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

February 28, 2008

Pride - 5

It's a shame, but films like this have become bland. The formula is the same. Black people have been discriminated against in all areas of life in America since slavery, and in the last 50 years have made some inroads into things they had been excluded from. Rallying around a strong, courageous leader, a group find meaning and victory by fighting prejudice and doing good. Remember the Titans used football, this film uses swimming. Based on the life of Jim Ellis (Terrence Howard), the film uses all of the standard lines and story to show how he inspired young people to start swimming and gain their dignity and pride back from racism and oppression. It's not that these stories aren't good, its just that filmmakers are not very creative in their telling it. And I wonder what it does for race relations in the world as this narrative becomes the dominant one. It seems to conflate the American dream of working hard with the reconciliation needed in order to live with and in the midst of a society that still has to come to terms with racism and prejudice. These films have the potential for creating dialogue, but rarely do as the issue is reduced to a simple formula that leaves the audience entertained rather than confronted.

February 26, 2008

The Flight of the Conchords - 7

Fun. Crazy fun. This HBO comedy series follows Bret and Jermaine (Eagle vs Shark) as they move to New York from New Zealand and try to get their career as a band going. With the "competent" help of Murray, who manages the band on the side from his New Zealand consulate office, they have one obsessive fan, Mel, and a small apartment. But they have yet to get a gig...well unless you count a show in the shady bar of a motel near the New Jersey Airport or "a" central park in New York. The Conchords sing about everyday things like falling in love, breaking up (and they are definitely not crying about it), and how computers are taking over the world (binary solo!). Plenty of humor also comes from the misunderstanding that they are from England or Australia. Each episode has a song or two integrated into the simple plot. Not only are they funny, but they are creative and catchy (check out some of the songs here). The first season has 12 episodes- it is worth checking out.

February 23, 2008

In the Valley of Elah - 6

With the many films about the war in Iraq as a subtext coming out, this film could get lost as just another film trying to be political. In fact, this film rises above the simple "politics of now" and portrays the aftermath of war in a complex and compelling manner. While the plot is driven by Mike (Jonathan Tucker) status as AWOL and eventually discovered dead, the focus is on Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) a retired Army man of a different era, on the search for his son. This generational difference becomes the major theme in the film, as Hank holds to the values of honor and courage, while the Army he witnesses through the friends of his Mike's colleagues, seem cynical, damaged, and lost. Who Hank is looking for becomes murky as relationships are in pieces, needing connection. Hank begins to connect through Detective Sanders (Charlize Theron) who decides she has nothing to lose, her respect on the job is at almost zero, and the two of them take up an informal investigation. She is a single mom, and the title of the film comes when Hank retells the story of David and Goliath to her son, who is lost to its meaning and significance. The investigation soon delves them deeply into the effects that war has on young people, who must not only adapt culturally, but also psychologically, to the trauma they are witness to. The film slowly draws out this story, making it a war film with very little action and violence. The film uses minimal dialogue but shows the power of war and the pain of those involved below the surface of the way we speak and how things appear on the outside.

February 18, 2008

Gone Baby Gone - 7

Who determines what is right or wrong? Or do we simply aim at what seems better? This is one of the central questions this film raises in the context of an old, but poor Boston neighborhood surrounding a case of kidnapping. Patrick (Casey Affleck) and Angie (Michelle Monaghan) live together and work together as private investigators, following people and looking for missing person's- usually for dead bodies. The McCready family approaches them to help in the police investigation to look for a missing four year-old. In order to not spoil the film I'll leave it there, but this deep and disturbing search leads to Patrick having to reflect on the morality, consequences, and responsibility of his choices and actions. In asking the question what is the right thing to do, we cannot merely explain our decisions as a reaction in our gut, or rely on platitudes, but rather the choices must become a lived reality- as painful and hard as the consequences might be. The characters are as complex as the plot as they all struggle with knowing what is right, and how to make choices in line with what they love.
Based on the novel by Dennis Lahane, who also wrote Mystic River, this film was adapted (with Aaron Stockard) and directed by Ben Affleck. The film is beautifully shot, using real neighborhoods and some local people. My brother sees similarities of this story to recent events in Chad, but wait till after you see the film to read this article, as it may be a spoiler.

