkman, I'm terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.
Dr Ray Stantz: Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was shut off by dickless here.
Walter Peck: They caused an explosion!
Mayor: Is this true?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Yes it's true.
Dr. Peter Venkman: This man has no dick.
ps- The main character's last name is Venkman, mine is Veltman. Coincidence? I think n........probably.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein - 5

I grew up on Abbott and Costello (famous for their "Who's on First" routine), my dad loved them and the local library had them for checking out. They really are a great comedy team, with both good physical comedy, and witty banter and groaning puns (that's why my dad loves them, I heard you learn that in seminary). This is one of their later films and not their best work. This one gets caught up in the stories of the Wolfman, Frankenstein, and Dracula, and Abbott and Costello take a back seat from being the main attraction. That is not to say that this film is not entertaining and funny, it is a great film to just sit back and laugh. It fits into that category where thinking to hard makes it worse. Also, it was made in the 40's so it is in a true sense friendly to most everyone.

October 28, 2005

Rize - 7

This is a documentary by David LaChapelle (most famous for his photography in magazines and music videos). It shows the krump dancing movement that has developed in south Los Angeles. The way LaChapelle tells the story krump developed as a performance art out of the Rodney King riots of 1992, and became mainstream through the work of Tommy the Clown. The climax of the film is when the rival clown/krump groups compete for a crowd of thousands. The film has long segments of music and krump, and even shows the comparison between native African dance (the footage looks like it from the 70's or 80's). The way the story is told krump is the performance art and bodily expression of freedom and oppression that African Americans have lived with. These dance/clown academies are also a way for kids to stay out of gangs and see positive change rather than a short life of crime (death or jail). A well made documentary that shows both the creativity and the risk and danger of imagining a better world and working toward it.

October 27, 2005

current listening...

Citizen Cope - sounds like: folk singer/songwriter with heavy influence of hip-hop. Yeah, odd combination but he does it well.
The Killer - retro-British rock sound from Las Vegas.
The Click Five - poppy rock with high school quality lyrics (that's a bad thing:-) - not recommended. For those of you who like more indie music (ie. The New Pornographers, The White Stripes) check out these two bands:
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Pitchfork media gave this album a 9.0/10
The Magic Numbers - A two couple quartet.
I'd also recommend checking out the itunes music store for the two free music downloads of the week, see the bottom left of the main page. I've been able to hear artist like The Fray and James Blunt. And have I mentioned that you should check out Jason Panella's music review site (link to the index on the left).

October 26, 2005

Melinda and Melinda - 6

This is a more recent Woody Allen film in which he does not star. It is well done and plays on the dual story of fictional Melinda, one a tragedy and one a comedy. The film starts with two authors and friends talking in a restaurant about how they see the world. They then plug the same characters with similar details and overall plot and try to show that the events could be tragic or comedic. It ends say that conclusions are elusive and that one's outlook will determine reality. The comedy version is very funny with Will Ferrell playing an intelligent funny man, instead of his sometimes crude funny. The tragedy is very sad. Both are realistic in the potential of events leading to the tragic and the comedic. But as the narration shows even these smaller stories are set in a bigger reality that has one narrative. In the end Allen wants to put the comedic as a part of the overall tragedy of life. It is in many ways an escape from the truth of the tragic. I think that Allen in this case gets it wrong and that the tragic is really a small part of the overall comedy of life. In other words, I think that there is resolution in the story, rather than tension and pain ad infinitum. The next question that makes sense of these things is: How do we know one or the other, is their a perspective outside of our own? It is a question of epistemology that will help determine a storied kind of living.

October 25, 2005

PCU - 6

This film is rated PG-13, which means that there are many less crude-for-crude's-sake jokes and more actually intelligent jokes about the craziness of college life. The title refers to both the college in the film named Port Chester college, but also to the political correctness in higher education. The jokes are actually very well done. It is also interesting that the arguments made don't make college students seem smarter, but actually shows how little they actually try to think. Conformity is really the punch-line of the film. Their are some really good quotes that are telling of how people view higher education. In this case not very high views. Early in the film Droz is giving prospective student Tom a tour and has these two great lines: "Yes! That's the beauty of college these days, Tommy! You can major in Game Boy if you know how to bullshit." And "These, Tom, are the Causeheads. They find a world-threatening issue and stick with it for about a week." This film shows how students see college as mostly meaningless beside making connections with others. Everything of value happens outside of class, mostly at parties. Most films on higher education, especially comedies, have this view. It is only partly justified when looking at the reality of college. It seems that this view also leads most to a cynical view of life, rather than the working out of the idealism that is the majority during the college years. Somewhere in there hope dies.

