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Miscellaneous Comments

Sorry, at the present time these remarks are arranged from more recently seen to less recently seen. To search for a specific title, use the edit > find function of your browser or the site search function at the top of this page.

  • Howl's Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro) . 2004. Anime with voice overs for American release. Visually stunning. Quiet. Beautiful animation. Story, however, lacks internal logic and clear motivations for characters. "OK" but if you are going watch Anime there are better choices (see other Anime listings on this page).
  • Millennium Actress. 2001. Postmodern Anime celebrates history of Japanese cinema. Stunning and beautiful. A must see.
  • Cinderella Man. 2005. More than a film about boxing. This is, as Roger Ebert pointed out, a film about something good happening to a good man. Not nearly as interesting, as Aristotle pointed out, as something bad happening to a good man. This aside, however, the film works and for those interested in acting, Crowe will surely receive an Oscar nomination for this film. Story demonstrates there is frequently a positive need for truth distortion when films are adapted from life, something I have not directly addressed in these pages. This film would be less effective without the truth distortion. What truth distortion? The character of the antagonist. As in Kingdom of Heaven (where the antagonist is made more humane than in actual life), this film also distorts the character of the antagonist (making him less humane than in actual life) in order to accentuate the nature of the conflict. However, for viewing the film with the aim of enjoyment, it is probably better to put these concerns about "truth" aside. Those who watch without any knowledge of the backgrond of the story and the outcome will be rewarded. Best effect: When hero Jim Braddock is viewing a newsclip of Max Baer in the fight promoter's office, we see the real clip of Max Baer. This is intercut with recreated simulations of that fight with subjective camera and extreme closeups of the fighters. The result is that the inner mental life of protagonist melds with old news footage in beautiful montage. We watch and we become the protagonist. This scene also foreshadows later events in the film.
  • The Terminal. 2004. Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg. Cliche all the way. Andrew Niccol who got writing credit for The Truman Show has "story" credit for this. Both story concepts are the same in these two films: Man is trapped in closed "world" controlled by malevolent dictator -- man thwarts dictator, learns about love and truth -- man leaves closed world to enter "real" world. Although this film has many adherents, the problem with The Terminal is accepting the premise of the film. This initial strain on credulity and the stilted dialogue that attempts to prop it up results in a fantasy that (unlike The Truman Show) simply does not work.
  • Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith.

    Previous episodes have already established that George Lucas is not the best script writer. This film contains no surprises in that category. The film is, of course, a must see for fans. Others may find it also contains some rather timely reflections on morality and religion.

    Moral Center: As Yoda states, fear of loss and failure to focus on ideals can be dangerous things. Loss of Focus on Ideals, especially sacrificing established moral codes for pragmatic reasons, can bring about disaster -- even bring down a civilization. From the structural point of view, one of the most interesting elements in this film is that a crucial decision -- one precipitating the central moral error committed by the tragic hero (Anakin) -- is initiated by a relatively minor character, Jedi Master Mace Windu. It is (partially) the moral failure of Mace Windu, that turns Anakin to the Dark Side. The ambiguity in the moral universe created by Lucas in this film puts the entire saga in a different light. Note that in the opening crawl, Lucas states that "evil is everywhere," but "there are heroes on both sides." At the same time, this film retains, and even deepens, the commitment that the entire saga has to its fundamentally Christian message: human evil is never total -- everyone can be redeemed. This film gives the final redemption of Darth Vader more depth and a better context.

    Political Takeaway: This film deals with disillusionment -- especially that of young idealists. Once the flaws (the humanity) in Moral/Political icons become apparent, it can become a convenient excuse to abandon ideals and switch sides. The film is philosophically consistent and true-to-life, because the most common defense for abandoning ideals is relativism. Anakin demonstrates this by espousing contemporary moral relativism: he comes to see his former master from the point of view of the Dark Side; for a relativist, everything is just "a point of view."

    Most Overrated Element: CGI effects and CGI characters. OK, they are better than before. So what? None of it matches the gritty "realism" and humor of the Bar Scene in Episode IV.

    Best Scene: Palpatine (Darth Sidious) and Anakin at the Opera. Through artful manipulation, Sidious starts turning Anakin to the Dark Side. Clearly a reference to innumerable scenes in films (examples: Godfather III, Showboat) in which emotional turning points occur while principal characters watch an opera or play.

    Religious Question: What other film attempts to combine Buddhism (non-attachment, and the "no soul" doctrine) with Christianity (souls exist, can be good or bad, and can live forever if redeemed)? Or does the religion of the Jedi have its own rules and deserve to be understood independently?

    Most Serious Omission: One version of the script calls for Yoda actually communicating with Jedi Master Qui-Gon (from episode II), who has "who has returned from the netherworld of the Force." This is crucial for understanding how Obi-Wan can communicate with Luke later in Episode IV. The dialogue also further elaborates (and complicates) the Buddhist message of the film. Why was this omitted from the final version?
  • Kingdom of Heaven. Boring. Great example of what not to do, why films fail, and why the auteur theory does not tell the whole story. Main Problem: The Script. At any film school, a "C" would be a generous grade for this script. The script does not provide a basis for identifying a plausible inner moral life of the characters. One reason is that the script does not provide enough history and background for each character. They are simply stand-ins for basic types: knight, leader, Christian Fundamentalist, etc. (See Seven Mistakes, item 1, for this.) The film is EPISODIC -- one of the principal faults of defective films. (See What Works and What Doesn't). Finally, where is the famous auteur theory "imprint of the director"? Scott makes poor use of the frame. Intrashot montage is virtually absent. There appears to be no "director's message" over and above what is transparently presented in dialogue. Despite all this, the MORAL MESSAGE of the film centers on SECULAR HUMANISM (justice for "the people"), which is the only neutral ground possible in the contemporary political/religious wars. Students of film may gain something from watching this film. Others are less likely to enjoy it.
  • I am David. A hit at film festivals. Virtually unknown in the U.S. Anyone who has suffered under communism will appreciate the message of this film. Story of a young boy who escapes from a Communist Concentration Camp in Bulgaria and tries to make his way Denmark. Not based on a true story, but manages to create the feeling that it was. Some of the absurd, embarrassingly trite, and overly cute portions of this film were, blissfully, omitted from the final version. A story of hope for anyone whose spirit has suffered communist totalitarianism.
  • Friday Night Lights. Oliver Stone meets The Last Picture Show. An odd, but interesting, collision of style (cinema verite) and emotional content (struggles of youth from small town who know only broken homes and football). Over-amplified, bone crushing tackles, obviously staged and choreographed, mingle with choppy hand-held camera work that reduces ordinary conversations to atomic units of extreme closeups of eyes, mouths, and bits of dialogue captured at random. Narrative Cubism. A none-to-subtle message in favor of racial integration and equality underscores traditional values at the film's center despite use of audience-alienating techniques that challenge traditional narrative forms.
  • Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime)(1997). Japanese anime. Beautiful. Complex characters. Excellent voice overs by American cast. Creates and sustains a complete and convincing alternate reality. See it.
  • Cider House Rules. Some critics have accused this film of being emotionally formulaic and manipulative. Less jaded viewers are likely to find this a emotionally powerful film. Here, story and metaphor are seamlessly interwoven in a narrative reminiscent of Faulkner. The contrast between truth and fiction is symbolized by a repeated image: reading the works of great authors to children. Not to be missed.
  • House of Sand and Fog. One of the most compelling films of recent years. Shakespearean study of human passions; how tiny decisions about the seemingly insignificant can lead to a totally unexpected conclusion. Well-crafted, well-acted. DVD has out takes and screen tests that capture amazing acting. Not to be missed.
  • Open Range. Finely crafted, engrossing story, beautiful cinematography, well-acted. A quieter, gentler Western that replays every character archetype and dramatic situation found in classic Westerns in a new key. Not Fire Creek, Bend of the River, Cimarron, The Big Trail, or any of the all-time greats, but deals with precisely the same American problem: maintaining the rule of law and the values of the hearth necessary for civilization while simultaneously maintaining the values of maximum individual freedom. (This is not the same dilemma, needless to say, that the East perceives as the essential problem of politics. cf. Hegel.) Libertarians will love this film. Nice touches: Cowboys can't get their fingers into tiny tea cups. It is not yet "time" to become civilized. The teacups seem ridiculous and out of place. They are replaced by cowboy mugs. Yet, in his last will and testament, the Cowboy wishes that a tea service be restored. Best use of symbolic foreshadowing: before entering The Town, Cowboys methodically check their weapons. BEST POLITICAL RESONANCE FOR CURRENT FOREIGN POLICY: even women agree that violence is sometimes necessary to overthrow a ruthless dictator. Best parallel to continuing "open range" issues: Microsoft and the establishment vs. free software Linux libertarian democrats. Subtext: does God have any role in the generation of political values and overseeing a justice that supersedes the law?

