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

July 31, 2007

The Simpsons Movie - 7

This film was not all that different than an episode of The Simpsons on TV, including Homer making fun of people who are in the theater getting something that they get for free at home, and a mid-movie "to be continued." It has its quirks, non-sensical parts, and pop culture references, but overall the plot makes sense as the Simpson family is first banned from Springfield and then must return to save it. Homer causes the tipping point that makes Springfield a environmental hazard that the Environmental Protection Agency, under president Schwarzenegger, encloses the town in a dome. All of this prophesied by Grampa Simpson during a church service early on. The escaped family initially leaves Springfield behind for Alaska, and returns only after hearing a Tom Hank commercial highlighting a new tourist destination- a giant hole where Springfield used to be. While this didn't necessarily need a big screen version, this film highlights the genius and important American cultural phenomenon that is 18 years of social criticism that The Simpsons has provided. As usual the film takes up questions of the environmental crisis, religion, politics and family. This film probably won't change anyone's opinion about The Simpsons, but if you are a fan this is some of their best work.

July 30, 2007

Alpha Dog - 5

"Alpha" is used to describe the dominant personality in a social group (it is used predominantly to describe animal behavior in pack animals such as dogs, wolves, etc).
This film applies the term to a group of young drug dealers in LA. Based loosely on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood and Nicholas Markowitz, this film tells the story of Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) and the consequences of his youthful running of a drug ring. Due to a petty fight with Jake (Ben Foster), he kidnaps Jake's younger brother Zach (Anton Yelchin). And since this is a group of teenagers: the scenario goes downhill fast. This film is a sad statement about America's youth culture (scary trivia note: this film ranks 4th in its use of the f-word- 394 times!). The take over of social status above a sense of moral meaning can have horrendous consequences and I am not sure whether this film will get this across or further perpetuate the problem. I hope for the former, but suspect this film appeals to a fast-paced entertainment viewing, rather than the reflection and thoughtfulness it requires.

July 26, 2007

Smokin' Aces - 4

Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jermey Pivens), a Vegas showman caught up in the mob, decides to become an informant to uncover a massive case for the feds. So the mob puts a price on his head and now all the best (greedy and deranged is probably a better description) hired mercenaries are competing for the million dollar reward. The majority of this film is the huge body count that ensues. finally ending with some plot resolution that is intriguing and different, but rather late in coming- seeing as how the characters lacked depth. A decent, but not well thought out, action film with an large cast including: Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta, Alicia Keys, Andy Garcia, Common, and Ben Affleck.

July 25, 2007

The Number 23 - 5

Yeah...2+3=5. I'm in on it too :). This film uses the idea of paranoia with the similarity between a book about a character obsessed with the number 23 and its reader, Walter (Jim Carrey), who wonders about the possible connections to his own life. The initial synopsis which I read near the time of the release of Stranger than Fiction seemed to suggest that it was similar (a character in search of it's author), and while this is a thriller in the vain of Identity, the ending revives the similarities. Unfortunately, not enough time is devoted to the ending which makes it an inferior film.
Walter gets the book as a birthday gift from his wife, Agatha (a very good Virginia Madsen), and the film spends half the time telling the story of the book, in the imagination of Walter. It continues on leaving very few clues as to what the audience is suppose to believe the paranoia or hope he doesn't go crazy and kill anyone. It then uses the last 15 minutes of the film as the big reveal and a quite intriguing moral message. It is underdeveloped and probably part of the wrong film, but the questions is one of the ethics of love. Are human beings really able to love and be loved? Especially when we consider that the questions of who we really are, is always only partially known. If who we are is connected to what we do and have done, then does knowledge of the past and our actions change our relationships? And how do our relationships change who we are? This film doesn't leave you hanging as to whether there really is some hidden meaning in the number 23, but rather with the possibility that love may be the answer to the question of suicide. Which may make this a truly scary film, if it weren't so forgettable.

