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

August 31, 2006

Water - 6

This film tells the story of being a widow in India. Set in the 1930's during British colonial rule and the rising popularity of Gandhi, the story follows 8 year old Chuyia, who has been recently widowed. She is forced by family to live in a community of widows, most much older than herself. She soon befriends one of the widows who is somewhat of a rebel, having a dog is the first sign, we soon learn that she is not following the religious scriptures which say that widows must remain pure unto death, or bring judgment on themselves. That is the main tension of the film. The director taking a more liberated view that women should be able to remarry and that the caste system promotes poverty. The film has many dramatic moments and tries to help the audience feel the emotions and the experience of the characters- especially the helplessness that surrounds them. The film ends on a hopeful note, pointing to a future where systems of oppression might be abolished. The final text on screen shows the magnitude of the subject- that there are 46 million widows in India now and that most still live within the bounds of the traditional religious structure. This film was directed by Deepa Mehta, and is part of a series that includes the films Fire and Earth.

August 30, 2006

Double Indemnity - 7

I love old films. The main reason for this is that storytelling seemed to be more of an art before the 1970's. Somewhere in there the shift to a more consumer driven filmmaking diluted the pool of good storytelling.
This film is directed by Billy Wilder who is unafraid to take on any genre (The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina, The Lost Weekend, Stalag 17, Some Like it Hot, and The Seven Year Itch - all of which I have seen), this film being noir. He has one of the best track records in Hollywood. This film is about an insurance salesman who conspires to kill the husband of the 'femme fatale' that he has fallen for. The film follows the perfect crime and it looks as though they could get away with it. The problem with crimes that involve a conspiracy is that there is always fear that the others will not be as strong as oneself. The reason for doing the crime soon loses its promise and guilt starts to work itself up into consternation. The film has some good plot twists and the dialogue is once again great.
Thanks to Jason for recommending Wilder's films.

August 29, 2006

Rabbit-Proof Fence - 6

A good history lesson about eugenics in Australia in the 1930's. The white government attempted to take legal custody of all female children born half aborigines and half white, and then arranging marriages for them with white men so as to eliminate all dark skin color. This film follows three girls who have been take from their mother and live in a training camp. The escape and make the 9 week journey along the Rabbit-proof fence back to there mother. Outwitting trackers and the police through an inhabitable desert in western Australia. Only two of the girls make it when the third heads out on her own. The film ends with footage of the two women that the film is based on. The film does not get over sentimental in telling this true story about these girls overcoming great hurdles to avoid the racist policies of the government. Interesting to note as well that Hitler was not the first genetic elitist, in some ways he is a product of western thought in the early 20th century.

August 28, 2006

Spanglish - 7

I watched this film with a few friends this weekend. I wrote about this film the last time I saw it. The only thing I would add is that the performances are great and that viewers need to be prepared for the fact that comedy and seriousness get tangled up in this film. The question that ends the film is one you should ask yourself on a monthly basis. Is what you want for yourself to become someone very different than me? In other words, what is the value of where you come from (a tradition) and how it shapes your identity?

16 Blocks - 4

This film has way too many clich├ęs. Bruce Willis plays Jack Mosley, a washed up cop, who is made to do a small job, pick up a witness and transport him to the courthouse. Turns out that out of the ordinary things start to happen: gun fights, car chases, and a hostage situation. All of this held together by clues that unfold: the witness (Mos Def) is telling of police corruption and the dirty cops are chasing him; Jack turns out to be one of those dirty cops who is trying to do the right thing. The films theme is whether or not people can change. The Disney (this film is Warner's- which started in New Castle, PA about 20 minutes from where I am typing...) answer is always: Yes! There are interesting ways to tell a story in which that happens- Crash, Changing Lanes, etc (and that's just the C's)- this is not one of those films. The story comes off as cheesy, it hard to care for the characters, because you are given so little background information that provides a context for their transformation. The fact that is has an alternate ending (which is the written ending) in which the main character dies tells you that the director thought it would be nice if the audience left the movie feeling nice, rather than finding meaning in the narrative and the characters.

