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

April 29, 2007

The Pervert's Guide to Cinema - 7

The title of this film comes from the fact that this film looks at the art of cinema from a psychoanalytic perspective which means lots of theory based on Freud and Lacan- which deal a lot with human sexuality. This film is somewhat of an educational film in that it shows clips of films selected by philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek, interspersed with his analysis of film. Zizek being a Hegelian philosopher, this film has three parts in which Zizek makes the case that film is able to provide the viewer with great insight into the subconscious. By helping the viewer know how to desire, they can then have knowledge of "the Real." Surprisingly, this film says this and more abstract notions with greater clarity and the examples from film make for a good learning experience of hard concepts through practical application. Zizek uses a lot of films from Hitchcock and David Lynch, but also films by Ingmar Bergman, and popular films like The Matrix and The Wizard of Oz. Part of the hope that Zizek has for people is that by connecting culture and abstract ideas everyone can become somewhat of an everyday philosopher. I agree, and recommend this film as a starting point for that project.

April 28, 2007

Tenacious D in: The Pick of Destiny - 2

This film is like if Disney tried to remake This is Spinal Tap. This film uses a cliche and corny storyline to tell the story of the fictional formation of a real band: Tenacious D. My guess is that Jack Black found a short cut in promoting his band by making a film about them. I realize you have to take this film with a grain of salt, but even that doesn't make this film funny or worth watching. The film is half road trip adventure to steal the magic pick and half "you can overcome your parents discouragement through hard work and rock'n'roll rebellion." Most of the jokes fall flat and the film doesn't work as a satire of...anything.

The Decline of the American Empire - 5

This French-Canadian (written and directed by Denys Arcand) film is a conversational film involving a group of intellectuals who separately talk about sex. The first part of the film has the women meeting at the gym while men prepare the meal for a dinner party. It seems to me that the crux of the film is the intro interview with a history professor who has just released a book about the decline of the American empire. She proposes that when a culture become obsessed and focused on personal happiness it is the beginning of the end for that culture. The rest of the film is then a conversation and example of this problem as it effects the lives of these 7 intellectuals. The film has the easy job of showing that in fact we may be witness to the decline of the American empire. Which is surprising since this film was made in 1986. The film is similar to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Rumor Has It - 4

This is a chic-flick that uses the story of The Graduate as a rumor that circulates 30 years later. Sarah (Jennifer Aniston) finds out that her grandmother could be Mrs. Robinson, and that she might be the love child of the famous Benjamin Braddock, or Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner) in real life. While relatively funny and somewhat intriguing it's historical context, the film falls flat as the writers try to string the audience along and the gag doesn't really work for a full two hours. The only highlight is a decent performance by Mark Ruffalo. This is a film for those times when you want a "no work required" film.

April 27, 2007

Being Caribou - 6

This is a documentary made by newlyweds Leanne Allison and Karsten Heuer. They decided to try to make the journey that caribou in northern Alaska make every year. The film has both a naturalist and political perspective as it chronicles the migration of caribou to the shores of Northern Alaska to get away from the bugs inland for calving season. It is also a project to try to dissuade oil companies from starting drilling projects there. The film is informative about a part of creation that I had known little about. It also falls victim to trying to connect nature up with spirituality in order to search for a greater meaning to the world. The film ends rather cynically as Leanne and Karsten are unable to feel like they have been effective in changing the political process or legislation concerning the caribou.
The film is similar to March of the Penguins and Grizzly Man, although each of these films has its own approach to the meaning of nature and humans relationship to it.

April 22, 2007

Fracture - 5

A thriller in which an old engineer kills his wife for cheating on him, then a young out-the-door public prosecutor has to try to convict him. Ted Crawford (Anthony Hopkins) is a perfectionist, so when he decides to punish his wife's infidelity he plans it down to the last drop of blood. Willy Beachum (Ryan Gosling) has worked hard in the district attorney's office and is now looking to enter corporate law, he takes Crawford's case because it looks open and closed. Beachum likes winning and it drives him crazy as this simple case soon unravels- Crawford's intent. Unlike the genre suggests, there are not big turning points that changes everything, rather the film finally settles on a cheap trick so that the viewer can walk away thinking justice has won. The film had potential, but turns out to be a weak story that plays on Gosling's rise as a good actor (he was nominated for his work in Half Nelson, and liked for his work in The Notebook), and the use of "lifestyle porn" (a focus on the stuff of upper class society) to get butts in the seats. The previews for this film allude to a Silence of the Lambs type of experience, it couldn't be further from it.

April 21, 2007

Conversations with Other Women - 6

Much like Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, and very close to his film Tape, this film is a conversation between a woman (Helena Bonham Carter) and a man (Aaron Eckhart), you are never given their names. As the film progresses from being a random hookup after a wedding, you find out the history of their relationship as they talk through their lives and the choices that they have and feelings of regret. While most of the conversation is serious, it is broken up with humor so that the film does not end up being heavy. The entire film is in split screen so at times there are two films going on, including flash backs to their youth and things going on elsewhere. But most of the time it is two views near the same place. This technique also helps emphasize the tagline of the film: "there are two sides to every love story." A interesting film with a very somber tone, but also little insights into love and heartbreak.
This is also the first film I have watched an entire film online, which is a new feature to a subscription to Netflix, only downside is that it was at times choppy (may have been my internet connection?).

