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

February 27, 2007

Infamous - 6

This film has the disadvantage of coming out the year after Philip Seymour Hoffman won best actor for his role as/in Capote. This film stars Toby Jones as Truman Capote, Sandra Bullock as Nelle Harper Lee, Daniel Craig as Perry Smith, and is adapted and directed by Douglas McGrath. The story is similar in that it follows Capote's relationship to the small town he based his book In Cold Blood, and his intimate involvement with telling the victim's and killer's story. But this film, while having lighter moments than Capote, doesn't quite get at the internal struggle that Hoffman pulled off so well. A good film about the intriguing process of trying to write an original work, but hindered by its timing so close to a similar film. The rest of the all-star cast includes: Jeff Daniels, Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis, and Gwyneth Paltrow.

February 26, 2007

Amazing Grace - 7

As biopics go, this film is as good as Walk the Line and Ray. This film is about the life of William Wilberforce, especially his political work in bring about the abolition of the slave trade in Britain in 1807. This film chronicles a small part of his life as he grows more and more confident of his convictions and influence in the political sphere. The film highlights the people that were around him that could keep him going, especially his life-long friend William Pitt. The film mentions a few other important parts of his life in passing: the Clapham Sect that he was a part of, his friendship with former slave-ship captain turned composer- John Newton, and his fast romance with Barbara. I feel like I had an advantage in knowing a lot about Wilberforce before seeing the film, viewers with less background may need to do some research following viewing in order to fully understand the film, but this film is a much needed introduction to a great example of a man struggling and finding his vocation.

Man of the Year - 6

With the stability of Robin Williams as comedian-turned presidential candidate and Laura Linney to give this dramatic credibility, this is a good and timely film. This past summer Rollingstone ran a cover with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as running mates for the 2008 elections. Williams, plays the fictional comedian, Tom Dobbs, who is convinced to try to run as an independent by fans. His writer (Lewis Black) and manager (Christopher Walken) run his campaign like a show, and come election day, he wins. The plot is complicated by a conspiracy, which works as a sort of minor diversion so that the political and humorous points can be made. The film is funny and fun to watch, and the plot is not over done by throwing a glitch in to drive the plot. A truthful and at times harsh critique of our current political system. The film makes great points about how the system is entrenched in the status quo, and that it might actually take either a computer glitch or a for politics to become entertainment for the system to actually change. The film doesn't side with either cynicism/apathy or activism, but opens the audiences view to the choices available, and it is a choice.

February 25, 2007

Do movies matter?

Neal Gabler, in today's LA Times op-ed, argues no. In our current postmodern age of celebrity gossip, the Internet and narcissism, we star in our own narratives on Myspace and Facebook, no longer finding connections in the communal stories of film.

February 24, 2007

19 hopes...

Vertigo Magazine has printed a list of Nineteen Hopes for an Activist Cinema. It is a good list for understanding what good films can do. (Thanks Gideon)

February 22, 2007

Three Times - 4

This Chinese film has three parts, as the title suggests. They are each love stories set in different contexts. The first part takes place in 1966 and involves a man who leaves for military service, only to return and search for his love. The second part is set in 1911, and shows a love story in the context of a much more structured society. The final vignette is set in 2005 and shows the influence and disconnect of the digital age. It's hard to say whether there even is any love or possibility for connection in a world that continually overwhelms the senses. This film has very sparse dialogue, the middle vignette using the silent film method of title cards. Qi Shu and Chen Chang play the leads in each of the vignettes. A well made film that was hard to get into.

February 18, 2007

La Moustache - 3

It's an intriguing premise. Marc decides to shave off his moustache, and when no one notices it becomes a question of whose memory is correct and what exactly happened. The film starts out well giving the impression of a comedy, but then soon gets caught up in being too abstract to know what is going on...suddenly Marc is off to Hong Kong. It seems that the point of the film may be that life is more uncertain than we think. But I think that might be a little generous. The film is well made, technically, using sharp images and sound to tell the story. But the plot never seems to pan out, and I was lost.

