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

November 30, 2006

49 Up - 6

This is the latest film in Michael Apted's Up Series (7 Up, 7 plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up), started in 1964 with fourteen 7-year-olds and chronicling their life every seven years. The series stared out as a commentary on social classes in England, but has now morphed into a story of people's choices and lives and how people both stay the same as well as change. Having reached the half century point, these subjects are now parents and some are grandparents, and much more reflective of the value of family. The real value of these films in not in the story that they tell, but rather the reflection that comes when thinking about the progress of one's life. The lives of these people cannot be as simply explained by social class systems, and yet class systems cannot be rejected as having no role in the shaping of their lives. These films are an interesting work, and we'll see how long they can continue as both Apted and the group are getting older.

The Break-Up - 6

I liked the film a little better than I thought I would. The one huge critique of it is that the story is so fragmented- characters appear and disappear way to easily, the only constant is Gary (Vince Vaughn) and Brooke (Jennifer Aniston). One of the things I did like about the film is that it really isn't a romantic comedy, or really a comedy at all. It has funny parts, but the anger, bitterness, and resentment is far more real than you are likely to see in any comedy (It must have been the only marketing option). I'm not trying to spoil anything, but it is about a "Break-Up." This is not a date movie. Its value lies in how truthfully it portrays life's unfortunate events, not so that one can somehow make up some reason that give it meaning and will make one feel better, rather to show how real these experiences are, and that these experiences connect everyone together as human beings. This film is highly influenced by other Vince Vaughn/Jon Favreau collaborations like Swingers and Made.

November 28, 2006

The Birds - 7

As I work through all of Hitchcock's films, this is the best so far (although Rear Window is way up there also, The 39 Steps, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, North by Northwest, Notorious). This is one of his later films and the last one that is considered a classic. It caught me off guard with its simple and pleasant beginning and its unexpected turn toward the disturbing. The plot is simple and complex. Bird in a small town, on a bay outside of San Fransisco, start attacking people. It is never explained why (which is the genius of anyone who hopes to write a horror film). The film highlights the characters and their reaction and emotional response to fear and those around them that they trust or distrust. After seeing this film it doesn't surprise me that cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek wrote about the Hitchcock's films. This film cements Hitchcock into film history, and you can see the influence on later directors and films. Getting all those shot of birds and setting the scenes for the film, must have been a lot of work.

November 27, 2006

The Incredible Adventures of Wallace & Gromit - 7

What's not to like about Wallace & Gromit? Their animated, funny, and British. And they make crazy inventions which make for entertaining plot lines- mostly outrageous, but it's clay-mation people! This collection includes three short films: "A Grand Day Out," "The Wrong Trousers," and "A Close Shave." It is fun, humorous, and intelligent. Recommended.

November 26, 2006

In the Company of Men - 6

Jeff has a good analysis of this film at his site... As does Paul.
And here is a review by Evan. This film is a disturbing look at two business men (Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy) who have become numb to others and their own pain and decide to do an experiment in which they torment a woman with their fake love, as they have been tormented by lover's in the past. It becomes a test to see who really has suppressed all compassion. Only it isn't that simple. In the process they discover their true selves and the depth of their depravity. The film is well done, so much so that the bad taste is left in your mouth after watching the film. It is one of those film that I suspect will stay with me. I think what is most poignant about the film is that one can see themselves in the characters and its a little bit scary.

Scoop - 4

This is Woody Allen's latest film, with Scarlett Johansson again as his muse. While Match Point was a serious drama, with a serious look at the inner states of the characters, this film is pure comedy. Allen stars as an old magician, Sid Waterman, who agrees to help a young college reporter, Sondra Pransky, get a scoop from a great reporter who got the story from beyond the grave. The accused is the rich hunk Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman). The story soon devolves from an investigation to the high-jinks of these two incompetents (and the only two Americans in the film). Plenty of the jokes are funny (in an Allen sense of the word), and the rather glib and simple ending made me wonder if it was worth it. It really wasn't- Allen is seriously losing his touch, if you are going to watch his films stick to the 70's and 80's and early 90's with Husbands and Wives, Hannah and her Sisters, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Manhattan, and Annie Hall. Although I enjoyed Melinda and Melinda.