August 24, 2006

Nashville - 6

An early Robert Altman film (1975), it got referenced a lot at this years Oscars because of its great commentary on American culture, especially the relationship of the music and film industry to politics. There is a great line in this film about how Hollywood is too eccentric to be able to get voter behind a candidate, but the presidents we have had have always won the country music crowd, that's still true (that is also why the Dixie Chicks are now outcasts). This film has almost no plot. In typical Altman fashion he has a huge cast and shows the everyday life of those that live and visit Nashville- the home of country music. The film takes place of a couple of days before the presidential hopeful arrives for a visit. The film ends before he arrives and all you know about him is from a van that drives around with a loud speaker announcing his platform. This works as sort of the anchor that holds the story together. The main players are the established country stars and the newbies who are trying to make it in the music business (this same sort of divide comes up again in Gosford Park). The expression on people’s faces says more than the dialogue. This film is the epitome of showing rather than telling you the story. It allows the viewer to see our celebrity culture from outside of it, and to find a new approach for thinking about how to be in it today. The age of this film allows it to be viewed now as a film about politic rather than be political (unlike last year's Good Night, and Good Luck). I wonder how it was received when it came out.

The Matador - 3

It becomes clear early on that this film is about Pierce Brosnan. Having moved on since James Bond this film has him playing an older, slower, and cynical hit man. He meets up with an average Joe salesman (Greg Kinnear) in Mexico on a business trip. What happens there is left for the end, which tries to explain the bond (no pun intended) between the two. Basically the film shows that killing people has implications on your life. The reality of a moral universe will eventually have some psychological effects on you. The critique is a good one, but the film suffers from being boring. Luckily it's only 90 min. It is the anti-action/adventure but that shouldn't keep it from being interesting and engaging. The performances are good but it can't save the plot.

The Piano Teacher - 4

I wanted to like this film. I enjoyed Michael Haneke's most recent film Cache, and Paul says good things about Funny Games, Benny's Video is apparently mediocre. I play the piano and enjoy films that utilize it as part of the story. It seemed to be going well. Erika seems to be a relatively normal women who is on the faculty at a music college. She still lives with her mother, who is rather nosy and they argue and fight. Not enough to do any horrible damage to the relationship and they are able to reconcile, or at least tolerate, petty differences. A young man, Walter, meets her at a recital and he decides to pursue her. And they have an interesting conversation about Adorno's theory of music. Applying to be a student in her class, and generally being impressive. The film then takes a sharp turn, and the audience discovers that she is in fact a control freak. This manifest itself most in her sex life and she tries to convince Walter to beat her up as part of her fantasy. This steady decline in her ability to suppress here urges leads her to become a maniacal and evil bitch (trust me, bitch is the right word). In the end, she comes up against reality, and her fantasies are shown for what they are- only in her mind. Having seen some of the extra features the film makes a little more sense. The distinction between seduction and love is an interesting one and Erika thinks the later is driven by control. The other factor is that Haneke's work focuses on cultural critique, which means he may be pointing out the depravity of the world we live in behind closed doors in more universal terms. This seems like too much background knowledge for a general audience, so film theory fans (of which I consider myself a little more than a spectator, but not a player) can love this film while the rest of us just get disturbed. I'll leave it to Paul (I suspect he disagrees) in the comments to make an argument for why this film is worth watching.

The Mexican - 3

This is a light hearted romantic comedy/adventure film. It is hard to get away from the marketing of this film because Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts star, and are not exceptionally good. The film's main purpose is to amuse and make money. I understand that. I disagree, but I get it. I knew this going in, so it's mostly my fault. I spent two hours watching a film...I was amused, and fortunately I didn't have to pay anything because a friend owns the film. The major theme of the film is an attempt to recover a missing gun called the Mexican. Jerry has to go in order not to be killed by his mob bosses, his girlfriend is unconvinced and what's him to go to Vegas with her. She eventually gets taken in as a collateral and after a lot of dialogue dependent on psychobabble eventually ends up in Mexico saving his ass. Hopefully that is enough reasons to keep you from watching this film. If you are looking for a thinking break then this might be a sure bet (not sherbet, like the frozen dessert- that stuff is good).

