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PURPOSES OF THESE PAGES
BEST OF 2015-2017
Hollywood and popular culture is in a rut: recycling Marvel heros reflects in an ever diminishing pool of stories that will be found inoffensive to mass audiences. One is hard pressed to find recent films of significance. However, there were some films of note: Mad Max, Inside Out, The Martian, and Irrational Man and Concussion were among the best films of 2015.
An example of Hollywood's self absorption and indifference to actual performance art is awarding DiCaprio an Oscar for acting his role in The Revenant. In terms of acting craft, Will Smith in Concussion was far superior.
Another example: Other than trying to ressurect the artistic and intellectual achievement of Blade Runner, one wonders what is the justification for spending time and energy to produce the overwourght, lugubrious Blade Runner 2049? At two hours and forty-four minutes running time, perhaps half of that with actual dialouge, it is a small wonder that the film has not fared well at the box office. Excellent critic A. O. Scott from the New York Times says: "Daring in its own right, this broodingly sumptuous saga explores the primacy of feelings, the nature of memories and the essence of being human." Perhaps, but one can hardly say this is the most moving or insightfull treatment of such themes.
As we progress through this recent period of stagnation a significant question remains: when, if ever, will audiences tire of CGI-dependent story lines? Are we entering an age of "alternate realities only"? If so, why?
BEST OF 2014
Academy Award Nominations for Best Picture (2014) and any appropriate comments:
Truth and Fact in 2014: With 50% of Best Picture Nominations as historical dramas, 2014 is the year of "true" stories brought to the screen. The notion of "true" presents a dilemma for postmodernist approaches to narrative -- a problem that cannot be detailed here. Suffice it to say that anyone wishing to go to contemporary films to be educated on the "facts" of history will be disappointed and misdirected. Moreover, viewers will sometimes have to suffer through pointless and diminishing politically correct "codas" (e.g., captions and/or inappropriate music) attached to the ends of these films. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the study of popular culture, there are important films to see this year.
Most disappointing film of 2014: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. No need to see this film except to experience that audiences will pay to see something essentially empty when expectations are high and the "brand" is "good."
Funniest 5 Minutes in 2014: First 5 minutes of Penguins of Madagascar.
American Sniper (2014). For any film "based on true events," one needs a scorecard upon entering the theater these days. Perhaps a full vetting of all "factual" information presented in the film would do the trick. Fortunately, this film was vetted by the family. At least in terms of capturing the personality and many of the major events in the career of this soldier, principal members of the family (including the hero's wife) have publicly stated that the film is accurate. This is reason enough to see the film. Necessary viewing for 2014.
Selma (2014). Probably the best film of 2014. While pure fiction dramatically express general truths about the human condition, reconstituted historical dramas express a portion of these truths as we would have liked them to be. This film is no exception to this general rule. Fortunately, these two elements of popular film (general and historical truth) meet in one of the most powerful narrative segments in any recent film: the death Jamie Lee Jackson. One scene in this segment, the meeting between King and Jamie Lee Jackson's father at the city morgue, is among the finest moments of intimate film making in recent years. The film should be seen for this scene alone. Many other scenes in the film are much inferior, including odd and distracting camera angles. Auteurs and DP's will study these other scenes for lessons about what not to do with a camera. Another extraordinary aspect of the film is that it demonstrates how much the borderline for inclusion of sexual truth in films has moved since the 60's. Under no circumstances would the information about King's extramarital encounters have been included in a film meant to honor his legacy in any film of the prior to the 1990s (Clinton changed all that). Best use of a Biblical reference in 2014: Selma jail scene, Matthew 6:25.
Fury (2014). A general principle of films is that those set in a "historical" context tell us more about our contemporary consciousness of social/political/moral situations than they do about the actualities of the historical setting in which the action takes place. Fury is no exception to this principle. How should we react to the open brutality of totalitarians who terrorize their own people? Best line: "Ideals are peaceful. History is violent."
Teenage Angst films of 2014 These are all must sees for those following the zeitgeist:
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1
The Maze Runner
Noah (2014). Biblical Noah meets Alternate Sci-Fi Universe meets Nietzsche. Contrary to popular belief, the Biblical story of Noah would not make a good film script. For a Hollywood-quality script, one needs a villain, a series of escalating crises, moral dilemmas, a confrontation with evil as personified in the villain, and a resolution showing the success of the hero. Noah has all of these elements, so it is a good film for study as well as for enjoyment. It fulfills the promise of radio ads promoting the film, which describe it as having taken artistic liberties with the Biblical story but in ways that are consistent with Biblical themes and values. Although some critics, and even the director of the film (Daren Aronofsky) have claimed the film identifies Noah as an environmentalist vegetarian, this is certainly not the moral focus of the film. As Plato observed, nothing prevents artistic creators from not understanding their own works at a philosophical level. We should be loath to accept the poet's interpretation of his own work.