February 15, 2008

We Own the Night - 6

Inspired by the success of The Departed, this film pits two brothers who seem to be on opposite ends of justice against each other on the streets of New York. Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix), a club owner who keeps questionable company like the Russian mafia and drug peddlers is just trying to stay below the laws radar, while Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) is climbing the ranks toward his father's (Robert Duvall) likeness as chief of police. When the pressure mounts on Bobby, he has to find a way to get past his past, and make the moral choices necessary to love others, and decide who he really is. The film focuses on loyalty, and the tensions we find in life as many people and things contend for our loyalty.

February 12, 2008

Elizabeth: The Golden Age - 4

Another film about Elizabeth I. This film is a sort of sequel that deals with Elizabeth's later life when Spain attacked in order to bring England back to the Catholic faith. Cate Blanchett again stars as Elizabeth. This film also ties in a love story between Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) and Elizabeth's main attendant (Abbie Cornish). I think the film is alluding to the tension and hardship Elizabeth had to go through as she was committed to staying single for the good of the country, even while longing for companionship and love. The film maybe a little over dramatic as it gets a little near Braveheart in Elizabeth giving a moving battle speech, and the romantic arch seems somewhat over sentimentalized. Those viewers with a fetish for old costumes, castles, and cathedrals will have plenty to satisfy them.

February 11, 2008

Climates - 6

This Turkish film fits into the reflective-relational genre perfected (?) by Kieslowski in his Three Colors trilogy (Blue, White, and Red). The dialogue is sparse and the viewer must watch the emotions on the faces, which can subtly turn from plain to tears over the course of one shot. The film shows the development and tension in a relationship between Isa (Nuri Bilge Ceylan), a college professor, and his wife, Bahar (Ebru Ceylan), a TV producer. Their miscommunication leads to a break in the relationship, and a need for self reflection on both of their parts before they can reconcile. While an intricately made film, its slowness made it somewhat challenging to watch.

February 05, 2008

Trade - 5

This film is more about raising awareness about the reality of the sex slave trade than a well acted or told story. Fortunately for the film raising awareness is a good thing and culturally relevant, unfortunately it makes for a sub par film. Written by Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries), this fictional (based on the 2004 NY Times article The Girls Next Door by Peter Landesman) story attempts to tie together four characters. A young Mexican girl, Adriana, who gets kidnapped and meets Veronica who has been captured from Poland through a immigration scam, and her brother who pursues her captures with Ray (Kevin Kline), a police officer from Texas who lost a daughter 10 years ago. This adventure takes all of them from the Mexico border through the states as they rendezvous in New Jersey for an internet action to sell Adriana. The film tries to be somewhat nuance by not having a happy ever after, but shows how the emotions that injustice incites can either free or ensnare us. The film ends with text on a black screen giving facts and quotes about the reality of the sex trade. To learn more about what you can do about this issue visit the films main page.

February 04, 2008

Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? - 4

While this documentary lacked a cohesive story, the film does make for some interesting interviews about the state of Christian rock music. It runs the spectrum of those that see clear lines between Christianity and music and those that take a more integrated approach. It is interesting how people think about ways subcultures relate to the general culture and vice versa. Most of the film is concert clips and interview taken at the Cornerstone Festival, a summer music event held at a campground near Chicago every year. I've heard Daniel Smith and David Bazan talk more about this than the few minutes they get in this film, both intelligent to the issues. A good conversation starter, but I was hoping for more of a story trying to get at some of the deeper questions about this phenomenon, and the broader issue of the relationship between culture and religion.

February 02, 2008

The Heartbreak Kid - 1

Despite having two Stillers (Ben and Jerry, not the Pittsburgh football team) this film ended up being horrible, going from bad to worse to worse still. The Farrelly Brothers adapted (loosely) the 1972 film to the new millennium, and made me want to go back to the 70's. You want to root for Eddie to find true love, but as his lying gets more and more outrageous, you want someone to kill him, not just hit him with a baseball bat. Some films have gratuitous nudity, this film not only has that, it has a gratuitous plot. That is the plot doesn't help make the story meaningful or good. In fact, as the story develops it makes less and less sense. I just wanted the crude jokes to end and the film to be over. This was labeled a comedy, but it was just sad.