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

August 27, 2007

Sergeant Rutledge - 7

I didn't grow up watching westerns and I don't know a whole lot about the films of John Ford. Lucky for me Jason does. So when he recommended The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which I loved, I started paying attention. And while I was less impressed with Ford's Stagecaoch, Sergeant Rutledge revived my love of Westerns and Ford. This film is actually more courtroom drama than traditional western. Sergeant Rutledge (a black officer in the Army- played by Woody Strode) is charged with a crime that takes most of the first half of the movie to even find out as accounts are given by many different witnesses to finally get at the truth of the situation. I don't want to give to much away, but you should see this film. It is ahead of its time (1960) on issues of race- this is the first film to have an African-American for a namesake and main character.

Solaris (1972) - 6

Here Andrei Tarkovsky, Russia's most famous director, explores human psychological. This film is the basis for the remake by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney in 2002. It is a meditative film, slowly revealing more about the psychology of the characters. At points it is almost to drawn out with scenes of nature and space, it is a film that requires patience. The film starts with government video of an inquiry into what is happening at the space station (This could be part of the inspiration for the film Contact) The plot involves a psychologist, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), who travels to a space station of a mysterious lake. He soon discovers that the people on board's desires start to become a reality because of some sort of radiation from the lake. It reveals Kelvin's grief over his wife's death, and her reappearance on the space station. The final voice over is metaphysical poetry, asking questions of the meaning of our desires, longings, and loves. The film ends with Kelvin reuniting with his distant father. Watch this film if you want to hear Zizek's analysis of the film.

August 24, 2007

The Invasion - 4

The review is now posted at relevantmagazine.com

August 22, 2007

Superbad - 6

To the undiscerning viewer this film may seem like just another teen sex comedy like the less-than-thoughtful American Pie franchise. And while it is rated R and contains plenty of crude lauguage, a closer look at the work of Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, and who was a producer on this Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg-written film) reveals Superbad as an interesting picture of our culture. And an all to accurate one at that.
The plot centers on two average high school friends and their crazy plans on how to explore their raging sexuality a few weeks before their graduation. Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) have learned what culture has told them about who they are and who they should be. They want to pursue this, but there is also something deeper holding them back. So they end up getting invited to a party and asked to bring the booze, which they convince uber-geek Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse)--aka McLovin, a twenty-five year-old Hawaiian organ donor--to buy with his fake ID. The plan goes horribly wrong and the night gets progressively worse.
Eventually, they make it to the intended party and find that getting drunk and hooking up with women isn't the glamorous "meaning of life" that our culture often sets it up to be. In fact, coming to understand one's sexuality in high school turns out to be an independent study with one's close friends as the teachers. This makes for many awkward situations and conversations when the characters, niavely charging ahead- making it up as they go along.
While providing plenty of laughs and gags, the seriousness of Seth and Evan's friendship soon becomes apparent; it confronts the audience with the questions of one's identity and the friendships and committments that make us who we are. And like all of Apatow's work, the film ends with a fable-like moral: our friendships are what maintain order and intimacy amidst the overwhelming chaos and fear that often invades our relationships.

August 20, 2007

A Mighty Wind - 7

Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy (This is Spinal Tap, The Big Picture, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and For Your Consideration) take up a one night tribute to a 60's folk producer's life for this hilarious mockumentary. Using the same troupe (Catherine O'Hara, Michael McKean, Parker Posey, Harry Shearer -A prominent voice on The Simpsons, Jennifer Coolidge, John Michael Higgins, and Jane Lynch) from these other films, the film sounds like a VH1 Behind the Music highs and lows for three bands: Mitch and Mickey, The Folksmen, and The New Main Street Singers. While the music is good, with the exception of the overly produced Main Street Singers, the drama behind the scenes creates the real story of these washed-up pseudo-celebrities. The ability of the actors and actresses to keep a straight face and ad-lib are what make this film truly hilarious.

August 18, 2007

Inland Empire - 4

In the land of weird films, David Lynch is king. This is anything but traditional filmmaking- even less so than Mulholland Dr. While his film Wild at Heart (and from what I hear Lost Highway, Blue Velvet and Eraserhead) have a narrative that the audience to follow, Inland Empire lacks this to the extent that it hard to know the sequence of the scenes. Are they going forward? Is that a flashback? Are they referring to something in the past or the future? The film basically follows three different story ideas: An actress (Laura Dern) who becomes confused about her role and what is going on around her, an eastern European group of men and women- who it seems may be involved in the sex-slave business, and finally sit-com like episodes of three rabbits in a suburban living room. Like I said this isn't something you'd likely see in anything but a David Lynch film. I get how art is suppose to push the boundaries of our imaginations, but I'm confused as to how this film works in that way. Read Evan's review which give Lynch more credit for knowing what he is doing.