February 15, 2007

Catch a Fire - 7

The preview of this film did not excite me. It seemed like it was trying to turn a historical narrative about South African apartheid into a Hollywood action film. I was pleasantly surprised to find this film a much more nuanced and inspiring story than advertised. The movies starts out as the usual tension between an apolitical Patrick (Derek Luke), who has a young family and though he sees the injustice of apartheid realizes that his resistance would jeopardize the little happiness he and his family have. So he goes to his job at an oil refinery and coaches soccer. It is only after Nic (Tim Robbins), a white policeman on the search for terrorists, brings him in for questioning and torture that he recognizes the politics of his life. Through this he comes to be an activist and joins rebels in Mozambique only to return later to try to fight against apartheid in South Africa. The cat and mouse then begin for real and bombs go off. The end of the film then becomes a history lesson as the film moves forward to the release of prisoners of Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was also imprisoned. The film then concludes with the ultimate decision between revenge and forgiveness, foreshadowing what was to come in South Africa- The Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Marie Antoinette - 5

This is a biopic about the queen of France (Kirsten Dunst), who at age 15 was married off by a noble Austrian family in order to create a political alliance. Marie is homesick initially and needs to adjust to the mores and different culture. This film is much more a character and history study about France in and King Louis XVI (a an overly stoic Jason Swartzman) than a plot. Director Sofia Coppola uses contemporary music, and colorful images to dive deep into the feeling of the times and Marie and the conflict of these feelings. She only partly succeeds, and the film is somewhat flat because the emotion and depth of the characters that she has to work with. Read Paul's more charitable review here.

February 13, 2007

Flags of our Fathers(7) and Letters from Iwo Jima(6)

In February and March of 1945, America and Japan struggled in a 35 day battle over an island in the Pacific Ocean named Iwo Jima. Clint Eastwood (director of Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River) has made two film chronicling the lives of American (Flags of our Fathers) and Japanese (Letters from Iwo Jima) soldiers.
Both of these films follow in the anti-war tradition by focusing on the human face of social conflicts. Flags tells the story of three men, John "Doc" Bradley, Ira Hayes and Rene Gagnon, who became famous for being in a photo, raising a flag on Iwo Jima (see above). They are soon sent for by the government to be the spokes persons for raising money for the war effort. The story is told by the son of Bradley one of the flag raisers. Using interviews and flashbacks, the story comes to a climax in the final scenes when Bradley tells his son about the catastrophe of war and the construction of heroes. The main theme of Flags is the way in which we define heroes and give political meaning to our actions. The film does a great job of making the viewer more reflective about the complexity of war.
Letters is a more traditional film, following the lives of Saigo, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi and Baron Nishi, as they dig in for the long and continually more bleak battle ahead. In flashbacks you come to know these men and the tension they feel in fighting for their country and the longing for home and family. In the end, these men realize that fighting is not the purpose of their lives, rather it is the dignity and worth they have as human beings in life and in death. Rather than killing themselves as so many of their fellow officers do, they value the honor of their lives. Like Flags, this film also allows the viewer to critically reflect on the tragedy of war. The directing is well done and there are good performances by Ryan Phillippe, Adam Beach, Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya.

February 12, 2007

Jet Li's Fearless - 5

In what is called Jet Li's last Martial Arts film, he plays a historical figure Huo Yuanjia who came to be a national hero at the beginning of the 20th century. The beginning and end are full of great fights, while the middle of the film attempts to give the film a story to explain Huo's reason for being. He is a cocky youngster who wants to fight to show his power and to be feared. This eventually leads to some revenge by a rival, and the loss of Huo's mother and daughter. At this point Huo recognizes his vulnerability, and grieves in a rural community where he befriends a blind women. It is during this time that he realizes that he must first be able to respect himself before others will. And that beating people is not enough to fulfill his longings. He eventually leaves to start a school (Jingwu Sports Federation, which is still around today) and fights for national pride against foreign heavyweights from US, Europe and Japan. He never again fights to the death, but shows his opponents his fearlessness by restraining the fatal blow. "Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself makes you fearless." - Lao Tzu