Zodiac - 6

A true-crime film based on the book by newspaper cartoonist turned investigative journalist- Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Graysmith was sucked into the mystery of the Zodiac killer (spoiler link) as he was around the editorial floor of the San Francisco Chronicle when the killings took place in the early 60's. The killer sent letters to the paper- gaining publicity by having his cyphers printed under threat of more violence. He soon started a friendship with writer Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.)- teaching him about elementary code books, the film The Most Dangerous Game as inspiration, and cypher tricks that might lead to more information about the killer. The film then focuses on the police investigation by SFPD homicide detectives David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards). This search soon leads to burn out on the part of both the media and investigators as leads seem to fail because of the dependency of the investigation on handwriting samples. The film eventually returns to Graysmith and his tenacious search for the truth, to the point of personal crisis- as his wife (Chloe Sevigny) leaves him. This film works because I knew very little about the case and was happy to follow the clues along to find out whodunit. Like a friend said to me about real-crime stories: they make you curious and inquisitive about how people go about making decisions and the intended and unintended consequences of these choices. This is an intriguing story that focuses more on the characters than trying too hard to weave an intricate conspiracy.

July 20, 2007

Shooter - 3

A pretty formulaic, government conspiracy/vigilante-ism story, in the tradition of Arnold and Jean-Claude that isn't worth spending a lot of time talking about. It has action so is enjoyable if you are not looking to think much, but the set up is so convoluted and contrived that you can see a few scenes ahead and get an idea as to how this goes. An ex-military sharp shooter, Bob Lee (Mark Walberg), is set up by bureaucrats (Danny Glover) to take a political fall for them and ends up taking things into his own hands killing as many as he can find, falling for a girl (Kate Mara) who is soon taken hostage and allows for a just cause in his going after corrupt politicians. Yep, you've seen this before...and its still that bad. The actors must have needed the money, because this film only had a title 3 months before it came out (a friend of mine got paid to take a survey to determine the title).

July 18, 2007

Once - 7

This is a beautiful film. I would say it is also heart-warming, but that sounds too sentimental- which it is not. Its a simple story of two musicians longing to make music. It is music that is most fundamental to who they want to be. The guy (Glen Hansard frontman of the Irish band The Frames- writer and director John Carney was a bassist in the band) plays guitar on the streets of Dublin, works with his father fixing vacuum cleaners, and records music in his room at his childhood home. The girl (Markéta Irglová - a Czech musician who plays piano and guitar) is an immigrant from the Czech Republic and works odd jobs mostly cleaning. The guy finally learns more about this woman...and that she has a husband back in the Czech Republic and lives with her daughter and mother in a small apartment. So much for that romantic comedy story arc. This film is considered a musical since most of the story is the characters singing and writing songs and the dialogue is relatively sparse. But I think the main theme is the power of music in our lives and how little we might give it credit for forming and changing us. The guy in an attempt to make a professional demo so he can travel to London and record an album enlists the girl and three other street musicians for a weekend recording session...renewing the girls love of playing music, and giving here a chance to share that love. A film that shows both the beauty that music can be in our life, and the importance of friendships in the pursuit of our most fundamental longings.

July 16, 2007

Their Eyes Were Watching God - 5

This Oprah made-for-TV movie is based on a 1937 book by Zora Neale Hurston. Her book is considered a important contribution to African-American and Women's literature. The film chronicles the live and love of Janie (Halle Berry), who first is arrange into a marriage with an older man, soon runs off with a sophisticated Joe Starks, who becomes mayor of the all African-American town- Eatonville, Florida. She soon realizes that she is a trophy wife and when Joe dies she is pursued by many younger men who are looking to cash in on her wealth. She eventually finds real love with Tea Cake - they leave Eatonville and the film climaxes at his unlucky contraction of rabies...and Janie's eventual killing of him in self-defense. The general theme is sacrificing all to find real love. The book which has a more complex plot seems to explore broader themes of culture (I doubt Hurston would be proud of this film version).

