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

September 30, 2006

The Truman Show - 7

It has been 8 years since I first saw this film on its release in 1998. Directed by Peter Weir (Master and Commander, Dead Poets Society, The Mosquito Coast, Witness, Fearless, etc) and written by Andrew Niccol (Gattaca - 7, Simone - 7, Lord of War - 6, The Terminal - 3), this film is a commentary on reality TV, before it really took off with Survivor. In this case, Christof, a multi-millionaire, creates an experiment where a boy, Truman, is born into a massive studio where his life is created for him. He is the only real person in this town. The start of the film is his beginning to see the world around him in a new way, he is suspicious and wants to leave for Fiji. As Christof et al, try to prevent that by manipulating the environment, Truman has many great conversations with others, and eventually takes to the sea (his one great fear that keeps him on the island) this reaches a climax as he survives Christof's attempts to kill him off and eventually runs into the wall that is the boundary of the studio. His struggle become the struggle of the human condition for freedom and truth. This film is great for discussion especially about important topics like how we know reality, what we can trust, and how humans think about God. The film also features great performances by Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, and Ed Harris.

September 28, 2006

The Notorious Bettie Page - 6

This film is a biopic about Bettie Page (played well by Grethen Mol), who become notorious in the 1950's as the "the pin up girl of the universe," she also was photographed in bondage scenes. The film shows her early life in a strict Southern family from Nashville. The film also chronicles her Christian faith journey, which for most of her life went unquestioned and she did not see her work as rebelling against it. Later in life she recommitted her life and gave up working as a model. She was also called as a witness for a Senate investigation about the effects of bondage and nude pictures on society. She lead a very strange life, but the film is able to make it a coherent narrative of a woman on the search for transcendence and authenticity. The time period of the film is also associated to the cultural reactions to the work of Alfred Kinsey. The film is beautifully shot by Mary Harron, mostly using black and white, with a few small sequences in color.

Stagecoach - 6

John Ford and John Wayne team up for the first time in this film. Wayne eventually appeared in 35 of Ford's films, including the excellent The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. There is barely a scene in this film that is not copied in all the great films to follow, Ford was very influential on many later filmmakers. This is a classic western film, where a group of strangers- outlaws, whores, misfits, the uppity easterners, and doctor- take a trip by stagecoach across Arizona. The trip is taken with great risk as the Apache Indians have been raiding coaches passing through. The army can only go so far with the group, and they travel the rest of the way, eventually having to fight off Indians and the army arrives to the rescue. In the mean time the class barriers start to crumble and a love interest develops. This film also features what I would call the origin of the phrase, "riding shotgun." In this case, the sheriff calls it and literally sits beside the driver with a shotgun and looks out for trouble. Worth seeing if you love westerns or the history of film, less so if you are looking for straight up entertainment- although it has that as well.

September 25, 2006

Rear Window - 7

This is what film should be. A good story, a little mystery, relationships, social commentary, witty dialogue, some suspense, and good acting. This film has all of that. Jimmy Stewart plays the lead - LB Jefferies (Jeff), a photo-journalist, who has a broken leg and is confined to his apartment. Grace Kelly plays his love interest, there current conflict is lifestyle due to different jobs- she is in the fashion industry. (On a localism side note: both Stewart and Kelly are from Pennsylvania). Jeff takes to voyeurism through his back window which opens to the back side of another apartment building. Everything seems socially normal, neighbors having spats, keeping to themselves, or dancing in their underwear with the blinds up (This is Alfred Hitchcock pushing the limits of what could be shown in films). Eventually Jeff spots something unusual, a nagging wife has disappeared, and her husband has made many suspicious trips out in the middle of the night. It all adds up to murder? Or does it? You'll just have to see it. All around a great film- deserving of its status (#42).

