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

January 30, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth - 7

Guillermo del Toro has the gift of seamlessly putting the real and the otherworldly side by side without the audience blinking. The story here is both beyond belief and it succeeds in helping the audience suspend their disbelief. Set in Spain during WWII, young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) moves with her mother to live with a new father who is a military commander in charge of suppressing a rebel movement that hides in the surrounding woods. Her mother is pregnant, and it becomes apparent that this second marriage is more for political reasons than any sort of love. Ofelia's love of reading allows her to explore the surrounding area and hear the story of who she really is: the princess of a world beneath the earth. A fairy leads her to a faun who tells her the tasks she must complete in order to take her place back in the kingdom. These two stories and world are weaved together magically and with visual brilliance. The harsh and brutal reality of the war is intentionally juxtaposed to Ofelia's fantasy world, until the very end of the film where the two worlds collide in a heart wrenching confrontation. In an NPR interview, del Toro talked about how the imagination is a way to cope with childhood traumas and the reality of evil in the world, not as a way to escape it but as a way of survival. While a portrait of a child's experience, this is neither a film for children nor a fantasy film. Instead this film explores the depth of human evil, and the imagination required to recognize the good, to love, and to hope.

January 29, 2007

Sherrybaby - 5

Sherry (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has just been released from prison, clean from her addiction to drugs, and wants badly to start over new, with her brother and his wife that are taking care of her young daughter Alexis (Ryan Simpkins- child actress extraordinaire). It is not as easy as trying really, really hard. In prison she finally got into a routine of staying clean, and she was away from the influences that encouraged her to sell her sexuality. Now that she is back in this world, she is confronted with trying to find a job, being accountable to a parole officer, and dealing with the abuses of her father and a hard family life. She tries to make the best of it, but going this road alone is far too difficult. In the end, she recognizes this, and knows that healing can only come about by becoming vulnerable and asking for help. An interesting film, that shows that transformation is possible, if we can find others who we can help and be helped by.
This film was written and directed by Laurie Collyer. This film has some similarities to the film Monster with Charlize Theron, but ends in hope rather than despair.


Over the last week or so, I have seen a few films that I have blogged about before. Interestingly, I like all of them....
Changing Lanes
The Squid and the Whale
The Girl in the Cafe
World Trade Center
Re-watching film can bring out new ideas, and make things you saw previously more explicit...it is also sort of test to see if you really liked it or not.

January 24, 2007

The Persuaders - 6

This is an unofficial sequel to Douglas Rushkoff's previous PBS Frontline documentary, The Merchants of Cool. That project focused on how teens are marketed too, how an industry is run on the tapping in on and producing "cool." This piece goes further into the world of marketing. With all of the clutter, ads on everything, how is advertising suppose to work? The answer is the code and use of language and how it affects people. Rushkoff also explores the new trend toward marketing to individuals by use of demographic information that is stored in company databases. The game is no longer to pitch a message, it is to pitch the message particular consumers will need to hear in order to buy the product. Rushkoff makes an interesting case, but only scratches the surface of explaining the complexity of marketing that is always changing to re-adapt to the changing conditions which it often is responsible for creating. What is most interesting about this piece (and The Merchants of Cool) is that it explores questions of the deepest human desires: to belong, to know who we are, and ultimately to find happiness. This is what makes Rushkoff and the persuaders so great...and so scary.

January 22, 2007

The Last King of Scotland - 6

The Last King of Scotland is the name Ugandan President Idi Amin gave himself because of his fascination with Scotland and his rebellion against England as a colonizers (he is played by Forest Whitaker, who won the Golden Globe for his performance in this film, he is also good in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai). He presided over Uganda from 1971-1979. It is undisputed that Amin was brutal, but estimates of the death toll range from 80,000 to 500,000 (The movie goes with 300,000).
The story of the film follows Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), as he becomes Amin's personal doctor, trying to do good, only to become a personal confidant that is soon participating in Amin's paranoia and need for control. Amin is a complex character in this film, being funny, human, and ultimately, disturbing. The story is about the struggle Garrigan goes through in order to try not to lose his humanity. He soon find himself engulfed in a world where he no longer belongs, and he must make the choice to remain committed to the good, or ensnared by the selfishness of evil.
There are real events that this film chronicles, but it is important to remember that the main character, Nicholas Garrigan is a creation of the journalist Giles Foden, in order to tell this story. I think it is important to know this, if not before you see the film, at the very least after you have seen it. It will save you from saying something embarrassing (or at the very least something false) like a number of my fellow moviegoers.
I think it is vital for the audience to remember that this film adds to the complexity of popular knowledge about Africa, the solution to the crisis cannot be as simple as getting rid of corruption or handing out food and money to nations, the solution will have to take into account the complexity of the problem. The possibility of failure is always there, but so is the creativity of the human imagination for positive change.