The Nativity Story - 6

While this film is a story that has been many times, it doesn't sink down to the level of cliche. Rather it does a nice job of setting the context of the birth of Jesus. The film has the feel of being in ancient Israel under Roman rule. While some of the story is fictionalized, none of it is too over the top to make the story trivial. The only unfortunate thing about the film is the ending when the filmmakers sort of force the nativity on you by having all the people show up and then taking position like it is your neighbor's front lawn. But like the film should be it is down to earth, not trying to play into some idea of spiritual transcendence, it is the incarnation after all. Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes of Whale Rider fame) and Joesph (Oscar Isaac) are two young and scared people who are not sure what is going to happen just that God will protect them. They do not come off as heroes, rather they realize that in humility they can be used for something greater than themselves. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen) and written by Mike Rich (Finding Forrester) it is a well made film.

April 20, 2007

Scenes from a Marriage - 7

Ingmar Bergman has two types of films. The theological: The Seventh Seal, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence, etc. And the relational: Wild Strawberries, Autumn Sonata, Saraband (which is this films sequel, 30 years later), and this film. These latter films show off Bergman's ability to write long, complex, intense and real dialogue. This film is no exception. It is three hours of dialogue almost exclusively between Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson). Originally a six-part TV series, I watched the shorter theatrical version. The film chronicles the breakdown of a marriage over the course of 10 years. And while the relationship is moving further apart physically and emotionally, the bond that these two have shows as they argue and continually reconnect. Bergman has the gift of being able to right very honest dialogue that is at times painful and at others beautiful and poetic. It makes watching this film both difficult and revealing. While I'm not married so I can't say whether these conversations are true or realistic, they seem to reflect the cares and concerns of any two people who are bonded together and have an intimate relationship. These conversations are very honest, at point maybe too honest. The actors do a great job of showing their emotion, and as their demeanor changes in the different vignettes the viewer gains as much from the unspoken as from what is spoken.

April 15, 2007

Grindhouse - 5

Grindhouse is more a description of an experience/event than a film really. Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) and Quentin Tarantino wanted to share their experience when they were young and would sneak into R-rated B-movies; the Grindhouse. Grindhouse starts with Rodriguez's Planet Terror- which is basically a film about bio-terrorism that is turning a small town next to a military base into zombies. The only thing to say- the blood flies and the character development it not anything you haven't seen before (which is the point). This segment is a blow-stuff-up-spectacular. Tarantino's segment is called Death Proof and is an homage to films like Vanishing Point, the dialogue is somewhat heavy handed as it is trying to tell the audience lots of stuff they don't know (Tarantino is a pop culture junkie). The plot is pretty non-existent- and the film is provides the opportunity to show long car chases. The two segments are separated by a few fake previews, which are actually quite funny. Rose McGowan stars in both segments, one in which she has a gun as a prosthetic leg.

April 12, 2007

One Night with the King - 3

The makers of this film had great source material for this. You can read the story of Esther in less time than it takes this movie to draw out the mundane parts of the story. The film doesn't even qualify as a good Sunday school lesson, besides the set and costume design that give the audience the feel of the times, the important parts of the story are pushed to the margins to make the film a story of one women's courage to change the heart of King Xerxes (also one of the stars of the film 300). At points the film seems forced into trying to be a romantic tale. I found the interpretation of the story to be trite (there are overt references to Haman being a Nazi; red and black flags with a frightening symbol on them). Where the text allows for high drama, the audience of the film gets bad montages and didactic narration. I have always found the story of Esther to be fascinating, but this version makes it seem absurd.

April 11, 2007

Hollywoodland - 5

Like The Black Dahlia, which came out around the same time, this film is a 50's crime drama dealing with a historical fact: the suicide/murder of George Reeves. It then uses a parallel story structure to show the possible reasons for Reeves (Ben Affleck) suicide/murder, with a private investigator, Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), who is hired to try to discover if it was murder. The film is a little long, but it moves well between the two stories and in the end connects them by showing the pressures people face because of the expectations that they and others place on them. The film highlights the relationship between Reeves and his lover, Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), as well as Simo to his estranged wife and son. Good performances, but only a mediocre story.

April 07, 2007

Invisible Children - 4

This is a documentary made about children in Uganda who hide at night to avoid being forced to fight for rebel armies. Most of them are also orphans from the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The cause is a good one, and the film is mostly a vehicle for the organization to raise money to try to help these children. The film was made by some twentysomething guys who wanted an adventure, so they went to Africa and only then did they discover this problem for themselves. The film ends up being more about the affects that seeing a completely different view of the world in Africa can have on Americans. This film could have done more to actually explain the plight of these children, rather it plays a manipulative game with the audience. I think there are better ways (a few I would suggest: 1, 2, 3) to help people become aware of the problems in Africa and what we might be able to do about it.