Born into Brothels - 5

While the topic of this film is important the method is a bit fragmented and uncohesive. Two documentary filmmakers went to Calcutta to to chronicle the life of prostitutes in the red light district. Once they got there thought they realized that the children living there were a more interesting topic. Zana Briski, one of the directors of this film, starts to teach the children photography and eventually feels pushed toward helping the children get an education to escape their plight and the life that they will be forced into without it. The film both show cases the children's pictures, which are very good, as well as Zana's quest to get them to see the larger world that education and photography can show them. In the end, a few of the children get into boarding schools, and one boy, Avijit, gets to travel to Amsterdam to showcase his photography. The film remains hopeful that it is possible for these children, born into disadvantage can be shown hope, and teach all of us a thing or two. While a truly amazing story of education and sociology (maybe even social justice), the format the film makes this story less coherent than it could be.

September 23, 2006

The paintings of Jackson Pollock

Read my review of the film here, and other images of his work.

September 22, 2006

The Grapes of Wrath - 5

I know I am going to get harassed about the low ranking on this one, and it was made in 1940, which means I should be kinder... but I am not going to be (although I am more conflicted about this film). From what I understand John Steinbeck, whose book this is adapted from, rights well and descriptively of the depression era in America. He is known for creating good characters, which seems hard to translate into film, although the main character, Tom Joad, is a good picture of the struggle during that era. The black and white format that they had to use actually helps to create a better sense of the era (although this is also deceptive in that it could lead to the assumption that stories in color are more upbeat). A good glimpse into a different era in America.

The Ice Storm - 5

Ang Lee's commentary on the state of the American family. Set in upper-class Connecticut, the story shows marriages on the rocks, affairs, and kids who have to discover truth and wisdom on their own. Like Keith mentioned earlier this week, maybe we don't need another film about a "creative-yet-sadly-dysfunctional-family-that-finds-hints-of-redemption-in-the-end movie." Although this film did come before a lot of other films like this (Maybe it started the trend?). The narration is probably the best part of the film, which are the book ends. But it seems to me that film is intended to be able to show you the story rather than tell you. The film needs the help in this case because the coming together of the family in the end seem somewhat out of place. It does have a well known and pretty good cast: Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Tobey Maguire, Sigourney Weaver, Elijah Wood, Christina Ricci, and Katie Holmes. And the film is beautifully shot, but the story just doesn't quite hit home with me.

Back to School - 6

This film is comedian Rodney Dangerfield's commentary on higher education. The story arc is a rich business millionaire decides to enroll in college to encourage his son who is about to drop out. It is not that far off from Van Wilder, he parties hard, and ends up buying a few papers to try to pass - including an English paper from Kurt Vonnegut (which really makes my roommate happy, since he has read him thoroughly). In the end, higher education is there for the young to figure out what they want to do in life. The value is in the doing. This film came out in 1986 and actually fits somewhat with Harold Bloom's assessment of higher education in his 1987 work, The Closing of the American Mind. A funny film with some zingers about higher education.

September 17, 2006

The Last Kiss - 7

The film opens with Snow Patrol's song Chocolate. It is a good summary of the major plot developments of the film. And a beautiful song to listen to.

This could be the very minute
I'm aware I'm alive
All these places feel like home

With a name I'd never chosen
I can make my first steps
As a child of 25

This is the straw, final straw in the
Roof of my mouth as I lie to you
Just because I'm sorry doesn't mean
I didn't enjoy it at the time

You're the only thing that I love
It scares me more every day
On my knees I think clearer

Goodness knows I saw it coming
Or at least I'll claim I did
But in truth I'm lost for words

What have I done it's too late for that
What have I become truth is nothing yet
A simple mistake starts the hardest time
I promise I'll do anything you ask...this time

The film uses four friends who are about to turn 30 as the jumping off point to look at the choices and commitment that they come to realize will shape the rest of their lives. Zach Braff plays the main character, Michael, who considers sleeping with another woman, and eventually realizes the absolute stupidity of his doubt. The love he had taken for granted, suddenly became the love worth trying for. But it took doubt to get him toward faith. Trust becomes the harder project. And it must begin with the wisdom of truth-telling. The film ends showing the give and take - the serious playfulness- that all relationships need to have, in order to be sustainable for a lifetime.
I consider this the sequel to Garden State, asking deep questions about relationships and life, for those approaching their later 20's. The questions are slightly different in this film, but worth asking and considering their consequences. This film is adapted from the 2001 Italian film L'Ultimo Bacio by Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby).

