Monday, November 19, 2018

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Year 10, Day 322 - 11/18/18 - Movie #3,095

BEFORE: We're coming up on Thanksgiving, but I already have to be thinking about totaling up the stats for 2018, and also figuring out what films to watch in January.  The easiest way for me to do this is to create my February chain of romance films first - I've got more than enough, and last month I went through the films available on Netflix so that I'd have some connective material.  Once I have the starting point for that chain, I designate that as the film for February 1 and then I try to work backwards.

I had some time over this past weekend, now that I'm not watching a film EVERY night but instead every other night, and I came up with a rough chain that's 30 films long, which is the right length - but I'm not married to this chain just yet.  I'm not crazy about the starting point since it's not a "one-linkable" film as usual.  Plus, even though it contains a bunch of films that I tried to get to in 2018 but just couldn't, it hinges on me being able to watch "Mission: Impossible Fallout" in January, and I'm not sure that I'll be able to do that.  Sure, it may come to my boss on an Academy screener, especially if it wants to get nominated in the special effects category, but it might not.  And if it's not available on premium cable in January, then I'll be screwed.

So, perhaps I should come up with an alternate January chain, just in case.  If one chain is possible, there must be others that are possible, based on the films I have access to on DVD, cable and Netflix, right?  The trick is then finding one that I like, that also gets me where I need to be on February 1. I still have plenty of time to work on this.

For now, Jack Black carries over again from "Goosebumps" - and with just five films left until the end of Movie Year 10, I'll have to deal with the rest later.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Jumanji" (Movie #924)

THE PLOT: Four teenagers are sucked into a magical video game, and the only way they can escape is to work together to finish the game.

AFTER: I was pleasantly surprised by this one, but also slightly annoyed.  Let me deal with the first part of that before mentioning the second.  But this film was MUCH better than "Goosebumps", which played with some of the same elements - "Goosebumps" had monster characters jumping out of a book and becoming real, and this film had real people being drawn into a video-game, so I guess that's the opposite, real people being dragged into a fictional story, which for them plays out like a virtual reality.  Damn, but it's a much more clever idea this way.  (Side note: "Goosebumps" and this film also shot scenes at the same high-school, so that school also carries over...)

The original "Jumanji" was a story about a man (played by Robin Williams) who had been somehow brought into a magical board game, and as kids played the game, they somehow brought real wild animals into their house, so the elements of the game became real, then they helped rescue the man who'd been stuck in the game.  This sequel puts a spin on THAT idea by morphing the board game into a video game (circa 1996) and bringing the players inside that, where they're represented by avatars that are much different than themselves.  And instead of the jungle taking over a house, instead they've got a whole WORLD to explore in VR (which looks suspiciously like real reality, but OK, whatever).  Oh, that blows the original story out of the freakin' water, there are NO LIMITS here, except for the rules of the video game.

If anything, the game looks TOO GOOD, because they obviously shot in a real jungle, so the "video-game" looks a bit too close to reality - because I remember the video games in 1996, and they mostly sucked, like the graphics sure weren't good enough to fool you into thinking they were real.  I think MAYBE there was Sony Playstation 1 in 1996, and I'm sorry, but nobody's going to confuse "Crash Bandicoot" or "Donkey Kong Country 3" with virtual reality.  But since this is a movie, and not meant to really reflect the actual state of video-games in the mid-1990's, let's move on.  I could just say that these people who got sucked into the game are seeing the game with their avatar's eyes, so maybe to them, everything that should look like 64-bit graphics looks as good as real.

Anyway, you can't get sucked into a video-game, so the whole thing requires some suspension of disbelief.  The opening act of this film plays out like a combination of "The Breakfast Club" and "Tron", like if the kids who were bonding together over having detention at the same time then got digitized and pulled into the game, where the rules of time and space are different.  And I don't think I'm far off with the "Breakfast Club" comparison, because among these four kids there's the nerd, the jock, the spoiled bitch and the mousy shy girl.  They're already walking stereotypes, but then the nervous nerd's consciousness gets put into the avatar that's the strong fearless hero, the jock gets put in the avatar of the weak but smart sidekick, the spoiled bitch gets put in the (male) body of the history and map expert, and the mousy shy girl gets put in the avatar of the fighting bombshell babe.

I love this idea - it would have been so lame if they played the same personalities in the game that they had IRL.  Nearly all of the comedy comes from seeing the words of a gaming nerd coming from the mouth of super-hunk "The Rock", and then hearing tiny Kevin Hart complain about how he's not a big, strong athlete in the game, like he should be.  And of course the shy girl has to learn to overcome her shyness in order to flirt and fight, while the spoiled girl, well, she has to learn to read a map and pee standing up.  (To me, that's a glaring NITPICK POINT, there are no bodily waste functions in video games, except for maybe "The Sims".  Certainly not in an adventure game.  There was one "Grand Theft Auto" game where characters had to eat to gain energy, but that was very unpopular and they never did it again.).

