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

May 31, 2007

Persona - 5

Ingmar Bergman is hit or miss with me. While I really like his later films, Autumn Sonata, Scenes from a Marriage, and Saraband, I found this film to be in the company of his more obscure films like Wild Strawberries and The Silence. To the academician these more radical films seem to be of interest because of the myriad and intriguing interpretations that can be made. In the case of Persona it is often cited when talking about psychoanalysis (Zizek talks about it in The Pervert's Guide to Cinema). The characters are Elisabet (Liv Ullmann), who is an actress who has had a nervous breakdown and stops/is unable to speak, and Alma (Bibi Andersson) the nurse who is assigned to take care of her. The two of them eventually leave the hospital and live at a beach house to help Elisabet recover. The analysts/patient roles are reversed as Alma talks and tell stories, while Elisabet listens and says nothing. The dialogue is intriguing as Alma does indeed go through some self discovery, and Ullman has the hard role of "talking" (communicating) while having no lines. This story is bookended with rather confusing and quick sequences that seem to have no relation to the film. Bergman considers this one of his best films as it relies heavily on the medium being film, it would be really hard to read this as a script or novel.

May 30, 2007

Breaking and Entering - 7

Film often uses metaphor to tell a story, to make a point, to say something about the human condition. Here, writer and director Anthony Minghella uses an intriguing comparison between stealing and lying in public life and in one's private life. Landscape architect Will (Jude Law) and his wife Liv (Robin Wright Penn) have become distant because of the needs of Liv's eccentric and compulsive daughter Bea. The parallel story is of Amira (Juliette Binoche), a Bosnian immigrant, and her 15-year-old son, Miro (Rafi Gavron), who has gotten caught up in a theft ring stealing computer equipment from corporate offices. Miro ends up breaking into Will's office a couple of times which leads to Will's staking out his office and eventually following Miro to his apartment. In what seems like an act of compassion he doesn't turn Miro in, but ends up starting an affair with Amira. The entanglement of this relationship leads to some intriguing consequences, which force the characters to confront their lying, stealing, and cheating. Since Miro's thieving is a public matter, while Will's is private, it makes for an interesting dilemma about how confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation happens in these very different contexts. While the ending made me uncomfortable, it asks- rather than forces, an answer to these big questions.
The plot sustains the film, but it is the character development and the intelligent dialogue that really make the film. Martin Freeman (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Office) as Will's colleague and friend, and Vera Farmiga (The Departed) as a friend of Amira, play supporting roles.

May 29, 2007

The Good German - 5

In between having fun making entertaining comedy heists- The Ocean's series, George Clooney and Steven Soderberg work on their serious projects (Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck, Confessions of a Dangerous Minds, Bubble, Eros, Full Frontal, and Solaris). This is last years collaboration on a black and white homage to 50's era film. Using Casablanca as a template this is the story of a New Republic journalists return to Post-WWII Germany. He soon finds himself involved in a search for the notes for building "the Bomb." As Russia, England, and the US are fighting over how to divide up Germany and prosecute war criminals. The film is a good mystery, the clues start to add up and the audience begins to see the many interests that have kept the truth buried. While an intriguing film it over does the noir ending and leaves one with a cynical view of the military's intervention into anything: politics wins the day.
Cate Blanchett stars as the femme fatale, and Tobey Maguire does well as a clever and shady Army driver.

May 25, 2007

Venus - 7

A funny, yet serious, film about getting old, mortality, and reflecting on being alive. Two old London actors and friends, Maurice (Peter O'Toole) and Ian (Leslie Phillips), have a relatively routine life and are feeling the effect of getting older as their bodies are falling apart. Ian gets talked into allowing his niece's daughter Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) to move in with him so she can experience the city. While Ian can't stand her- she is not refined and does not make him fish, Maurice is nice to her and takes a liking to her. Jessie's youth inspires Maurice and despite the impotence from prostate cancer (which saves the audience from any weird sex scenes), start to fall in love with her. This new friendship needs to be navigated with care as they both want and need different things and it has its problems. Maurice and Ian's relationship becomes strained, but ultimately it allows Maurice to reflect on his life, where he has been- he visits his wife often- and what being alive means. Jessie gains invaluable wisdom from Maurice as he is able to see in her both beauty and potential. This unlikely friendship helps both of them learn to know and be known by others and themselves. They come to realize that life, and death, are about the friendships that help us make us who we are.