November 20, 2006

We Are Marshall - 6

This film will be released to theaters on December 22nd. My own tagline for the film is: Remember the Titans meets World Trade Center (The official tagline is the overdramatic: From the ashes we rose). Based on the true story of Marshall University's (in West Virginia) devastating plane crash that killed most of the football team in 1970, the film tells the story of the aftermath of rebuilding the team and the small steel town dealing with the trauma and loss of that event. Interestingly narrated by a surviving student who lost a fiancee- the first minutes of the film is one of the greatest voice-overs in film I have seen. The film then follows the story that gives meaning to this opening context. The trouble with the film is that it tries to buck the stereotype of films about sports and only half succeeds. It still is about winning, as the film ends when the team has finally given honor to the dead by winning, but there is some great dialogue about how grief and loss, make us look for things that matter beyond the winning and losing paradigm. While it does try to push the boundary and works as an interesting history lesson, the film as a whole ends up being a rather 'feel good' film, about the triumph of the human spirit- the freedom we create out of the context of trauma and grief. David Strathairn is good as the bureaucratic university president, and Matthew McConaughey is funny as the new head coach.

Monster House - 7

All I can say is that this is another great example of a kids film, that is more than a kids film, and the animation looks great. I was persuaded into watching it by reading Evan's review, maybe it will do the same for you (Thanks Evan).

The Missing - 7

Directed by Ron Howard, this film takes up some of the western themes of living in a harsh environment and having a sharp distinction between those that are good and those that are evil. The plot is driven by a string of kidnappings that happen in the rugged outback of New Mexico- set in late 19th century. An in dependant minded medicine woman, Maggie (Cate Blanchett), is raising her two daughters, Lilly and Dot (Evan Rachel Wood and Jenna Boyd), with a the current live in boyfriend (Aaron Eckhart). When Maggie's father (Tommy Lee Jones) shows up, we learn of a falling out between them, which is parallelled by Lilly, who wants to move to a city and live a sophisticated life. The plot turns on the kidnapping of Lilly by a group of men who are trading women as prostitutes in Mexico. Father, daughter and granddaughter have to come together to chase them down and try to recover what was lost. It is a moving and well told story (focusing on a story of women empowerment in a genre that rarely does). The cast is great, including a brief scene with Val Kilmer.

Casino Royale - 7

It seems that the way to put new life into something that maybe getting old, is to go back to the start. This film is based on the first Ian Fleming book. With a new Bond (Daniel Craig), M is as snark as usual (Judi Dench), and Q is absent. The plot has been updated to involve a terrorist plot and the game of choice is a very 21st century Texas Hold'em version of Poker. Because they have returned to the beginning they are somewhat freer to take liberties with the usual outlines to a bond film, although it stays consistent with the genre. It is a film that succeeds in holding your attention and giving you plenty of action and ingenuity that some of the other Bond films lack (I found Pierce Brosnan rather bland as Bond, Craig is a much need boost to the franchise). Over all a great action/spy film, with some heart as Bond's first real love, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), questions his coldness toward killing.
Full disclosure: I have seen almost all 20 previous Bond films (they blur together enough for me not to know which one's I've missed)

November 16, 2006

Two Sophie's: Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (7) and The Da Vinci Code (3)