Before Sunset - 6

This is the sequel to Before Sunrise, made nine years later, with characters who are nine years older. In this film Jesse and Celine who met in Vienna as college students, meet again as Jesse is in Paris for a day. They then continue the conversations about love and what ifs about their pasts and futures. The conversation is more focused in this film than in the previous film, mostly because they know each other better and because they are wiser now. They talk about memories and how it changes as time goes by, a great quote is when Celine says "Memories are wonderful things, if you don't have to deal with the past." They also talk about love and the doubts that love really exists. They also go into politics and the idealism that can be lost or revived as time goes by. A good film and a great sequel.

October 21, 2005

Before Sunrise - 6

This Richard Linklater film is in the same vein as a good chunk of his other work (ie. Waking Life, Slacker, Tape, Dazed and Confused). What does that mean? These films involve a lot of dialogue, usually involving "pseudo-intellectual" (his word, not mine) conversations and characters who are self conscious about these conversations. This films conversation involves a man and a woman who are strangers on a train and who stop in Vienna before heading back to their homes else where. The conversation weaves its way through topics like relationships, palm readers, and true love. An interesting film with well written dialogue, not for the action/adventure crowd though. A review of this film's sequel, Before Sunset, will be coming soon.

October 19, 2005

House of Sand and Fog - 7

I wrote about this film a year ago. My take then was that the film is a challenge to live differently. Seeing this film again made me realize different complexities and issues it deals with that I missed on first viewing. Without giving too much of the plot away, the story involves a house whose owner is evicted on a bureaucratic technicality. The house is then sold to an Iranian immigrant family who are looking to make money by buying low selling high (that is just good economics). Well if life was just economics this film wouldn't have anything meaningful to say. Fortunately life is complex and humans are able to understand their environments in meaningful ways. The main theme of the film is the pursuit of the American dream. The story points out the legalism of it, and ultimately how lonely and individualistic the pursuit of this dream can be (the tagline of the film is: "Some dreams can't be shared"). This film also explores the idea of home and the emotional ties that we have to places and people. There are some great lines in the film in which the characters talk about what it means to be lost in confusion and how happiness to them is to be found. The greatest lesson this film can teach is that if you can choose to show others grace, take it, otherwise you will be left callous and numb to caring for others.
The title works as a metaphor for the precariousness of human situations and communication. The questions are whether one can build anything that will last on a sand foundation, and whether people are able to really have eyes to see through the fog. Often times we overestimate our abilities to really know and love in lasting and faithful ways.
The film is based on the book by Andre Dubus III. He is very intelligent in writing about the complexity of the human experience especially the issues concerning the relations of Islam and American culture, and how subtle the interaction is between faith, lifestyle, and communication are. Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly give their best performances in this film. I would recommend seeing this film and thinking deeply about it.

October 16, 2005

Cinema Paradiso - 7

I sort of remember seeing this film about 10 years ago, but I forgot how good this film really is (I may have also been annoyed by the subtitles, I only recently learned how to read:-). There are two versions of the film, I watched the original version first, and then saw the alternate ending that the new version has. I would only give the new version a 6, while I think the original version is a lot better and more coherent. The story is a flash back of an Italian filmmaker's (Salvatore, or Toto for short) youth after the news that his mentor and childhood friend Alfredo has died. The story is really about the relationship of Toto to his mentor and his growing up and learning. In the end, Toto realizes how wise Alfredo was and how much he was loved by him. In the new version the romance story takes over the plot and is a major theme which actually over shadows this other story which changes the meaning of the film. A great film about the power of the past and the feeling that comes from memory and remembrance.

Me and You and Everyone We Know - 7

A quirky film that turns what looks like the mundane everyday life into interesting dialogue about real problems and funny situations. The story follows a number of people who live on the same block, while not trying to connect each of their stories. The author/director and actor in the film Miranda July says the film is about "people wanting to touch each other." The characters in this film long to be in relationship with others, but haven't really learned how best to do this, so they try and succeed only because everyone is in the same boat. What makes people human is there longing for relationship, and the foibled way that we go about tying to connect with others.
It struck me early in the film that this film is somewhat dependent on the culture shaping people. The film seems funnier because films like American Beauty, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Magnolia exist. In this sense it makes for a somewhat real film in that the characters are living in the same culture and are trying just as hard as the audience to figure it out. The film is influenced by July's interest in performance art, so there are many scenes that the meaning of the set up is not lost on the audience. The precocious six year old, played wonderfully by Brandon Ratcliff is maybe the funniest and is definitely the character that shows the childishness in all of us.