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds - 7

This is the first film by Hayao Miyazaki to be mass distributed in the US. It is the first of his environmental trilogy, 2. Castle in the Sky(1986) and 3. Princess Mononoke (1997). In some ways it is three ways of telling a very similar story about the relationship between humanity and the earth, and how technology mediates this relationship. In this film the forest looks on the surface to be poisonous to humans, but after Nausicaa gets lost in it finds that below is the beauty that sustains the life of the planet. Once again it is control that humans think they have that gets them into trouble. It just might be possible that if humans care for the earth, the earth will return the favor.
What is interesting to notice is how much The Matrix films were influenced by Miyazaki.

September 16, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine - 7

I loved the honesty of the film. The film sets up the winner/losers dichotomy of contemporary identity as a false reality. Fortunately for the film it recognizes it and does a great job of critiquing it. The story revolves around 6-year-old Olive (played wonderfully by Abigail Breslin), who has won a spot in the Little Miss Sunshine contest in California. The quirky family, including a suicidal uncle and drug addicted grandfather, makes a road trip from Arizona for the weekend. All the situations collide once they get to California and realize that life is more tragic than anyone really wants to believe. And while the world tells you that everything is getting better, sometimes you just have to live with the simplicity of loving in spite of, and learning from, what life gives you. The final dance number takes the cake, you know something is up, but the actual scene is hilarious. While the film has a relatively happy ending, it only comes after all the characters have recognized their own flaws and learn that 'real' life is worth trying for. The family in this film is so crazy it made my family look...normal, that's not the right word- unless what is actually normal is flawed and foibled characters who at least try to love one another. I am assuming that is what resonated with most audiences.

Lucky Number Slevin - 4

This film is a thriller. That means that you will get information at the end of the film that will change your view of the story up to that point. Is is worth trying to figure out? Not really. Basically the main character, Slevin (Josh Hartnett), gets caught up with warring mob families (headed oddly by Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley). All of this revolves around a story that happened in the past where a family was murdered for betting on the wrong horse. The film is mostly action and some witty dialogue, but has enough cliches as to not distinguish itself as a good film. Some critics pegged this as a film noir, don't believe them, if this were noir it might be a better film.

Cool Hand Luke - 5

In typical 60's fashion this film explores rebellion and authority. It reminded me of the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Paul Newman plays Luke who always plays his hand cool. After being sent to prison he encourages and shows the other inmates how to be free even within the prison. He attempts to escape a few times and refuses to have his freedom taken away. In the end, the film comes around to begging the question of freedom within a created world. Does the possibility of God make true freedom impossible? In other words, can the ethos of the 60's be taken to its logical conclusion? (In a similar vein to Malick's Badlands?) It seemed like I had seen this film before; not a good feeling when watching a film.

September 15, 2006

in my queue

Slate published a good article about the friends feature of Netflix by Sam Anderson. It points out that seeing what others is watching is a little voyeuristic, but also shows the randomness and inadequacy of ranking and comparing films. If you haven't noticed that's the main problem with my scale, although this blog does allow comments for people to disagree and a larger conversation. Netflix was one of the primary motivations to blog the films I have been watching. If you want to peek into my queue (and you think that I don't blog all the films that I am actually getting in the mail:-), invite me though Netflix at: gregpveltman [at] gmail [dot] com.