Sophie: From Greek σοφία, meaning wisdom

Yesterday I watched two films. It was mostly an accident that Netflix sent me two films that both highlight a character named Sophie. The first is the well-known and controversial The Da Vinci Code. All I have to say about the controversy is that if a film like this can make you change anything you didn't previously believe before the film, then you should probably question your ability to believe rather than blame the film for telling you something new. That aside, this film kinda sucks. The acting is rather stale (Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellan is the only decent one), and I don't want to have to say it, but books are usually better, and in this case? Yep, the book is better- believe it or not, the book is actually faster paced. All this to say that Sophie Neveu, who is a cryptologist and is helping Langdon solve the code before they get caught, finally finds out that she is a descendant of Jesus. The film claims that orthodox Christianity is just foolishness and stupid, and that faith is really just power in disguise. In the end, Sophie is the symbol of human arrogance and folly, she knows the truth and she can control the world if she chooses, which to her just seems like fun (Further proof that any of Jesus' DNA got lost over the years). The book gave the writers some great material, but the long amount of time it took between book and movie made this project a failure before it started.

But there is another Sophie. Sophie Scholl's was a German university student during WWII. She along with her brother and a few other students started to write and distribute leaflets, in protest against Hitler and the war. They called the group The White Rose. This film follows Sophie as she and Hans are arrested and interrogated. The conversations during interrogation and imprisonment are what make the film worth watching. This is a Sophie of humility: she is not without her doubts of the truth, but she argues with conviction that Hitler's vision must not come about, that Germans will lose their humanity if the war continues. It is a moving film about the ideas that drive us, that will not let us go, and that we would consider of dying for. Julia Jentsch brings the emotion and wisdom of Sophie to the screen. There is a similar 1982 film about the Scholl's called The White Rose - 7.
If you have to make a choice between Sophie's, choose the one of humility, conviction, and truth. It truly is the right choice.

November 15, 2006

Stranger than Fiction - 7

If someone were to write the book of your life, would you read the ending? Would your story be a comedy or a tragedy? Would it change your everyday decisions? The hypothetical becomes reality for Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) in this story that casts him as a character in novelist’s Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) latest novel. What begins as a strange and funny situation shift into a thought-provoking story of life’s meaning.
When Crick starts to hear the narration to his life as he is brushing his teeth, and follows the major events of his day, he starts to ponder the meaning behind both his mundane existence and the source of the voice. It seems mysterious, but maybe the psychiatrist is right, he is just schizophrenic. When the narrator suddenly reveals that he is unaware of his own “immanent death,” Crick’s search takes on a more urgent mode and he asks a local literature professor, Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), for help.
Hilbert tries to determine whether it is a comedy or tragedy. And advises Harold to see if the plot is driven by his life, or whether the plot is chasing him. While a serious situation, there doesn’t seem to be much either of them can do about it. Hilbert recommends he stop trying to avoid death and just live. The quality of the story is still in his hands.
In the midst of his angst, Harold does start to live life. He stops counting his steps and eating alone. Instead he pursues a relationship with Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who seemed to loathe him when they meet while he was on a tax audit to her bakery shop. He learns about what he really loves- playing the guitar. If he can do nothing he is determined to make his last days meaningful.
But it is the chance event of his hearing the voice of the author on television that fundamentally changes the film. The chance to change the ending opens up a new line of questioning. Can the story really be changed? What is the responsibility of the author to a situation that is stranger than fiction? Does knowing the ending change our choices? Does it make our choices more meaningful?
This film is marketed as a comedy but it is in the questions about life’s deepest meaning that the tears come. Will Ferrell gives a great performance in this tender story that asks the great questions about life’s meaning, and our pursuit of the good life. The ending of the film and the story is perfect, and leaves the viewer more reflective about the decisions and story that is their life.