October 15, 2005

Inventing the Abbotts - 7

This film takes place in the 1950's in a small town outside of Chicago. The story is narrated by the younger of two brothers, Doug, who have lost their dad at an early age and are different in their response to it. It all has to do with the hush-hush environment of the small town they live in. They have to sort of figure it out from the rumors that percolate in school and community events. The audience goes along for the ride as the story surrounding the death get more and more fuzzy, and are then cleared up when Doug speaks to his mother about the truth. He then realizes that his older brother has invented his own story about the events and has in fact misunderstood Mr. Abbott, whose role in the death you do not find out about until the truth is sought out by Doug. In the meantime all the hurt in the film is due to the false reality that rumors can inflict, and the film ends asking the question whether there can be healing in this situation. The film is well cast with Joaquin Phoenix, Billy Crudup, Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler, and Kathy Baker.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence - 6

Overall this is a good sequel. The aesthetics are just a good as the original. The story is good, but lacking the simplicity of the first. The main character from the previous film has disappeared, and her partner and a new cop are taking on the criminals of section 9. This film is more philosophical than the first, discussing again the implications and complexities of artificial intelligence. This one uses the theme of Descartes, and the dualism of mind and body that he introduced (some might say revived) into philosophy. It also raises the problem of whether suicide is possible for cyborgs. This film is harder to follow than the last film, but still a very well made and interesting story (yes, I'm sort of a philosophy nerd, so I find the questions interesting).

October 13, 2005

Ghost in the Shell - 7

This is one of the best anime films I have seen. Aesthetically the film is amazing. The story deals with a future in which artificial intelligent has been programmed with 'ghosts', which raises the questions of what makes humans and cyborg and computers distinctive. Is it their history? Their bodies? Or is it their ability to choose? The film is both a story about cops chasing a cyber criminal in 2029, as well as a discussion of the philosophical implications of computerization and technology. It is a good film in both of these respects. The film is framed around the epistemological questions raised by two verses from the Bible. I Corinthians 13:12 - "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face." And verse 11 - "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me." The main character, Motoko Kusanagi, uses these to try to understand herself as not quite human but more than a mechanistic robot.

Scarface - 5

At almost three hours this film is much too long. The film uses Castro's opening of the border as a starting point to tell the story of Tony Montana, who is a Cuban criminal that makes it to Miami and gets involved in cocaine trafficking. As he climbs higher in the business he becomes so obsessed with making money and living "high" on the hog, he eventually looses all trust in his friend, who he suspects are trying to take over his cocaine empire. Despite being a classic, and Pacino doing a good job of playing the main character, I found the film sort of a waste of time. It seems there may have been a better way to get the point across than just showing all sorts of violence, often for no other reason than shock value. Additionally, the other characters are under developed. The story struggles to show whether the story is about Tony as a tragic hero, or whether the point is that in the end there is justice among criminals. My guess is that it is the former, which makes for a very sad story.

October 11, 2005

Kicking & Screaming - 6

Will Ferrell is generally hilarious, but especially so in this film. Since it is rated PG the jokes are less crude and actually more funny. The basic premise of the film is that Phil (Ferrell) grew up being pressured by his father (Robert Duvall) to be good at sports which he was always subpar at. Then he and his father have a son on the same day and as they deal with the sports that there kids will play, Phil starts out being a good father and trying to make sports fun for his son. He soon finds himself the coach of a team, and with Mike Ditka as assistant starts to morph into the worst and most obsessed coach/parent ever. In the end, he realized his errors, apologizes and his team even beats his dad's team. It is actually a film that captures some of the reality of sports obsessed parents in American culture. The kids are always on the losing end of the deal, and I think has a lasting effect on society as these kids get older. Reducing life to sports not only makes sport into something it is not, it makes other important parts of life like family and work seem like trivial activities, which only leads to broken relationships. The film does a good job of showing how life needs to be seen in a long-term perspective than the present and the remaking and nostalgia of the past. The plot is not new, the underdog comes back to win the whole thing, but it is very hilarious in the process.