January 19, 2007

back to Emo...

The title of this post is intended to be a pun. When I was 4, my family moved to a town called Emo, in Ontario Canada (see the sweet google satellite images), I moved away from there when I was in 6th grade and have never been back. There is also a genre of music called Emo. I learned of this in college and had to chuckle (there are all sorts of good one liners like: "I used to live in Emo, now I like prog rock more," or "That is so Emo, you know, fishing off the Pointe"). OK, I guess that's only funny to me. Anyway, I have become reacquainted with Emo through the music of Brand New and My Chemical Romance, both pretty good. While I'm in Emo, I would also recommend Jimmy Eat World's Futures as one of my favorite Emo albums.
I am also listening to the new Switchfoot album, like all their others it has its moments (especially the songs Awakening and Yesterdays), overall not as bad as I suspected (no thanks to Paste Magazine's bad pick of sampler song).

January 15, 2007

Idiocracy - 6

This is a great film about the "dumbing down" of America from writer/director Mike Judge (Office Space). An average Joe (Luke Wilson) and a Ho (Maya Rudolph) get frozen in a military experiment and are eventually jarred from there slumber to find that it is 2505. The world is a very different place. So dumb in fact that if Lloyd and Harry from Dumb and Dumber strolled in they would be seen as tragic characters for being to rational in their stupidity. Which is what the main characters find when they reemerge after a 500 year gap. They were pretty average when they started the freezing process and now they should be in charge of the government, which they eventually do. The film ends with a rather interesting and deep comment on the anomie (feelings of social alienation) that come with knowledge in relation to the social world that one lives in. It is not a happily ever after; it is merely survival. It begs the question of whether anything more is possible. I suspect the audience is suppose to answer yes, and then do something about it now. While a funny film, the moral of the story comes across well: go read a book or two and vote intelligently in 2008.

The Company - 6

It helped that I watched this with a friend who had grown up learning ballet. This film is a project of Neve Campbell (who spent a year retraining in ballet to play the part), who is also the main character of the film, and director Robert Altman. This film has Altman's signature overlapping dialogue which makes the film feel like it might be a documentary rather than a fictional account of the real Joffrey Ballet of Chicago (which worked with the film to make it). The film has very little plot, and instead focuses on the dynamic and politics involved in a ballet company. The best parts of the film are the full length performances, if you didn't already think this was an art, this film takes it to you to a new level. The film opened me up to a world I hadn't thought about, which was helped by the films somber and reflective tone.

The Parallax View - 5

Warren Beatty stars in this 70's film about politics and conspiracy. A senator gets assassinated and journalist Joesph Frady wants to get at the bottom of why all the witness are now dying off. He has a hunch that it is all connected to The Parallax Corporation, so he signs up in order to infiltrate it and expose it. While a good film over all and somewhat reminiscent of The Conformist and Nashville, the film ends in a sort of political nihilism. The highlight is a very well constructed montage that is used by the corporation for brainwashing its victims.

Half Nelson - 7

This is not your typical film about a teacher in an urban school. Most of the films in that category usually work on the premise that the teacher comes in as a sort of renegade savior, and changes students, the school, and the world. There are, of course, degrees of this. Dead Poet's Society, The History Boys, and Stand and Deliver do a pretty good job of staying in the realm of the real, which gives them more relevance to actual situations. While films like Dangerous Minds and Coach Carter, make education trivial and simple if the teacher just asserts themselves. This film does the opposite of these film. While you are sympathetic to the main character, Dan (Ryan Gosling) who is a junior high history teacher in an urban school. He is somewhat of a renegade teacher in that he frequently leaves the set out curriculum to give his students his own view of how history works. Added to all this is the important fact that he is hiding his drug addiction from everyone. One of his students, Drey (played excellently by Shareeka Epps), accidentally discovers this secret and their relationship is forever changed. The rest of the film develops the nuances of this relationship and how it changes both Drey and Dan. This secret becomes the thing that connects them to the truth and while it doesn't ultimately set them free, it allows them to recognize the potential to be set free.