L' Enfant (The Child) - 7

Written and directed by brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, this film is the story of a man in a middling (not desperate, not about to get out) poverty who has recently had a child. While not really involved as a father his love for his girlfriend drives him toward trying to take responsibility for both. But his old habits of petty theft and making a quick buck are not so easy to escape. He eventually hears of a scheme in which he can put his son up for adoption (through the black market) and make money. The mother is less than impressed with this discovery, and while the child is eventually returned to the right hands the couples relationship is forever changed as issues of trust and commitment are challenged. The film asks very realistically and honestly whether love does in fact conquer all. A very good film.

August 18, 2006

Green Street Hooligans - 6

The story uses the obsession that Brits have for football (that's soccer on this side of the Atlantic) and merges it with a somewhat typical outsider joins the tight knit gang and slowly discovers the history and meaning of their actions. Elijah Wood stars as the American who goes to England to visit his sister and ends up hanging out with the Green Street Elite gang who are rabid fans of West Ham United. There pastime is getting into street fights with fans of opposing teams. The final lines of the film sum the theme up nicely: you have to learn when to walk away and when to stand your ground, bad things happen when you have chosen unwisely. The story is not new, but the film is entertaining and well told. The use of music gives the fight scenes a context of adrenaline rush, rather than typical anger mode. The fights are not really about hurting each other; they are more a way to show your loyalty and gain repute. This film makes American sports fans look like coach potatoes who argue the merits of their teams instead of brawling it out. Maybe that is for the best.

August 14, 2006

Doctor Zhivago - 5

I thought I was going to like this a lot more, being one of the great epics. David Lean's track record is good -Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge over the River Kwai. But besides the Russian history lesson, I found the plot rather weak. The film also plays cheap homage to Citizen Kane, with the Russian stringed instrument at the beginning and end of the film (that's the best I could do, does anyone know what its called?). The story hinges on an affair that is with so little feeling it really isn't believable, the tragedy of it is missed to me. Omar Sharif doesn't put much feeling into his part, had he it would have made a better film. Beautiful cinematography, but an overrated classic in my mind.

Angels in America - 6

Originally a play, HBO turned it into a 6 hour mini-series. Written by Tony Kushner (who also wrote the screen play for Munich), the film takes place in NYC and deals with the mid-80's AIDS crisis, specifically among homosexuals. One of the characters is based on lawyer Roy Cohn who was known as being heartless in court. He worked with McCarthy on the hunt for communists. The theme of the film is problem of evil and how God can allow for AIDS to happen to people. The explanation, in brief, is explained by angels that are attempting to convince God to return to his creation and be their salvation. God left during the earthquake in San Francisco on April 18, 1906. The film also explores issue of religion through one character who is a secular Jew and another who is Mormon. While in the end a little unsatisfying, the film is unique in its approach to life and the topic it is portraying (while probably sounding like Rent - this is much better). If you have the time and interest it is worth seeing. The score by Thomas Newman almost makes the film worth it by itself. The acting is well done by all, including Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep (both play multiple characters and engage in what can only be called inter-spiritual -woman and angel- sex. Yeah, a lot of lighting and not much physical contact since you were wondering), Al Pacino (great as Roy Cohn), and Jeffrey Wright.

August 10, 2006

Don't Come Knocking - 6

Wim Wenders and Sam Shepard team up again for this film. Although this film does not come anywhere close to Paris, Texas. This film is about a wayward actor (Howard -played by Shepard), who stars in cowboy-westerns. He runs away for some peace of mind and then finds out he has a son. The best parts of the film are the underlying themes of the expanse of the west in America, and the lost sense of home that American culture is looking for. The film does not make the flaw that all is solved by trying. Rather healing the past is a long and troubling process, that changes people, and requires taking on the pain. This film is also about family, which Wenders mentions in an interview in the extra features. Howard is really attempting a reconciliation with family, longing to be known. He takes a risk, which is really the only thing he can do. Shepard says this about family (outside of the film): "It's one of the great tragedies of our contemporary life in America, that families fall apart. Almost everybody has that in common." This film is Shepard's attempt to turn that tragedy into comedy (in the classical sense).

