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

May 31, 2006

All the Real Girls - 7

This film is about sex. Not in the sense that Hollywood films are about sex. This film actually deals with relationships and the consequences of one's sexuality in relating to others, be it parents, siblings, friends, etc. Watching this film reminded me of Lauren Winner's book called Real Sex. I read it a couple of weeks ago and seems relevant to the dialogue and discussion this film is engaged in. The story for this film came from two college friends David Gordon Green and Paul Schneider (who plays the lead). The film is somewhat a response to the unrealistic portrayal of relationships in most films. This film takes place in a down to earth southern town with authentic characters. Both funny and serious, the story involves the struggle to understand how relationships hurt us, and how they are dependent on risking trust and love that we often don't want to be involved with. One of the most realistic films I've seen in a while. (Thank you Paul for the recommendation)

May 30, 2006

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance - 7

A western that is more than a western. Most of the story is a flashback from a Senator (James Stewart) who returns to a small town in the west for the death of a friend (played by John Wayne). He then recounts the true story that has turned him into a legend. Which is better the truth or the legend? Which will people accept? The film ends with a good reflection scene in which you can tell the characters are considering the effects and consequences of a story that is told about them and by them and whether truth matters or not. I suspect it does. A great film with good dialogue, tension, and a gun fight (it wouldn't be a western with it).

May 26, 2006

Howl's Moving Castle - 6

Hayao Miyazaki, I'm just going to say it: "best animation director...ever." Walt Disney was merely a first step, Miyazaki has taken it to a whole new level (although it has been Disney that has helped distribute many Japanese anime in the US). This story is based on the book by Diana Wynne Jones, which means it is less like Miyazaki's previous works (Princess Mononoke, Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky), but the animation is just as beautiful. The story is about a girl named Sophie who works in a hat shop and gets a spell put on her by the wicked witch of the waste. It turns her into an old woman. To try to break the spell she runs away from her home and gets picked up by Howl's moving castle. More like a moving pile of mechanical junk with a magical aura and run by a fire demon. Howl has magic and is trying to stop a war between two kingdoms. Sophie eventual finds away to end her curse by helping Howl break the spell on him. This film (and Miyazaki) has the amazing ability to transport the viewer to a different world, one far beyond a limited imagination. And for those of you who hate reading subtitles, this one has been voiced in English by the likes of Christian Bale, Lauren Bacall, Billy Crystal, and more.

May 25, 2006

Transamerica - 7

Before you place this film in the "liberal-Hollywood-with-an-agenda" category, you would be surprised that this film is actually a good story. It is more about finding identity and sense of self and others than it is about transexualism/ity. Felicity Huffman plays Bree (formerly Stanley) who is about to have a sex change operation. She finds out that she fathered a child when she was in college and he is now selling himself on the streets of New York. The story follows them as they make the trip across America to LA. There are plenty of funny, emotional and touching conversation and situations along the way as the characters and the audience take a reflective glance at who they are in a world to complex for simple reductionism. The film begs the question: is identity socially constructed (defined by context and others)? Psychological constructed- individuals decide? Both? Neither? If you've never asked the question this film is as good as any on reflecting and discussing the human condition.

May 23, 2006

Dog Day Afternoon - 6

This film is based on a true story of a bank robbery in NYC in August 1972 (The film came out in '75). It deals a lot with the media, and how this shaped the story. It eventually comes out that one of the bank robber's, Sonny (played excellently by Al Pacino), main motivations for getting money is for his lover to get a sex change. The view of homosexuality in this film very different, it is seen as a fact in this film, rather than a point of controversy as it would be today. Sonny becomes a hero because of his reference to the killings that occurred at Attica State Prison during a hostage situation. While still a heist film, it does not stick to the usual formula. Guns are used very sparingly and there isn't some trick ending. It is a very honest film (once again the truth is stranger than fiction, or at least makes a better film). Well worth watching 30 years later.

Human Nature - 5

Written by Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), this film is a funny commentary on what might separate or connect humans from the rest of nature. Not as good as his previous work, but funny and telling and cynical of a naturalist worldview. Each of the characters has a moment of crisis where they have to choose between civilization and chaos, as choice between being truly themselves or conforming to others. In the end, civilization turns out to be the game that can get one's natural instincts toward sex fulfilled the fastest without dire consequences. The meaning of life becomes acting so others will like us. In some ways this film reminds me of I heart Huckabees, it has some of the same philosophical points and crazy characters.