Beerfest - 2

The writers and director of this film...oh and all the rest of crew (actors with no career in front of them) too, come to think of it, must have gotten really wasted when they thought this was a good idea for a film. Some of the jokes are funny early on, but the film drags on, and falls to the same flaws as most comedies, the story needs to be told- and no one has thought about how to go about this until about halfway through filming. Wedding Crashers has some of these same issues, the story has to be made coherent from the backside of the film rather than developing out of the characters and the story so far. If you want to see something funny and aren't worried about coherence, watch about the first hour of this film and then just make up the rest of the film on your own. Or completely disregard this review since I was sober while watching it.

April 06, 2007

Dogma - 7

Kevin Smith is a theologian. He writes his theology in the art and medium of film...oh and uses a lot of f-bombs to make his points. It is a little unorthodox...and yet...still orthodox. His other films also contribute to his overall theology but this film is his...most "systematic (?)." This is also a very hilarious film because it takes care not to take itself too seriously. The story is pretty basic: two angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), one the angel of death, that are on God’s bad side for stopping to do their work have found a loophole in Catholic dogma that will allow them back home- heaven. It also happens to make God (famously played by Alanis Morissette) wrong and thus would cause existence to cease. There are plenty of converging story-lines that involve demons and foibled and faithless humans. And, of course Jay and Silent Bob are the background heroes of the film. An unavoidable film for anyone interested in critically engaging issues of Christian theology with a sense of humor and a curiosity for deep questions of the meaning of life and spirituality (trust me, this film is more intelligent than any spirituality that Oprah is currently selling).

April 05, 2007

The Holiday - 3

This was a confusing film. It started out as quite an intriguing film about the discovery of what love really is (a little reminiscent of Love Actually and Bridget Jones's Diary), but it soon morphed into a long (more than 2 hours) drawn out saga about the complications of finding and keeping love. Two women, Iris (Kate Winslet) from Surrey, England and Amanda (Cameron Diaz) from LA switch houses for the holiday to escape their deteriorating love lives. Iris is trying to get over unrequited love, and Amanda- a breakup. Amanda meets Iris brother (Jude Law) and...I don't want to spoil it but it all works out despite the massive complication. Iris slowly gets some gumption by hanging out with the geriatric next door and falls for Miles (Jack Black). I like the actors in this film, usually, but here they are all slightly miscast and it shows. And the film goes over the top with the music and nostalgia that they are trying to incite in the viewer (as this came out Christmas 2006). It is so manipulative as to be boring, and as I was making up really bad dialogue for them to say next and they then went ahead and said it, I knew that the film was officially an escape mechanism for those feeling that love is a failed project. The film ultimately gives the audience cheap hope and nostalgia for a past they cannot attain.

Finding Forrester - 5

I watched this for a class- Education and Culture. We discussed the film in the context of an article written critiquing Hollywood's representations of education and the redemptive narratives of teacher saving students. The story is about a young black man, Jamal (Rob Brown), who lives in the hood, but is academically and athletically gifted. He runs into an old, agoraphobic, recluse author, William Forrester (Sean Connery), and becomes friends and a student outside of school. Along side of this is that Jamal has just transferred to a college prep school with a lot of white rich kids. The climax of the film is that when he is accused of cheating, Forrester shows up to the writing contest and reads Jamal's words, and then tells everyone that he deserves his spot at the school. Forrester uses his social and cultural capital to "save" Jamal from his social class and his neighborhood. All of this implies the bias of Hollywood that it is bad to be black and living in black neighborhoods where the schools are bad. But for most audiences this film has the opposite affect, inspiring in them a sense that if they work hard enough they too will be seen as the genius that they are. As a study of education, this film is a good example of how education is often misrepresented in film as an unbiased savior (irrespective of race, class, gender, culture, location, etc), helping out all those who work hard and pursue learning from the oppression of their circumstances and poverty of mind and body. Half Nelson is a good counterpoint to this film.

April 02, 2007

at FFM

This past weekend was the third biennial Festival of Faith and Music (FFM) at Calvin College. It was an amazing festival. Sufjan Stevens was the highlight- musically and academically- as his concert was out of this world, or as David Dark would say, apocalyptic. And Sufjan read a paper he wrote, which was very good and insightful about what art is and how an artist finds their vocation. I was also surprised by the band Son Lux- a sort of ambient piano, guitar, and electronica influenced outfit. This was Ryan's first show ever...so he needed the help of two friends to make it work. It included accompanying video...definitely intriguing. Emmylou Harris was also good as she has been for a really loooong time. But the true highlight of the conference overall is that a conversation about the meaning of music and faith, cultural engagement and art is started and renewed. The task now is to find creative ways to learn to live this out.

Other responses: Tala Strauss, Jason Panella, Books & Culture, Morgan, Maureen Didde, ...