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

December 31, 2006

A Scanner Darkly - 7

Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick (more famous for the adaptations of his work made in films like Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, Paycheck, and Open Your Eyes- which eventually became Vanilla Sky), Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Waking Life, Tape, School of Rock, Before Sunset, Bad News Bears, Fast Food Nation) writes this screenplay about a narcotics agent on the search for the source of a highly addictive drug called Substance D. As he soon gets addicted himself it leaves him wondering what reality actually is, and the possibility of losing him"self." It raises questions of surveillance, addiction, truth, and the human condition. I don't want to give too much of the film away other than to say see it- the film is both comic and tragic and does both well. It is in Linklater's famous animation-over-live-action-filming (later: in layman terms that's rotoscoping, yeah, I guessed that too) technique that he used in Waking Life. It also features great performances by Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane. In my top ten for 2006.

December 28, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan - 5

Unfortunately this film was not as funny as I thought it would be (darn expectations, and all the media hype). On the other hand, it seems to raise plenty of intelligent conversation, so I guess I like it. While parts of it were hilarious, I didn't find the biting critique of America so many claimed this film was. I already new that there were idiots out there, and I wasn't surprised. What I did find interesting is that they weren't as dumb or taken by Borat as I had imagined. He says most of the offensive stuff, and people are either pissed off, unresponsive, or just bored. In the end, it was a good laugh, especially the "wrestling scene" (:-). The best thing about the film is that it does raise questions about making films, and in this respect it probably stands alone with little competition (the Jackass films don't count). While I think Sasha Baron Cohen is intelligent, this film is just not quite there yet. In the end, I think the audience is laughing more at the third world and Kazakhstan than at themselves, which I think misses the point and is a shame.

December 26, 2006

Chocolat - 6

A very slow moving, but good story about a small town in France that is changes and is changed by a Vianne (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol), that open a chocolate boutique. The film does not try to be subtle in its set up of this entrance as anything but a challenge to the small town's morality, which is tightly controlled by the town founder Comte Paul de Reynaud (Alfred Molina). There is a minor love story, and the film gives you the moral before ending. Good supporting performances by Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, and Carrie-Anne Moss. Once you decide to stick through the slow developments of the plot a pretty good film (I tried watching this film a few years back, and only made it about 15 minutes in). This film just made a whole lot of sense now that I looked up the director Lasse Hallstrom- who also did What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (an excellent film), The Cider House Rules, The Shipping News, An Unfinished Life, and Casanova.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest - 2

This film had no plot. Ok, maybe that's an exaggeration...or not. Basically it is a bunch of pirates and undead running around trying to almost kill each other (nobody can actually die- its rated PG-13 after all). I'm very glad this was someone else's Christmas gift and not mine! Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley are usually worth seeing in a film, and Bill Nighy knows what he is doing (although its pretty much just his voice with all the visual effects for a face). All that being said hopefully they will start being in other movies soon (that looks to be the case with Nighy in Notes on a Scandal, and Knightley in Ian McEwan's Atonement). This film may be beyond mindless entertainment, I felt dirty and like I had wasted valuable time...well I got a blog post out of it, if that's any consolation. Yeah, the ranking just took another hit (it was at 4 when I started this post, 3 when I mentioned that it was just people running around, and now it is at a dismal 2- for a waste of time). Any reason for it to get a 1? Anyone?

My nephew's movies: Shrek I (7) and II (5), Monster's Inc. (6)

So I am visiting family over here in California, mostly my sister, her husband and their son, Seth. He is currently a big fan of the Shrek films (I blogged about Shrek 2 two years ago around this time- and yeah, a third one does come out this coming summer) and more recently watched Monsters, Inc. I like the original Shrek, mostly because of its originality and its constant dig on the usual Disney manipulation that they seem to feed to kids (OK, so I'm a little jaded), although Shrek probably also contributes its fair share. The second one is ok, but not as good as the first, and I think that Monsters, Inc. may have a more interesting story and some of the jokes for the adults watching with the kids are pretty hilarious. Overall I don't mind these films, although they are starting to get on my nerves as I have seen bits of them incessantly for almost a week. These films are much better in small doses.

December 21, 2006

west coast travels...

I'm blogging from the west coast these days, as I am visiting family over the holidays here (I even saw the Hollywood sign from the plane). Thought I would mention two music artists to check out (I listened to them on the plane ride). The Hold Steady have a great album called Boys and Girls in America, and Muse has come out with Black Holes and Revelations. Both are pop influence indie rock artists.