May 20, 2006

25th Hour - 7

This film was shot in NYC right after 9/11 and Spike Lee shows ground zero and characters response to it. And like most Spike Lee films this one has a few political and philosophical rants in it that make it interesting. The story is pretty basic: Monty (played by Edward Norton) has been sentenced to 7 years in prison for selling heroin, and spends his last day of freedom with his girlfriend and two high school friends. This causes all the characters to reflection on saying goodbye and how life will change for them. The end of the film is Monty's father telling a story about how Monty's life could be told differently with a single attempt to run from the law. But it wouldn't be his life and it would be an honest story. There is a lot of integrity in the characters of this film. A good film that highlights the time-ness of story and living- there is the past, present and future- and they connect.

May 18, 2006

Touch of Evil - 6

The DVD version I viewed was trying to stick to the original cut that Orson Welles wrote about in a memo to the studio when it tried to change it. My guess is they didn't want the film to seem to dark, yeah it's dark. The story takes place on the Mexico-US border as Mexican narcotics Officer Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and US police captain Hank Quinlan (played by a 300 pound Orson Welles, he is unrecognizable compared with his other films Citizen Kane and The Third Man) play a game of wits investigating the bombing of a US developer and his mistress. The plot twist many times as you come to realize the film is more about the hunters than the hunted. A well made film noir thriller.

The Producers - 3

In the extra features, Mel Brooks (who wrote this and the earlier version from 1968) claims that this story works well on stage and even better on film. He is wrong. Some of the scenes in this film look like they were done on stage and then just filmed as if you were a live audience member. Added to this is the fact that the singing is obviously lip-synced (everyone already knows this, but most musical hid it well). The story isn't long enough to fill 2 hours and basically follows two producers who come up with a scam to raise money for a play they hope will flop and they will take off for Rio with the extra money. In the mean time they hire a cast of overly gay actors and director in a play about Hitler in springtime. The audience loves it because it is a slight on Hitler as being gay and having a middle name- Elizabeth. I try to give musicals the benefit of the doubt, I tend to dislike them, but this one was just not worth my time. Will Farrell is funny but isn't in the story enough. Spike Lee's interpretation is much better.

May 17, 2006

Black Rain in the Beaver Valley

While is has been rainy for about a week now, the Black Rain I'm referring to is on Ben Harper's new CD Both Sides of the Gun. It is one of the only good protest songs that I've heard about the current administration, Kanye West would be proud. The tune is bluesy and catchy, great whether you like the politics or not. Here are the lyrics:
You left them swimming for their lives
Down in New Orleans
Can't afford a gallon of gasoline
With your useless degrees and contrary statistics
This government business is straight up sadistic

Now you don't fight for us
But expect us to die for you
You have no sympathy for us
But still I cry for you
Now you may kill the revolutionary
But the revolution you can never bury

Don't speak to us like we work for you
Selling false hope like some new dope we're addicted to
I'm not a desperate man but these are desperate times at hand
This generation is beyond your command

And it won't be long
'til the people flood the streets
To take you down
One and all
A black rain is gonna fall

Both discs of this album are good, the first more folky, the second more rock/blues. Other music that I've been listening to: The Weepies, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Pearl Jam. The latter two have just releases brand new albums.

Goodfellas - 7

This seems like a regular gangster movie. It really isn't. The film follows Henry Hill and his addiction and attraction to a way of life, the lifestyle of mobsters. Ethics can be put aside for what he considers to be the good life. The film explains how the hierarchy and the group dynamics of organized crime works. This film is surprisingly thoughtful and introspective, with an ending that is very telling of contemporary culture in light of popular culture. Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci star in what is probably one of the highlights of their careers.

May 15, 2006

Gandhi - 7

This is the amazing story of Mahatma K. Gandhi. He spent his life fighting for justice in a non-violent way. He studied law in England, and then went to South Africa where he protested the treatment of Indians. He then returned to his native India and helped to peacefully push the English out and encouraged self government. The film uses an incidence of racism on a South African train as the starting point of his political activism. The film focuses on his struggle with injustice, with small elements of his marriage and family life. He often fasted in protest of violent political action. The film ends where his life did, he was shot on the way to morning prayers on January 30, 1948.
This film is a great example of storied living. It was not only the ideas that people were attracted to in Gandhi's life, it was the way of life that seems consistent -to cohere- with his ideas. There were two interesting quotes that the film used from Gandhi's autobiography that speaks to his view of history and seemed to inspire his own sense of moral meaning: "When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall — think of it, always."; and "There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for."

The Seven Year Itch - 6

This is a Billy Wilder comedy once again (ok this film came first) staring Marilyn Monroe. This one deals with a psychological theory that says that after seven years of marriage men get the itch to cheat on their wives. This is made even more convenient for the main character, Richard, because his wife and son have left Manhattan for a summer at the beach in Maine. Added to this a beautiful girl has just moved in upstairs. The internal struggle that results is the main focus of the film. This film has what is called "moral imagination." Richard is constantly wondering what the consequences of his actions will be, not only for himself but his wife, son, and his own character (not his ego, but his integrity and reputation). The possibility of cheating isn't really there but it is interesting to see Richard contemplate and for the situations to just be hilarious. The dialogue is well written and witty.