August 15, 2007

Becoming Jane - 6

While in the tradition of the biopic, this film focuses more on the young Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) and her relationship to Irishman Tom Lefroy (James McAvoy). She is from the country and her parents (James Cromwell and Julie Walters) would like for her to marry, often conflicted as to whether she should marry for money or for love. She falls for Tom, who is a rugged city law student. The remainder of the film follows the struggles that this socially unacceptable relationship faces.
The film plays like one of the movie adaptation of her novels (i.e. Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility) with the exception of small scenes in which Jame comments on writing about human nature and happy and tragic endings. The film seems to say that the novels define her, rather than her life defining the stories. It works more as a romantic film than as a tribute to her as an influential author.

August 14, 2007

eXistenZ - 7

David Cronenberg writes films dripping with meaning beyond the stories they tell, usually making commentary on contemporary culture. He goes deep into human psychology in both Dead Ringers and A History of Violence. Here, he explores the idea of virtual reality and how it changes how we perceive and act in reality. Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a game designer and an attempt is made on her life at a developers meeting. She survives and then invites her security/marketing rep (Jude Law) to get into the game to discover who is after her. As they go deeper into the game the line between reality and virtual reality gets more and more fuzzy. The film also engages in interesting questions about character, identity, and the ethics of the real and the virtual. And the film has a very intriguing and good twist ending. Hat tip to Gregory for the recommendation.

Friday Night Lights - 6

Based on the true story of the 1988 Permian High School football team, the film focuses on Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) and and the players as they face the intense scrutiny and pressure that is Texas high school football, especially in this tight knit of Odessa. The story follows the stories of a few individual players, forming a collage of vignettes that are connected through the sequence of the games that they win and lose as the season progresses and makes its way to the ultimate game- the State Championship. While it has the usual elements of a sports movie, it is more than that as it highlights the personal lives that the players have and the broader implications and limits of a win/lose game mentality. While football is a huge part of life for this town, life cannot be reduced- there is a bigger picture. Which is what teaching and learning are ultimately about.
The score, by Explosions in the Sky, greatly compliments the storytelling.

August 13, 2007

Farce of the Penguins - 5

Bob Saget has written and directed the crass and crude commentary to footage of penguins that was at least partly running though your head when you were watching March of the Penguins. Samuel L. Jackson is the narrator, and voices are the likes of Saget, Tracy Morgan, Lewis Black, and Christina Applegate, with minor roles for Dane Cook and Norm MacDonald. The film has a similar structure to episodes of Family Guy and this film is definitely not "family friendly." What makes this film funny is the fact that documentaries about animals usually give them human characteristics and portray animals as perfect, while this film differs by inventing animal characters that are as bad as humans. This film works as a counter argument to the near worship of nature found in most films about the natural world.

August 09, 2007

Disturbia - 3

This film hitched its wagon to Rear Window, which means it pretty much set itself up to fail. The similarities are that a housebound guy, starts staring at his neighbors and his paranoia convinces him that his neighbor is a murderer. In this case Kale (Shia LaBeouf), a high-schooler who is under house arrest for punching his teacher- not a pleasant way to spend summer vacation. He gets bored, starts peering in on the neighbors, takes a liking to the new girl next store (Sarah Roemer), seeks payback to the punks across the street, and gets paranoid by a creepy older man (David Morse) who is slowly adding up to the suspect in an ongoing news story. Its pretty clear where all of this is going, Kale gets the girl and needs to be right in his rebellion against his mother (Carrie-Anne Moss) and his spying. The film is governed by PG-13 slasher constraints- the main goal here being to make the audience jumpy, rather than creatively telling a story (which is why Rear Window works 50 years later- that and the ending). In the end, it all just works itself out too easily.

August 08, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum - 6

Cool. That's the one word reduction of this trilogy about an amnestic CIA agent, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) on the run and searching for his identity. Bourne travels the world like it's his backyard. And artfully takes out anyone in his way on his search for the truth about where he came from and who he is. Cool. In this final chapter (which like Supremacy is distinctly directed by Paul Greengrass), Bourne finally gets a break as a reporter digs up the story through an interview with one of the original CIA operatives involved in setting up the operation that created Bourne. CIA deputy director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) can have none of this and sets up an operation to get rid of the "threat." This puts Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) and Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) who have been following Bourne up to this point in the awkward position of deciding where and with whom the truth lies. And how willing are they to put there jobs on the line. The mystery behind Bourne is finally revealed and justice illuminates the perpetrators. A very entertaining and cool, yet intelligent, action movie.