October 10, 2005

Animal House - 5

This is somewhat of a classic (1978) comedy involving a college fraternity that is majoring in partying. In some ways the American Pie films are just an updated version of the same story. Set in 1962 on the campus of fictional Faber College, the story is pretty shallow and has the dean trying but failing to find reason for getting rid of the Delta fraternity. The audience can tell this is fictional because in reality getting expelled from school isn't all that hard to do, especially considering the behavior in this film that would definitely not go over, at least I hope not. It is interesting to see what pushing the boundaries of morality in film was during that time, not all that different from our own time really. These types of films show the duality of social beliefs about higher education. On the one hand, everyone laughs and assumes that this shows college life as they knew it in some sense, and on the other hand hope that college is not like this for the sake of there reputation now and the children they are and will soon be sending to college. There are very few films that really show that college is both good and bad for 18-22 year-olds, and its impact on the future of society.

October 07, 2005

The Bonfire of the Vanities - 4

This film is based on the 1987 novel by Tom Wolfe. He is also the author of the more recent book I Am Charlotte Simmons. These stories are actually very similar, the former is set in 1980's New York involving a rich Wall Street deal maker, the later is about college life. Both stories are about how people learn and adjust to the morality of their day, or in both of these cases lose their sense of moral meaning, and find themselves lost in the cosmos. I imagine the book is better than the movie, because Wolfe is a long winded author which makes for some really detailed descriptions that even film has a hard time with (If you are going to read anything by Wolfe, read his non-fiction, especially his 2000 book called Hooking Up. He really should have just kept writing as a journalist). The medium of film in this case fails to give the audience the whole story and ends up being a cheesy comedy when in actuality the books is a social commentary on the loss of virtue in our society (Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind came out shortly after this book). Although the film has a cast staring Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis, the film is mis-cast and overall a flop.

The Interpreter - 6

In the words of Kramer:
"Well it's a story about love, deception, greed, lust and...unbridled enthusiasm. You see Elaine, Billy was a simple country boy. You might say a cockeyed optimist, who got himself mixed up in the high stakes game of world diplomacy and international intrigue."
Well that's actually a different story, this film does involve world politics and international intrigue but focuses on what justice looks like in the world since the creation of the United Nations and the international court at The Hague. The story involves a made up country in Africa that has a corrupt president who is accused of genocide. Sylvia is an interpreter for that country and over hears a threat. You soon learn that she has as much a stake in the outcome of the president as those trying to assassinate him. The best part of the film is that it never turns into a cheesy romance story, although there are a few places I feared it might. As the audience learns more the early part of the story starts to make sense. In the end the battle is between revenge and accepting loss, mourning, and pursuing justice. Early in the film Sylvia tells the story of justice in her own country which is poignant and remains the theme of the film throughout. The parts are well played by Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn.

It Beats 4 U

In the past month a few new CD's have come out. Of note are My Morning Jacket's Z. The band makes an appearance as the Kentucky band in the new Cameron Crowe film Elizabethtown. I just picked it up yesterday but it is good, in the same vein as It Still Moves, but a better follow up than Death Cab's Plans. David Gray new album, Life in Slow Motion is not the next White Ladder, but better than 2002's New Day at Midnight. Switchfoot also came out with a new album called Nothing is Sound, but it is mediocre at best, although they still have their signature sound. The lyrics are pretty good but don't always fit with the music that they go with. The Beautiful Letdown is a much better album. You can read reviews of these in Paste Magazine and Rollingstone. Although somewhat older, late summer, I am still convinced that Aqualung is the best album to come out since Coldplay's X&Y.

October 06, 2005

A History of Violence - 6

Based on a graphic novel written by John Wagner and art by Vince Locke, this film tells the story of how violence attaches itself to human life and starts to drive our decisions in many areas of our lives. In some ways it is a social commentary on the pervasiveness of violence in American society. It is hard to talk about this film without spoiling the plot turns and the like so if you definitely plan to watch this film and haven't yet, you may want to stop reading. This may be the toughest review I have yet written for a couple of reasons. First, I both liked the film and found it frustrating to watch. On a technical level the film is not well made. The director was not able to show the passage of time very well and there were points in which things were happening that seemed disorienting because they didn't give viewer enough time to recognize the change in time (for example, there is a sequence in which the main character Tom is in his diner, then at home, then back at the diner, all without reference to whether a few days have past, which I suspect, or if it is the same day. There are other points in the film that suffer from this same flaw.) The film also suffers from not gaining the audiences trust, which means that one is suspicious which makes belief and caring for the characters that much harder. The second frustration is that this film story is a good and needed one in a lot of ways, but it is not a film that I would recommend to very many people, in fact I would discourage some from seeing this film. When it comes to the discernment of this film I think there are only a small minority of people that can deal with the emotional and intellectual challenge that this film poses (That is probably an elitist view but needs to be said).
The good things about this story is that is shows the tension that divides the human heart between good and evil and makes being human complex. In the story the characters deal with what a changed and new life might look like but not having the insight to understand their own past and what that means for the present and the future, especially in the fragility of human relationships. One of the strong points of the film is in identifying with the main character and seeing that the enemy is within rather than something that can be killed off externally (Although the old women who love to talk during the film sitting behind us saw violence as part of the solution). What this film needs is a little dose of the philosopher, Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas writes at length about how behavior is shaped by the habits (following Aristotle) and that is how we truly change and can do good. Aquinas would ask, does our culture help us habituate violence or non-violence, and what does that tell us about who we are, both as a community as well as our own personal identity? The end of the film attempts to show the grace needed to live in a world that is often deceptive and hard, but the director can't pull it off because it seems contrived after the flow of the rest of the film (for a good example of how a director can do this see: Places of the Heart). For the discerning viewer there are many points of discussion, that is why I would rank this film a 6.