July 15, 2007

Happy Feet - 1

I put this DVD (my housemate got this for Christmas) in with the intention of not really thinking much and laughing at some dancing animated penguins inspired by the success of March of the Penguins. Boy, was I in for a surprise. The movie starts as a Disney style musical focusing on the story of an outcast penguin, Mumble, who only knows how to dance because he was dropped as an egg. The initial sing gets old fast and I was anxious for the plot to start...I soon regretted that desire. I am willing to look past the fact that the authors decided that a diversity of animals live in Antarctica and that humans are a significant part of the environment...it makes for a somewhat easier context to tell the story. But the attempt by the authors to turn an animated kids film into social commentary...and horrible commentary at that, makes this film something to avoid. The film makes the case that the tradition values of the group should be changed because Mumble happens to be different, genetically different. The film does a good job of implying that Mumble represents what it is like to be gay in "Christian" America. There are also two groups of penguins, the emperor's-which seem to also represent black culture, and some smaller penguins who talk as though they are Hispanic, and soon start acting as the stereotypes would dictate (these penguins celebrate machismo and infidelity). Then to make matters worse, the plot takes a giant leap, as Mumble is captured and starts a human environmental (à la Al Gore) movement by dancing at a zoo exhibit. The humans then travel to Antarctica and save the cute dancing penguins from their plight (exterminating animals that look mean or are in general used to represent evil when anthropomorphized...ok, I made that part up- but in the context of this film that isn't a crazy thought). If you think I'm just reading into the film what isn't there, watch it for yourself (but don't say I didn't warn you). The more conversations I have about it the more adamant I've become to the horribleness of this film.

July 14, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - 6

This is the first Harry Potter film I have seen in its entirety. Its the fifth one that has been made of the seven book series, which comes out next week...but you already knew that, you probably have a pre-order on hold for you like millions of others... This is obviously a popular series.
The film's basic theme is that growing up means conflict between good and evil and how these circumstances will shape one's character. Unique to this one is the claim that evil Lord Voldemort has returned...this leaves Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) ridiculed, and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) forming a small group of people who want to prepare for a battle with Voldemort that seems inevitable since Harry is a particular target. So Harry, along with Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) train privately, as Hogwarts gets taken over by Delores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton)and ruined as a school of magic. Harry gets his first kiss, and there is indeed a final battle that leads to more development of the overall story and some more losses. Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch) is introduced as a quirky character (she reminds me of Sarah Polley when she was that age). The film does a good job of being an imaginative metaphor for the audience to reflect on their own story and the similar, if less dramatic, reality of good and evil and the struggle to find one's place and vocations.

July 12, 2007

Being There - 7

This is one of my favorite films. The metaphor here is powerful. Chance (Peter Sellers) has lived all his life in an estate tending the garden. He eats, sleeps, cares for the gardens, and watches TV. He does nothing else, not even leaving the estate from childhood to adulthood, where we meet him. The owner of the estate dies and his estate is taken over forcing Chance to finally pack a suitcase and explore beyond the walls that he has called home. His first trip out into the world is accompanied by a great rendition of Also sprach Zarathustra (which is a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey). As luck would have it, Chance, who is a simpleton who only knows what he has seen on TV, gets taken in my a powerful businessman (Melvyn Douglas) and his wife (Shirley MacLaine), and eventually takes Washington by storm as a political pundit and celebrity whose ramblings about gardening are interpreted as great wisdom. The ending, which is one of the strangest allows for great conversations about the meaning of the film. This film is both funny and serious, and the metaphor and questions that it engages continues to linger with me (I first saw this film 5 years ago).
This film is a satire as well as social commentary about the cultural effects of television (note that the book was written in 1971 and the film made in 1979) and the nature of reality.

