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

June 30, 2006

United 93 - 7

I saw this film with two friends, and we came to this ranking by consensus and had good conversation following the film. The main critique being that music as a soundtrack in certain sections of the film were unneeded. Other films with this subject matter might be labeled manipulative, but this film is pretty up front with what it want to do, instigate an emotional reaction. The film is also good at starting the conversation: "Where were you, and what were you doing on 9/11?" The film is very unconventional in that it is somewhat of a documentary, the audience is merely an observer. Because of this there is no character development, you just see what they may have said and done given the events. The film is very much about the event. The film also uses a European shaky-cam technique that contributes to its realism. The script and actions, especially the violence also are very realistic (no Michael Bay here). The thing I think the film does best is point out that is not really any individual who is to blame for this tragedy. It is rather that because America has perfect bureaucracy and efficiency, it does not easily handed when things start to go berserk.
Also of interest is that this film was written and directed by Paul Greengrass, a British filmmaker. Also in random trivia: (1) Jeff pointed out that Old School is probably the first film to deal with 9/11 (There is a scene early on where Luke Wilson goes through airport security holding his shoes with a gun pointed at him). (2) Bruce Springsteen's The Rising is good art in response to 9/11, as is Ian McEwan's Saturday. (3) The story takes place pretty much right over where we watched the film and where we live- eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, the plane crashed about a half hour east of Pittsburgh.

June 29, 2006

Love is the Devil - 3

While at points artful, this film just really isn't about anything (and not in the Seinfeld sense). The film tells part of the story of Francis Bacon, the 20th century painter (not the 17th century philosopher), from 1964 to 1971. During this time he took in a burglar and made him his sado-masochistic partner. The film is mostly disturbing, the only creative part is showing scenes that portray what Bacon later painted, people often find his work to be horrifying (dogs just find it funny:-), this film at least makes that make some sense. This film is basically director John Maybury (The Jacket) project to shows Bacon's influence on his filmmaking. But I don't thing that is a good enough reason to make a film about part of his life.

Juice - 5

In Fugitive Cultures, Henry Giroux argues that this is an example of film that only heightens racism in our culture, by stereotyping urban youth as violent and nihilistic. This film definitely portrays the youth this way, whether this influences cultural views is a little more contentious. Having seen a good number of black films (Menace II Society, School Daze, Bamboozled, Four Brothers, Higher Learning, etc.) I would agree that they do tend to focus on black violence. I think film does influence culture more than we like to admit.
The story of this film is that four friends living in Harlem get caught up in the violent culture around them and end up see in the group dissolve as they want to raise their own status, their juice, only to find it cost more than it is worth. An interesting film, but I agree with Giroux- urban youth are not as nihilistic as this film portrays. Another interesting thing about this film is that it stars rapper Tupac Shakur, who was shot and killed in 1996, in what might be called urban warfare between gangs.

June 28, 2006

Cache - 7

Suggested reading before watching this film. This may seem odd, but it will in fact help make sense of the film (The director, Michael Haneke says as much in the extra features). Other notes: This film is in French, the title means Hidden; Paste Magazine called this the top film of 2005 (Issue #20).
A family living in Paris starts receiving videotapes on their doorstep. It seems rather random and scary at first, and soon makes more sense as the father reflects back on his childhood. The mystery is never solved, but take a more Dostoevsky-ish turn with reflection on truthtelling and guilt. The director summarizes the film as: "when confronted with guilt, we either choose to accept it and see what happens, or we reject it and we see what happens." (my paraphrase) In typical French fashion(I don't mean this as a stereotype- it is an actual cinematic technique) the filmmakers test your patience by taking along time to let the scene tell the story. In this case it means long (both time and distance) shots of the same scene as people enter and leave. The dialogue is well written, and the sequencing of things keeps you off guard. A very realistic look into the way the past can and does affect our present, often times we suffer from mild amnesia. Remember?

