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

April 28, 2006

Stalag 17 - 7

The title comes from the name of the prisoner of war camp that the film takes place in. Located in German during WWII, the American prisoner's attempt to plan their escape, but are thwarted by an unknown spy on the inside. After they accuse Sefton (William Holden in an Oscar winning performance), he tries to convince them that it isn't him. Billy Wilder directs and does a good job of waiting until the best moment to finally reveal what is actually going on. The story is simple but keeps developing as it moves forward. This is a relatively calm war film, somewhat similar to The Bridge over the River Kwai- which also stars Holden. The whole film leads up to portraying the unexpected hero step up, putting his life on the line for truth- or maybe just "trying to get a pair of wire cutters" (you decide).

April 27, 2006

Because of Winn-Dixie - 6

This is a family film about a girl with no friends, who takes in a stray dog and it changes her life. That is probably to simplistic and the film is better than this description. Opal, is a young girl who has just moved to a new town with her father, the local pastor of a church who meets in a convenience store. When she takes in a stray dog and names him Winn-Dixie, the dog helps her to make friends. In this way a community of disconnected and quirky people is formed. The film does well to deal with issues of loneliness, grief, and friendship that most children (and adults) will be able to identify with. Annasophia Robb, Jeff Daniels and Dave Matthews star.

April 26, 2006

Good Night, and Good Luck - 6

Giving this a six is probably a little harsh, but I thought the film was somewhat shorter than it needed to be, and focused mostly on how Edward Murrow (played excellently by David Strathairn) can be seen as a hero for our contemporary political culture. Also, I have yet to see Robert Downey Jr. acting well, he is again subpar in this film. This is not to say that the film is not worth seeing. It is a well made historical film about the 1950's. Its main focus is on the debate between Ed Murrow, TV journalist for CBS, and Senator Joseph McCarthy who made accusation about communists working in the government. The film is framed by a speech that Murrow gave at Radio-Television News Directors Association Convention in 1958. I recommend reading the full text. It is a very intelligent critique and explanation of the power of journalism and the medium of television.

Shopgirl - 7

This film is based on the novella by Steve Martin. It is a simple film. It is about human connection, the human need for love. The story follows Mirabelle (Claire Danes) as she chooses between an older man, Ray (Steve Martin), who cannot commit and a quirky artist (Jason Schwartzman) who longs for connection and love as much as Mirabelle. The key scene in the film is what Ray says after he has admitted that he has cheated on Mirabelle, "The worst part about it...is that I thought it wouldn't matter." The film gets at how our commitments are deep in us, and that sometimes we only recognize them when we fail, when we feel the pain of our own decisions and their consequences. The dialogue is both awkward, in a good way, and honest, and very well written. The film plot moves like an indie film, but the scenes are very crisp (not that indie films can't be, they just tend not to be).

April 24, 2006

School Daze - 5

While the film was interesting, I think my very limited understanding of black culture made the film some what hard to like. The story is pretty basic and deals with a fictional black college, the fraternities, the inter-racial tensions, and the divide between the college educated and non-college students in the community. It is an interesting commentary on college life, especially the unique experience of black's in America (college being very much identified with white oppression). This is an early Spike Lee film (Inside Man, Do the Right Thing, Bamboozled, etc.). A well made film, that was mostly just hard for me to get. The ending is also a strong statement the audience to "Wake Up" (it doesn't really fit into the film, except as sort of a dream sequence, which it might be?).

April 21, 2006

Ordinary People - 7

Another best picture, this one from 1981 (The year I was born). The film reminded me of The Squid and the Whale, or should that be the other way around? It deals with a family that is trying to make sense of the pain that comes from the death of a son and brother. It deals well with the brokenness and the reality of ordinary people. Mary Tyler Moore plays the stoic mother, who refuses to be forgiven and loved. Her husband and son while struggling attempt to try to understand themselves and others which is able to bring a level of healing. A great film that is probably more honest than most people would want to go. I like the level of truth the film explores by getting at what it means to be human, dealing with life, death, grief, and the reality of imperfection.

Midnight Cowboy - 3

This film won best picture in 1969 and stars Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in early roles, which were the main reasons to watch this film. But it was a disappointing film. The story follows Joe Buck who leaves Texas for NYC to become a hustler, it doesn't work out but he makes a friend. The film does use some really good flash back sequences that are somewhat helpful in understanding the characters. It was a controversial film when it was released, and probably still should be (more controversial than Brokeback Mountain in my opinion). I think the film wants to deal with the past that has brought these characters to where they are, but the viewer has to do most of the work (I think it is also an issue of the time that this film was made, Vietnam, etc.). Most people can probably miss seeing this film.