    Some will find this film overly sentimental. Music is often intrusive and "tells" you how to feel at any particular moment. Well...it is a Touchstone (Disney) production, so what do you expect? Roger Ebert feels the romance story in this film is flawed, even unnecessary. See his perceptive review. But many viewers will disagree. In my opinion, the romance is necessary for there to be the transformation of character that drives the film. See it.

  • Whale Rider. Now here is a film worthy of a long essay on problems faced by postmoderism, globalization, and political correctness. Thematic plot structure: the disenfranchised Other needs to return to its cultural roots in order to restore its community. The only problem is that the cultural roots involve a pagan, male-dominated religion that relies on the threat of violence and magical thinking for its effectiveness. Hardly a recipe for a progressive, educated, society that can thrive in the 21st century. No problem. Just correct the flaw of male domination and leave the paganism and magical thinking intact. Then you have a saleable cultural commodity that meets the standard of political correctness. This thematic structure pervades the film -- and unfortunately it is not rescued by much in the way of aesthetic, interpretive, or reflective distance. The political message is loud and clear. Major interest for this theme: last few shots show that globalization and integration, symbolized by a pregnancy, is in the future of this Other. Question: is this credible? All these intellectual (perhaps over-intellectual!) considerations aside, many will find this film rewarding despite its completely predictable outcome. This film does have a heart: the relationship between the heroine and her grandfather rings true and there is a deeply moving scene, involving, of all things, a school award ceremony. Bring your handkerchief. And take notes too.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean. Staring Johnny Depp. Promises tongue-in-cheek campy fun with sexy stars in high-action format. Writers Elliot and Russio have Shrek to their credit. Does not deliver on promise. Writers need to go back to school. Illogical plot points and discontinuities ruin what otherwise could have been a fun escape movie. Children will not be able to follow it and will be bored.
  • Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. Cartoon. Featuring voice of Brad Pitt and script by John Logan (The Time Machine, 2002). Not seen.
  • Finding Nemo. Great family fun. Totally harmless and greatly amusing. Small children can follow the utterly simple plot line. Does not compare to Disney's great art pieces, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Reason: Computer-generated art has no room for the free-flowing instincts of the visual artist's hand. Everything in pixelated animation is "an object" that can only be manipulated in a finite number of ways. Nearly all the work must be done by script, voice, and plot. Actual artists' animation is to "painting" as computer-generated animation is to "cave painting."
  • Comment on Cartoons: (This comment "needs work" - may be revised or trashed later.)
    Cartoons, as schematic encapsulations of fundamental cultural structures, have little room for the expression of personal vision through plot or character. Films aspire to "art" and require a "vision" (e.g. through screen persona, the play of darkness and shadow, dialectical oppositions of thought and image, etc.) that must nevertheless conform to these same cultural structures. The opportunity for learning, however, need not be better in one genre versus another. And which particular example of entertainment is a "better" experience is not always an easy question to answer. An undergraduate classroom exercise in Aesthetics demonstrates the nature of this question and its importance in understanding cultural norms through art: if asked whether a good episode of The Simpsons is better than a bad production of the opera Carmen, students will nearly always choose the Simpsons. But this is not because (I would assert) students do not understand opera. In such a case, The Simpsons really is a better choice. The search for quality entertainment goes on! -- while the public suffers from various delusions about what forms of entertainment must be good or bad, and confusion abounds about the role of "credible" narratives in a postmodern world.