June 26, 2006

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind - 6

This film is based on the book by Chuck Barris and adapted for the screen by Charlie Kaufman. Chuck Barris was the creator and producer of shows like The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show. In his book, he claims he was a CIA assassin in his off time, when he would travel with contestants to Europe and other parts of the world. A merging of fact and fiction, the film includes interviews with actual people that he worked with that have their doubts, and Barris refuses to tip his hand, claiming that he is sticking to his story. He wrote his book in the early 80's. Sam Rockwell plays Chuck, Drew Barrymore plays his life long girl-friend, Penny. And George Clooney (who also directs) plays the CIA contact. There are also appearances by Clooney's crew from Oceans 11 and 12- Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon. An interesting and well told story, which is both serious and comical. Very good use of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata in the middle and end of the film.

Paradise Now - 7

This is the first Palestinian film to be nominated for an Academy Award, which happened this year- it lost to Tsotsi. The film is in Arabic and is about two men who live in the occupied West Bank. Since they feel imprisoned in their own homes they volunteer to be martyrs in a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Most of the film is taken up with the context and conversation surrounding this decision. A well made film that may have you asking, if I thought death was the only way to protest one's oppression, would I die for it? Is this courage? Or despair? The key to the film is remembering that you most likely are not in the same thought world, real world, or state of mind to even really comprehend a decision of this magnitude. But the question is made real in the storytelling of this film. And it may have changed the way you think, or at the very least made you reflect on questions of life and death.

I am David - 4

A decent attempt to tell the story of a lost boy from a Bulgarian prison camp trying to find his identity. He approaches the world as mostly evil and finds out that it is mostly good. Heart-warming maybe, but not really a good dichotomy/dualism to live one's life by. If you like your films this way then this one should be near the top. The way I approach things this film just isn't all that interesting. A better film (with a little humor) concerning a similar topic is the film Everything is Illuminated (not a stellar film, but reasonable good). The film is for the most part pretty manipulative as you don't find out what his journey is about until the end of the film and there is no way to figure this out on your own. Not a fatal flaw, but it keeps making you ask mid-film, why do I care? In fact often I thought he could get blow to pieces right about now and that would at least give the film some excitement, but I knew it wasn't going to happen. Suspending belief was not coming easy during this film, so feel free to like it more than I did.

March of the Penguins - 6

This film is very informative about that great block of ice and cold that we call Antarctica (but not as informative as I had expected since it the filmmakers spent 13 months there filming). I actually enjoyed the documentary about making the film in the DVD extras more than the film. This film is a collaboration of French photographer/writer Luc Jacquet, his friend Yves Darondeau, and National Geographic. It also involves a few other corporations which means that the film is reduced to a family film with spectacular shots of nature. In this respect if succeeds, even if its worldview is cookie cutter naturalism/pantheism. You are already accusing me of over thinking this, so I'll stop. An entertaining and informative film that will peak one's interest in the Emperor penguins and the bottom of the world.

June 22, 2006

Five Easy Pieces - 6

This is a film about running away (Bobby: "I move around a lot, not because I'm looking for anything really, but 'cause I'm getting away from things that get bad if I stay."). In some senses this film would fit well with the work of Terrence Malick, especially Badlands and Days of Heaven (Paul?). The main character, Bobby (played by Jack Nicholson), is working on an oil field in California. Spending most of his time gambling and womanizing. Only later do we find that he is a classically trained pianist who has conflicting thoughts and feelings about his past and his present. He returns home to an ailing father and broken siblings, still trying to understand himself and assessing his life. The film ends with him continuing to run away from his past, as if moving spatially is the equivalent as moving temporally -it seems you can't escape who you are. He finds there is nowhere he belongs. I think most people will identify with the unspoken emotion of the film. A reflective film. It is also famous for Nicholson's "chicken salad" speech:

[Bobby wants plain toast, which isn't on the menu]
Bobby: I'd like an omelet, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee.
Waitress: A #2, chicken salad sand. Hold the butter, the lettuce, the mayonnaise, and a cup of coffee. Anything else?
Bobby: Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken any rules.
Waitress: You want me to hold the chicken, huh?
Bobby: I want you to hold it between your knees.