May 14, 2006

Swimming Upstream - 6

This is the life story of Australian swimmer Tony Fingelton. He had three brothers and a drunkard for a father. The film shows the obstacles of family life that he had to deal with and overcome in order to see his own life as valuable. He eventually becomes the backstroke champion of Australia, and gives up going to the Olympics in order to get a full ride scholarship to Harvard. Tony's father has lost his job, and his drinking leads to fighting with his family. Eventually he comes around and realizes that he cannot live vicariously through his sons. The film ends as Tony has found his way out, not as an escape but as free to become who he will be. Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis star as Tony's parents.

May 13, 2006

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - 7

I first read about this film in a book that used it as an example of Foucault's view of power in society, especially in his work Discipline and Punish. The story involves R.P. McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson) who is sent to a mental institutions to be evaluated. Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) runs a tight ship, with the patients under a strict schedule of recreation, sleeping, eating, and medication. R.P. fights back by helping the other patients see that they are not a crazy and weird as the hospital claims they are. I won't ruin the ending, but R.P. is the tragic hero who inspires others to live free (that sounds like Braveheart, but this film is better and less sentimental). This film shows that it is living differently can be more persuasive than rational argumentation. This film won Oscar's for best picture, director, actor, actress, and screenplay.

May 11, 2006

Casanova - 6

This film was better than I expected. I took on almost Shakespearean qualities with the fake identities and the comedy and confusion that ensue. This story is about the famous Giacomo Casanova (played by Heath Ledger), who seduces women until he meets a women who philosophizes about the meaning of love and steals his heart all for herself. The film plays on the idea that Casanova is both a real person as well as a legend. Taking place in 1753 in Venice, this film has plenty of old costumes, dueling, and extravagant parties. Probably a bit too idealized picture of the times, but fun and entertaining none the less. Oliver Platt is great as the visiting lard merchant from Genoa.

The New World - 7

When I originally saw the trailers for this film I thought: "this looks like a really cheesy film about how Europe discovered America." In fact this film is really about how Europe misunderstood what they had discovered, and that we today also forget the different possibilities of how to live on this planet. Another reason that I loved this film is that Terrence Malik (Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line) is a great director (Hat tip to Paul for pointing him out), using all natural light and using nature as the main character with the dialogue sparse and quiet. There is probably many levels to the film, which will require another viewing. It is interesting to see the contrast in the film from America and England. The stark contrast made me think about the modern project to try to think of nature as man-made, rather than seeing people as nature-made, as seems to be the case with the Native Americans. The story follows John Smith (played by Colin Farrell) and his love for Pocahontas (played by newcomer Q'Orianka Kilcher) and the cultural clash this creates for both of them. She eventually marries and goes to England. While this film is not for everyone, I enjoyed it as fitting with Malik's other works. The shots of nature are beautiful.

May 10, 2006

Sabrina - 7

This film follows comments on social class and how business often takes over one's private life. The love story involves two brothers and the chauffeur's daughter. Sabrina falls for the one, but the other brother distracts her for business reasons and ends up falling himself. It is interesting that the film moves from love for one's own sake (fake love), towards love for the sake of another (real love). In the end Linus finds out that work cannot become the whole of life.
Directed by Billy Wilder this film stars Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany's), Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca), and William Holden (Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Sunset Boulevard).

May 08, 2006

Bamboozled - 7

This Spike Lee film deals with race in popular culture. Pierre Delacroix is a black TV writer on a staff that is predominantly white. He is frustrated by his boss' stereotyped vision of what TV shows made for blacks should look like. So he comes up with a minstrel show for the new millennium, blackface and all. Intended as satire the show takes off and anger and violence ensue. The main dialogue and arguing over the validity of the show is between Delacroix and his assistant (played by Jada Pinkett Smith, Mos Def plays her outspoken brother). This is a well made film, and does a good job of explaining different responses to the stereotypes that we have in our culture. The film as makes reference to the films Network and Malcolm X (a previous Spike Lee film). The point of TV from the creator's perspective is to change people, to motivate them toward action. What is made clear in most films is that it doesn't do this, it numbs and woos most people to apathy. The montage of old TV footage is a damning statement against the huge amount of racism that is in America's history which, while improved, has not been completely reconciled. A very thought provoking film that asks good questions about race and culture.