  • The Hours. Available on video/DVD. One of the better "adult" films of 2002, and a favorite of critics. Good. Worth seeing. A great example of how film achieves it effects through the efforts of many artists (not just the director -- see criticisms of the auteur theory on these pages.) In this case, the compelling score by Philip Glas does a great deal of the work. Themes include sanity/madness and interior/exterior views of reality. Best scene: Virginia Wolfe explains how the individual has an ultimate claim to the veracity of a private/interior view of reality. The film suffers, however, from a weakness in one of the key elements in successful narrative structures: the principal characters must be involved in credible human relationships with universal appeal. In this film, concern with abnormal sexual repression substitutes for relationships that would have more universal appeal. This is an approach that may work for some viewers -- thus supporting the view attributed to Virginia Wolfe that perception is all. It fails to convince in my view, but...see for yourself. See What Works and What Doesn't in these pages.
  • Hulk. No. Did these reviewers see the same film? Just because it was directed by Ang Lee, some reviewers may feel obliged acknowledge his innovation and "genius." A good example, in my view, of how the Myth of the Auteur Theory contaminates criticism. That said, see Roger Ebert's review for his comments about techniques, particularly the multiframe technique, employed by Ang Lee. I disagree completely that Ang Lee's multiframe technique was "successful," but his use of it may cause others to imitate it nonetheless.
  • Adaptation. Available on video. Here's an idea: why don't I just put everything I am considering writing about this film as the comments themselves? Rather than just saying the film is good or bad, worth watching or not, I could turn my comments themselves into the subject of my comments. Of course, in a certain sense, you could say that is what I -- or anybody else -- does with everything they write. No, I better not do that, it would be too self conscious. How about this? I'll just say up front that the film is too clever to be enjoyed in the way say, Lord of the Rings can be enjoyed, and that it is a perfect example of postmodern thought and Brecht's concept of theater of alienation. If the message of film can be said to be structured (in part) by the Stanislovskian/Brechtian dichotomy, this is a film that is out of balance because it is nearly all Brecht. Maybe I should also mention that this is the first film ever in which a fictional screenwriter (who also stars in the film) has been nominated for an academy award? But if I mentioned those things, I think the reaction would be: "So what? Should I see this film or not? Is it a good film?" I suppose that is what most people want to know. Maybe I should say that the entire film is just like the comments you are now reading? No, I guess I should just say that if you are looking for entertainment, this is not the film for you, but if you are a student of film it is a must see.
  • King Lear. This production is from a series. The Shakespeare Plays: Seven Plays produced by BBC and Time Life. Part of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Library Video Classics Project. This is an outstanding production. It captures the feeling of a live stage production without sacrificing the intimacy of film. Contrary to what I have stated elsewhere, this is proof that it is possible to successfully combine features of the stage and film.
  • Matrix Reloaded. The preposterous "sci-fi" thesis of the original: More energy can be derived from human body heat than is already present in food. So...in defiance of Laws of Thermodynamics: if you put a person into a coma, and "feed" that person intravenously, you can turn the person into a "battery" that produces "energy" in the form of body heat. The story thesis of the original: Neo is Christ. Question: Can RELOADED follow up on the story thesis? Answer: Yes. And it does much more. Forget thermodynamics and sci-fi. This is a must see film! The new theme builds on the old, extending it to include the mystery of creation and the presence of free will in a universe ruled by strict physical causality. Not to be limited by simplistic dichotomies, the new story is an essay in Hegelian metaphysics: it posits that the matrix itself contains the seeds of its own destruction, using the concrete manifestation of the "anomaly" of free will to fulfill its historical destiny. Also forget the claims by the cast that "8 hours of training every day" resulted in the choreographed Kung-Fu sequences. The sequences are so fully balletic in nature and lacking in any sort of plausible threat to "real" bodily injury that they become more like modern dance or visual essays in abstract motion that traditional fight sequences. If anyone spent time "training" for these sequences, they wasted their time, since the line between animation, trick photography, and actual motion is invisible. Although mesmerizing, they are by far the most boring parts of the film. Suspense, intrigue, and discovery occur through the marvelous plot twists and new characters introduced into to the story. Best new character: French Lord of the Underworld. Best new revelation: near the end of the film we discover Neo's power has increased in a stunning new way (similar to the increase in power that occurs for the man/messiah/hero of Dune, the great 1984 sci-fi film by David Lynch and Frank Herbert. Matrix Reloaded is Oscar bound. It will set the stage for a new wave of imitators.
  • Cats. Commemorative Edition, 1998. Available on Video and DVD. Not for everyone. Problems: Filmed in London on a specially designed set, but with no audience. Sound track does not capture live stage performance. Lip synched throughout. Gives the appearance of a music video. VHS version wants to escape from confines of screen, since it was shot in wide-screen format. Many lyrics unintelligible. Best Features: Outstanding performances by all-star cast. 90-piece orchestra backs up production with superlative sound not equaled in live productions. Remarks: Good old-fashioned transcendentalism tells primeval Christian story of "acceptance of the other." Many scenes are both touching and beautiful. The reason this production has so many both good and bad features stems (I think) from the fundamental problem of film: there is no possibility of it simply "recording" reality. (See excerpt from Thomas Mann, elsewhere in these pages.) Here, the problem was to "record" a stage production without it seeming too much like just a home video on the one hand, or slipping into a carefully composed and edited film on the other hand. A difficult task. For first-time viewers: read the lyrics first (widely available on the Internet).
  • Holes. Magic realism, family style. A writer's film. How the present is almost an echo of a past that seems more real and more potent -- and how fate, luck, and personal choices are interwoven into our universe. Best use of cinematic metaphor and visual poetry (see discussion of this elsewhere on these pages): young heroes feel that the universe has become "cool" and everything is right with the world: this is represented by a magnificent image of the desert against the star-light sky. Probably best family fare currently in theaters. Minimal violence; no foul language. Other reviews have complained the story "makes no sense" or is hard to follow. Nonsense. Although young children will not understand everything, everyone can understand the "looking for buried treasure" part. See it. Philosophical footnote: redefines American recipe for happiness as "hard work" in Aristotelian terms: hard work plus luck.
  • Manor House. Currently showing on PBS. Step aside Survivor! Undoubtedly the best "reality" show currently available. A group of 12 volunteers occupy an Edwardian Manor for three months, fulfilling every role from maid, to butler, to master of the manor. Remarkably, the entire cast appears to have been born for their roles. A stunning experiment proving that structures can (in part) create personalities. Best Character: the butler. Best insight: the butler discovers the value of truth in a civil society -- and why the Edwardian ideal could not survive.
  • Galaxy Quest.. Stars Tim Allen. Available on video -- and much better than most other "family" fare. Great Example of "B" Kid flick with a mind. Themes: Pop culture and values. Faith and cynicism. The power of narratives and the nature of truth in narratives. Good for film students who want to see how strong values and interesting issues can be interwoven into a script designed for mass consumption. Tim Allen at his best. Maintains light-hearted humor throughout.
  • Civilization. Huge series (approx. 13 hours!) produced by BBC. Available at libraries and at Amazon as 5 VHS tapes. Sir Kenneth Clark traces the history of Western Civilization as embodied in its art and architecture. They don't make 'em like this anymore. This series could not be produced in today's cynical, politically-correct environment. Today, histories of the West will invariably begin with a apology for the idea that Western Civilization and Art is worthy of study as a distinct category. Moreover, Clark would be denounced as a pompous intellectual, incapable of understanding or accepting other cultures. These are precisely the reasons you should see this awe-inspiring series! Clark's broad, sweeping vision, coupled with his aphoristic style and confidence, are wonders to behold. Hailed by many reviewers at Amazon as one of the finest art history series ever. Best segments: Hours 11, 12, and 13, take us from Romanticism to approximately 1960.