Manderlay - 6

Continuing right where we left off in Dogville, the first of Lars von Trier's USA trilogy, Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) and her father (now Willem Dufoe) now enter Alabama having left Colorado and the ugliness of that affair (This film also continues with the same narrator and set design). It turns out that the south is not really that much better. Manderlay is a cotton plantation that has a strict slavery still going on. Grace is appalled and just like Dogville she needs to see if she can save this small community. The Matriarch of the plantation dies soon after Grace's arrival and the slaves are given their freedom. Always easier said than done. Grace soon realizes that she will have to live among the community while it adjusts to the law of no law. American democracy is soon taught and the time of day is put to a vote. It is now five to two in the afternoon. The white plantation owners are now under contract for work, and a true community starts to form, a dust storm working as a unifying disaster. At usual it is the assumptions, like a hinge, that the plot turns on. No law means no freedom, what an interesting truth. Grace soon learns the "slaves" are complicite in their own oppression or freedom, depending on where your standing. Solutions are rarely a reversal of problems, rather they have to change the reality in which the problem exists. Seeing no end to the problem and with herself partly to blame she flees to Wasington.
An interesting commentary on race that will take me sometime to process. I haven't found Spike Lee's response to this film, but I'd be interested in seeing the conversation, especially in relation to his film Bamboozled.

Brick - 5

This is one of the few truly contemporary film-noirs. The Ice Harvest being another. It seems in recent times you can only get so dark, so this is no Touch of Evil. The film takes place in a high school. Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is mostly a loner with no clique starts discovering clues as he tries to reunite with his girlfriend. Things continue to get worse but he stubbornly follows the trail. He travels in between cliques and infiltrates the drug rings. It is an intriguing film, my one critique being that it all just seems so unrealistic. Some of the school dynamics work, but others are just outrageous. But the story does stay with the noir theme right to the very end, most films would cop out at that point. A tough subject to get right, this film doesn't do too badly.
If you want to see good noir, you'll have to go back to the 40's and 50's with Rififi, Night and the City, and the ultimate - The Maltese Falcon.

August 07, 2006

Six Feet Under (Season 1) - 6

I've never had really good cable, so if I want to watch good TV shows I have to rent the DVD's. This show premiered on HBO in 2001 and ran up until last year - ending at season 5. After watching the first season this weekend, I am intrigued and will probably continue with the rest of the series. This is a creation of Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty. The show is about a family that runs a funeral home in LA. In the first episode the father dies, which leaves the mother, two sons, and a daughter. While there are comic moments the shows major theme is grief and death. Which also means that it is about joy and life. The depth of sorrow that the family has to deal with on a regular basis allows them to have good insight toward life and meaning. All the good things about this show reside in the themes and the acting that reveals them. Because it is on HBO, this also allows for more explicit dealing with issues like homosexuality and religion, this is done in a more intelligent way than most shows. The down-side is that because it is a show with episodes, some are weaker, and some of the minor plot lines are not as good as they could be (the daughter Claire for example). The depths of the psychological problems seems like pretty realistic to me, and are probably too much for most viewers. As TV show go, this one is pretty good.

August 04, 2006

Paris, Texas - 7

If you have a Netflix queue or a list of films to see, this one must go on your list. This film is a collaboration of writer/actor Sam Shepard and director Wim Wenders (whose latest film, Don't Come Knocking, comes out next week). If I ever made a top ten list, with probably 50 films on it, this would be one). The cinematography alone is worth it (It was filmed in 1984, but looks like it could have been made in the last few years). The story works backward. All the relevant information is in the past for the characters, but it takes the whole film to discover how they have all come to this point. Travis, has been gone for four years, leaving his three year old son with his brother, who soon becomes like a father to him. Travis turns up in Texas and his brother comes out to get him and bring him home to LA. He then takes his son on a road trip back to Texas to look for his wife. Anymore of the plot would spoil it. The characters are so human it makes you enter the story, forgetting where and when you are. It is a heartbreaking tale, that shows how hard and incomplete our striving for redemption is. If you can't tell already I loved this film.
Trivia notes, the bands Texas and Travis (after the main character) got their names from this film. Wim Wenders also directed a number of U2 videos and Bono's film The Million Dollar Hotel. I suspect lines from The Joshua Tree album were swiped from this film.