They each have different skills, whether it's zoology or map-reading or dance-fighting, and when the situations demand it, they appear to be able to access these skills, to advance the game.  But each character only has three lives, and they each manage to lose one pretty quickly, so there's urgency to work together and accomplish the game's task before they run out of lives, the fear being that they could die for real if they lose their third life.  And the fact that the characters act differently when they're on their last life is also very smart.  (Though it's also a bit hokey, once they make the comparison to the fact that's how all life works, we're all hanging by that thread...).

Now, the "magic" part of the story is completely unbelievable, like how did the board game turn ITSELF into a video game cartridge?  And how does time pass differently within the game world - like if you're playing a video game for three days straight, shouldn't three days have passed in the real world, and wouldn't the parents of these kids be wondering why they didn't come home from school? But damn it, the story is so much fun that's it's as hard to criticize it as it is to take it seriously.

Now, as to why this story annoyed me - it's because I tried to write something along these lines, and I never was able to finish it.  My best screenplay idea ever was based on my time playing Dungeons & Dragons, as part of a 6-person (occasionally 7) group that played together for years.  During that time, people became friends, people hooked up, people broke up, a lot of stuff went down in the real world between the players that I believe was influenced by what happened in the game.  Of course there were many other factors, but I believe the group interaction was partially responsible for the end of my first marriage - basically my wife was attracted to another female player in the group, and things devolved from there.  We quit the group and tried to keep things together, but the damage was done - and the signs were all there in the gaming world, only I didn't want to deal with them, or I dealt with them poorly.

So, as a form of therapy, I tried to write a screenplay about a group of 6 friends in the early 1990's who met every other week for years, to play D&D - and friendships would form, people would hook up and break up, and then during the course of three gaming campaigns (perhaps depicted in animation), the audience would see how the events in the gaming world affected their real-world relationships, and vice versa.  Essentially, in the animated gaming sequences, where the characters are exploring dungeons or fighting monsters, they'd have the same voices, but look like D&D characters. And in much the same way, their characters would be either a reflection of who the player is in real life, or more likely, the person they WISH they could be, or the person they NEED to become.

But, I could never get the screenplay past an outline stage - whenever it came time to flesh out a scene with dialogue, I'd draw a blank and eventually lose interest.  And now it's too late, because if I ever went back and finished that now, everyone would say that's already been done, because of "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle".  For every little difference between this film and my idea, it seems that this film's idea is better.  My idea would be set post-college, but damn, putting the story in a high-school setting is so much better.  And immersing people in a video-game is so much more visual than watching them roll dice and argue over hit points.  So now I see my mistake, I was trying to make a story that was small and intimate like an indie film, when I should have been thinking of things that were bigger and more crazier.  Anyway, we're too far from the "Lord of the Rings" films, I think interest in D&D is on the wane, so clearly I missed my shot at being a screenwriter.  And that annoys me, though I suppose I should be more annoyed with myself than with this film.

By the way, kudos to Jack Black, who had a very difficult task, that of playing a self-obsessed entitled teen girl inhabiting his body. He totally nailed it, so even though he's usually thought of as not a great actor, or as someone who's too over-the-top, his style really worked here.

Also starring Dwayne Johnson (last heard in "Moana"), Kevin Hart (last heard in "The Secret Life of Pets"), Karen Gillan (last seen in "Avengers: Infinity War"), Bobby Cannavale (last seen in "Ant-Man and the Wasp"), Nick Jonas (last heard in "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian"), Colin Hanks (last seen in "Untraceable"), Rhys Darby (last heard in "Arthur Christmas"), Alex Wolff (last seen in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2"), Madison Iseman, Ser'Darius Blain, Morgan Turner, Mason Guccione, Marc Evan Jackson (last seen in "Kong: Skull Island"), Tim Matheson (last seen in "Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon"), Sean Buxton (last seen in "42"), Carlease Burke, Maribeth Monroe (last seen in "Downsizing"), Missi Pyle (last seen in "Gone Girl"), Kat Altman, Marin Hinkle, Tracey Bonner, Natasha Charles Parker, Michael Shake, William Tokarsky, Rohan Chand.

