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

November 28, 2007

Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus - 5

"The South" has always been a mystery to me. People refer to it not only as a location, the south-eastern part of the US, but also mention it as a culture, a state of mind, an attitude, a disposition, etc. This documentary follows musician Jim White as he travels in a rented old Chevy through parts of the south and hearing and telling stories of religion, morality, and trying to get at the essence of the south. The film is intriguing and is well produced. The music is what stands out, featuring songs by Jim White (the title comes from the lyric to his song Christmas Day), Johnny Dowd, The Handsome Family, David Eugene Edwards (as 16 Horsepower), and more. It is a creative film that doesn't reduce its subject to a simple stereotype, but opens up a conversation about how people experience and make sense out of their lives, some through music, some through religion, and others through crime. The film develops into a tribute to storytelling and the gift it is to being and becoming human. Here is what Scott had to say about it "Offers a visual & lyrical portrait of what O’Connor may have meant by "Christ Haunted South"." I was curious enough to check it out.

November 27, 2007

Erik Mongrain

Thanks to Ryan over at Brewing Culture for pointing him out.

November 22, 2007


Just watched Everything is Illuminated again. A beautiful and thought-inducing film about the power of our pasts.

"I have reflected many times upon our rigid search. It has shown me that everything is illuminated in the light of the past. It is always along the side of us, on the inside, looking out. Like you say, inside out. Jonathan, in this way, I will always be along the side of your life. And you will always be along the side of mine."

The Apple Dumpling Gang - 7

This is a classic film from my childhood. A rather comedic and children's western, the story involves three children who are inherited by Mr. Donovan, who unknowingly agrees to pick the kids up as a "delivery." The three children then accidentally stumble on gold in the mine that belonged to their father, this soon turns the town upside down as the children are fought over but become attached to Mr. Donovan and Dusty- a female stage coach driver that helps take care of them. The real hilarity is a side story about two incompetent bad guys named Theodore (Don Knotts) and Amos (Tim Conway), who want to rob the bank, but end up in outrageous situations. The best is when they steal a ladder from the local firehouse. It is a fun film, where justice and family win out over the chaos and destruction that might be possible in the new frontier of the west.

November 18, 2007

Shrek the Third - 6

Sequels have challenges- audience expectations, getting the stars to agree, etc. They also usually have story issues as some stories were not written to be continued. Shrek 2 suffered because of this. Audiences loved the first one and were not sure where the story could go from there. In this third installment the writer's keep is short and simple and it works. Shrek goes off to find a replacement so that he doesn't have to be King, and Fiona breaks the news that Shrek is to be a father. Using this relatively simple conflict setup, it continues with the usual jokes about fairy tales. The story is not as grand as the first two, but it makes for a fun film that once again has a good soundtrack and interesting characters.

November 15, 2007

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry - 2

Imagine a comedy where two firefighters, let's call them Chuck and Larry, decide that pretending to have a civil union for the benefit of being able to pass on one's inheritance to Larry's kids and the investigation of this relationship by the government and the political ramifications this might have on one's work and home life. Pick two of your favorite comedians to play the roles of Chuck and Larry. This exercise has just saved you two hours, and you've imagined a better film than was made here by Dennis Dugan, Adam Sandler, and Kevin James. Dan Aykroyd, Steve Bescemi, and Jessica Biel couldn't improve the film either. The plot is predictable, the jokes you've already heard before, and- at almost two hours- it doesn't end soon enough. And if you are watching to see Sandler and James kiss, gladly that never happens. Somewhere wrapped up in this rather bad film is a message about tolerance, but it comes across as ironic rather than authentic.

November 11, 2007

Ratatouille - 6

Pixar again proves it is an amazing animation company. The visuals in this film are stunning, and the story is fun and entertaining. But the films one flaw is that the plot is jumpy, moving faster at times and losing the significance of the characters involved. It starts off as a story about Remy, a rat with an acute sense of smell. He wants to fulfill his dream of being a cook in the tradition of France's great cook, Gusteau who claims that everyone can cook if they take the art seriously. When Remy gets separated from his family and ends up in the kitchen of Gusteau's (who has since died) restaurant, the film picks up the story of Linguini, who works as a dishwasher and garbage boy in the kitchen. When Remy and Linguini become friends and co-workers, Linguini is able to cook up great food with the help of Remy's cooking abilities. Linguini becomes famous and over takes main chef Skinner, who- in true elitist fashion- has it out to bring Linguini down. The film then moves quickly developing a love interest between Linguini and Collette a fellow chef and reuniting Remy with his family. The conflict is that Remy and Linguini are the only ones who know what is actually going on. The film then takes up the story of Anton Ego, the famous food critic. He comes to know the truth and is able to sum up the film and bring about resolution. I have recently read many writers talk about Ego's final speech as it reflects on the purposes of art and criticism. This is worth reading (or hearing) again:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talents — new creations. The new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize that only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.
It is both a fun and thoughtful film, which makes it worth watching.