  • The Pianist. See it. Best seen in a theater. It will be out on video soon. Although not a truly great film, undoubtedly one of the best of 2002. Best scene: a Nazi commander discovers The Pianist hiding in a deserted building. The Pianist is ordered to play. The message: Even Nazis can be reminded of their humanity through the power of music. Worth seeing for this scene alone. Compare to one of the greatest classic films on this subject matter:The Shop on Main Street.
  • The Dresser. Available on video. 1983 film adaptation of Broadway production. Albert Finney (Tom Jones) stars. The principal effect of this film is that it makes you long to see Albert Finney on stage performing Shakespeare. Finney's voice, intonation, diction, nuance, is astounding. This is a film about the mission (or curse) of actors...their duties, their vision, their hopes, and their inspiration. See it if you love theater, great acting, or Shakespeare. As a film, however, this is another example of what does not work (see my What Works and What Doesn't in these pages). The film lacks an emotional center and has a minimal arc (transformation to knowledge -- see Notes on Aristotle in these pages) because the primary relationship (The Actor and his Dresser) as well as the conflict (will the show go on?) fail to be engaging. For a better adaptation of Shakespeare that comprehends how film can simultaneously tell a story, reflect on the nature of the medium itself, and bring us close both to actors and the characters they represent, see Al Pacino's remarkable Looking for Richard.
  • Middlemarch. Masterpiece Theater production, 1994. Available on video and DVD. These sorts of things are not for everybody, but -- I am tempted to say -- they should be. Middlemarch is one of the greatest novels every written, so no film can do justice to Eliot's penetrating meditation on the meaning of Christianity, but this marathon (three LONG VHS tapes) of precise British film making is a rare gem. Convincing in every respect. Each character seems so alive you almost feel, by the end, that you have known them personally. Greatest moment/finest use of cinematic technique: Subjective Camera as we approach Dorothea at emotional climax of film. If not sure British melodrama is for you, warm up with shorter BBC adaptations of literature (if you can find them) or Remains of the Day (actually better as a film and, quite possibly, Anthony Hopkins finest performance).
  • Blood on the Sun. Rare, but may be available on video through mass marketers or through libraries. 1945 propaganda film featuring James Cagney as a reporter who uncovers Japan's design for world conquest before Pearl Harbor. Japanese characters are so "evil" and cartoon-like they are unintentionally funny, but Cagney, Sylvia Sidney, and other cast are excellent, and plot is actually complex and intriguing enough to be entertaining. Probably only worth seeing for students of propaganda films and die-hard Cagney fans. However, one scene redeems all: Cagney is asked by his Japanese enemy "You have a saying in your country...forgive your enemies, no?" Cagney's response: "Yeah, but first get even."
  • Gods and Generals. Jaw dropping. Astounding. If you manage to sit through this film, you will learn: a) that Black slaves really loved their masters; b) that the South enjoyed the highest state of refinement and culture imaginable, which was recklessly and shamefully destroyed by the unthinking North; c) that Slavery really had nothing to do with the Civil War -- it was all about the pig-headed North trying to invade the South with an army of 70,000 in order to force them to accept the supremacy of the Federal, rather than state governments; d) that Stone Wall Jackson was a Saint; e) that Southern generals really enjoyed lip-synched sing-alongs with Engelbert Humperdincks of the 1860s. See it if you would like to be enlightened these topics -- and many more relating to the Southern perspective of the Civil War. O.K., I'm exaggerating -- a little. The film does tell you something about the Civil War, but much of it is preposterous. Important Note: Civil War buffs WILL admire this film despite (because?) of this perspective. And, the film does raise the important, current (!) issue of how religious convictions enter into wars (certainly a factor in the U.S./Iraq war). Just as other "historical" films (Pavilion of Women, see below), this film attempts to demonstrate the Postmodern thesis that there is no such thing as an unbiased depiction of history -- therefore, tell it from your view and let truth and balance take care of itself. The second film (actually completed first, and now available on DVD) in the proposed saga of three films, Gettysburg, was done by the same crew. It is excellent. By attending to the Northern perspective, it restores some balance. Some scenes in it are among the most inspiring I have seen in a war film.
  • Time Changer. Limited theater engagements (see www.timechangermovie.com for locations). Christian fundamentalist film, but that does not mean only fundamentalists will appreciate or understand it. Very clever script, excellent production values, and extremely well-acted. Story: a professor at a small bible college in 1890 is transported to the year 2000. You can imagine his reaction to our promiscuous, secular society. Favorite lines: "Secular entertainment is Satan's greatest triumph." "I think we just missed the Rapture." Favorite scene: expression on hero's face when he discovers how to use the TV in his hotel room -- then understands what "secular entertainment" really is. Film's critical view of contemporary mores never strays from perspective of extreme Christian Right -- but, surprisingly, nothing escapes this critical understanding, not even established, present-day Christianity as practiced in thousands of churches across the country. A "sermon" delivered to an archetype of today's complacent congregations is a stunning, beautiful, and revealing cinema verite production in itself. Film students might find this scene alone worth the price of admission. Fundamentals of Metaphysical Morality: this film correctly states the dilemma of our Post Modern age: without God, as Dostoevsky said, anything is possible. (Secular version: without the center, as Yates observed, civilization crumbles.) It is the "solution" presented by the film that most viewers will find unacceptable for life in a free, democratic society. For another film inspired by Christianity, see The Rapture.
  • Catch Me If You Can. See it. Certainly among the top 10 of 2002. Not a chase/adventure film for young adults. Another frame story (see examples below). Spielberg continues to mature, delicately weaving a romantic, sentimental, and ultimately sad theme of the deterioration of what were once known as "family values." Compare to Quiz Show for a related critique of moral deterioration. Unobtrusive cinematography. Scene stealer: Martin Sheen as father-in-law to be. A must-see scene. Often humorous and self-aware: e.g., Kitch opening recalls cheap 60s spy thrillers.
  • Pavilion of Women. Available on video. Add-on ending makes this film one of the best examples of offensive apologetics for the communist revolution in China. Historical/psychological thesis: the old Mandarin/Confucian order encouraged sick forms of promiscuous sexuality (true), and Communism -- miraculously compatible with Christian virtues in this absurd propaganda film -- is the cure. Despite this, there is a central love story that actually has emotional impact and is somewhat daring (from the point of view of conservative Marxist sexual "theory"): wife of a Chinese nobleman falls in love with a Catholic Priest. Subplot: nobleman's son realizes his father's failings, joins the Communist party, and falls in love with his father's second wife. Although Willem Dafoe walks through his role, the central story of love, transgression, and redemption (based on a novel by Pearl Buck) is quite good. Bad dubbing, but a film worth watching for Foreign film lovers and for students of the uses and abuses of propaganda in the history of Films and Communism.
  • Italian for Beginners. Available on DVD. Sensitive, intimate, moving, and quietly beautiful. Shades of Babbette's Feast. Three levels of love explored through character archetypes living in small Danish village. Abandonment, death, mature love, and Christianity explored in context of touching story of three couples who find each other through community-sponsored lessons in Italian. Best scene: hair dresser's tears fall like gentle rain on face of abandoned, angry man. Poses and answers philosophical and religious question: is God an abstraction or is God a living presence? See it.
  • Jackie Mason Comedy Trilogy. Available on DVD. Documentary of Mason's life with added special features. Includes Mason's address to Oxford University. Terrific example of classic standup comedy. Most humor relatively clean and suitable for young adults.
  • Brotherhood of the Wolf. Available on DVD. A hoot, with a underlying theme of reason vs. superstition and the church in French history. Best line: "Is this really the age of reason?" Opening scene is a must-see for preposterous tongue-in-cheek anachronism: Kung Fu as practiced in 17th Century France. Interview with director shows film was made with a mixture of fun and intellectual pretense, but also shows disregard for the intelligence of audience and need for plot continuity. So very French! Horror fans and students of film history will like this film. Not for children.