The story apparently does not take place on Earth, at least not at any time within the last 100 million years or so (the daytime sky and the depiction of the global land mass does not correspond to our world) and the story adds a deus ex machina device in the form of sci-fi creatures called "Watchers," although these may be thought to correspond (very loosely!) to the "giants in the earth" referenced to in Genesis. The moral dilemma is one that Nietzsche knew well: our free will is both a blessing and a curse; it demands that we take full responsibility for our acts and ultimately accept the idea that our will can be coincident with God's, if not in every respect, at least in the vital respects that correspond with the promise of human flourishing symbolized by the rainbow (the last image of the film). Highly recommended. A great study piece and one that represents contemporary spiritual, theological, and philosophical dilemmas quite well.
The film was banned in the many Islamic countries, ostensibly for "depicting a prophet," but perhaps also (admittedly, just a guess here) for superimposing the story of Abraham -- a vital key to Islamic theology -- onto Noah.
Best lines: "A man is not ruled by the heavens but by his will. So I ask you, are you a man? Good. Then you can kill."
God's Not Dead (2014). For professional critics of popular culture only. Amateurs will not enjoy this film, since they will see nothing but over the top preaching about the beauty of Christianity. Professionals will understand that the film is not about Christianity as much it is about freedom of choice and the fact that humans must cope with totalitarian intellectual repression, loss of love, death, and disease. The story is based on actual court cases where universities have attempted to limit the freedom of speech and association of on-campus Christian groups. If you are a university-level academician, you will have a hard time suspending your disbelief about the initial story premise: a philosophy professor makes signing a declaration that "God is dead" worth 30% of the course. Hopefully, any professor actually caught doing that would be summarily fired. Put that aside, accept the premise, and enjoy the film. The film contains three powerful, emotional subplots that some viewers will find more than make up for any weaknesses in the principal story line. A good example of the overt politicization of film (as opposed to the more covert, as in The Hunger Games).
FILMS OF SPECIAL INTEREST
Tuesday Morning in September - In a class by itself. Spontaneous, live documentary and creative film-making at its best. One might compare this to the reporting of the famous Hindenburg disaster of 1937, but this story unfolds from a completely innocent beginning. On the morning of September 11, Jim Kosior, an actor in NYC, was recovering from back surgery. Unable to sleep that night due to pain, he decided to hone his skills as a videographer by making a chronicle of an entire day. As he often did, he went downstairs to join his friend Hussein for breakfast. Not long
afterwards, he received a call that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. He went upstairs to his own apartment and started recording. From his vantage point, he could see almost all of New York City, including the Twin Towers, the Empire State building, and the Statue of Liberty. Within minutes, the second plane hit...and for the next two hours Jim faithfully recorded all of the events to follow. Without substantial inputs from the news media, the personal, political, and tragic story unfolds from the perspective of a single individual who witnesses one of the most important events of the last 50 years. Jim's level-headed commentary is uncanny in both descriptions and predictions related to this event. Remarkably, the video also tells a human, individual story, that culminates in reflective peacefulness.
At present (2015) this is an unfinished tool that can be used in the analysis of film narratives. It makes use of several ideas not often mentioned in the study of film narratives, including cosmic justice. Currently, with so many films appearing that are "based on true stories," some of these ideas may need to be rethought.
BEST OF 2013
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013). Like its predecessor, one of the few films to self-consciously examine media politics and the construction of character and emotion through action. Ingenious plot demonstrates how power politics and totalitarian regimes must seek to outsmart the human desire for freedom and autonomy. China, and other totalitarian regimes: Beware! Required viewing for students of popular culture. As in the case of Roller ball, unenlightened audiences go to see an action/adventure story and completely miss the point. Great material for academic film studies assignments. Not for children.
COMMENT ON THE OSCARS OF 2012
BEST OF 2012
Lincoln (2012) -- A good and informative film, but certainly not a great film by any means. Another film that may be said to be about "an unrelenting pursuit of a single cause," but one which seems to cheapen the cause by making the story more about the legal and psychological manipulation than morality. Optional viewing.
To Rome with Love (2012) -- Woody Allen's magical mystery tour of existential romances, set in the world's great cities, continues. We move from Paris (Midnight in Paris) to Rome. This time, the all star cast includes two of Italy's greatest stars, opera singer Fabio Armiliato and actor/comedian Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful), not to mention the outstanding talents of Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg (Friends), and Ellen Page (Juno). Having this much talent in one film alone makes it worthy of mention, since the demise of the studio contract system has made it difficult to produce films with all-star casts. Ellen Page -- cast as a pseudo-intellectual seductress -- is a scene-stealer, and by far the most interesting character. Roberto Benigni depicts the confusion and anxiety of instant fame with comic perfection. Fabio Armiliato, in his acting debut, accepts his surreal assignment of singing great arias in the shower (on stage!) with sublime nonchalance. Great actors all, but none face the acting challenges faced in other, more conventional, popular films -- for example, the nuances required of Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games. Allen's multi-level themes include love, sexual promiscuity, and fame in a world where authentic human drives are subverted by a infotainment industry gone mad. A must see.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012) -- Inexplicably popular. Lends credence to the idea that people do, after all, like mindless entertainment. Lacks the self-aware script humor of The Avengers and the acting subtlety of The Hunger Games.