November 06, 2007

American Gangster - 7

Gangster films have a mysterious appeal in American culture. Everyone (OK, maybe this is a guy thing?) has some hidden longing to be The Godfather or Tony Montana from Scarface, or if not to be them, at least admires them. These people are criminals and everyone knows it. Therein lies the attraction, gangsters are symbols of pride and power, and we secretly would rather be feared than loved.
Ridley Scott's American Gangster take up a similar story, based on real events, with some interesting twists. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), decides to take advantage of the war in Vietnam, and buy directly from the fields of heroin, using military friends and relatives to smuggle it back in military planes. Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is a cop, and law-student, who gets further drawn into investigating the growing drug problems in NYC. The film follows both of these men as their lives get further and further entangled. The film highlights the arrogance that starts to take over Lucas' life as he gains power and money, while showing the increasing vulnerability of Richie as his life is falling apart. The film avoids trying to be a detective crime thriller and instead becomes a character study of who it is Lucas and Roberts long to be, and the difficult choices we have to make to get there.
Gangster films trouble the idea of the American Dream while still holding the promise of its success. This film goes further by arguing that we might have to surrender the dream to something better and more real: the relationships of those closest to us. This film works as heightened metaphor for the choices we make and the people we want to become.

November 05, 2007

Across the Universe - 6

Using Beatles songs as a starting point, this film tells a love story set in the tumultuous decade of the 60's. Jude (Jim Sturgess) leaves Britain behind to go to America for an adventure. He becomes friends with Max (Joe Anderson) and Jude soon starts falling for Max's sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Max drops out of Princeton to live in NYC, here the three of them live in a community apartment with an eclectic group of artists. The film weaves the songs of the Beatles and the events of the times- the war in Vietnam, drugs, the sexual revolution, civil rights movement, and the questioning of authority.

Director Julie Taymor using stunning visuals, including animation, psychedelic coloring (with a trippy cameo by Bono), and imaginative and artistic props and sets to try to portray the feeling and experience of this radical turning point in a culture. The plot is relatively simple but the use of songs and historical footage shows the complexity of the times and the individual and social struggles.

November 04, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited - 7

I love Wes Anderson's brand of quirky, humorous, and sometimes blunt storytelling (If you disliked/liked his other films, you may have a similar response here). Three brothers who having suffered the trauma of their father's death are on a spiritual journey in India. Aboard the Darjeeling Limited train, Francis (Owen Wilson) takes charge as he hires someone to plan their itinerary. Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) follow along with minimal eye rolling. They would rather be somewhere else, but it seems like trying to be brothers is at least worth the attempt, even if Francis is overbearing. The humor continues as they try to force themselves into a spiritual and transcendence experience, only to find that it can't be created, it has to find you. The film then gets very serious as they rescue some boys from drowning and come to realize that life, contrary to their American worldview, is not always about them. The film does a good job of finding both the humor and sadness that accompanies trauma. It also shows the complexity of responses that we can have, and yet, it always seems to involve others who illuminate what we really care about.

Educating Rita - 7

What is the purpose of higher education? This 1983 British film answers this questions by exploring the education of Rita (Julie Waters), a hair dresser, who at 26 has decided she wants to better herself by attending college classes. She meets with an English tutor who having a long career has gotten bored of teaching and become a drunk. Dr. Frank Bryant (Michael Caine) becomes intrigued by Rita as she ask real everyday questions. This throws him for a loop as he is use to pretentious students and having to play the part of the expert and scholar. As the film goes on the questions of the purposes of college become entangled in issues of relationships, social mobility, and the meaning of thinking critically. Ultimately though, it becomes about Rita and Frank's identity, the people they are and the people they want to become. While this film is pretty old, I think the questions remain similar and poignant for those that care about the value and "reason for being" in higher education. Thanks Andrea for the recommendation.

A Little Romance - 7

This is a nice story of romantic love, in the sense of romance- ideal and storied. Two middle-schooler's meet in Paris, Lauren (a very young Diane Lane), who is American, and Daniel (Thelonious Bernard), who is a native of Paris, but loves American films. They soon discover that they are both bright students and probably the only one's for each other. They eventually hear a legend that kissing under a bridge in Venice will make their love last forever. They then go on an adventure to make it true. The key to the film, is when the old man (Laurence Olivier), who has helped them run off, explains the storied nature of legends and romance. He makes the point that the stories we tell have to be lived to be true, our lives, in some respects, make the stories real (It makes a great scene to show in a class). Thanks Gideon for the recommendation.

November 02, 2007

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex Solid State Society - 6

Ghost in the Shell is a long running manga (Japanese comics). It has been adapted into 3 films (my thoughts on 1 and 2), this one being the third, and two television series.
This is a crime thriller set in the future, where a villain named the "puppeteer" is infecting people, who are part human and part machine. Section 9 is responsible for tacking and ending the string of violence. The plot is intriguing and exciting and the film concludes by once again asking philosophical questions of reality and mystery and tension of mind and body. Similar to The Matrix (which was greatly influenced by this anime) the levels of complexity are great. These questions are important and can be asked well in the context of science fiction. The beautiful animation of this series is enough to recommend all three films.