Lady in the Water - 5

I'll agree with the "haters" that this is not up to the quality of film
that M. Night is capable, but it doesn't suck either. It does what his other films have done on some level, that is both critique and use genre to make the viewer conscious of their own viewing (I think this is Shyamalan doing his own version of Tolkien and Narnia). In this film, the fault is that it comes off as more didactic than his previous films. Having a film critic get eaten while describing what should happen in a film of this sort, is more resonant with the Scary Movie series, than with an intelligent film. But it lives up to its children's bedtime story theme, which I think our culture has an aversion for, which explains the massive criticisms. The plot is easy to follow, and the characters are believable and fallible, which makes the film make more sense.

December 18, 2006

The Queen - 7

In August of 1997, the former Princess of Wales, Diana was killed in a car crash while being chased by photographers. Unless you were in a cave that isn't news to you. What this film does is tell the story from the perspective of the British royal family (it is about them, not put out by them), specifically Queen Elizabeth II's restrained initial response, and Prime Minister Tony Blair's persuasive stance for changing times. While this is a fictional account (made weirder by the fact that most of the people in the film are still alive and well), it is a well made character study of how different people respond to traumatic events, and the context that precedes and follows them. It is a complex film that is engaging and human (not trying to forward a conspiracy theory or make anyone out to be pure evil). By the end of the film you are both sympathetic to the royal family as well as wonder what their role should be in the 21st century. Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen give great performances in this Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland) script.

December 17, 2006

Strangers on a Train - 7

Alfred Hitchcock is a genius at directing and making films. I've said it before, and I'm sticking to it (This film makes it 8, with about that many more to see). This film uses the double-sided-ness of the human condition to tell a story of murder and guilt (or lack there of). The main character is the somewhat crazy Bruno, who can't quite draw the line between fantasy and reality. He draws an unsuspecting tennis star, Guy, into a conversation about his recent divorce and the possibility of remarriage. He asks what seems like an innocent and funny question: wouldn't murder solve the problem? Well, yes it would, but it would also be wrong. By the end of the conversation, they suddenly aren't just strangers on a train anymore. Well...I guess that depends on who you ask. The characters are great, the suspense is tangible, and the mystery remains after the last frame. If you don't understand yourself and the human condition better after seeing this film, you weren't paying attention. This film is excellent and truly one of the greatest films ever made. If I made a top 100 list (I doubt this is really possible without a lot of explanation and essay's on each choice), Hitchcock would be on it a lot.

For Your Consideration - 5

While I love most of Christopher Guest's films (especially Best in Show, This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and A Mighty Wind) this film does not live up to the level of humor that he is capable of. Don't be confused, this is a better film than most that try to poke fun of Hollywood (better than his previous attempt at the subject in The Big Picture). But not as subtle or harsh as Robert Altman's The Player. Collecting a familiar cast including: Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge, Harry Shearer, and Jane Lynch.
It is a biting critique of the cult of the Oscar buzz and the control it can have over people in the film business. Some of the film seems over the top, but then again, TV entertainment shows are usually over the top. The film critics are hilarious. And not to try to play into the plot of the film, but Parker Posey is great in this film and most others too (Oscar worthy?- probably not). Not a bad film, I just thought I would have liked it more (I should keep my expectations in check).

The Conformist - 7

More famous for his Americanized films like Stealing Beauty with Liv Tyler, Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris) is one of the great Italian filmmakers. I'm going to step out on a limb here and say this is probably his best film. This film is about a man whose job it is to kill of people who might be subversives against the fascist regime in Italy during the 1930's. He is the ultimate conformist, doing what others say is the proper course of action. Slow moving at first, it turns into a beautiful commentary on the uncritical choices we make and how the consequences of such choices have an effect on us and our relationships (despite our own denial). It is also beautifully shot, many of the scenes will be in my head for a long time.

December 15, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth - 5

Pretty simple really. This film is about Al Gore over the course of a year when he travelled the world giving a presentation on global warming. Most of the film is the actual presentation, with some smaller (very small) parts that reflect on Gore's life and family. As documentaries go, it isn't bad, but I think it focuses too much on the presentation at the expense of actually documenting Al Gore, or doing justice to the facts and insights about global warming. It should have choose to either be a film about global warming, or about Al Gore. It seemed like a bit of a stretch to do both. The nice thing about the film is that if flows nicely from scene to scene, maintaining a relatively coherent narrative. The audience gets a picture of what Gore has been doing since winning (uh, I mean losing) the presidential election in 2000. I would have also liked to see the film deal with Michael Crichton's book State of Fear, which makes a counter-argument (complexifies and problematizes) about global warming.