January 11, 2007

The Illusionist - 6

Having seen The Prestige first, I had the feeling of a bit of deja vu (I would have probably liked this one better if I had seen it first). This film is also a period piece about a magician, but in this case it it more of a love story/mystery than a competition for being the best. Edward Norton plays Eisenheim, the illusionist, who has been separated in his teens by the class system from his true love, Sophie (Jessica Biel, who is making a name for herself after a somewhat bad start). Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) is the narrator trying to uncover the magic, and the mystery. A well made film by director/writer Neil Burger, that tells it story well and efficiently (It doesn't waste time trying to set up the film).

January 08, 2007

Children of Men - 7

In this dystopian story, loosely adapted from the novel by P.D. James and directed by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron (Y tu mama tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), the world in 2027 has seen the loss of all human fertility. The most recent news is that the youngest person on the planet, an 18-year-old “Baby Diego” has just been killed, and Great Britian is a police state, with many refugee camps. Into this situation, Theo Faron (Clive Owen) soon finds himself caught up with a rebel group that is run by his former wife, Julian (Julianne Moore). At first he is unsure of their motivations, but it seems important and serious. Eventually Theo is let in on the secret; the group is trying to protect, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), a refugee woman who has become pregnant. Theo soon becomes the sole protector who can possibly get Kee to The Human Project. Theo’s friend, Jasper (Michael Caine), is the spiritual advisor of the film, talking about how faith, hope, and love are connected in this drive to save Kee, and possibly be the only hope for humanity.
The weight of the story is intense- it is a picture of the future with very little hope. The intensity it intentional, but it is lightened by some humorous dialogue. Politically this film has many parallels to films like V for Vendetta and Blood Diamond, both of which make a critique of contemporary culture in America.
The film focuses on the tension between the masses that have lost hope in a future and the apathy and violence that has escalated because of this and the hope that Theo and those that see Kee as a possibility of a different future. Throughout the film it is this “miracle” alone that can awaken the value of life and hope (the parallels to the gospel are pretty apparent). The film ask the important question: Is life possible without hope?

January 06, 2007

Little Children - 7

This film is part satire about suburbia and part drama. Adapted from the novel (2004) by its author, Tom Perrotta (Election), and directed by Todd Field (In the Bedroom), they have made a film that is an intense look at the dynamics of human relationships. At times it is poking fun at the absurdity of mechanical relationships, while also showing the tenderness and need for authentic relationships.
The story revolves around a small community, with its outward social norms, governed mostly by the stay at home mom's as they get out by taking their children to the local park and swimming pool. These norms are put to the test as a stay at home dad changes the dynamics, as well as the pedophile who has finished his sentence. What starts a funny film with hilarious voice overs about the absurdity of the characters, soon turns into a heart wrenching drama, when you realize that sympathy for the characters are possible. These are not cardboard cut outs, they are complex people, who in there attempt to make sense of life begin to act more and more like...well, little children. This film is great at making you laugh at yourself, as well as reflect on the deeper parts of what makes us human: those things that we all too often turn away from, and deceive ourselves.
Great performances by Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Phyllis Somerville, Jackie Earle Haley, Noah Emmerich, and Jennifer Connelly.

I Confess - 7

This is an amazing film. Not only is it directed by Hitchcock, but the story is subtle and intriguing. A murder is confessed to, Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift),a catholic priest. Logan then must keep the man confidence, even as he becomes the prime suspect, the only way to clear his name casts more suspicion and doubt, as his alibi is a former love (Anne Baxter- a great performance), from before his days as a priest. The only way for the truth to come to light is if the real murder will confess. Like most of Hitchcock's films, I Confess hovers between genre's using elements from noir, suspense, and drama to tell this intricate story, that keeps you guessing. This is a must-see.

