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

September 30, 2007

Black Book - 6

This film sits firmly in the tradition of WWII films about the underground struggle to fight off the Nazi's. Set in Holland (and directed by Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven), the story follows Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Jew who joins the resistance and uses her beauty and body to infiltrate the Dutch Nazi's in power. In a world built out of deception, it becomes harder and harder for people to really know others. The film is an intricate story where bonds of trust are created and broken. This distrust manifests in each of the characters in different ways as they try to survive and long for the end of the war. Rather than provide a picture of good versus evil, the story highlights the good and bad desires that we all have- and the sort of character that these desires and our choices help create. The film is well made and engaging.

My Dinner with Andre - 7

Wally (Wallace Shawn- yes, the Sicilian from Princess Bride) hasn't seen Andre (Andre Gregory), a friend from their early theater days, in years. So he makes plans to have dinner with him. The conversations they have over dinner is the film. It is just two friends having dinner and talking. And if meaningful and philosophical (they actually reference Heidegger at one point!) conversation puts you to sleep, you'll be off to nod in five minutes. What makes this film great is its honest dialogue about life's meaning, reality, and asking good questions like: Who am I? Where am I? How did I get here? And where am I going? As Wally and Andre talk they come up against the problem of knowing how to really live, how one makes choices, and what is reality. They also talk about how western culture is overwhelming and has responded with numbness and apathy. While this film is more than 25 years old, it remains a relevant conversation for thinking about life and provides a model for asking good questions.
Thanks Andrea for recommending it.

September 29, 2007

The Station Agent - 5

This is a simple film about how our traumatic experiences leave us disconnected from others. There is some comfort in loneliness that each of the characters learns to break from in order to become friends that care for one another. The three unlikely friends are Fin (Peter Dinklage), a dwarf, who loves trains and inherits an old train station to live in, Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) a reclusive artist who has lost her son, and Joe (Bobby Cannavale)- a food stand worker who loves to talk. The dialogue is awkward as they slowly unlearn the usual habits of masking their true selves. The film shows that friendships are built and that they are needed.

September 28, 2007

Blue - 7

Previously, on the day I started this blog, I gave this film a 5. Seeing it again, I have no idea why I did that . Let's call it- "I learned a thing or two after blogging about 800 films since then." This is an amazing film, director Krzysztof Kieslowski uses every shot to develop the themes and story. Julie (Juliette Binoche) suffers the loss of her husband, a nationally known French composer, and her five year-old daughter in a car accident. The remainder of the film is Julie's attempts to deal with the grief and trauma. This includes random encounters and connections with people in her apartment building, her husband's mistress, and finishing a symphony that her husband had started. It is a thoughtful and well made film. It has been analyzed extensively by academics interested in film and trauma studies. It is part of the Three Colors trilogy (White and Red).

September 27, 2007

Next - 3

Hollywood has a fetish for turning Phillip K. Dick stories into films. Sometimes with great results- Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly, and Minority Report. Sometimes with decent results- Total Recall and Paycheck. But this is just bad. Chris (Nicolas Cage) can see a few minutes into the future. So the government wants to exploit this to prevent a nuclear terrorist attack. For some unknown reason the terrorists also know about Chris and are trying to kill him. And when Chris is around Liz (Jessica Biel) he can see further into the future. The trick of the film is that the viewer is never sure if what they are seeing is every real-time or what Chris can see ahead of time. This is used to stupidly manipulate the audience. The action sequences of destruction are amazing, but the plot barely makes sense. And Cage, Biel and Julianne Moore "phoned in" their performances. At one point I think Cage looked more bored than I was.

September 23, 2007

Eastern Promises - 4

Director David Cronenberg won me over with his films Dead Ringers and The History of Violence, both complex and well done films. Unfortunately, Eastern Promises is a film unworthy of these past works. The story is about a diary found by Anna (Naomi Watts), when a woman dies giving birth to a daughter. The diary is in Russian and when she approaches a Russian business man to translate it, Anna finds that the information is incriminating and she is now involved with a London crime family. It is the mysterious Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) that draws most of Anna's attention, and they work together to do as much good as they can, considering the circumstances. The plot takes time to develop and then ends too quickly.
This film is noteworthy for all the wrong reasons. It features gratuitous sex and violence that does very little to advance the plot. It had potential, but I felt cheated as I walked out of the film. The ending came to early- I was waiting for the next reel to be put on. Instead the credits rolled.