December 14, 2006

Apocalypto - 5

Or should I say, Mel Gibson's Apocaplyto? The marketing of this film was just weird...Mel Gibson is the only big name, and the previews make this film seem like an action film, which it is...sorta. Granted the marketer's probably had there hands full, with all of Gibson's antics and that the entire film is in the Yukatek Maya language (Another problem associated with this is that I think it makes the audience less suspicious of the fact that this is a fictional account- some of the dialogue is definitely contemporary English translated back into this ancient language). What made this film better than I thought was that the plot is actually (believe it or not) more complex than I thought it would be. It has all the usual film elements; gore, action, a man driven to save his family, an oracle, and other homage's to many previous films. But is it also does give a picture of what the times and historical period might have looked like. An interesting film, but not a great one.
Apparently I'm not the only one conflicted about this film. Here is a quote that somewhat sums it up for me:

"The difference between a great movie and a merely acceptable one often isn’t a matter of what you put in, but what you leave out. "Apocalypto" could have done more with less."
If the film had ended five minutes earlier, I think it would have been a better film.

December 12, 2006

MASH - 7

This is one of Robert Altman's early films (He is one of the great film directors of all-time; McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Player, Shortcuts, Gosford Park, A Prairie Home Companion). He has had enormous influence on other directors, most notably PT Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love). I have probably been overly harsh on some of his earlier film (follow the links above), but Altman has the gift of making complex films, usually with a massive cast.
This film is a war satire about a medical unit serving in the Korean War. This means there are plenty of gags and guys fooling around, surgery and good health take a back seat to trying to have fun, and a possible golf trip to Japan. At the same time, it also highlights how humor is used in times of great stress and trauma to deal with the huge questions of life that arise when we are confronted with our own mortality. Both an entertaining and thoughtful film (and a great use of the Army Base's PA system).

December 11, 2006

Blood Diamond - 7

Blood Diamond gives us a picture of the brutal side of the Western pursuit of the bling-bling lifestyle. The film follows three characters each with their own reasons and motivations for pursuing a buried diamond. Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) has made a living being a mercenary and diamond smuggler for a major European diamond company. When he hears that a poor farmer, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), who has been forced to work in the diamond mines, has hidden a large diamond in the jungle, he uses Solomon’s displaced family as a lure to get to the diamond that might allow Danny to leave Africa forever. Along the way, they meet a desperate and compassionate journalist, Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), who is looking for the story that can change Western views of the diamond industry.
Each of the characters is continually faced with choices that they know will define who they are. Each of them are complex people who struggle to know what to do. The line between right and wrong has become hazy, as the bullets and hatred spread because of the greedy pursuit of diamonds. As the struggle becomes harder and they can now only trust each other, they come to recognize that they are starting to be the people they hate. They have forgotten who they wanted to be- who they were meant to be.
In a key scene near the end of the film, Solomon must remind his own son, who has been taken in by the rebels and can now kill unflinching, who he is. He pleads with him to once again come back to being a son of the father. The son has been taken in by the false hope of a utopia brought about by Uzi’s. The father reminds him that he is defined by his love of family and the hope he has, not by the false power of a gun.
It is a great film, becuase its politics, heroics, and emotion never go over the top, they remain within a very human realm, which is what all films should be in the pursuit of.

The School of Rock - 6

Jack Black is great as the pretend substitute teacher, who teaches what he knows- his own failed attempt to start a rock band. As a substitute (using his roommate's name and teacher certification), Dewey Finn, is inspired by his fourth-grade students musical abilities and makes up a rock band project for them so he (and them, if they must) can be in the city's battle of the bands competition. While the plot isn't particularly original (the usual teacher inspires students/precarious situation that could lead to a change or a catastrophe), the execution is great, with the kids almost stealing the show from Jack Black. It is a funny film and reminded me of my high school music teacher who thought it was important that we all know the history of rock and roll.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie - 4

A rather obscure French film, that is known for it's surrealism, and the use of dreams, and dreams within dreams. The scenes are rather bizarre, but the characters just adapts and adjust to any new information and plot developments. The only point I could think of is that it shows the masks and layers of how people think about their identity. The title intrigued me, and I think there is something in this film about class, although it is not made clear in the randomness of the film. An interesting film in the history and development of film, but obscure and random enough not to see.