January 05, 2007

The History Boys - 6

While this film is going to get some references to being Dead Poet's Society II, it is in fact not. It does take place at a school, and is about a group of smart students...but the comparisons end about there. The film is much more a comedy (with seriousness just under the surface in the early scenes in the film) and developing into a drama as the characters develop from kids into maturing adults. This is a very British film, it has that sort of humor, wit, and sincerity. The story develops as a boys prep school allows its smartest students to have its own classes as they prepare for the testing and interviewing needed to get into Oxford and Cambridge, the most reputable universities in England. They have an old professor who is interested in them learning a broad spectrum of the humanities, with a new, young teacher who is suppose to teach them the politics of "getting in." The tension between these two approaches challenge the boys, as they try to answer the fundamental question: "what is the relationship between learning and life?" This film does a perfect job of being funny and serious about both the mundane and the esoteric. It never comes off as preachy or over-dramatic, while still intelligently engaging important questions for conversations about the purposes of education.
This is the film version of the popular play that has been playing in the UK since 2004 by Alan Bennett.

January 04, 2007

Wonder Boys - 6

Adapted from the novel by Michael Chabon (an adaptation of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh comes out later this year) and set and filmed in Pittsburgh, this film tells the simple and complicated story of an English professor, Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), who has just gotten divorced and whose life seems in shambles as he is still working on a book that seems to never have an ending. Amidst all this, a flirtatious student (Katie Holmes) is renting out a room, his gay editor (Robert Downey Jr.) shows up with a transvestite friend, and his best student (Tobey Maguire) needs his help. While mostly a character study of the story is full of funny situations and deep conversations about writing and life. Ultimately the theme of making choices emerges and each character comes to realize that the consequences of their choices are important and need to be made decisively if they are to be happy. In the end, Grady decides to write his own life- committing to the mother (Frances McDormand) of his child and abandoning his addictions.

January 03, 2007

Psycho - 6

This is a great and classic film. The ranking is in comparison with Hitchcock's films. I didn't enjoy this one as much as some of his other films. It is a much more complex film than its reputation give it credit for. It is also a true horror film in that it focuses more on the psychology of killing and fear, than on blood, guts, and death. The story starts as a love story, turns into a crime drama, and then horror as the Bates motel turns into a death trap. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals some money from her work at a real estate office, and is on the run to escape with her lover, when bad weather means stopping for a night at a motel, run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). The rest of the film is the search for the money, and by default Marion. By the time the truth is revealed, it is weirder than anyone suspected.

January 02, 2007

Top 26 (+1) of 2006

I guess it's time to make a list. I'm afraid I'll have to be "that guy that likes obscure films that keep him on the level with those 'film types,' and cast out as even thinking of putting Over the Hedge on this list." Let the ridicule begin:-)
note: remember there are films that are still in my Netflix queue that I haven't seen yet (that count as 2006 films even though only 10 film critics got to see them in 2006).
A Scanner Darkly
Thank You for Smoking
The Departed
The Queen
The Devil Wears Prada
Little Miss Sunshine
United 93
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
The Squid and the Whale
Casino Royale
Blood Diamond
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
A Prairie Home Companion
Inside Man
The Science of Sleep
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Stranger than Fiction
World Trade Center
The Last Kiss
Clerks II
Superman Returns
The Prestige
(+1)And an old film (new to me this year) that still hovers in my memory:
Paris, Texas
Also, watching Hithcock's films this year has been a highlight (especially- Vertigo, Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, Notorious, The Birds)

Scotland, PA - 6

This is a very funny re-telling of Shakespeare's Macbeth. Writer/director Billy Morrissette tells it best in the Special Features: the inspiration for the film came to him when he was in high school reading the play and working at a fast food joint-where he had thoughts of killing his boss. Its a good thing he took it out on the written page instead. He also talks about how those that love Shakespeare and fight for it purity were not impressed, but high schooler's and stoners loved it.
In the small town of Scotland, PA Duncan's is the only fast food place (it's the 70's and Bad Company is the only music that exists in the town apparently) and a mutiny (revolution, overthrow) is soon to take place by Joe "Mac" Macbeth (James LeGros) and his girlfriend Pat Macbeth (Maura Tierney). This film is mostly a comedy, while also ending in the true Shakespearean tragedy that it is. Christopher Walken plays Lieutenant McDuff, who investigates the crime, and is the funniest character in the film.

January 01, 2007

Whisper of the Heart - 6

Hayao Miyazaki (Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds) wrote the screen play for this anime, which is a growing up story of a girl who is discovering her love and gift for imagination, reading, and writing. She soon meets the boy of her dre..., well OK, not "of her dreams" but a friend who is also trying to pursue his love of handcrafting violins. True love takes time to develop, when you're not even in high school yet. It is an interesting tale, and won of Miyazaki's most down to earth work (literally:-), but not his best.