November 13, 2006

Babel - 7

There are at least five reasons that this is an excellent film. The same reasons that I believe will make it a serious contender for the 2006 Best Picture Oscar.
1. This is a great story about communication and understanding as the narrative follows four families in Morocco, Japan, and Mexico/America. Underlying the story is the human need to love and be loved in return.
2. Like the film Syriana, last year, this film explores issues of globalization, communication and geopolitics. But it goes further- trying to get at the heart of these ideas by setting them in the context of families- those that are closest to us. And it does not remain trapped in cynicism, rather it clings to hope.
3. It is directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and written by Guillermo Arriaga whose honors are long over due for their other good films 21 Grams and Amores Perros. This film takes them to the next level of filmmaking, by showing glimmers of light and hope in the dark landscape of the human experience that they explore.
4. The acting is superb. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are the most known of the actors, but it is Rinko Kikuchi who plays a deaf-mute teenager living in Japan that is the performance of the film. The actors become the characters and invite you into the story.
5. The cinematography- the catching of light- is done well. The scenes in Japan are crisp and clean, while the scenes in Mexico are more gritty. The music is also used to maximum effect. There is a great sequence halfway through the film in a dance club that stands alone as an achievement. And the final sequence of scene and music is haunting and stays with you long after the film is over.
The giftedness of director, writer, and actors to allow the viewer to get involved in the narrative, the use of light and sound to tell the story, the way the story enters the viewers life, and the worldview and ideas explored are the key things to look for in a good film. When they come together like they do in this film, you have seen greatness- it has the potential to change you.

November 11, 2006

Talladega Nights - 4

Funny? Yes. A good film? Unfortunately not. There are some quality jokes and good commentary on NASCAR, but this is another film that suffers from allowing the trailer to tell the whole story and most of the jokes. I am being too harsh. If you want to laugh and be entertained then this film will do the trick, and does it reasonable well. Although there are parts of the film that seem to go bland. In fact I think most of the actors are out of place. Will Ferrell should continue toward the serious (Winter Passing and Stranger than Fiction), Sasha Baron Cohen should stick to his Kazakhstanian roots (Borat), and John C. Reilly is a lot better in films of substance (Magnolia and Criminal). A few funny jokes, but too easily forgotten.

November 10, 2006

Over the Hedge - 7

With references from Citizen Kane (Rosebud) to Dr. Phil (Lou the Porcupine: "I don't think he's a real doctor."), this film really isn't a kids film. I mean, kids will probably like it and it is animated (which in American means it can only be a G rated kids film), but it has so much more going on in it, and for it. The plot is not unique, new, or even that creative, but the execution is hilarious. Halfway through the film you realize that you are really laughing at yourself more than the film. The film is about scavengers who need to collect food for the winter during hibernation. It also involves a plot by a raccoon to pay back a bear he angered, and the fact that a hedge has been built to enclose a new sub division built by humans. There are plenty of jokes at the peoples expense, as well as classic physical comedy routines. This film is just plain old fun. A great voicing cast including Steve Carell, Eugene Levy, William Shatner, and Wanda Sykes.

Secondhand Lions - 5

A popular and sentimental film about two old men (Michael Caine and Robert Duvall) who live on a plot of land in the middle of nowhere, and they like it fine that way. Their relatives, who happen to know that they have millions of dollars stashed somewhere, are on the prowl to inherit. Walter (Haley Joel Osment), a nephew is left with his two uncles by his mother in hopes that he will find the money. He soon adjust and befriends them, hearing their tales of love, loss, and adventure. He also teaches them a few things while helping them spend some of there cash on their retirement. In the end, Walter sees the two men as his role model for living a life caring for others, and learning to be trustworthy by telling the truth. Again, sort of on the sentimental side, but there are a few good laughs and adventure along the way.

November 09, 2006

World Trade Center - 7

This is Oliver Stone's attempt at capturing the zeitgeist of 9/11 five years later. He does a good job of showing how shocking the events of the day were for most Americans. The true story limits itself to the lives of two police officers who got trapped in one of the towers after its collapse, and their families who are waiting to here about them. The film also has a vignette about a former Marine who decides something must be done and volunteer's to go to the wreckage looking for any survivors. The script is based on accounts of 9/11, so each character is shown in light of their own experience (a good example of this is when Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), who sees a vision of Jesus offering him water, while he is buried). The film is technically excellent as well, transitioning between locations using flashbacks involving the two separated people. The film focuses on family and the importance of relationships in our lives that keep us going. On a lower level the film engages questions of individualism and community that became paramount to the discussions following 9/11. Much like United 93, a good film for reflection and discussion about human mortality and meaning in the 21st century (9/11 is going to be the lens through which we see the rest of this century).