September 16, 2007

3:10 to Yuma - 6

Some might claim that the traditional western died at the end of John Wayne's career in the 70's. But while it has been on the decline, it is still alive and doing well (See Unforgiven and The Proposition). While 3:10 to Yuma is a remake, it still fits in today by showing the moral dilemma's that we can face when questions of justice arise.
Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is the leader of a gang of outlaws and is captured by a small town. Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is a struggling rancher in that town and in need of money agrees to help transport Wade for the 3:10 train to Yuma and, of course, Wade's gang is not going to see him taken without a fight. But the real story is the struggle of wills as the audience wonders about the moral qualities and fortitude of both men.
The west provides a great setting to have a heightened dialogue about the meaning of justice and moral good. With the absence of modern bureaucracy, the wilderness becomes a place where justice is in the hands of the people, it is no longer an abstraction. So, as always a gunfight must ensue as justice needs to be pursued or destroyed at all cost. The conversations about what is truly good is what makes this film worth watching.

The Human Stain - 3

Based on Phillip Roth's critically acclaimed novel, this film is a character drama, focusing on a fired English literature professor Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) and his relationship to Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) and his new found love in the young Faunia (Nicole Kidman). While the characters are well developed the story leaves you wondering why you should care for them. The film hinges on Coleman's story of his past and his inability to be truly honest with anyone about it. Its probably another of those books that is best left as a book. It attempts to say something about the human condition, but only vaguely gets there and it is ultimately unrewarding.

September 09, 2007

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - 7

Set in 18th century France this is the fictional tale of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. The film is based on the 1985 book by Patrick Suskind. Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) is born on the street and grows up in an orphanage. He is an oddity because his sense of smell is very acute and he has no natural scent of his own. Smell becomes the under-riding metaphor as Grenouille struggles to find his vocation- mostly as a slave, until he is able to become the apprentice of perfumer Giuseppe Baldini (Dustin Hoffman). He soon learns that his goal in life is to preserve the scent of beauty which is the essence and soul of beautiful women. In this way he stumbles into the job of a serial killer. As he kills the women in order to capture their scent for the best perfume in the world. He is eventually caught and condemned to die by death on a cross. And though he finds power in beauty his true longing is to be truly loved, discovering that this is impossible for him, he sacrifices himself. The film confronts the audience with the questions: Is Grenouille supposed to represent Christ or the anti-Christ? In this fable the ambiguity will stay with you for days. It is probably the most provocative, yet beautiful films of 2007.

Life is Beautiful - 7

This Italian film won 3 Oscars when it came out in 1997. Actor-writer-director Roberto Benigni tells a comedy in the midst of the harsh reality of the second World War. The story is told from a young son's perspective about his father, Guido (Benigni), who was a goofy but caring man who finds love with Dora right before the war, and when they have a son they raise him to love life, have fun, and take bath's despite his protests. When the father and son are taken to a concentration camp because they are Jews, Guido convinces his son that they have been signed up for a game in which they do what they are told to gain points to eventually win a tank. Guido uses his imagination in order to help his son see that amidst the ugliness and destruction in life, it is still beautiful. The film is mostly funny, which is odd as the setting could not be more horrendous, but that is ultimately Benigni's claim. Even human evil is unable to complete destroy the gift and beauty that is life. It is an audacious claim, and one that this story tells beautifully and with great care- never making light of the reality of the holocaust. Rather the film points us toward love, family and our imagination as a key to being human and allowing us to resist the evil which can well up in all of us.

September 02, 2007

Maxed Out - 6

This is a documentary about debt and the economy of credit cards in America. This should be required viewing for anyone graduating high school and about to enter the world of being responsible for one's own finances. The film is a typical documentary, trying to keep the writer/director James Scurlock out of the story while individuals tell there experiences about debt, as well as interview with collector's and government hearings on finance from banks and credit card companies. The film does a good job of educating the audience about how credit and money work in America's consumer society. It also points out the increasing pressures of credit card companies to encourage debt for their own advantage- while missing the longer term picture of a possible economic collapse.

September 01, 2007

Blades of Glory - 3

Starting out with an outrageous premise—two male figure skaters becoming a pair—makes the jokes and gags in Blades of Glory easy. What is harder is to actually make them funny. This film is short enough and packs the acting power of Will Ferrell, Jon Heder and Jenna Fischer to nearly pull off some very original comedy. If you love figure skating as an art form you might be offended as star figure skaters Chazz Michael Michaels and Jimmy MacElroy make an absolute mockery of the sport. The film plays on most of the same story arcs and physical gags as do other comedies of this sort, with strange background stories and rather two-dimensional characters- especially when it comes to the forced love story. The funniest parts of the film are when they stop worrying about plot development and just start goofing off and ad-libbing. The film considers itself just fun entertainment and succeeds by not over-extending itself past 90 minutes.