May 24, 2007

Rocky - 5

I don't remember the exact reasons (maybe so I would blog about some good ol' fashion American film), but Keith suggested I watch some Rocky, there are six after all, but I think this might be my first and last. As influential to film, I can see its importance, but growing up in Canada (although I am an American citizen) means that I find most American dream inspired stories a little corny, if not slightly misleading. And this film is "American Dream 101." Underdog boxer-immigrant-Italian-hard worker-down on his luck-never invested in by others for his potential, gets a once in a lifetime chance to fight the Heavyweight Champion of the World, works hard, keeps his integrity, "goes the distance" and gets the girl. This film goes to show the power of the medium to influence and shape viewers, a while back NPR had a story about how people still make the run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. My co-workers tell me this film was big when it came out in 1976- the sixth film came out last Christmas. Sylvester Stallone wrote and stars in each of the films as Rocky Balboa, who goes by the nickname The Italian Stallion (which is sort of Over the Top- funny that's the name of another film he wrote and starred in, it is a pseudo-family-values-Rocky film:-) The film seems funny to me watching it 30 years later, but the optimism seems to leave its mark on viewers- who can argue with that? Probably just a snarky pessimist.

May 23, 2007

The Wrong Man - 7

This is Hitchcock's only film based on true events rather than fiction. It is the story of the arrest and trial of Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda). He is identified as a robber when he tries to get a loan, and is arrested, charged, and tried. His innocence is constantly in doubt as he cannot find any witnesses for an alibi or provide any evidence. His wife, Rose (Vera Miles), becomes more and more suspicious of her husband and eventually gets mentally ill as she comes to blame herself and see all of life as a downward spiral. While the film does have some resolution at the end, it remains somewhat of a dark film as the consequences of the mistaken identity have real and devastating effects. Like most of Hitchcock's films it deals honestly with guilt, cynicism, fear, and often hidden human desires. This film is also the most obvious case of Hitchcock's fear of police and authorities, which is said to come from his father having the young Alfred locked in a prison cell for five minutes.

May 22, 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower - 5

Yimou Zhang (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) directs this period piece about 10th century China. The Emperor (Yun-Fat Chow) is slowly poisoning his wife (Li Gong)- the empress, whom he suspects is subverting his empire. They have three very different sons, the oldest who is trying to be loyal, the middle son is trying to run after a palace worker he has fallen in love with, and the youngest son is naively and selfishly seeking his own power. In Shakespearean fashion, the flaws of the characters soon undoes them in this tragic story where revenge and dignity, take priority over love and loyalty. The fights are well choreographed, the costuming is detailed and beautiful, and the cinematography uses color to maximum effect- showing the magnitude of the Chinese empire.

May 21, 2007

Linkin Park - Minutes to Midnight

The liner notes reads: "...we wanted to create something that maintained the integrity of the band's personality, but pushed boundaries." According to their own standard this album fails. In a half-hearted attempt to mature with their audience they have added a few unneeded f-bombs (getting their first Parental Advisory sticker). While the band has been labeled safe, yet angry Nu metal, on this album they sound more like they were inspired by the likes of Nickelback- as most of the songs have a faux rage about them, horribly vague and meaningless lyrics, and are mostly ballad-y. While their first two albums, Hybrid Theory and Meteora, had more depth than their contemporaries, Minutes does not push any boundaries musically or lyrically, and yet it is quite listenable. The guitar chord progressions and beats are not irritating to the ears, rather they soothe the listener into catchy and forgettable melodies. They have eliminated all MC work and added "innovative" hand claps.
Contemporary Christian Music is often critiqued for being a cheap rip off of mainstream culture, this album listens like Linkin Park has knocked off CCM/American Idol as safe music in order to increase its fan base. The song "What I've Done" fits easily into this category, while "Given Up," just doesn't make much sense. I guess this is what is meant when someone says that "art got compromised/pressured by The Industry." Linkin Park may have retained their personality, but they have lost all authenticity.


Night at the Museum - 4

Maybe this is too harsh, but I felt like I had seen this film before. Ben Stiller as the eccentric Larry, who has to settle for a job as a security guard at the Museum of Natural History so that he can continue to see his son. Turns out the museum works like the premise of Toy Story, with the exhibits coming to life, literally, at night. Lots of crazy stuff happens all to the benefit of Larry find/working at who he really is, bonding with his son, and hooking up with the resident historian. While it has its funny moments (mostly involving Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan, unfortunately Ricky Gervais doesn't get enough screen time), the film comes off as pretty corny and childish, the latter of which was probably the goal.