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  • Lord of the Rings II: The Two Towers. Spectacular, full of life and poetry. Best film experience of the year. Exhausting (more than 3 hours, with trailers) and thrilling. As Professor L. says: "I feel like I killed 90 Orcs myself." Do not go if you are not familiar with the story. Historical/Cultural resonance: Tolkien turned his life experiences (in the trenches during WW I) and religious convictions about the nature of evil into a master narrative about its intractability in human nature. Would Tolkien have been surprised by Sept. 11? Not at all. Rings has been repeated over and over, from Hitler, Stalin, and their minions to Bin Laden's brainwashed homicide bombers. In our present historical context, it is perfectly rational to see one facet of the crystal of Rings as a retelling of the defence Eastern Europe made against Islam for nearly 500 years -- for which it received no thanks from the rest of the civilized world. But that is not what the film is about; it is, rather, the allure and power of evil and how to defend against it. As one radio commentator recently pointed out, the fact that it deals directly with this theme is the reason for its popularity. Most interesting character: Gollum. Best Scene: Theodin's transformation. Some scenes are very quiet, dream-like and meditative, so go to the best (largest and quietest) theater you can find.
  • Chicago. Moulin Rouge for 2002, film noir version. Best Scenes: Dancer and viewers lost in a dream of death as hanging commences. Lawyer tosses a cross over his shoulder as he sings "Razzle Dazzle." Music fans will love the jazz score by Danny Elfman (music for original Batman).
  • Gangs of New York. See it. Almost a certain Oscar for Daniel Day-Lewis, whose stunning character drives the film. Every bit derivative of techniques developed by Shakespeare: historical fact and fiction interwoven in the backdrop of crucial national events (Civil War in this case). But by far the most moving and important message is delivered at the very end of the film: a beautiful visual/aural poem to the spirit of New York and America. As graves turn to ashes, the city moves through time from 1862 to the present. This CONTINUES THROUGH THE CREDITS in their entirety, as music vanishes and is replaced with contemporary street sounds of New York.
  • Harry Potter 2. Sigmund Freud would love this film. Girl's bathroom is psychic center, where boys and young girls (one dead, one living) hatch plot. Toilet is a key fixture in opening to another world, featuring something that is....well, enough said. Adults might be caught up in story, but will enjoy multiple themes: anti-racist, pro-60s, honor and respect for (some) elders, fantasy life of children, etc. Not Lord of the Rings, but Rowling's characters are profound archetypes and her story line complex. Child actors bring their "art" to near new lows, but the film, thankfully, is not about them. Too complicated for very young children and way too long (2:41). OK for students of film/story structure, as understood in these pages. See it, as long as you know what you are getting into.
  • Mulholland Drive. Momento meets The Sixth Sense. Thanks to a good friend of mine, I was able to see this overlooked gem of 2001! David Lynch fans must see this. Existential mystery/suspense borrows many themes form other movies, including The Player (perhaps a better film -- but not David Lynch!). Lynch's tribute to the sinister underbelly of Hollywood. Best scene: meeting of Hollywood producers, lawyers and director. Priceless. "Flaw:" Lynch's story cannot be emotionally compelling to most viewers because while the fundamental human relationship is utilizes as story vehicle is universal, its embodiment is not. See it.
  • The Man Who Cried. Available on video. A study in pathos. Terrific Operatic score. For students of film and adults. Subdued, intelligent performances by Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci.
  • Jezabel. The IMDB review tag line for this film is "a watered down version of Gone With the Wind." Don't believe it. Filmed in black and white, directed by William Wyler, and some say this is Bette Davis's finest performance. Co-star is Henry Fonda, with that brooding "Abraham Lincoln" look. A stellar film, by any measure. Has it all: poetic dialog (borrows phrases from the Bible), visual poetry (darkness and light reflect, powerful themes (pride, lust, sexuality, commitment to country, history of race relations in this country), complex plot. (See What Works and What Doesn't in these pages.)
  • Monsoon Wedding. See it. Surely, one of the best from the extremely lean pickin's in popular cinema for 2002. Shakespeare would love this plot. Postmodern mix of cultures, accentuated by cascading mix of English and Bengali (?), brings both happiness and moral and emotional conflict to arranged marriage. Many beautiful, poignant scenes capture essence of family life. Terrific sound track features traditional Indian folk songs and contemporary Indian dance music. Unexpected moment creeps into texture of film like the sudden onslaught of the monsoon season itself. A metaphysical/moral meditation on the transience of life/love/happiness and the often sudden, impetuous decisions that can make the difference. Structural note: nearly every character makes an important decision in this film. Many moments show masterful use of dialogue. First scene sets up subtext of East/West cultural conflict within India.
  • Heavenly Creatures. Do not waste your time with this film. Despite some critical acclaim and even (apparently) the interest by some philosophers in this film (it is a topic in a journal on philosophy and film) the only reason to see this film would be for film students to be reminded about basic principles of story telling. This film has nothing to say. It is, like Pollack, another example of why films based on fact about deranged people lack interest. What is lacking in these stories? There is NO MORAL ANTAGONIST. What happens is entirely driven by something that is essentially inexplicable (disease, psychosis), rather than moral choice. Such stories lack interest because they fail to present a protagonist that can reasonably be expected to be SIMILAR ENOUGH TO THE VIEWER that they can serve as a vehicle for both EMOTIONAL catharsis and COGNITIVE revelation.
  • My Big Fat Greek Wedding. What is amazing about this film is that it exists. The popularity of this film deserves a long essay (perhaps even a book) on popular culture. When I went to see it the theater was packed -- with FAMILIES. This must be the only safe "family film" in America. Here is the Bible Belt what other choice is there? See it if you are interested in why and how media continues to promote an ideology about ethnic identity and the definition of terms like "family" and "religion." If it were about virtually any other ethnic group, I suspect that this film would be greeted with howls of protest (stereotyping an ethnic group, etc.). However, it is worth noting that a great many people (Greek extraction included) apparently do not find the film offensive at all. For the huge range of reactions, go to www.IMDB.com and check out user comments on this film. I confess it is a mystery to me why this film is a popular as it is.
  • Mildred Pierce (1945). Joan Crawford, directed by Michael Curtiz, music by Max Steiner. How can you go wrong? Beautiful, classic, film noir. A must-see for fans of this genre. Readily available for rent or purchase.
  • Mystery Science Fiction Theater 3000 - The Pod People. A MUST SEE FOR ALL 3000 FANS. A preposterously bad film. A shameless rip-off of E.T. (released the year before this monument to bad film making), this film is truly worthy of relentless mockery. Features the original cast of 3000 in rare form with some of their funniest lines ever. Available at Blockbuster on Video. (You can do a lot worse with your money at Blockbuster).
  • All Quiet on the Western Front. Available on video. Academy Award for Best Picture of 1930 is a must-see for all students of film. Makes contemporary anti-war films pale by comparison. Excellent use of intrashot montage (in this case, views through windows to scenes beyond), suggestion, montage sequences -- and many other techniques still present in best films today. Best scenes: nationalist speech clears the class room while soldiers march in huge windows to the outside; "tale of the boots" (montage sequence); hero's conversation with a dead man in a shell crater. Directed by Lewis Milestone, whose filmography is one of the most enviable in the history of cinema and includes many other Academy Award winners. Sound quality is defective in parts; look for restored version of print.
  • Gosford Park. Available on video. Excellent. Combines spoof of classic who done it with powerful critique of British social class system.
  • K-19: The Widow Maker. More complex, morally, than The Road to Perdition. Another example (see Hurricane, below) of a script "inspired" by actual events. More importantly, the film is a parable of the entire Cold War: America "watches" (photographs) the Soviet Union while it crumbles from an uncontained nuclear reaction that eventually causes "contamination" (new values) to "poison" the captain and crew. The "poisonous" new ideas transform the crew from obedient slaves to willing, patriotic, volunteers for hazardous duties. This is the central level at which the film works, leaving correspondence to actual events as a minor side issue. The script includes: tension between the two captains of K-19, a man jumping ship (literally), a mutiny, American involvement, religious imagery in a significant sub-plot about cowardice and redemption, and a stirring a-political, very AMERICAN/UNIVERSAL, ENDING. None of these story elements are part of the actual events. See National Geographic's site for details of actual events. Anyone who grew up in Eastern Europe should see this film. It should do well internationally -- despite Soviet protestations that the film has nothing to do with the actual events -- because it depends upon Cold War nationalism for its dramatic effect (beautifully supported by a stirring musical score that includes performances by a Russian orchestra). In addition to Cold War themes, the film deals with deep and abiding moral issues, among them:
    What is the price of unbridled nationalism?
    What are our (Kantian) duties?