April 20, 2006

Luther - 6

Joseph Fiennes (The Merchant of Venice) plays the 16th century reformer. The film tells the history of Luther's challenge of the Catholic church, mainly his critique of indulgences (buying salvation) and relics (supposed historical artifacts, like the bones of John the Baptist). It is both an exciting story as well as a good history of the time. Luther is mainly responsible for Protestantism (which Max Weber argued brought us capitalism, and others have said it brought us democracy). A good and much needed history lesson.

Roman Holiday - 7

I realize this film may be labeled a chic-flick, but it is a really good film. It won awards when it came out in 1953 (I have been stocking my Netflix queue with classics as of late). The film is simple story of a princess who escapes from her handlers while visiting Rome. She is taken in by a news reporter and they have a day on the town, all under the guise that he will write a story on her, while she is under the impression that she has convinced them she is just a regular person.
The point of the film comes at the end of the film when the issue of integrity is raised as they fall in love but also realize the structures that will keep them apart. While they could become vindictive and hurt each other, they decide that to be truthful they cannot follow through on their deception.
Audrey Hepburn (I have liked every film she is in so far: Breakfast at Tiffany's and My Fair Lady) and Gregory Peck are excellent.

April 16, 2006

The Power of One - 7

This is a story of one young man's journey to struggle against the apartheid of South Africa (based on the novel by Bryce Courtenay). P.K. is a white English boy, who is out of place in both the native South Africans and the Afrikaners. The story follows him as he develops from a small boy who looses both parents and then later spends time with a mentor who is imprisoned during WWII. He learns ideas, music, and boxing. It is here that he learns to see how tribes can come together for the good of all, under the guidance of a African slave (played excellently by Morgan Freeman). He uses this as his driving force to argue against apartheid. The film ends as P.K. and his friend Guideon Duma go off to continue the struggle on the run from authorities.
It is a moving story about the conviction that is needed to fight for what is right, and how hard that can be to sustain in a world that is stuck in its current power structures. The film shows the hope of story and the victory of proximate justice.

April 15, 2006

Grizzly Man - 6

This is a documentary about activist Timothy Treadwell who lived among grizzly bears in Alaska for 13 summers. In October 2003 Timothy and his girlfriend Amie were attached and killed. The most likely explanation of their death is not that they were in the Grizzly maze, but rather that this was the longest he had stayed there and food was becoming scarce. Director Werner Herzog used footage that Treadwell shot over the years to tell his story while also interjecting his own views of what happened and his thoughts on Tim's life. The film includes great nature shots of bears and the Alaska landscape, but is ultimately about reflecting on life and the struggle everyone has to consider the meaning of their life and actions. Herzog tells an interesting story, one that you can tell is hard for him to tell, both because of the tragedy of death and the reflection on the gift of life and nature. As a minor trivia note, Herzog is from Germany but studied for a while at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. The soundtrack to the film was made over a two day period after the film was already completed. Herzog invited a number of musicians to see the film and the write the music for it (you can see it on the special feature of the DVD). It is beautiful and fits the film well.

April 14, 2006

The Crucible (1996) - 6

Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder star in this tale of the Salem witch hunts written by Arthur Miller. It is an interesting study in how people share in beliefs. In the film the argument is between those that claim to see demons and those that say that it is just make believe. The overall problem is that they go about trying to solve this problem from a scientific and supposed neutral standpoint, which only leads to the death of 17 people. The truth is never really known. But the film ends with the last three accused dying for their convictions as they say the Lord's prayer together. The film is an interesting metaphor, originally written in response to Senator McCarthy's anticommunist movememnt in the early 1950's.

April 13, 2006

listening too...

I just heard an online NPR interview about college movies and their development (Hat tip to Keith Martel for directing it my way). I've blogged about this before on the higher education blog. Recently I've been listening to more pop music, such as The Fray (Ben Folds-ish) and Daniel Powter (James Blunt-ish). I also discovered a rapper, M1, from the NPR music podcast. Every week itunes has a free download, I'd recommend checking it out. Any other music I should be listening too? (The grammar is on purpose:-).