May 17, 2007

The Good Shepherd - 6

With faint echoes of The Talented Mr. Ripley (Matt Damon stars as the main character), this film is about Edward Wilson (loosely based on James Angleton) and the development of the CIA in the 1960's. The film combines the personal with the professional as Wilson struggles to prioritize his wife (Angelina Jolie) and son over the strenuous demands and love of his work. The film is long which gives it room to develop Wilson as a character- who decides too late that his family is more valuable than his work. All of his work has irreversible consequences for his family and himself. Unfortunately, Wilson is too lost and calculating to see all of this as tragic. He has ultimately lost himself. Directed by Robert De Niro this film works as a subtle critique of our current administration and intelligence agencies in light of the past and the influence it still has.

May 16, 2007

The Fountain - 7

Rarely have I seen a film and immediately wanted to watch it all over again. This film, by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream and Pi: Faith in Chaos) is complex, but made well enough to be coherent, visually stunning, and packed with meaning. The film weaves three stories from 16th century Spain, the present day, and 500 years into the future to show the human condition and its longing to conquer all- even death.
Tomas/Tommy/Dr. Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman) is looking for the secret to overcoming death- whether it is the Tree of Life spoken about in Genesis (which opens the film) or a scientific breakthrough that can reverse a deadly tumor. Izzi Creo (Rachel Weisz, who also plays Queen Isabel) is suffering from a terminal disease, and Tom is determined to solve the problem. While initially confusing the plots start to come together as you connect the three views of eternal life and the struggle to understand life and death and the human condition. There are many allusions to religion in this film- Christianity and a Mayan creation story being the most significant but also to eastern religiosity. Aronofsky has made a very intelligent film that begs the viewer to engage deep questions, never settling for easy answers. Recommended reading to go along with this film is Wendell Berry's discussion of top-soil in his essay Two Economies (trust me you'll see the connection if you actually do this).

May 14, 2007

Hot Fuzz - 7

After spoofing horror movies with Shaun of the Dead, Edward Wright and Simon Pegg take on the action/cop genre with just as much (if not more) skill and hilarity. The story follows Nick Angel (Simon Pegg) as he is reassigned to work out in an idyllic country town with no crime rate to speak of, as he is currently to good at his job in London. He soon finds himself in the middle of some strange accidents which seem to lead toward a conspiracy, no one seems to see it but himself. Even his partner (Nick Frost) doesn't see it. In the end, all the big guns are drawn and stuff gets destroyed and blown up. This film works as both a spoof of cop films, as well as stands on its own as a hilarious and ridiculous story. This film is what great comedies should be (and as usual it is British). Also, read Evan's good review. And some trivia.

Dreamgirls - 4

I tend not to like musicals in general (I found Chicago and Rent painful to watch). A good enough story can make the songs that seem out of place somehow come alive (The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and Moulin Rouge! seem to work). This film starts out well, but then gets fragmented by moving fast in montage mode only to slow down again focusing on different characters. While a lot of the songs are really good, with a progression from classic Motown to R&B to Disco, the story seems somewhat contrived. Since the songs come first, the attempt was made to pass good singing off as good acting, in the case of Beyonce Knowles and Jennifer Hudson. Eddie Murphy seemed miscast, while Jamie Foxx and Danny Glover weren't given roles that could work up to their potential. This might be another case of the soundtrack being the main production.

May 11, 2007

Shadow of a Doubt - 7

This is another great Hitchcock film. This film plays on the "doubles" theme that is in a number of his films, with Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) visiting from the east, his sister's family whose oldest daughter is also named Charlie (Teresa Wright). A joyful reunion soon gathers tension as suspicion gains credibility as Charlie's reason for visiting becomes clearer. The story develops around young Charlie's initial fascination with the similarities to her Uncle and their special bond. But as she starts to learn more about him, she realizes that the reflection is not so flattering. They have divergent visions of humanity and the future- leading to a final confrontation. I especially like Hitchcock for his ability to help the viewer reflect while also being amused by watching his films, without seeming preachy- just honest and wise.