    When should loyalty to a crew or a mission be abandoned in order to save lives? BEST SCENES: (1) crew witnesses propaganda film about American injustice; (2)the captains give the crew a choice, rather than ordering them; (3)reunion of captains and crew after the fall of communism.
  • The Road to Perdition. Certain to win multiple Academy Awards. Unparalleled acting, beautifully filmed, with meticulous detail. Good example of classic "frame story" in which outcome and of story and eventual fate of all principal characters is known from the beginning.
  • Minority Report. Spielberg seems to think this is better than AI. As his confidence grows, he is willing to take chances. Part murder mystery, part sci-fi, part cloying sentimentality on a classic metaphysical theme: if events the universe is entirely determined by immutable physical laws, are not all human actions/choices equally determined? At one point our hero, rolls a ball down a ramp -- exactly as Galileo did to prove the law of equal acceleration for all physical bodies -- as a demonstration of what is meant by predestination of events. The hero's foil (who holds a partially opposing* metaphysical view, that human knowledge and is finite and fallible) is an ex-seminarian no less. If you had any doubts, Spielberg packs his anti-technological message into the last image. High in entertainment value, fast action, and great plot twist, for those who enjoy that sort of thing.
    NOTE: * To hold a completely opposing view, he would have to add that free choice is a "given." This character does not seem to emphasize this view much, though others in the film do. There are some other interesting philosophic themes in the film too, such as "what constitutes the nature of proof in a scientific hypothesis?"
  • Shipping News. Used to be a "rule" that when skilled directors got assignments by the studios to do popular fluff that they really were not interested in, they would put all their effort into the first 5 or 10 minutes of the film, then walk through the motions for the rest of it. Visually, at any rate, this one fits that mold. The first few minutes, until the hero's first wife dies is great! After that, we know exactly where the film is going....which is why (among other reasons) that I stopped watching after less than half the film...
  • It Happened One Night. 1933 classic has it all, including VISUAL POETRY: moonlight caresses the body of a young girl in love. See WHAT WORKS AND WHAT DOESN'T on these pages.
  • Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones. The best one of the entire series since Episode IV. See it (but see note below). Interesting characters, action, complex plot, political intrigue, fantastic landscape of an alternate reality -- what more can you ask for? Well, OK -- it's not The Man Who Wasn't There, but for popular narrative that capitalizes on eternal themes of love, revenge, lust for power, and the conflict between good and evil, it will be difficult to beat this year. Other reviewers have found it less appealing, citing such factors as unconvincing love interest, more mindless light saber action, abandonment of the camp/tongue-in-cheek tonality of Episode IV, and so on. See for example, Daniel Baig's thoughtful (but overlong) review concerning characters and bad acting at countingdown.com (reports that acting is so bad and scenes so unconvincing that they cause audiences to guffaw). For what must be the most absurd opinions about this film see the Detroit News article on "racism" in the film. There are some very weak scenes, but the principal weakness is the muddled political plot line, which makes some motivations unclear. To be fair, however, judgment on this issue should be suspended until Episode III is released, when all will be revealed. In the meantime, this episode makes clearer than ever that just as in Paradise Lost, the most interesting character of the entire series is the one in whom the conflict between good and evil is most manifest: Anakin/Darth Vader. NOTE: to fix the plot line problem, educate yourself on the background of the political situation by visiting www.starwars.com.
  • Hollywood Ending. What's up with Woody Allen? Is this the same person who gave us Sweet and Low Down and Deconstructing Harry? See this and explain Woody Allen to me.
  • Pollack. For art students only. Others will find nothing but a senseless poitrail of a man who senselessly destroyed himself. Willing suspension of disbelief relies on the (in my view, false) suppositions that (1)the world of 20th century art and art criticism is not a sham; and (2)great artists are actually psychotics.
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Disney Animation. Available on video. Animation as it should be. Beautiful. Just as in The Little Mermaid, the original ending of this tale (the literary ending) is altered to conform to expectations of formula. (If either of these animations remained true to the text, children could not watch them.) Taps into powerful imagery of psycho-sexual unconscious, just as all Disney's greatest animation do.
  • Antigone. Greek Production, 1961, B/W, in Greek with English subtitles. Beautifully filmed. Combines feeling of immediacy in time and place with abstract qualities of theater. Available on video.
  • Gattaca. Considered by some to be one of the best SciFi films -- in a league with Blade Runner. I don't see how it can be considered in the same league at all. Another film for Ethics 101. See if you have time and simply must see science fiction films. Available on video.
  • Spider Man.The Comics Code comes to life. Read about the old Hays Code (Motion Picture Code of 1930) elsewhere on these pages. The subsequent Comic Book Code was based on this. Hence, two of the dicta of comics: evil shall never prevail; power shall not be used irresponsibly. High point: our hero confesses his love though a speech intended to disguise (thinly) both his feelings and identity. One of the best descriptions the conflicting feelings of adolescent love in any film (not necessarily one of the best depictions).
  • Hurricane. A study piece for film students. Topic: Does Hollywood have a moral agenda? Procedure: Watch the film. Note your reactions. Then research the Carter case. Surprised? To what extent is it incumbent upon Hollywood to deal with the nuances of stories based on fact and marketed as "factual"? Despite Denzel Washington's performance, probably not a film you would want to see other than for study purposes. Would have made a much better film if it had been true to every side of the case -- but then it would be a thought piece rather than a formula piece.
  • Changing Lanes. Light fare. Possible dark/disturbing/interesting ending spoiled by politically correct formula. May be useful, however, as a first assignment in Ethics 101: Utilitarianism vs. Kantianism. The film can work on the abstract level (where character and theory conflict matter, and race and social position do not). There is one extremely funny, thematically poignant, scene in which a young lawyer describes his vision of the purpose of the law (to avoid chaos of the type pervading the film). However, you should put these entries in your Notebook of Political Correctness: 1. Tiger Woods is not "black." 2. Liberal causes are probably not helped by showing a black person beating up white people after he engages in racial insults. 3. Liberal causes are probably not helped by showing rich white people "bail out" everyone else -- rather, this exacerbates problems by perpetuating narratives of dependency.
  • Death to Smoochie. Dark vision, warm heart. Very funny in parts. Normal people tend to hate Barney the Dinosaur. This movie tells you why. Remember Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman)? Scene stealer: Michael Rispoli (Sopranos) turns in captivating performance as punch-drunk boxer. Politically-appropriate moral message pits need for retribution against forgiveness and understanding with interesting results. Not a must see, but an enjoyable one. Worth it.
  • Dancer in the Dark. Available on video. Odd, but also strangely compelling. Worth a look. Takes "making a musical" in which "nothing bad ever happens" to a whole new planet. May be interpreted as a stinging indictment of the health care system in this country -- if not the entire "American" way of life, where money counts for everything, the death penalty thrives, anti-communism is a religion, and mutual care is virtually non-existent. But then, the writer is not an American...so what does he know about the American way of life? Might belong in my Films and Communism list, since it seems to be so actively pro-communist or pro-European. Here is what the IMDB says about the writer: "With Dancer in the Dark (2000), Lars von Trier made a melodrama about an east European woman, who sacrifices everything, literally, to save her son from getting the same eye-illness as she herself suffers from, and thereby going blind. The film was one of the first motion pictures in the world to be filmed with entirely digital equipment. Icelandic singer-superstar Björk, who also made all the music, starred as Selma, the principal character. Dancer in the Dark won the 2000 Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival."
  • Fight Club. Available on video. Excellent. Works on multiple levels. Postmodernism/alienation/male identity/personal identity/fanaticism/violence. Even touches of Zen and the possibility of redemption. Last scene could never have been made after 9/11.
  • Vanilla Sky. Surprisingly good. Cartesian/Freudian. Additional comments about this and similar films elsewhere on these pages. See it.
  • The Man Who Wasn't There. The Stranger meets Barton Fink. The Cohen brothers strike again with their special brand of grotesque existential genius. Visual poetry combines with a stunning script to create a deeply disturbing mood. The jail scene, in which a lawyer explains the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, is bound to regarded as a classic moment in film history. See it.