July 11, 2007

Sicko - 7

A college professor of mine made a great point about documentaries: Documentaries are about the storyteller, more than they are about the topic of the story they are telling. Unlike other films which have a director telling a story that is often written by someone else and has the added freedom of fiction, a documentary is a vehicle for collecting and editing real live footage to create a story- the best of these tell a coherent narrative. This may seem like a inherent critique of documentaries. It is not. In fact, it makes the viewer more aware of what is going on, recognizing the biases that are unavoidable, and hopefully listening and learning anyway. That means that this film, and Micheal Moore's other films, are about him. He has ideas and views that he want to turn into stories, hopefully to change minds and behaviors in light of the information and narrative he provides. This sounds like propaganda, but is in fact the role of journalism in a democratic society. Guess what? Journalism requires an audience of critical thinkers...which is one of the main problems with mass media at the moment- it often times assumes that the audience is not critical.
Some of the best parts of the film are when Moore visits other countries like Canada, England, France, and Cuba which gives some contrast to the US system- even if it is a small glance at a large picture. The key to the film though, comes about two-thirds in when Moore asks to the American audience: "Who are we?" If part of the answer to this question is how we treat one another in a political system that includes how we should take care of the sick, then we need to seriously consider what we are doing. If nothing else, this film should help Americans ask the questions: Where did our current health care system come from? And how and why does it work the way that it does? These questions are important, not because then we can place the blame for anything that we think is wrong with it, but rather that the answers provide guidance for being an engaged citizen and taking up the power to change it.
At times I find Moore to be patronizing of the everyday American that he is trying to represent in his films. But overall, I think Moore asks some really good questions that could provide the audience with some interesting things to consider and act on.
[Full Disclosure: I currently have no health insurance, and lived in Canada from age 5-18.]

July 09, 2007

my third place...

Bethany Warren (owner of Beaver Falls Coffee and Tea Company) has the most recent article in Comment about coffee shops and third places. The office I work in is right across the street, so I find myself in BiFCAT a lot, it truly is a place for being a neighbor, and provides the space for good conversations. Also, Gideon Strauss has linked to a an article he wrote about coffeehouses as places for dialogue, debate, and the development of public intellectuals.

July 07, 2007

Black Snake Moan - 7

The previews of this film seemed to imply that this was a disturbing film- a sort of shock for the sake of shock...but Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) has a very intriguing and well made film (there is some very brief nudity and violence). Circumstances bring two very different characters together who end up showing each other better and redemptive ways of living. Rae (Christina Ricci) is a sex addict, trying to put her wild past behind her and settle down with, Ronnie- a nice boy (Justin Timberlake). Ronnie decides that he must serve his country and takes off for basic training. Meanwhile, Lazarus' (Samuel L. Jackson) wife has left him for his brother, and his days of playing the blues are over, as he tends his land and sell his vegetables at the local small town market. After a night of drugs and booze, Rae is beaten by a friend and left for dead on the side of the road. That side of the road happens to be the end of Lazarus' driveway. He initially takes her in to help the wounds on the surface, but becomes convinced he can also help her inner demons by chaining her up. Together they discover the healing power of the blues music that Lazarus begins to play again...and were a cheap redemption could be offered to end the film, a much more complex and touching one is offered. The film is bookended with clips from Son House talking about the power of the blues and how nothing can get closer to the human heart and emotions than the blues (including the most heartfelt version of "This Little Light of Mine" I've ever heard). This film shows that he was onto something.

July 06, 2007

Eulogy - 4

Katie (Zooey Deschanel), the oldest grandchild in an eccentric and weird family becomes the point person for letting people know about the recent death of her grandfather. The antics become crazier and crazier as the siblings (including Ray Romano and Hank Azaria)-with there children, reunite at grandmothers. Katie is trying to keep her sanity as she reconnects with a friend and attempts to write the eulogy...digging for something nice and true to say. The concluding fireball and comic twist make this film entertaining. Mostly it is just that...with the exception of a love letter read as the eulogy which makes for a rare moment of reflection and dignity for the whole family. This film has been done better...The Big Chill comes to mind.

July 05, 2007

License to Wed - 4

This review can also be found at relevantmagazine.com.