May 09, 2007

The Painted Veil - 6

Dr. Walter Fane (Edward Norton) is an awkward British bacteriologist who arranges a marriage with the daughter of an aristocratic family. Kitty (Naomi Watts) is the youngest of the families daughters and does not want to marry for love rather than social class. It is the 1920's and Kitty loses that argument. In an attempt at trying to be free she cheats on Walter, who then takes his revenge by further controlling her, and they set off for the out parts of China into a cholera epidemic. This tension continues to develop as they realize that they want different things. But as they continue to actually start to care for the community that they are forced into, they realize that they have more in common than they thought. The tagline of the film says it best: "Sometimes the greatest journey is the distance between two people." This film does a good job of showing this journey and the struggle and self sacrifice required to connect, forgive, and love another person.

May 08, 2007

The Whistler

    Armchair Apocrypha - Andrew Bird
I can't stop listening to this album. Bird plays violin, guitar, and whistles.

May 07, 2007

Spider-Man 3 - 6

Not only was this film a huge hit at the box office this weekend (setting all-time records), but it was literally huge. I saw this film on an IMAX screen. It made for great film viewing during action sequences and truly made the characters larger than life. On the down side some of the dialogue scenes maybe a little too big, but regardless a fun time. Unlike the first two films, which I liked better, this film focuses more on the development of 3 villains that climax in the ultimate battle. The love story is not as well developed in this film, but there is plenty of humor (including cameos by Stan Lee and Bruce Campbell). Even Peter's going over to the dark side has its moments. Ultimately, he rediscovers who he should be and learns more lessons on vengeance, forgiveness, and the hard work of love.
Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst continue to play their characters well, while the addition of Topher Grace and Bryce Dallas Howard only half worked.

May 06, 2007

Last Life in the Universe - 7

Kenji (Tadanobu Asano) just wants to kill himself. If only the people around him would let him. It is not that these people are nice and caring, they just have bad (or good) timing. Life for Kenji consists of being a student, working at the library and living with his laid back and often drunk brother. He is bored (and obsessive about cleaning and ordering his apartment) and at least death would mean something, maybe just to himself, but that would be enough. After witnessing his brother's killing in a mob hit and on the run he stays with Noi (Sinitta Boonyasak), who has just witnessed her sister's death. In their very different grieving process they start to connect and realize that life, rather love...is worth living.
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang has written and directed a beautiful and story about life, and the meaning that is made through interacting and knowing others. This film is set in Bankok, Thailand. The dialogue moves between Japanese, Thai, and English. The shots are meticulously taken and while the film moves slowly it holds your attention with dramatic as well as comedic elements.

May 05, 2007

Iraq in Fragments - 6

This film is a documentary about war-torn Iraq. James Longley has made a beautiful and jarring film that keep himself out of the way as he lets Iraqi's tell their own story. The film has three parts each focusing on one story from each of the groups in Iraq: Sunni, Shia, and Kurd's. The first segment follows a young boy who drops out of school constantly in order to work. He and his "boss" see America as making their everyday life harder and more fearful, they hated Saddam Hussein, but they the occupation seems worse; there is even less control over their own lives. The second segment follows Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and the followers who pray to God for strength and participate in group self flagellation. The third segment follows an older man and his teenage son who want to see change, a democracy and an independent Kurdistan. They want to work through the political process but cynicism is starting to set in as war continues to stifle any chance at a voted in leader. "...Humpty Dumpty had a great fall./...And all the King's men/Couldn't put Humpty back together again." Iraq is in fragment, and I am not sure anyone knows the best way toward wholeness. This film is insightful about the everyday world in Iraq that the media rarely portrays.

Summer reading list...

Inspired by Comment's new series on summer reading lists, and now that my summer has officially started as semesters at Pitt and Geneva ended this week, here are the books I hope to complete by the end of the summer. I've completed the first two, so the pace is good...
Sex God - Rob Bell
Five Minds of the Future - Howard Gardner
The Road - Cormac McCarthy (This was my fiction read for the semester and I am proud to say it was on my list before Oprah picked it)
Made to Stick - Chip and Dan Heath
Discipline and Punish - Michel Foucault
Simulacra & Simulation - Jean Baudrillard
Consumed - Benjamin Barber
Critical Resistance - David Couzens Hoy

In Over Our Heads - Robert Kegan
The Art of the Start - Guy Kawasaki
The Fragile Absolute - Slavoj Zizek
The Puppet and the Dwarf - Slavoj Zizek
The Parallax View - Slovaj Zizek
Social Philosophy after Adorno - Lambert Zuidervaart
The Culture Code - Clotaire Rapaille