September 14, 2006

Shine - 5

A biopic of pianist David Helfgott. It is a somewhat scattered story that follows his life from a small child who is taught by his father to play the piano, to his father's obsession with music leading to abuse. The later repercussions of which lead Helfgott to schizophrenia. He eventually gets married and he is able to get back into playing the piano. While Geoffrey Rush won the Oscar for best actor he is not a prominent part of this film since a good portion of the film concentrates on his earlier years which is played by Noah Taylor. I tend to like films that use the piano or are about pianists (although I was offended that the score used an operatic sound rather than piano music), but this one lacks the coherence of a good film.

September 13, 2006

Friends with Money - 5

A story about four friends by Nicole Holofcener (Gilmore Girls and Sex and the City). Four women who have been friends for most of their lives come to be in their 30's and start to contemplate their futures and lives. Three of the women are married and have different types of relationships. The forth is still single. This film is a character study rather than a narrative. Life happens and each character reacts differently. The film ends with the character realizing that they are flawed and being happy and content anyway. Life could always be worse, at least they have friendship. Their friendship is what centers their lives and all the hurt and stuff they encounter. This film has an great cast including: Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack, and Jennifer Aniston. This probably should be a show rather than a film, it seems like somewhat of a good response to Desperate Housewives.

September 10, 2006

Dead Ringers - 7

Jeremy Irons plays twin gynecologist in this film by David Cronenberg. Known for his horror films, Cronenberg breaks away from that in this film to focus on the psychology of the twins. Elliot and Beverly Mantle are closer than brothers and they have set up a system of research and practice in their field. In their private lives they sometimes switch places and there experiences become intertwined. The tension rises when they start a relationship with an actress and patient of theirs. While Bev falls for her, Elly is able to remain uninvolved. This shift toward distinct personalities that had been somewhat muted starts to drive each of them in different directions, and they attempt to try to resolve and heal their relationship. The film is much more complex than this, and the reality that the viewer is drawn into is riveting and very well done. This film is a great education into the human pscyhe. It highlights the human condition by looking at how we relate to others and how we perceive those relationships. The story is so unique and intriguing that the time has passed and you are still engaged in the thoughts of the film - I temporarily forgot that I was watching a film. I loved how this story captured my attention (Maybe that is the standard of ranking on this site, I'm not sure, but most films that I have ranked highly have done this). This is one of the best psychological films I have seen, it doesn't need some trick ending to be interesting.

Accepted - 7

I am a sucker for film about higher education (I did get a degree in it after all). But this film gets at important questions of the purpose of higher education better than most (Consider: Animal House, Higher Learning, PCU, and School Daze).

Bartleby (I suspect this is a reference to a story by Herman Melville with a twist), or B, gets rejections from all the colleges he applied to and the pressures to live up to his parents expectations drives him to fake it. The lie soon gets out of hand (this is a comedy) and he finds himself as the founder of a university. He then goes on search to discover what this school should be. He soon discovers that he is doing the work of transforming society, redefining what we mean by acceptance and rejection. While the film does have plenty of the usual dialogue, jokes and fun, it also uses the story to actually ask thoughtful questions about what college is for, what learning can be, and who are students suppose to be. Amidst the jokes and cliches there are some fundamental questions. While these questions may be missed by the high schoolers who are probably the main audience of this film, I think it could be a useful film for current college students who might see how different the place they are at is from what they imagined. Learning will only really happen if their is reflection on how to imagine the future. The default choice is mostly the status quo, which isn't inherently bad, but that's what wisdom is- discerning the difference.

Blazing Saddles - 6

A Mel Brooks (Space Balls and The Producers, which Spike Lee turned into the wonderful Bamboozled) satire that is well before its time in 1974. Taking the Hollywood western as a model, Brooks makes a mockery of race, as a black man is appointed as a Sheriff to a small white town. Turns out that he can indeed save the town despite the audience bias that he will end up dead in the first few minutes of the film. Plenty of funny racial and sexual jokes and in usual spoof fashion the actors start to realize more and more that they are in a movie, just in case the audience forgot that this is 'just' a film. On the down side, the chaos that ends the film actually takes away from the good start and middle of the story.