  • The Dining Room. A play by A. R. Gurney. Good example of why excellent performances, good production values, and care in preparation cannot save a work that is essentially flawed. See What Works and What Doesn't.
  • Sorcerer. Available on video; released 1977. A remake of the French classic The Wages of Fear (1952). Great example of how Hollywood finds it necessary to turn everything into a morality play. Each of the characters in this version is given an extensive background that makes their fate a necessity of morality rather than a manifestation of an uncaring universe. Good, but not nearly the impact of the original. On the other hand, part of the story concerns a Palestinian terrorist as well as additional terrorist activities elsewhere. A stark reminder of how little things have changed -- and of the schizophrenic love/hate relationship that terrorists have with the America.
  • Spy Kids. Only for families that don't object to mindless entertainment. Even the superficial feel-good message about "teaching people to be good rather than bad" lacks plausibility because good is not sufficiently distinguished from evil. Clown-like characters fail to convince. See What Works and What Doesn't.
  • Shawdow of the Vampire. Available on video; released in 2000. Curiosity film. Good but often slow and awkward. Very nice, however, as a film-school study piece about the gradual erosion of the difference between reality and the made-for-media recreation of reality. Takes the concepts of reality TV and the Stanislovskian method to a whole new level -- with a chilling moral. The need for 15 minutes of fame is so powerful that even Dracula succumbs.
  • Planet of the Apes. No. Do not see this film.
  • Jurassic Park III. An good example of how Aristotle's criteria can be applied. Spectacle can be used as an effective element in drama, but if the plot (the most important consideration) is lacking in logic, the drama cannot make up for it simply by increasing spectacle. Among the plot flaws are unresolved questions: Is there one island or two? Why are the puzzles of the opening scene are never resolved? And the final scene is equally problematic: why should anyone be happy that dinosaurs will be free to roam the earth?
  • AI. A beautiful, sensitive, intimate, and thought provoking film. See it. Themes: love, death, resurrection, and the nature of individuality. One thematic thread has its roots in Mary Shelly's Frankenstein: if man has the power to create beings similar to himself, can he also love these beings? (If man loves God, does God love man?) Or will man shrink away in horror at his own creation? Another thread contrasts the Christian view of human individuality and the possibility of resurrection against the Jewish view ("Albert Einstein" has an amusing, but crucial cameo role in which religion is found to be both literally and symbolically half-way between fact and fairy-tale). (May be emotionally too much to handle for someone who has lost a child or parent. Not a good film for children who do not have a secure relationship with parents, especially mother.) For a negative review and a link to the original story that inspired the film, see the Wired article.