June 21, 2006

City Lights - 7

I am now a Charlie Chaplin fan (and for the record Hitler copied the 'stash, not the other way around). My theory is that if Chaplin were around today he would be doing Jim Carrey films. His ability to tell and show the audience the story through body language is a rare gift. It probably helps that the film has no audible dialogue. This is one of his most famous works, and come later in his career as writer, director, actor, etc. (he even scored the music for this film). His films are not so much silent films as films with music and written out dialogue that let the audience see the story visually and figure out what might be said.

The story of the film is mistaken identity which allows a tramp to woo a blind women, under the pretenses that he is rich, only to have enough class (or not in the right class?) not to expect anything in return for helping her. The last line of the film is key: "Yes, I can see now." The phrase being both physical and epistemological. This film is a joy (and fun) to watch.

June 20, 2006

13 Conversations About One Thing - 7

I've written about this film previously, in the early days of this blog. The film relates to a book I just picked up yesterday- Stumbling on Happiness. Both ask the questions: what makes humans happy? Is it pursued? Or gotten by luck or fate? This is the content of the 13 conversations. Although much more nuanced and storied than I have described. Ultimately, like all good film, it contemplates the meaning of being human. An intelligent film that I would recommend if you are looking for a film with some good questions. Good performances by Matthew McConaughey, Alan Arkin, John Turturro, and Clea DuVall.

June 19, 2006

Network - 7

In my own list of 100 best films this would probably be in the top ten. In 1976 when this film came out, it was a satire of network TV- ABC, NBC, and CBS. Watching it at any point in the last ten years though makes the film seem like a documentary about corruption that already exists in TV corporations. The film is well written and was awarded with more than its share of Oscars (of note: Beatrice Straight won for best supporting actress, she is only in the film a total of one scene that lasts, at max, 5 minutes). Paddy Chayefsky won for best screenplay, much deservedly. The film has some great dialogue about how the medium of television has taken over real life. The thesis of the film is that a new generation raised on sensationalism television will no longer be able to make the distinction between life and illusion, truth and fiction. I don't think we are that far gone, but were closer than we were. I would put this on the must see list. This section of dialogue between Max and Diana says it all:

Max Schumacher: You need me. You need me badly. Because I'm your last contact with human reality. I love you. And that painful, decaying love is the only thing between you and the shrieking nothingness you live the rest of the day.
Diana Christensen: [hesitatingly] Then, don't leave me.
Max Schumacher: It's too late, Diana. There's nothing left in you that I can live with. You're one of Howard's humanoids. If I stay with you, I'll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed. Like Laureen Hobbs was destroyed. Like everything you and the institution of television touch is destroyed. You're television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You're madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. But not me. Not as long as I can feel pleasure, and pain... and love.
[Kisses her]
Max Schumacher: And it's a happy ending: Wayward husband comes to his senses, returns to his wife, with whom he has established a long and sustaining love. Heartless young woman left alone in her arctic desolation. Music up with a swell; final commercial. And here are a few scenes from next week's show.

Lilya 4-ever - 7

This is Swedish writer/director Lukas Moodysson third film (Jason: this is not part of the Dogme 95 project). Some have called Moodysson the next Ingmar Bergman (that's a bit much in my mind, but this film is really good, getting at similar spiritual themes along the lines of Bergman- Winter Light, The Silence, Through A Glass Darkly, Saraband and The Seventh Seal). This film deals with life as tragedy. A 16-year-old girl who lives in Russia is left by her mother and step-father to fend for herself. This means sniffing glue, prostituting herself, and wanting to escape. She eventually does, only to find a life in Sweden worse. There is good dialogue about the meaning of life, death, and what heaven might be like. A heart-wrenching film.
Hat tip to Jeff and Paul who recommended this film.