September 09, 2006

Y tu mamá también - 6

A film about the tests of friendship between two high school boys. In this case it is a summer trip with an older woman, who finds out that her husband is cheating on her. The main characters are two high school friends, Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch. The two boys ask Luisa on a whim and she accepts. They then take a road trip across Mexico in search of a mythical beach called Heaven's Mouth. Along the way they learn are seduced by Luisa and their sexual relationship puts the two boys at odds with each other. They then start to see their sexual prowess (or lack their of) in competitive terms. While Luisa is able to settle their fights for a little while, the film shows the dire consequences of friendship put to this hard of a test. The value of the relationship seems to be that it lives on continuously in each of the boys memories, and it helps them know who they truly are. They use this experience for further reflection and while their friendship does not grow, they do.

September 04, 2006

The Sentinel - 3

Imagine a scene with me for a second. Two Hollywood execs are chatting about the current scripts coming across their desk and trying to determine what films out to get made. One of them mentions how he is hearing that there are not enough family friendly films, rated PG-13 and low on the swear and violence quotient. The other exec agrees and they start to formulate how big the market is for such a film. The market is huge, filled with all of the middle and high school aged children, with parents concerned about the influence of media. With the promise of money, the actors and plot of the film soon becomes apparent. And they put out the film called The Sentinel. The film consist of four main characters all of them strong leaders and are to be seen as role models. Kim Basinger, who plays the first lady, and Eva Longoria, a FBI agent, play the female role models. Michael Douglas and Jack Bauer...I mean Keifer Sutherland, play the male roles of protector of the president. This film pretends to be a political thriller, it is rather a lesson in getting along- the skill every high schooler needs to know. The plot doesn't take any interesting turns and is mostly predictable, although near the end you stop caring, it would just be great to see more stuff get blown up. This movie once again shows that you need a story and characters and the rest follows from there, not vice versa. Apparently even the marketing of this film failed.

A Prairie Home Companion - 7

This is Robert Altman's latest film. Based on Garrison Keillor's script, which is the story of a big company taking over his variety show in Minnesota. In reality Keillor does have a radio program, but it is not threatened. It is intriguing that very few people have heard Keillor on the radio, his is a master storyteller. The rest of the cast, which is a list of greats (Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, John Reilly, Kevin Kline, Virginia Madsen, Tommy Lee Jones)...oh and Lindsay Lohan, is fictional and are a part of the show, mostly singers and musicians. While the main comedy is the variety show and all the advertisements, the other story is the hapless private eye who is on the lookout for the company and the angel who is lurking around the theatre. The plot plays second fiddle to the characters and the film ends on a mysterious note. A pretty funny and creative story, and Altman is the perfect director for this project.

September 01, 2006

Panic in the Streets - 7

Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, A Street Car Named Desire) and Richard Widmark team up again for this quasi-noir film. Earlier in 1950 they made Night and the City. The film is less dark than traditional noir film and anticipates all of Michael Crichton's work. A mobster is dragged out of the water in New Orleans and the autopsy reveals that he had bubonic plague. The search is on for those in contact with him so that an epidemic can be avoided. But no one wants to be associated with a dead body with a bullet in it. And the medical officer, Clint fights to keep the news of disease from the public to avoid hysteria. At one point the police actually lock up the news reporter who is on to the story. Small clues continue to lead them on and the mobsters who did the hit soon learn that their own lives are in danger because of the disease. The theme of the film is really fear and how those in power control its uses. A very difficult task that can result in grave disaster or could help save lives. It is fine line to walk, and a harder path to take responsibility for. A great film that is still relevant today.
On a complete side note: this is the first time I have seen an old film that has relatively normal and calm domestic scenes of the family- husband, wife, and child. This is interesting because it is not setting up some sub-plot but showing the reality of the characters lives.