“A good marriage is founded on honest communication.”
“Most marriages end because of fights about finances.”
“Don’t let the in-laws get the best of you.”
You have probably heard these and others like it before. Marriage advice always seems to come in short and often trite aphorisms. It isn’t so much that these words of advice are false exactly, so much as that all relationships, marriage included, are usually more complex and storied than even the wisest one liner.
License to Wed uses the disconnect between the plethora of canned phrases and the sad reality of marriage in America (over 50% divorce rate) to critique simple answers and offers a more complicated picture of marriage. Using an over-the-top Reverend as a foil to create situations for this to-good-to-be-true relationship. Sadie Jones (Mandy Moore) and Ben Murphy (John Krasinski of The Office) meet randomly in a coffee shop and all is going smoothly from first date, to first kiss, to living together. When Ben finally pops the question it seems the only problem is whether to get married in Ben’s ideal spot- the Caribbean- or follow tradition and get married at the Jones’ long-time church- St. Augustine’s. No problem, the tradition seems reasonable. That is until they encounter Reverend Frank (Robin Williams) and his newly instituted pre-marriage course for anyone he is to marry. Rev. Frank, with the help of a 12-year-old apprentice (Josh Flitter), puts them through all the obstacles he can find to get them to the pressure points, trying to test in three weeks what the couple will commit to for a lifetime.
The forced situations are funny, but mostly outrageous. The film gets a laugh from the advice people give, to all the examples, role-playing exercises, and embarrassment that this proposed marriage provides. While the antics are entertaining initially, it soon gets tiring and the film must resort to the romantic comedy formula- resolving with both Sadie and Ben learning more about themselves, how to truly love the other, and living happily ever after.
The main problem with the film is that the audience already knows that relationships are hard, that human love does sometimes fail, and that marriage requires work. In the end, the characters in the film end up learning the obvious- that marriage isn’t given to you, but is pursued as a commitment to becoming who one truly can be.

July 02, 2007

A Short Film About Killing - 7

Here, Krzysztof Kieslowski and his longtime collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz expand on episode V of their Decalogue series and parallel a brutal killing of a taxi driver by a young nomad with the young man's execution by the state. The plot also includes a new lawyer who loses the case and starts to realize the emotion and pressure of the carrying out of law- as oppose to how it is taught abstractly. The film uses very little dialogue but great cinematography to get the emotion of the characters and deep and dark place in the human condition. The film does not hit you over the head with a morality, but rather tells a very human story of "hurting people, hurting people." The film also makes the public personal by showing how the state attempts to enforce blind justice but it takes a lot out of the individuals involved. While this film can be intense at times, including a 15 minute brutal murder scene and an execution, it is also a story that vividly shows, rather than tells, the truth.

July 01, 2007

Blind Chance - 6

Written and directed by Polish film icon Krzysztof Kieslowski (Blue, White, Red, Heaven, The Decalogue: I-III, IV-VII, VIII-X), this film is a earlier and more intelligent version of Sliding Doors. Comparing it to Sliding Doors is an insult to Kieslowski intelligence, but in a similar way this film takes place three times, each starting with Witek, a medical student in a crisis of vocation, running after a train. Each of the episodes has a different outcome, once working with the communist government, once resisting the government and working with others underground, and finally taking a neutral and indifferent stance toward the government as it is convenient for his career. Kieslowski's goal here is to show the influence of events on one's life. Rather than make a case for choice, Kieslowski shows how "the world" (government/society/culture) has already won determining the course of things. And yet, there are choices along the way. Kieslowski leaves it open as to how this dialectic works. In the end offering up a rather tragic vision of life.

The Great Dictator - 7

While not officially Chaplin's last film, it is the most significant of his later work (City Lights being his best work). It is not a silent film which Chaplin is known for, although the influence is seen in the sparseness of the dialogue. Chaplin was ahead of his time in this classic case of mistaken identity, this time taking shots at the oppression of Hitler in Germany (note: this is before America was involved WWII). A Jewish barber and Tomanian dictator Adenoid Hynkel look alike and the film tells their separate stories until ending with a heartfelt speech by the lowly barber about human values and freedom. Some of the scenes of Adenoid must have been copied by Mike Myers as Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers series. This is both a funny and disturbing look at the values and destruction that Nazi ideas had on the world. Apparently Hilter viewed this film but his personal reaction is unknown, it was a banned film in Germany (no surprise). Chaplin was actually accused of being a "premature anti-fascist." This film shows the influence of history and culture on the reception and use of film in society, but even on its own this is a good film.