Snakes on a Plane - 1

Best line of the film: "Snakes on Crack?" Now, that's a film title! This film is so bad, that you are actually laughing at the next scene before you have even gotten there...making predictions on the plethora of ways that poisonous snakes can kill people in ways that you could only make up on film. The CGI technicians and set designers only got enough funding to make the snakes look half like real snakes so no worries that you'd actually see these things in real life. The film also has plenty of fun- making fun of the stereotypes that usually go into these generic films. The white people (Julianna Margulies and Nathan Phillips) are all stupid, the black people (Samuel L. Jackson and Kenan Thompson) are the only one's smart enough and lucky enough to save the doomed plane, and the people you'd think are gay, turn out not to be. And we all know that if you happen to be in a traumatic event with an attractive (ok, hot) member of the opposite sex who is your same age and you both have one thing in common, then you are morally obligated to hook up at the end of the film. If you died in the course of the film, then you deserved it...you should have known that snakes are a major threat to your airline safety...read the safety pamphlet people... :-)

February 08, 2007

The OH in Ohio - 4

This film tries to be as honest as possible about sex. The story revolves around a long married couple, Priscilla (Parker Posey) and Jack (Paul Rudd), that is sexually frustrated because Priscilla is unable to reach orgasm. Jack ends up having a fling with a high school student (Mischa Barton) in his biology class, and Priscilla figures she is better off alone, and ends up finding a chance at love with Wayne (Danny DeVito). The film has its honest moments where the characters start to realize the power and meaning of their own sexuality, but as the story moves on it fails to develop, and then it suddenly ends as if the characters and director got bored. The film's best points are that the comedy comes from the non-cliche sex jokes, that most other films end lowering themselves to (if nothing else you learn something about anatomy, thankfully without the visuals).

February 06, 2007

Volver - 6

I'm afraid I can't clarify the plot of this film, if you haven't already seen it. Questions like: Who is the ghost? Really? Who died? How? are not easily made sense of in Pedro Almodovar's (Talk to Her, and the unimpressive- Bad Education) well weaved character and culture study. If one is patient I think it all makes sense in the end. The plot surrounds two sisters, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and Sole (Lola Duenas of The Sea Inside), and their understanding of their mother's death. This film is exclusively about women and the trauma that their relationships with each other and the men in their lives cause. At points funny the film develops into a drama where the characters are looking to find healing from the complex hurt of their pasts. This film highlights the passing down of tradition and wisdom from generation to generation through the women.

February 03, 2007

Notes on a Scandal - 7

In this high drama, Barbara (a very good Judi Dench), an established elementary school teacher, befriends the new teacher Sheba (Cate Blanchett). Pretty normal thing to happen in a school right? You'd think, but this friendship turns into a psychological study of the highest order. As their relationship develops they are further and further entangled. All of the small choices take on massive significance, and the slow moving roller coast of the relationship soon picks up speed as the two women's relationship becomes a game nobody wants to play. Director Richard Eyre (Iris) keeps the tension building to a climatic and crashing ending. A good exploration of the psychology of relationships and human longings and desires.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated - 5

This is a documentary about the film rating system in America, run by Motion Picture Association of America. How films are rated is mostly a secret kept in a locked down building in LA. Run for more than 30 years by Jack Valenti, the MPAA has confused Hollywood by seemingly arbitrarily categorizing films. Director Kirby Dick (he also did the film about postmodern philosopher Derrida) wants to investigate what the rating standards are. He interviews directors (Kevin Smith, Matt Stone, Darren Aronoksky, Kimberly Pierce, and others) that have had to edit their films to get an R rating, rather than an NC-17. An NC-17 rating chases away theatres from showing and promoting it, which means less funding from the production studio. The highlight of the film is when the private investigators that Dick has hired are able to follow people out of the locked down building and exposes the rating board as big studio executives, rather than the everyday family folks, Valenti claims they are. Like you would suspect, this film is rated NC-17, since it shows most of the scenes that the MPAA told others to cut.

Saint of 9/11 - 5

This is a documentary about one of the first causalities of 9/11, a NYFD chaplain named Mychal Judge. Ian McKellen narrates as friends and acquaintances talk about his life. The film starts out as a tribute to a man who loved his neighbor and showed love wherever he went. Near the end of the film, there is a sudden shift to the fact that he was gay. The political undertone is that because he was a gay Fransican priest, that he was only recognized by friends as gay and had to play a part to most others because of the stigma. The film stays at a rather superficial level and ends up just being a tribute. The making of the film is somewhat due to the fact that Judge was not recognized as a victim of 9/11 by the mainstream media or political figures. An interesting story for conversations, but not a very well made documentary- it is mostly a few short segments that don't add up to a whole film.