August 07, 2007

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - 5

This is the second film in the series and second and last for director Chris Columbus. This film has an easier time of it as it only needs one school year to tell the story and further develop the growing battle between Harry and Voldemort. Harry's friendship with Ron and Hermione is also strengthened, and the widening divide with the Malfoy's. It is also interesting that Snape takes on a lesser role in the story. The plot revolves around the legend of the Chamber of Secrets and the history of Hagrid and Tom Riddle from 50 years before. Magic, intuitive insight, and maybe some help from higher powers make Harry victorious again over a huge snake.

August 06, 2007

Café Lumière - 7

This film was made as an homage to Japanese writer/director Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story (which I've just added to my movie queue) by Taiwanese director Hsiao-hsien Hou. It is a reflective film about a young woman's learning what it means to be an adult. Yoko (Yo Hitoto) is back and forth to her parents house, the train stations, Cafe Erika, and a book/music shop where she is researching a jazz pianist. She also has conversations about books and dreams and recording train sounds with bookshop worker/friend Hajime (Tadanobu Asano, Last Life in the Universe). She also reveals to her parents that she is pregnant and not intending to marry the father. The parents are worried for her, but the generational gap separates them from honest conversation. The film has both the feel of Yoko's loneliness, as well as her self understanding and peace about life and the choices she has made. While the film lacks a simple narrative structure and moves slowly with Yoko as she lives here daily life, the film is beautiful none the less.
Hat tip to Gideon and Tala for the recommendation.

August 05, 2007

Starter for 10 - 5

Brian (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland) has always wanted to be smart. His father, who died when he was younger, loved game shows and trivia- never got to go to college. So when Brian gets into Bristol University (in England), he wants to pursue the good life of knowledge and learning. He also joins the University Challenge, a general knowledge trivia team. He soon finds that navigating higher education with grades and the distraction of love, Alice (Alice Eve) who is also on the team and activist/friend Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) is hard work. The alienation of his high school friends back home makes for further challenges. He eventually makes a fool out of himself to everyone- to finally find out who his true friends are and who he is becoming because of his relationships. A good film about the issues of the college years, but tries to hard to be funny and romantic (and I'm not sure why they set the film in 1985). Another film to add to the list of films that explore the purposes of higher education.

August 03, 2007

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - 5

This is the first of the J.K. Rowling books to be made into film, and the introduction of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson) -the three main characters of all 7 books. This film has a large task. It must introduce the story of Harry Potter and then have a sub-plot that makes this story unique from the following books. In this case we move from his birth to growing up with his relatives- because his parents are dead, to starting and finishing his first year of Hogwarts. It does a decent job and tries to pack in as much information from the book as possible (I haven't read but I hear more background from friends). It is an imaginative story about magic and growing up. This first film doesn't develop as many of the deeper themes that will appear later in the series.

August 02, 2007

Old Joy - 6

A short independent film about two old friends trying to reconnect on a two day camping trip. The cinematography reminded me of a Terrence Malick film, with its minimalist score and long sequences of nature scenes and the quiet away from the city. The dialogue is also sparse but the audience is meant to hear the dialogue in the silence between the two and it makes for a pretty powerful and realistic film about friendship. Also, read Evan's more in-depth review.

August 01, 2007

Sunshine - 7

Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later) team up again to make a great science-fiction film. A crew of 8 astronauts (Cilliam Murphy, Chris Evans, and Michelle Yeoh) are on a ship, Icarus 2, travelling to re-ignite the sun in order to save earth from an ice age. They are not the first to be sent and when they decide to board Icarus 1, they feel the stress of having to make further life and death decisions (you will have to see it to get more, I don't want to spoil it).
It uses very unique cinematography, the score is beautiful and haunting, and the philosophical questions it engages are intriguing. Because the sun is so basic to human life it becomes for some of the crew a religious experience. And the ultimate question and justification for humans trying to prolong their own survival is one that is not often brought up. Both visually stunning and thoughtful- a great combination. As sci-fi films go this is on the level of Alien, and probably a little short of 2001: A Space Odyssey (yes I know, I should have given it a 7).