May 07, 2006

Mission: Impossible III - 5

Being the third film, not much that wasn't predictable here. Good action and the use of a MacGuffin to keep the plot from getting complicated or cheesy. As to plot I thought it was somewhat lacking, you don't end up caring enough about the characters to care whether they live or die. The little only gives away the ending it is impossible for the characters to do what they do, and yet they succeed and prosper, everything as it should be in Hollywood. This can go on your list of films to watch when your are looking for a "no thinking required." Laurence Fishburne, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Billy Crudup improve the already decent cast of Cruise and Ving Rhames and better direction than John Woo (unless you like watching random scenes with doves flying up into the air- my brother-in-law says that is his signature?). I know I am supposed to hate Cruise because he is a scientologist and all the rest (apparently he was able to pull an episode of South Park that made fun of scientology), but I have the ability to separate fact from fiction (which will come in handy when viewing The Da Vinci Code).

May 06, 2006

Driving Miss Daisy - 6

This is a rare film about friendship. The story follows Miss Daisy through her later years as she fights letting others serve her. When her son hires a driver she is initially resistant, but as she interacts with him she grows to trust him and to enjoy his company. The film also has some interesting dialogue about prejudice, since he is an African-American living in Atlanta, and she is a Jew. The film ends with both characters in old age, keeping up their friendship. This film was best picture in 1990 and stars Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman.

May 04, 2006

Chicken Little - 4

This is the usual Disney film. And Disney has been getting worse over the last 10 years (I consider The Lion King to be the last good film they made, although they own Pixar which hasn't missed in the same amount of time). The jokes are only half funny, and they have decided that it would be funny to make fun of themselves and their own shameless money making, they ought to leave that to Shrek. It is really only funny if they are exaggerating the truth. The story is loosely based on the fable about the chicken who claimed the sky was falling, only to be misunderstood because alien machine material really did hit him on the head. To make this all worse the sidekicks are uncreative and there is a romance going on, aren't these animals suppose to be in middle school (not to mention that a chicken and mallard getting together is just wrong). The film also tries to over psychologize the relationships of family, ranting on about communication and closure between father and son. This is all garbley-gook and shouldn't be in a film made for kids. I've saved you an hour and a half, go rent Hoodwinked instead.

Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1948) - 5

I've never disliked Shakespeare as much as with this rendition of Hamlet. I wanted to love it...but the production just wasn't as good as I think it could have been. I think that film gives a director the ability to make the set not appear as if it were a live action stage. Like I have written before, Shakespeare is somewhat difficult to do on film, and the directors interpretation of the movement and background in this film don't help contribute to the storytelling. This is one of Shakespeare's tragedies, but with more of an internal dilemma within the character of Hamlet, than a blood bath. Hamlet spends the film thinking about revenge on his uncle for killing his father and usurping the throne. This play has the famous "to be or not to be" speech which is really an intense section on the contemplation of suicide. This film is slow and long (I imagine that live it probably is as well, but in this case it is on the edge of boring) and the score was over dramatic, not pleasant to my ears either. I hope to see another version of this play (any recommended versions?). Despite my vote this film also won the 1949 Oscars for best picture and actor.

May 03, 2006

Hoodwinked - 6

This is the postmodern retelling of the classic Little Red Riding Hood. The film begins at the end, or rather in the middle, with the scene set- Granny, Red, the Wolf, and the Woodsman. The cops and a detective get there just in time to try to figure out why these people are here and who is in the wrong. The story is then told four times as each one gives their account of events. The viewer soon figures out the truly evil character that keeps appearing in their stories and seems like a sum characters. I'll let you figure it out for yourself. Thee film is hilarious and don't let the animation trick you into thinking this is a children's film, the jokes take some thought. Often times the scenes are spoofs (or at least reminiscent) of contemporary film and TV. Some of the voices are memorable: Wolf (Patrick Warburton), Boingo (Andy Dick), and Twitchy (Cory Edwards), the fast talking squirrel (There is a great scene where they record his voice and play it back slowed down). Well worth your time if you are looking for good entertainment.

May 01, 2006

Some Like it Hot - 7

The basic plot of this film isn't that far from the Wayan brothers' White Chicks (I haven't seen this film, but from the previews I don't imagine that I would want to). It seems that in rewriting it they forgot that a films dialogue is one of the keys, they should have consulted Billy Wilder (They could have at least watched this film). That's somewhat unfair, he is no longer alive. Some Like it Hot uses the outrageous idea that two men could dress up like women, joining a band headed to Florida in order to avoid the mob, and pull it off (remember that this is 1959). These are two very ugly women. The subtlety of the dialogue makes this film fun, and requires a somewhat quick mind to get all of the double meanings of most every phrase (what now are cliches, and may have been then?). I am realizing that older films are so good at letting the viewer imagination tell most of the story, while the filmmaker only has to get them most of the way there. While many contemporary film turn to crass jokes as soon as they are losing steam, older films can fake innocence, while allowing the viewer to figure out the jokes. This film was fun to watch and a laugh a minute. Tony Curtis (who actually plays three parts), Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe were great in their roles.