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

March 30, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days - 7

It took some time but I was finally able to see this much anticipated film. While 2007 seems to be the year for unexpected pregnancy films, this film takes the audience on a much more heart wrenching ride than the many others that seem to work out despite the challenges. This film is Romanian and is set in the 80's when abortion there was illegal and severely punished. The story follows two friends who live together in a crowded apartment building. When scared and naive Gabriela reveals that she is pregnant, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) arranges for the abortion. The film shows the dedication and sacrifice that friendship involves and the difficult choices that begin to define what friendship and being in a relationship mean. The film both shows the harsh reality of the situation, as well as showing Otilia's existential questioning of what her life means and where it is headed. This is probably the one film about unwanted pregnancy this year that takes it deadly serious.

March 25, 2008

Ronin - 4

This is a standard covert operations film. Made in 1998 it looks older somehow. A small team of strangers are hired for a task to get a package. The package of course turns out to be a MacGuffin, and the story revolves around the issues of trust and who is conning who. A decent action film, and less formulaic than a James Bond film, but not anything to go out of your way to see. I would have liked for there to be a greater connection to the background that gives the film its title. The main stars are Robert De Niro and Jean Reno.

March 20, 2008

Eagle vs Shark - 7

This is the Napolean Dynamite of romantic comedies. It has awkward characters who are just trying to make a connection in a fragmented and broken world. Made in New Zealand by artist-turned-director Taika Waititi and staring Loren Horsley as ex-Meaty Boy employee and Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) as eccentric Jarrod, it also features plenty the indie music of The Phoenix Foundation. It also features a few illustrated portions reminiscent of Michael Gondry films. The basic story is that Lily is in love with Jarrod who hooks up with her at a Fight Man video game party. He then asks her brother for a ride back to his hometown to beat up a former bully from when he was in grade school. All the characters are weird including Jarrod's family, but the lesson here is that human beings have a need to connect, and no matter how rotten we or others are, better to attempt love and relationship than waste away on a deserted island.

March 18, 2008

Lust, Caution - 6

Director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) and screen-writer James Schamus (The Ice Storm, The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman) team up once again to adapt this short story by Chinese author Eileen Chang. To over simplify, or rather to make an unnuanced comparison, this film is similar to Verhoeven's 2006 film Black Book. This film is also set during WWII, but in Japanese occupied Shanghai, rather than German occupied Holland. A young university student, Wang (Wei Tang), uses her beauty to get close to the enemy as a part of a resistance movement. After a failed attempt early on with some of her young theater friends, she later is recruited to once again get close to Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). As lust turns into love, it becomes harder to tell who is deceiving whom, or even if it is deception anymore. And after all the build up of developing an intimate relationship it all comes down to the crucial decision of what they love more: the causes they work for, or each other.

March 10, 2008

Dial M for Murder - 7

In this Hitchcock film, the perfect murder is planned and put into motion. Anymore information about the plot would take away from the excitement of trying to follow it as it zigs and zags. It is an intricate story with plenty of twists and turns as the plan is fouled up but always being covered by Tony (Ray Milland) as he controls the situation through control of the story that people hear and believe. Grace Kelly plays Margot, Tony's wife and the victim of his scheming. This film is a great suspense film, as the audience is in the know, but is still guessing and waiting for the police to solve the case. Hitchcock's excellence at his art once again comes through, no scene, dialogue, or shot is by accident.

March 09, 2008

The Battle of Algiers - 7

This classic and influential film, tells the true story of the events in Algiers, the capital city of Algeria, Africa. Algeria was colonized by the French and in 1954 started a revolution called the National Liberation Front (NLF). Using grassroots methods of strategic bombings and killings, the cell groups were eventually eliminated by the French paratroopers. But Algeria was eventually able to gain independence in 1962. The parallels to the current war in Iraq are striking. And may help explain why the French were oppose to the US invasion, assuming that the current French government are true students of history. Amazingly this film was made only four years after the final events of the film. The film shows both the strategy of the NLF as well as the French Military (including conversations about the definition and use of torture). It provides a large picture of the battle, rather than a personal narrative focusing on one character or group. It almost seems as though it wants to work as a documentary or creative archive of the events. In current time it has many strikes against it. It has subtitles, it's in black and white, it's old, and while containing action is pretty slow paced. With all that said it still may be worth your time and consideration.

March 06, 2008

Into the Wild - 7

I was skeptical of this story when I heard about it, first as a book by Jon Krakauer and then as a film adaptation directed by Sean Penn. Stories of this type- people going to live "back" in nature, can get a lot of things wrong and be rather off putting especially if they simply reject modern life. One possibility is to pit nature as inevitably violent to man. Another option is to pit man as inherently violent against nature. Hyperbole makes for a diatribe rather than a story. At the same time, if the film contains no conflict it tends up being boring. What this film does beautifully is to ask good questions. This relationship of how we are to live in the world is a necessary question in order to get the audience to think about the complexity and nuance of what the good life is. The film is nicely divided up into chapters that show how Christopher McCandless arrived at his end (in both senses of the word). His story is one of a searching for wisdom. He got a college degree, he came from a "good" family, but all of that did not add up to who he thought he was or could be.
It would have been easy for this story to have been turned into one of a martyr- an idealist killed by a materialist society. Instead Chris becomes an inquirer into the human condition, something everyone can learn from and should probably try to pursue. This film makes a good discussion piece on the long list of huge existential, but real, questions about life and living and the wisdom and foolishness that are revealed.
The film is nicely accented by the soundtrack written by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder.