June 17, 2006

The Life of David Gale - 6

This film is an interesting mystery concerning an activist on death row. After a fellow activist is found dead all the evidence points to David Gale. The story is told by David to a reporter days before his execution is to take place. The film is an argument against the death penalty which makes predicting the twists and turns somewhat simpler (it also takes advantage of audience assumptions to try to throw them off the trail, which could be considered a fault in filmmaking, I think that it is good at showing whether the audience is paying attention). Overall, an intriguing story. By the end of the film it becomes clear that the storytelling technique is very intentional- the plot depends on the technique. The acting is really well done: Kevin Spacey, Laura Linney, and Kate Winslet.


I have gotten a lot of feedback lately about my blog being kind of scattered. Just to clarify, I write the posts after seeing the film, so on the main site they are in order by date. For easier navigation try using my index. I have listed the links to posts in alphabetical order as well as by ranking- which is from 1-7. Hope that helps.

June 15, 2006

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada - 7

My reason for watching this film is that it is written by Guillermo Arriaga, whose other work includes Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel (to come out later this year). He usually works with director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, but this time Tommy Lee Jones stars and directs. The story is of a Mexican illegal who has befriended an American farmer (Pete) and works for him, the film then follows Pete as he tries to find the place where his friend wants to be buried. Without giving to much of the plot away, the film deals with vengeance, forgiveness, grace, regret, and the possibilities of redemption. The film shows how those furthest from who they know they ought to be often have the most hope for redemption, while those who cannot recognize their own brokenness, fall into despair and run from reconciliation. While Arriaga is often accused of didactic, maybe even moralistic, writing I find it perceptive of the human condition, while also telling a good story. It is less an argument, than a vision of real life that the audience can relate to, and maybe even learn and reflect (what's so bad about that?).

Kingpin - 6

The plot of this film is a basic comedy formula about a bowler who is down on his luck and tries a crazy scheme to come back, including an Amish community, and a very hilarious Bill Murray as the crazy arch enemy. Woody Harrelson plays Roy Munson who gets caught up in huslting and loses his bowling hand. He then recruits a secretive Amish man -Ishmael- to play in a million dollar match. A funny movie, which is the point of a comedy, worth it just to see Bill Murray. For a better bowling film check out the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski.

June 14, 2006

Grosse Pointe Blank - 5

It looked like it had potential, but I was unimpressed. The story is outrageous. A contract killer returns for his high school reunion, reconnects with his prom date, who he stood up, and saves her father from being killed. While at times funny (at other times just violent), the story is just uninteresting. Although it has good actors- John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Alan Arkin, and Dan Aykroyd- once again the actors can't turn this into a good story. Not much needs to be said, good potential but it falls flat (and not even a funny falling).
Check out these films instead: Say Anything, High Fidelity, The Girl in the Cafe, and Love Actually.

June 11, 2006

Primer - 7

Have you ever had conversation after watching a time travel film, trying to critique the logic of what would happen if you met your mother before you were born? (like in Back to the Future). Well this film is that conversation and a discussion about what you might do if you could see time in a different light. This film was made for $7000 by Shane Carruth, who is also the main actor and writer/director/producer. It is a very realistic film about technology and science, the dialogue uses big words (physics jargon) and shows the audience rather than tells. There are no fancy lights, lasers, computer sounds, etc. The technology looks like it would if someone had just made a prototype. It has a Momento like quality, where you have to put the pieces together as the scenes progress. This is a great film to start a conversation about the implications that technology has on our behavior as it opens up the world to unthought of possibilities.
(Hat tip to Jason for letting me borrow it.)

Cars - 7

I hovered between 6 and 7, and caved. The animation is once again great. The story took sometime to win me over. I am once again confused by America's confusion that animation in film is a kid thing. This film has narration with a completely black screen, I am not an expert in kids, but I thought they had to see some flashy colors and a simple story. This film is not that. It is humorous to see how the writers made sure to please everyone, conservative middle America NASCAR fans and liberal Hollywood types, although I think the moral of the story may be an internal joke in the Pixar/Disney HQ- true and deep community is antithetical to mindless consumption. There are plenty of cultural jokes as well as some drug references that will keep you chuckling when all the kids are listening intently (or probably sleeping:-). The animation goes the extra mile (pun intended), it really is amazing, and worth seeing on the big screen. My one hesitation about the film is the anthropomorphism of machines, especially cars -it just seems wrong- it comes off better than expected.