All About Eve - 7

In 1951 this film won the Oscar for best picture. But if you've heard of the film you already knew that. Why did it win? I think there are two reasons. One, it is a great film, well acted, written and told. Second, is because it is a film about acting and the craft of the theatre. All of the votes for an Oscar award are by those that work in film (I have a broader sociological/philosophical theory about this, someday it will turn into a fully written form). If the film is as accurate about the life of those in the theatre as would be suggested by the awards, then it is a somewhat scary film. The challenges of trying to be authentic become harder and harder, "one can gain the whole world and lose their own soul." The story is essentially about the manipulation, hard work, and sacrifice that goes into becoming an actress. Watching the film made me think that we have lost something in our time about the art of filmmaking. This film proves that sometimes you can actually say more by saying less (the art of subtlety and the wonderful use of metaphor). I usually watch old films that won awards with a skeptical eye, but once again I was pleasantly surprised. This film speaks as much to our own time as it did more than 50 years ago.

April 12, 2006

Fun with Dick and Jane - 6

This really is fun with Dick and Jane. Dick being played by Jim Carrey and Jane, by Tea Leoni. The screenplay was written by Judd Apatow, who is most famous for his interesting, but unsuccessful TV shows, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. He also wrote this past summer's hit comedy The 40 Year Old Virgin. How can you not like a comedy that is a rip on Enron. If only someone could find a way to steal money from Ken Lay and team and give it to the employees left with nothing. The film is really a commentary on middle upper class America and the hypocrisy of their values and lifestyles. This film is reminiscent of Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), but much funnier and entertaining. A well spent hour and a half.

April 10, 2006

Pride & Prejudice (2005) - 7

The emotion and comedy of human relationships has somehow stayed fundamentally the same over the last 200 years since Jane Austen wrote this novel. While the film is set in the 18th century it still remains entertaining and relevant to our own times. Like her other works (eg. Sense and Sensibility), the story is about a family who needs to marry off daughters because they cannot inherit their father's estate. The interplay of love, emotions and the practicality and expectations of marriage make for deep emotions of both pain and joy. The film follows Elizabeth Bennet as she navigates the intricacies of her relationship to Mr. Darcy, who she is determined is to proud to be love or marriage material. But as she learns more about him, she realizes that her assumptions have failed her and as should be the case a happy ending follows. But it is not a cheap ending, it challenges her pride and prejudices. This story is still relevant and well told.
Keira Knightley was deservingly nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Elizabeth.

April 09, 2006

To End All Wars - 7

This film is somewhat based on the book by the same name, and somewhat influenced by the film The Bridge over the River Kwai. It tells the story of Ernest Gordon and his unit as they are captured and forced to built a railway in a Japanese POW camp during WWII- "the war to end all wars." I had to read the book in a college class where we discussed the themes of the book: community, calling, giftedness, and selflessness. The amazing thing about the book, which is lost somewhat in the movie, is the selflessness that the prisoners developed, they were able to put others before their own survival. The theme that the film picks up on is the forgiveness and sacrifice that were needed to sustain hope, and ultimately their own lives. The intensity of the characters was exaggerated to make a simpler plot, but overall a good job of bringing the book to film. David Cunningham directs and Kiefer Sutherland stars as the American that has joined this Scottish regiment.

April 08, 2006

21 Grams - 7

A great film that is less plot driven and more about what it means to be human. It explores emotional and psychological reactions to the things that happen in our lives. A car accident and a heart transplant bring the three characters together in a crazy climax through out the film. The scenes do not come in chronological order, but is coherent enough for the viewer to follow what is happening and what is going to happen. The mystery that keep one watching is trying to figure out how the connection takes place. The title and theme of the film are summed up in the narration at the end of the film by Paul: "How many lives do we live? How many times do we die? They say we all lose 21 grams... at the exact moment of our death. Everyone. And how much fits into 21 grams? How much is lost? When do we lose 21 grams? How much goes with them? How much is gained? How much is gained? Twenty-one grams. The weight of a stack of five nickels. The weight of a hummingbird. A chocolate bar. How much did 21 grams weigh?" Another theme is the relationship between death, life's meaning, and belief. All of the characters are looking for reason, order, coherence in the events of their life. The film ends with each character realizing that life often times is more about the doubt of questions than the surety of answers. A very thoughtful film.
This film was directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga. They were also behind the film Amores Perros, which I recommend seeing. They are both now working on the film Babel, which is suppose to come out later this year. The intensity of the roles in this film show Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro acting at their best.