August 03, 2006

book quiz

Gideon Strauss tagged me.

1. One book that changed your life: Eyes Wide Open by Bill Romanowski (more the ideas than actually reading the book). This blog is the legs of the idea.
2. One book that you’ve read more than once: The Fabric of Faithfulness by Steven Garber
3. One book you’d want on a desert island: The Bible (would that allow me to be a desert Father?)
4. One book that made you laugh: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
5. One book that made you cry: I'm not much of a crier- but I did watching American History X.
6. One book that you wish had been written: The Netherlands: 1939-1953 by my grandparents.
7. One book that you wish had never been written: If I have one, it's been forgotten.
8. One book you’re currently reading: The One, the Three and the Many by Colin Gunton
9. One book you’ve been meaning to read: Walker Percy's The Moviegoer (I had a false start a few years ago, maybe I'll try again this upcoming semester?), I'd also like to read his other novels.
10. Now tag five people: Jeff Schooley, Paul Petrovic, Keith Martel, Jason Varner, and Chris Klein.

August 02, 2006

Happiness - 6

This is an intense film. I think it is a good film but hard to recommend to most people. It also got to a lot of themes before American Beauty did - just less arty. The subject is a dysfunctional family and the blunt seriousness in which they deal with questions of divorce, sex, and their inability to find happiness. While parts of the film are funny, the serious way the characters deal with life make you feel bad for laughing. While the film is about happiness it comes at it from the angle of how we rarely act toward our own happiness. Rather than pursue happiness, the characters just sort of do what they want and expect the consequences to be good. The film starts with relatively happy characters, who don't know it, and they end up being unhappy. The main criticism I have of the film is that there are many characters and storylines which don't have good transitions - the vignettes just come at you sort of randomly (Although not as bad as Todd Solondz later film Storytelling). Great performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle and child actor Rufus Read.

Modern Times - 7

This is Charlie Chaplin's commentary on 1930's America. This film is also less of a silent film than his other films - there are some sound effects, while the main dialogue is written on the screen as usual. The film deals with unemployment, and the alienation of factory work. There are some really funny gags in the film, like how the machinery works, as well as the feeding machine. If you thought that fart jokes started with Dumb and Dumber...well they are in this film (1936). Chaplin's physical comedy is indeed genius and this film is ahead of its time story-wise, and excellent entertainment.

August 01, 2006

PANIC!!! "I'm at a disco?"

I've been listening to Panic! at the Disco lately. I know the bands fans are mostly teenage girls, who think the band is 'hot,' their music and lyrics are actually quite intelligent with just the right amount of sarcasm and wit.

Applause, applause, no wait wait
Dear studio audience, I've an announcement to make:
It seems the artists these days are not who you think
So we'll pick back up on that on another page

Well we're just a wet dream for the webzine,
Make us it, make us hip, make us scene
Or shrug us off your shoulders
Don't approve a single word that we wrote

Give us this day our daily dose of faux affliction
Forgive our sins
Forged at the pulpit with forked tongues selling faux sermons.
Because I am a new wave gospel sharp, and you'll be thy witness
So gentlemen, if you are going to preach, for God sakes preach with conviction!Strike up the band!
Whoa-oh, the conductor is beckoning
Come congregation, let's sing it like you mean it
No. Don't you get it, don't you get it? Now don't you move.
Strike up the band!
Whoa-oh, the conductor is beckoning
Come congregation, let's sing it like you mean it
No. Don't you get it, don't you get it? Now don't you move.
Just stay where I can see you.
Douse the lights!
We sure are in for a show tonight
In this little number we're graced by two displays of character,
We've got: the gunslinger extraordinaire walking contradictions
And I for one can see no blood from the hearts and the wrists you allegedly slit
And I for one wont stand for this if this scene were a parish you'd all be condemned.