June 10, 2006

"The Passenger" - 6

Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni (Eros) tells the story of an American reporter, David Locke (Jack Nicholson), who discovers a dead body in a hotel in Africa and decides to steal the man's identity. The story gets complicated when he discovers who the man he is suppose to be is, and he is constantly on the run from his past life. The film is the set up to the final lines and final scene of the film in which his wife says "I didn't know him" and his new lover says "I knew him." This is an interesting film about identity. David is wanting to be known, and discovers that honesty and vulnerability are the only ways to intimacy. And that ultimately, that it is a choice. A very well done film.

June 09, 2006

Waterland - 7

I don't say this often but this film could change your life. Ok that may be extreme but it made me reflect on life and where mine is going in new and interesting ways. I first heard about this film from a book, and it has just now available on DVD (I use Netflix). The film is about Tom Crick (played well by Jeremy Irons), a high school history teacher, who has moved to Pittsburgh from the Fens (and area of land that has been taken back from the sea) of England. His students questions the reason for studying history and he begins to tell them the story of his life, his story- history. In the process he begins to connect and see that the choices that he made early in life have consequences into his present. In the end, he find himself in a story that is not told as an abstraction, like most history is told, but rather that his choices involve storied living, and how that will affects others. He is able to conclude the story with his students by giving them insight into the choices they will make and the path their lives could take. He fulfills, in part his role in education, to expand his students imagination and connect learning to life.

Glory Road - 5

Not a bad film, but safe enough for Disney. The story is a true one. In 1966 Texas Western, now called University of Texas at El Paso, won the NCAA national basketball championship with a starting line up of all-black players. The film is mainly about Coach Don Haskins who sees this as an opportunity, as well as challenging the current norms and stereotypes that existed at the time about blacks and athletics. The film is summed up nicely by a comment I heard about the film: "This is Remember The Titans with basketball." Not far off, although Remember the Titans had better acting and the story was a little more complex. Interesting but not my kind of film.
Of note Pat Riley played against Texas Western for the University of Kentucky in the 1966 final. He has just coached his Miami Heat team to the NBA finals.

June 02, 2006

Malcolm X - 7

This may be Spike Lee's best film. It is a recounting of the life of Malcolm X, who many have heard about but don't know much about. The film covers his life from getting caught up in hustling, to going to prison to his continued change and development when he converted to Islam and was eventually under threat because of his beliefs. He did a lot for America in thinking about racism and how badly it wounds everyone involved. Many of his thoughts are rather extreme, but bring about a good level of reflection about the way we assume the world is. In learning to see what we take for granted, we recognize the complexity of the world and the change that we can effect. It is an inspiring story, and may get you to start reading the dictionary. At the heart of this film is that words have meaning and power, and humans should use them with care. The world could be destroyed with the simple abuse of words. This is an intelligent film that is contagious to its viewers.

June 01, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand - 4

The potential with having the X-Men as characters in your movie are awesome and probably too great for most. Rather than harness this potential, this film just sort of hovers, guided by special effects and a lot of cliches. The basic story of the film is that a serum has been developed that can get rid of one's X gene and return a mutant to the world of regular humans. The reality of what might be called a cure, makes for the possibility that it could be forced on mutants rather than an option. A war must be fought. Viewers need to see superheroes use there powers for destruction on a massive scale and break a few necks. A lot of the mutants die, but with resurrection as a rather common occurrence it doesn't really tell you anything about if they will make another film or not. And from what I have heard about the comics, the story is horrible different (Stan Lee created X-Men and apparently has a cameo in the film- I missed it). I would have hoped that this film could have avoided the canned lines and taken the metaphor of the superhero to another level. The film is pretty much a flop (both as entertainment and philosophically- my 10 minutes of reflection was probably more than this film could take, the film is rather nihilistic-since in this life you can only live between good and evil, better to die than become your own worst enemy). The summer of 2006 is not living up to the hype, do they ever?