March 05, 2008

Beowulf - 4

When criticizing the adaptation of this ancient tale, the writers of this version have beat the critic to the punch. Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary are clear that this is there version of what they consider to be an ever evolving text. Since the original was passed down orally and then copied repeated by monks with paper and ink, Avary and Gaiman claim that personal edits are an inherent part of this particular story. So if you are going to dislike the film for this reason you'll want a degree in English and some history lessons in the genealogy of the text. My dad keeps telling me that I am half Frisian, which are the descendants of British and Dutch vikings, so this story is suppose to be in my blood. And I guess, lucky for me, I find these stories more interesting than the actual story of Beowulf. Robert Zemeckis' motion capture filming technique that he started using with The Polar Express annoys me. I think it looks dumb. How's that for a philosophical critique? I don't mind the reverse Oedipal interpretation of this telling of the tale (Grendel's mother is now the super-sexualized Angelina Jolie), it was mostly just the bad graphics and voices and the aesthetics of the piece that turned me off to it. If you like this type of animation and adventure tales then this will probably satisfy your tastes. As for me, I'm going to go back to reading up about Frisians on Wikipedia.

March 04, 2008

Margot at the Wedding - 5

This is Noah Baumbach's (The Squid and the Whale, Mr. Jealousy, Kicking and Screaming) latest film. It continues Baumbach's tradition of dialogue oriented film that focus on interpersonal communication and issues of honesty and intimacy. While all of his previous film have done this in a funny and deep way, this film seems to lack the cohesion that make his type of film-making great. It is very much like a Woody Allen film (almost always associated with the culture of New York City where both of them are from), Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her son travel to the home of her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Pauline has decided to marry Malcolm (Jack Black). The rest of the film is then a series of conversations of conflict between sisters, cousins, and spouses as they work through there past and try to make their way forward. These characters live in the height of a therapeutic culture, and most viewers would probably say they think to much, especially about themselves and their skills at interpersonal relationships. It is hard to sympathize with them as they all seem rather selfish in their pursuit of happiness that they expect others to conform to. While the psychoanalysts might have plenty to work with here, it leaves a more general audience with very little.

March 02, 2008

Rendition - 6

Why this film did not do better at the box office is beyond me. It had the star power: Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin, and Peter Sarsgaard- and directed by Gavin Hood (Tsotsi). It also had a decent story to tell, granted it might have gotten lost in the flood of political films dealing with terrorism and the war on terror. The film takes a simple story of an Egyptian who is taken in by the CIA coming back from a work related trip to South Africa due to connections he may have with a recent suicide bombing. Anwar El-Ibrahimi has lived most of his life in America and has made a life and family in the US. The story gets more complex as it weaves together the bureaucracy, cynicism and emotion that go into trying to figure the truth of the situation. Each character has their own perspective and political hide to look out for. And though it deals with torture, the film alludes rather than showing the horrendous nature of it.
While not based on specific true events, I have personally heard of this situation happening to people that look or have Arab sounding names. 9/11 changed the way we think about fear and security and the chances for something to go wrong are real. And with the small exception of some confusing flashbacks near the end of the film, it is an intriguing and much needed film. It does a good job of showing the personal behind what is usually portrayed in the media as merely political rhetoric.

March 01, 2008

Barbershop - 6

This film uses the location of a local barbershop in Chicago to allow for dialogue among the community of African-American's that work and surround it to talk about issues closest to them: family, dreams, and race in America. Because the film needs a plot to be successful at the box-office, an the ATM next store is stolen, and a shady businessman offers to buy the barbershop from Calvin (Ice Cube). In the end the community comes together and Calvin begins to understand the value of the local over the global. The film ends with a great quote by Eddie (Cedric the Entertainer) about how the narrative of making a living (money and fame) has replaced the narrative of making a life (valuing family and community). Rather than playing to stereotypes, the film uses the conflict within the Black community to show that it is internally diverse and should not be understood as a monolithic culture.

See, in my day, a barber was more than just somebody who sit around in a FUBU shirt with his drawers hanging all out. In my day, a barber was a counselor. He was a fashion expert. A style coach. Pimp. Just general all-around hustler. But the problem with y'all cats today, is that you got no skill. No sense of history. And then, with a straight face, got the nerve to want to be somebody. Want somebody to respect you. But it takes respect to get respect. Understand? See, I'm old. But, Lord willing, I'd be spared the sight of seeing everything that we worked for flushed down the drain by someone who don't know no better or care.