Less Recently Seen:

  • Pearl Harbor. Your money might be better spent on other films that are still in release. An odd film in many ways and there is a great deal that could be said about it, but probably the most important single fact is that it is yet another example of the blurring between fact and fiction that has become a pillar of popular culture. The first half hour contains a Feminist Fantasy in which sadism is rewarded by sexual pursuit. The second half of the film is almost entirely factual. The bombing of Pearl is historically accurate, and emotionally compelling, although it was "cleaned up" to eliminate gore and bloodshed. And the subsequent story, again most of it accurate (including using broom handles to replace guns!), is based on Doolittle's raid on Tokyo, one of the most stunning events in WWII. Should be seen on big the screen, not video. Best to read up on Doolittle's raid before seeing. Also see Charles Krauthammer's comments on FDR.
  • Atlanta Film Festival: Remote Control. Excellent Short. What has happened to Serbia? Answer: a century of psychological and physical terrorism has transformed some ordinary people into monsters capable incalculable brutality. Based on a true story of three soldiers in the Croatian conflict of 1992 who find a TV, but need the remote control to make it work, this 24-minute tale speaks volumes about how the absence of Christian forgiveness and the absurdity of postmodern detachment can become engines of destruction. Star: "the Baba," whose wordless performance serves as a symbol for all that was respected in traditional cultures of the region. Directed by Ivan Ziukovic using locations in California.
  • Atlanta Film Festival: Gina an Actress, Age 29. According to the postmodern perspective, it is a fact, for better or for worse, that no one alive to pulse of the contemporary Western mind can uncritically accept the concepts of "original," "true," or "real." One must always ask, "original, true, or real according to what standard and from which culture?" Consequently, again for better or for worse, there is a contemporary frame of mind that accepts an image, a token, or a semblance of reality as equivalent to the "real thing" itself (since there was not a "real thing" to begin with). Advertisers, for example, take advantage of this frame of mind. One can advertise, quite openly, not that a drug or a car will actually provide health or personal freedom, but that these products will only provide the simulacra of these goods. Advertisers list the side effects drugs as if they were not actually worse than the conditions the drugs supposedly "cure." Advertisers show luxurious cars speeding along scenic, abandoned highways -- not to present real driving experiences, but to openly present dream-like images from driving fantasies, unconnected with the realities of commuting. Many aspects of this conscious substitution of fake for real come together in "reality" TV, in which everything is fake: fake conflicts, fake emotions, fake danger, and fake "real" people, who are good enough actors to almost fool themselves. But what happens when our willingness to accept the false comes head to head with and intractable, "true," moral dilemma? This is Gina's problem. She needs works and she takes a job that requires her to fool people into thinking she is not an actress, but a "real" person with a "real" political and moral perspective. An excellent short film (about 20 minutes). Excellent production values, convincing (!) acting, and a great script that reflects the postmodern condition.
  • Shrek. Very funny, but not for children. Too many off-color jokes.
  • Atlanta Film Festival: Freez'er. The title almost gives away the plot -- a plot that is almost too gruesome to be repeated in print, but here it is: A man kills his wife in a fit of rage (she has been cheating on him), but can't bring himself to either confess his crime or dispose of the body. Seeking to retain the body as a symbol of his lost love, he takes it to a secluded farm, where a convenient abandoned freezer is discovered in the barn. Others become aware of his crime and the rest follows inevitably, as one crime leads to another and more bodies begin to pile up. (One is reminded of A Simple Plan, which has a similar plot form.). Inspired by Hitchcock and very well executed. Made to be marketed to TV. Expect to see it on cable.
  • George Lucas in Love. If you've seen Star Wars, see this. It's only 7 minutes but it's you'll want to watch it at least twice! One of the best things you can get from a video store these days.
  • Faith and Asphalt. Religious satire meets The Blair Witch Project. Released by a small production company, New Planet Pictures (world premier screened in Chattanooga, TN on Sunday May 27, 2001), the film is described as a pseudo-documentary of street preachers in Chattanooga. A series of vignettes depicting various combinations of simple-minded faith, psycho-pathology, and duplicity, each with its own humorous coda. The pseudo-documentary style, replete with intentional (?) movement of the microphone into the camera frame, interferes, I think, with some rather more serious points that might have been made. After all, the genius of the Witch Project is that it presents itself not as a clever contrivance, but as an actual documentary. The same thing might have been done here, since many of the actors were very convincing. Has some very fine moments, particularly a new version of the 10 commandments, embroidered on two pillows. See it if you want to feel the currents of new directions in film.
  • The Claim. Sin, guilt, and redemption. Thomas Hardy's operatic style is mirrored here in a film notable for its vast silences with corresponding imagery to reflect various stages of inner torment. Grey pallet and play of light and darkness across faces is sometimes reminiscent of best of cinema's golden black and white era. Final lesson, from an era where the necessity of cosmic justice was a given, is poignantly symbolized as two lovers walk down the road of life. Set in the times of the Gold Rush -- one might find parallels to the contemporary dot com rush -- but best not to know too much of the plot in advance.
  • Kafka. If you want to make a study of either film adaptations of Kafka's works or films that Steven Soderbergh has directed (Sex, Lies, and Videotape), then see this film. Another reason might be as a study of films made under or immediately after Communism. (This film was made in 1991, in Prague. It probably belongs in my Films and Communism category, below.) While this film is not necessarily one to avoid, it is not one to choose over other possibilities. For example, it is not at all in the same league as Orson Welles's The Trial. Lem Dobbs (a.k.a. Lem Kitaj), who wrote the screenplay, also shares some writing credit for Dark City, a much better, thematically similar, film. Kafka does have its moments, however. Jeremy Irons is excellent throughout, and the dark vision of life in Prauge's is chilling.
  • The Mummy Returns. Went to see it for fun, and it is -- if you like the absolutely mindless. Turns out also to be an education in what Hollywood apparently thinks is effective narration: drown out dialogue in overblown music, eliminate logical links needed to explain character motivation for the sake of action scenes. Who will rule the earth and precisely how will they do it? The Mummy, by his own power; the evil director of the British Museum, by getting The Mummy to kill the Scorpion King, and then killing The Mummy (how?); or the Scorpion King, by his own power? There is no clear sense of which answer, if any, is right. And since everything in a good adventure story depends on there being a clearly defined quest, the story completely fails. The film is more akin to channel flipping than watching a continuous story. A bad sign that the experiential style of the Sesame Street generation (learning one letter at time, limited attention span, everything is "fun" or "interesting" and nothing is critically analyzed) has finally become mainstream. Visually, however, the are a few seconds worth of examples of what Hollywood could do with computer-aided graphics to recreate the ambiance of lost civilizations. Do not spend hard-earned cash to see this film.
  • Momento. See it. One of most unusual films ever made. Starts and the end and works backwards in time to the beginning. Basic idea, has, of course, been done many times: film opens with funeral; rest of film is about events leading up to funeral. This one is the same, but with one added trick: we experience almost all events from the perspective of a person who has a real, but extremely rare, form of brain damage that makes it impossible to retain memories of his previous actions for more than a few minutes at a time. Solution: tattoo clues all over his body that provide a continuous thread of his progress in his quest. (See above comments for The Mummy on need for quest). Problem: what if memory (or something else) goes wrong when the tattoo is made? Postmodern Edge: the narrative is from the author, but the author does not "exist" -- he has no metaphysical anchor point from which to obtain a universal perspective, except the belief in The Narrative itself. At issue: Is there a truth or master narrative? Need there be? (There are forums and discussion groups all over the internet on this film. If you have already seen the film, click HERE for a possible answer to the riddle.) David Hume would love this film. An essay on the fragility of reality, the nature of personal identity, and the quest for truth.
  • Rififi. One of the best in the 1950's film noir category. Riveting. Beautifully filmed. Four thieves plot a jewel heist -- and they would have gotten away with it too -- except... well, you have to see it. Directed by Jules Dassin, an American working in France. Dassin was blacklisted in the U.S. for his supposed communist sympathies during the red scare trials of the 50's. They needn't have worried; the film upholds American values. A great morality play. Best line is spoken by the wife of one of the thieves: "The real heroes are....." The film does contain some moments of unintentional humor (how closely can you follow somebody without them realizing it?), so you can laugh at these now "quaint" conventions of film, but the overall effect is powerful. Interesting facts: banned in Finland from 1956-1959; violates one of the principles of the Motion Picture Production Code (see links on this page). Very rarely shown. Best seen in a theater with a new print.