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) -- A remake of the iconic 2002 version. Optional viewing.
The Avengers - Witty, often funny, yet filled with great, thought-provoking one-liners. Among the many themes/ideas packed into single lines:
There is only one God
The Hunger Games - A study on reality TV and the interplay of media and individual choice in constructing personality. The use of cinema verite (hand held camera that takes us out of mode of "distant" viewing of the narrative and places us "there" in the moment) is annoying at first, but it becomes clear that conceptual artists of the film mean to make a statement about the tenuous divisions between reality and fabrication, real emotion and put-on emotion, deep love and on-camera love. Not about adventure and sick killing sprees of blood-thirsty young, as some popular media would have it, but about how human sentiments are constructed out of the raw material of media-enhanced human interactions. A cautionary tale of social and political control and individual defiance in the vein of The Truman Show or Roller ball -- films that derive from the allegory of Plato's Cave -- that leaves you pulling for a "real" life outside the Cave. Required viewing for all film aficionados. Oscar bound. The image captures the stunned, hurt, and confused state of the heroine at the start of the film.
John Carter - An interplanetary love story. Emotionally, a poetic expression of redemption through love overcoming loss in the past through hope. Politically, a hymn to the value of fighting for a for a cause greater than one's self. Psychologically, multiple, simultaneous tales about how rule-breakers and loners can survive and thrive. Captures the heart of Burroughs's master work, started in 1912, the 11-book Mars series. John Carter is the prototype for Superman: weakened gravity on another planet makes him stronger than anyone else. In the series, Carter is himself an immortal warrior who primarily loves fighting. Yet, he is also a peace-maker who eventually unifies the warring races of Mars. Some of the most fascinating aspects of the film are those that will be invisible to the audience: the changes made to Burroughs's original story. Gone are the vicious Indians who torture and kill Carter's friend. Gone is the mysterious, and never fully explained, transmission of mind/body to Mars. Disney's rewrite makes Carter a reluctant recruit in fighting Indians, introduces
Therns as Interplanetary agents who enable and control mind/body transportation. These enhancements to Burroughs's conceptual framework improve the story and make it more relevant for contemporary audiences. Visually, the story remains true to Burroughs's ideas, as developed through the original drawings in some of the printed versions of the books, and as expertly crafted by Marvel in its comic book series. This is a great film on many levels. Look for Oscar nominations in technical areas in 2012.
IMAGE PROCESSING IN THE VISUAL ARTS
BEST OF 2011
Midnight in Paris - One of Woody Allen's finest, although not his greatest. Reverses the standard Hollywood technique of putting message in the subtext by overtly discussing and critiquing a philosophy of life.
Hugo - Most over-rated film of 2011. Nice homage to film history. Sacha Cohen is outstanding, but the story lacks depth.
The Artist - Best aesthetics of 2011. Restores values of original screen aspect ratio. A meditation on the meaning of conventions in acting and how the human face communicates emotions.
The King's Speech - Among the very best of 2011. Excellent acting combines with good story to produce a great effect.
Drive - Not seen. But probably of great interest for those who like to see innovations in plot and thematic structure, since it apparently provides, in the words of Roger Ebert, "a rebuke" to the action/thriller films that it looks like on the surface.
Real Steel - Rocky meets the world of robots and avatars. One of the best stories of 2011, a great example of how contemporary social problems are addressed through the thematic subtexts. In this case, the epidemic of fatherless children and children from broken homes. A great story idea and well-executed, although weakened by the completely unconvincing performance by Evangeline Lilly as the would-be mother. In many ways, a better and more meaningful story than The Artist.
Thor - Another of Marvel's most popular characters. Like Captain America, this film provides the backstory for the character, establishing his inner conflict (estrangement from his father) as well as his new-found cause (protecting mere mortals). In the Marvel universe, Thor has been created and destroyed more than a dozen times. This Thor represents just one psychological type. The evil Loki is a stand-in for the disruptive/destructive forces recognized in Norse mythology, a trope use in many films, including the Star Wars sextet.
Captain America - Classic plot structure, utilizing escalating difficulties for hero and final villain/hero confrontation. Basic plot is true to the first issue of Marvel's comic in 1941. A well-crafted film throughout, with good performances by excellent cast.
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