December 09, 2006

Tideland - 5

The first moments of this film are director Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys, Time Bandits, The Brothers Grimm, Brazil, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) explaining how there will be a myriad of responses to this (faithful?- I haven't read it) but weird adaptation of the book by Mitch Cullin. Some will like it (mostly people who are Gilliam fans already), some will hate it (those that are in need of a more simplistic narrative structure), and those that don't know what to say. While I am part of the first two groups, I guess that actually makes me have the third response. I think the film is interesting and excites the imagination, but it leaves most of the work of responding up to you. Plenty of valid reasons can be given for all the possible responses. I would explain the film as an expressionist film about a young girl (Jodelle Ferland, who as an actress is well beyond her years) whose parents are heroine addicts, and who moves to a vacant house in the middle of a large wheat field. She eventually meets up with the neighbors a strange older women blinded eye and her son, an epileptic with a large scar on his head from brain surgery (Yeah, its that normal that you followed all of that without going: "What the....?"). The crowd is small for this film, but seeing the film will only confirm whether you think the medium of film might be an art form, or just a entertainment-money-machine.

December 07, 2006

Vertigo - 7

Talking about this film gives way to much away. This is a must-see film. You will not understand M. Night Shyamalan or Wes Anderson fully until you do (they are highly influenced by Hitchcock). The gist of the film is a psychological thriller, involving a retired detective (James Stewart- who also stars in Rear Window) who suffers from vertigo, and a love affair with a women (Kim Novak) he is supposed to be following. There are plenty more plot twist and intrigue but that would give the surprise away. Hitchcock has the gift of drawing the audience into the plot, I was constantly on edge waiting for the next plot development to see where the story was going. And just when I relaxed because I thought I had it figured out, something new was thrown my way. A great film (I think I've caught the highly contagious Hitchcock bug). Not to mention that this film is a technical work of genius as well.

The Bicycle Thief - 7

This is a classic (1948) Italian film, even being recognized with some Oscar's in the US. The story is about desperation, as a man who finally gets a job and sells some necessities to get a bicycle required for the job, has it stolen the first day. Then, with his son, he must search all of Rome to try to recover it. The situation continues to get more and more desperate, until the title of the film changes meaning (If you've seen it you know what I mean- although there has been some controversy that the film title should be translated as Bicycle Thieves). A very well done film.

December 05, 2006

All Quiet on the Western Front - 6

Made in 1930, this film is based on the anti-war book by Erich Maria Remarque. The story focuses on Albert- a young German military recruit in WWI. The film shows his mother's grief about the prospect of losing him, and his father's pride in the honor of fighting for his country. This tension frames the rest of the film.
Having more than 75 years of history between this film's creation and my viewing it is quite a gap. I am not sure what to make of it. It has been an often banned film, because of its pessimism about war and heroism. It is a very honest movie about the feelings of those involved in war, and the real conversations of war time, like what are we fighting for exactly? This film, unfortunately, has lost none of its relevance. It's acute perception of the fear that lies deep in the human condition is poignant and made vivid to the audience.

The Cider House Rules - 5

This is the film based on John Irving's character study novel. This film is less of a story, and more about a young man's search for home. Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) has lived his life as an orphan, apprenticed by Dr. Wilber Larch (Michael Caine) to deliver babies. He also learns how to perform abortions but refuses to participate. He eventually leaves the orphanage to see the outside world, falling in love with Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron), learning about race working at an apple orchard (the reference for the title of this film comes from the workers rules that are posted but never followed). A good film, that captures the universality of the search, as well as the beautiful setting of Maine set during WWII.

December 04, 2006

Love Actually - 7

I watched this twice last week (It was for a movie discussion). Not much to add to what I have said before (Christmas 2004 and 2005)
Richard Curtis (Bridget Jones's Diary, and The Edge of Reason, as well as the excellent The Girl in the Cafe) wrote and directed this film. I like how the film covers the many aspects and types of love that there are in a series of vignettes that all cohere in the end. It makes the case that love in the end is how we pursue connections- and that maybe it ought to be that way. Now that I have seen this film for three consecutive Christmas', I may make it a tradition(?).