November 08, 2006

Running with Scissors - 4

Read my review posted over at Relevant Magazine.

"to my listening ears"

Joseph Arthur - up until a few weeks ago I thought this guy was from the "other side of the pond." He has a sound that is somewhere between Damien Rice and David Gray (which explains my confusion). He is actually from Akron, OH (only a couple hours from here). I would recommend his previous work as well.

Evermore - is the three Hume Brothers with rock star longish hair (I immediately thought of Hanson, and was a little scared). They are from New Zealand and you can hear the influence of U2, Coldplay, Keane, Smashing Pumpkins, and The Cranberries (a relatively eclectic combination). It's poppy and melodic, and on TV (what else is new?).

November 07, 2006

a weekend in indiana (the state:-)

...I saw two films for a second time...
The Prestige, which was intriguing to see again....
and Serenity, which is just an awesomely well done film...you should go see it...now.
You can also buy the complete series of the show it is based on - Firefly (highly recommended).

Nine Lives - 4

Rodrigo Garcia (Things you can tell just by looking at her) directs these nine vignettes about women who feel alienated by the world, who are looking for connection and reflecting on their pasts. The film seems scattered at first, but the audience soon finds that the characters are somewhat intertwined. The stories focus on mortality, and the relationships that are most important to these women. The film shows how life is always a struggle between how we are connected to others and the meaning that it creates for our lives and the disconnections and pain that comes from alienation, loneliness, and fear. A few of the vignettes are insightful and have emotional power, others seem contrived and over acted. The cast includes: Sissy Spacek, Holly Hunter, Robin Wright Penn, Glen Close, Dakota Fanning, and Amanda Seyfried.

November 05, 2006

From Here to Eternity - 7

In 1953, just twelve years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, this film came to theaters and highlights the tranquility and complacently that was shattered on December 7, 1941 in Hawaii. The film follows two soldiers who become caught up in their off duty life- which are love interests. One has an affair with his supervisor's wife (who in present day would be called "slutty"). The other leaves the military as he is caught up in jealousy. This allows the film to have elements of film noir, both on the personal level as well as the national tragedy of that day. It is interesting to see this film since 9/11 and the parallels drawn to Pearl Harbor. The films that have come out since then, might have taken something from this film (if nothing else it starts some good conversation about the historical consequences of big ideas). This film is also famous for its Oscar awards, and the classic beach scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. Highly recommended.

The 39 Steps - 6

This early (1935) Hitchcock film takes place in London and Scotland. A Canadian tourist runs into a women who seems paranoid to secret agents following her. When she ends up dead, he goes on the search to find her killers, and discover if she was telling the truth. The film is significant because of it pushes the limits of censorship of the time, and is somewhat of a text example of cinematography and light. While I enjoyed the film, it is not Hitchcock's best- the story is very slow moving. Rear Window and Mr. & Mrs. Smith are much more fun and well done.

November 02, 2006

Lady Sovereign

She's white. She's British. She Raps? 20-year-old Lady Sovereign raps about how people are going to compare her to Eminem (Blah Blah). Which is a better comparison than with fellow Brit Dido, who became big by collaborating with Em. She tries to offend in the same way as he does and it is reminiscent, but she adds different beats. It's catchy, and she rips on the Queen and Prime Minister of England- "We ain't all posh like the queen, we ain't all squeaky clean, Now do the Tony Blair, throw your hands in the air everywhere" (My England). The first track on the album is a sarcastic joke about how being a celebrity is just like having a 9 to 5. While she is trying to show her credibility as a British misfit and is just rude at times, she has some serious skill at turning the phrase and stays above being a poser (she was signed to Def Jam by Jay-Z and collaborates with Missy Elliot on the final track). It is currently $7.99 at Bestbuy, it is not the best rap I've ever heard, but you can't claim to have wasted money.