April 07, 2006

Inside Man - 7

I went into this film thinking that it was a somewhat regular heist/thriller film. Not only is it that -and good at it too- it deals with the context that this takes place and ends up making some interesting social commentary on the post 9/11 world. Spike Lee directs this film with a lot of star power, Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster. While I haven't seen many Spike Lee films, he seems to be able to give good insight into American culture while both entertaining and being serious. As is obvious by the previews this film isn't about a bank robbery. This means that one can't help but ask the question: so what is this film about? After viewing this film I had a really good conversations with a friend about the many sociological dynamics that the film engages: power, greed, race, assumptions, fear, and evil. I think the film does well to allow for deep discussion for those of us who take film seriously, but is entertaining and complex enough to keep the attention of the more passive audience. Notice too the double meaning of the title. Plenty of discussion to be had.

April 06, 2006

Cinderella Man - 6

Directed by Ron Howard, this film tells the story of depression era boxer James J Braddock. Braddock started his career hot winning many fights and never getting knocked out. His career started to decline and he and his family begin to live in poverty in NYC. The story uses the themes of the American Dream to show Braddock's determination to provide a good life for his family. As an Irish immigrant he works on the docks while trying to get fights and soon makes his comeback. His hard work and single-mindedness for his family give him the strength to become a boxing champion again. A good film that uses boxing as a sideshow to the sentimental theme of the story which is one man's journey from rags to riches. Russell Crowe plays Braddock, Renee Zellweger - his wife, and Paul Giamatti is his manager.

All the President's Men - 6

This film tells the story of Bob Woodward (played by Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), reporters for the Washington Post, as they investigated the Watergate scandal. The film watches like a documentary and show the steps it took to get from the men arrested in the Watergate building to finally implicating Nixon in the plot to sabotage the Democratic party. If you read up on Nixon, this plan came out of his intense paranoia that he might loose the presidency. More recently this film has been in the spot light as Mark Felt came forward as the informant that helped Woodward and Bernstein break the stories. This film came out in 1976, just 4 years after the events of the tale. It is based on the book that Woodstein (As they are called by their editor) wrote about their work. This is an interesting film about journalism as the digging for truth in order to inform the public and work for change by challenging people to integrity.

April 03, 2006

The Bridge on the River Kwai - 6

In 1958 this film swept the Oscars, taking 7 including Best director, actor and picture. The cinamatography seems incredible for the time that it was made. The basic plot follows a POW camp where the Japanese have prisoners in forced labor to build a train bridge. The British Colonel (played by Alec Guinness) decides to make it the best bridge they can build, while other British forces set out to blow it up. The film is a critique of war and the pride that can develop in the context of war. A classic film that gets the audience ready to see director David Lean's later, and better, film Lawrence of Arabia.

North Country - 6

Erin Brockovich meets Norma Rae. This film deals with the gender issues at an iron mine in northern Minnesota and one woman's fight for sexual harassment policy. As the story unravels the audience learns more about Josey's struggle early in life, and the consequence this has for her relationships with her father, husband, and son. While a fictional account, it is inspired by the story of the Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines lawsuit in 1984. It is an interesting commentary on power and oppression (the courtroom speech near the end of the film makes the message of the film clear: Stand up for what is right- which is always more courageous in action than in words, and almost never the easy or obvious thing to do). One of the unbelievable parts of the film that take away from it is the turn around that happens in Josey's father's character. While I think it is possible the film makes it seem like it happens overnight. The acting is very well done especially Frances McDormand and Charlize Theron (I just found this on the IMDB- in 2005 these two also played in Aeon Flux together). The soundtrack is also very well done, a lot of Bob Dylan.

Kramer vs. Kramer - 7

Earlier today one of my co-workers mentioned how controversial this film was when it first came out in 1979. The film confronts the viewer with their own views of gender roles and stereotypes and how different people might respond to these assumptions. In the film, Joanna leaves her son to be raised by his father because of the unhappiness of her marriage and her depression over her ability to raise her son. Her husband Ted, is then left to rethink his job and responsibilities as he becomes the primary care-giver for his son. The film ends in a battle for custody where both parents struggle to find what is right for their son, rather than themselves. The one fault of the film is that it leaves out the early part of the marriage so that it seems impossible for the viewer to understand the complexity of the situation. Most people would see the mother as a villain who is self-centered, while in more recent times the father may be the unreasonable one. The film does well to show that a failure of communication can be disastrous, and can lead to hurts that might never be healed.
Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep were awarded Oscars for their roles in the film, it also received awards for direction and best picture.