Blow - 6

This film is based on the true story of George Jung, who in the 1970's started to smuggle cocaine from Columbia to the US. In between getting rich and getting caught, a cycle that continues throughout the film. He tries to stay in contact with his family and starts his own family. In the end he realizes that his father was right that money is not the key to happiness, it is rather to love and be loved, this plays out in the movie with his daughter and the promises he made and his failure while he thinks about it in jail. The previews for the film make drug running look all glamorous, the film actually is more about this subplot than about drugs, and the film does not celebrate drug use, but shows how they can destroy.
As a side note this film made me realize that Johnny Depp is the son of Christopher Walken. OK not really, but see the pictures below and tell me you can't see the resemblance, they also have similiar acting styles (especially Walken from The Deer Hunter and Depp from this film).

October 03, 2005

Swingers - 5

This film deals with the difference between "scoring" a chic and having a relationship with a woman. They often look the same in most films. The movie revolves around a group of friends who are single and looking for work in Hollywood. The main character, Mike, has ended a relationship of six years in order to move from NY to LA. His friends keep giving him advice about how to get over it. He eventually meets someone as confused about relationships as he is and he finally is able to let go of the past and live more fully in the present. The acting is well done, especially Vince Vaughn and Ron Livingston (Office Space). A reasonably well done film, but mostly famous for a few famous lines like: "You're so money and you don't even know it.", "Baby, that was money! Tell me that wasn't money.", and "And it's like I'm supposed to be all happy 'cause she's wearing a backpack, you know?"

October 01, 2005

Serenity - 7

The previews almost kept me from seeing this film. Because the film is genre-less, or rather a mash up of a few genre's the preview can't really get at what makes this film good. As someone who has not seen the show, Firefly, that it is based on, I still think it is good film (It seems the shows fans liked it even more). Part western, part noir, part sci-fi, part comedy, this film is about a small space crew that is basically trying to survive in a vast universe that is run by The Alliance. The plot development is very well done, just when you think its going to get boring a plot twist comes in that changes the whole story up to that point. What I found as the most interesting thing about the film was its use of good and evil. Most films of this sort can easily get away with a very distinct difference, showing evil in dark light and the hero looking all bright like an angel or something. This film on the other hand shows the gray area of each of the characters, some a darker shade than others. Rather than just sticking to the ying/yang view or that good prevails, well..."That sells more tickets, I think?", this film shows a battle where good might not be some abstraction in the fight, but in the characters along with their less admirable characteristics. One thing I noticed was the use of the idea of sin, which tends to be avoided by Hollywood. Sin implies some sort of personal responsibility. Evil is merely a cancer that takes over your entire body, which means death is better (that's why Arnold can get away with massacres, sort of nihilistic). Although sin is bad it points to the belief in some good that gives meaning and is worth living and dying for.
The acting is well done and it is nice to see a film that is not based on star power, no famous names to look for. The dialogue does a good job of staying between the serious and the hilarious. A film that is both fun to watch and good for discussion.

Time Bandits - 5

A comedic Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, and The Brother's Grimm) film, that makes A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy seem like a copy. It uses time travel rather than space travel and has less reference to the meaning of life, but the type of humor is similar. The basic story is that some dwarves who helped God make shrubs, have stolen his map and are able to travel through time and decide to steal valuables in order to be rich, they eventually get conned by the devil and need to retrieve the map, only to be saved in the end by God, who tells them the whole thing was a test. The film is from a small boy's perspective as he has a good imagination, that obviously doesn't come from his parents who are TV zombies. He wakes up in the end and finds that it may have all been a dream, or was it? A funny action adventure film, and ahead of its time in 1981.