RATING: 7 out of 10 albino rhinos

Saturday, November 17, 2018


Year 10, Day 320 - 11/16/18 - Movie #3,094

BEFORE: Yeah, this is sort of a leftover from Halloween time, but it didn't connect with anything there, so I'm dropping it in here.  Jack Black carries over from "Envy"

THE PLOT: A teenager teams up with the daughter of young adult horror author R.L. Stine after the writer's imaginary demons are set free on the town of Madison, Delaware.

AFTER: Sometimes you can tell what problems a screenwriter probably was facing, because the solutions that solved those problems are front and center, and here they pretty much smack you in the face.  "How do we get people to care about the main character?"  Give him a dead dad, and show him moving to a new town and trying to fit in.  That will get the audience to sympathize with him, because nearly everyone has trouble fitting in at high school.  "How do we get him in contact with the love interest?"  Simple, you make them neighbors, fate has thrown them together.  "How do we get the geeky character to seem heroic, and not just annoying?"  Well, we can give him a name like "Champion" and make sure he's not always just running away from threats.  OK, so far, so good?

But then there's "How do we appeal to the fans of ALL of R.L. Stine's many-volumed horror series, because everyone might have a different favorite book?"  Well, let's just throw ALL the monsters from ALL of the books into one storyline.  We'll make it about the characters somehow getting loose from the books and becoming "real", and all ganging up to threaten the town.  OK, that's a bit of a stretch, but you can sort of see why it was done.  Then the big question was probably "How do we get R.L. Stine to let us play in his sandbox full of monsters and make a film out of it?"  And the answer was to turn the author into a character, played by Jack Black, and give that character the magical ability to create stories that have the power to turn real, and point out at every opportunity that he's a better writer than Stephen King.  OK, now you're just kissing the guy's ass.

It's a heavy buy-in, because then you have to make the author "reclusive" and living under an assumed name, where in real life this guy's probably got more money than a rap star and can hire security to keep fans away.  Then this weird process of locking the manuscripts to keep the monsters in, but then leaving the key in full view and completely unprotected.  So, are we trying to keep the monsters in the books, or not?  Because if that's what we want, shouldn't the key be kept, umm, locked up?  Like in a safe or something.

Then the rules of how this crazy thing all works keeps changing, which is annoying.  Constantly shifting sands.  If the monsters destroy the book, then they can't go back into the book, so somebody has to write ANOTHER book with that character in it so he can be absorbed back into it.  So confusing, and I'd stopped caring at this point, because it's a completely ridiculous premise to begin with.  Show me one fictional character who ever came out of a book and became real.  You might as well have had all the characters climb through a magic mirror out of the nightmare dimension, it would been just as nonsensical.

Maybe kids aren't going to care as much as I do about the logistics of everything, and whether these ideas to bring the monsters together are good ones.  I sure don't think so, because it feels like everything was done this way for matters of convenience, and not with the intent of crafting a strong narrative.

For example, take my NITPICK POINT #1 - Stine can only craft a new book that will absorb all the monsters if he uses a specific Smith-Corona typewriter.  No, my beef is not that a modern-day author would use an old electric typewriter instead of a computer, that's neither here nor there.  The question is, why is that typewriter located at the high school, instead of at Stine's house?  No explanation is given for this, and Stine didn't start teaching at the school until the very end of the film.  So why is the typewriter at the high school?  Because the story needed him to go there, and the school dance is taking place there, so for the screenplay's and convenience's sake, that's where the typewriter happens to be.  Lazy, lazy, lazy writing.

NP #2: Nobody builds a carnival out in the woods, for safety reasons.  Ever notice how a carnival is always built in an open field, or in a large vacant lot?  That's because they need room for the rides to move, you couldn't put a Ferris wheel in the middle of a bunch of tall trees like this, because the branches could grow into the path of the wheel, and then you've got a problem, like a stick in a bike's wheel.  A forest setting would also prevent people from seeing clearly across the fairgrounds, and that's another safety issue.  Not to mention that a forest is filled with dirt, and the rides need flat, solid ground.  Sorry, try again.  Yes, it's possible that the forest grew up around the abandoned carnival, but that would take decades, and then the rides probably wouldn't be in working condition.

Also starring Dylan Minnette (last seen in "The Disaster Artist"), Odeya Rush (last seen in "Lady Bird"), Amy Ryan (last seen in "You Can Count on Me"), Ryan Lee (last seen in "A Merry Friggin' Christmas"), Jillian Bell (last heard in "The Angry Birds Movie"), Halston Sage (last seen in "Neighbors"), Ken Marino (last seen in "Masterminds"), Timothy Simons (last seen in "Gold"), Amanda Lund, Karan Soni (last seen in "Deadpool 2"), Steven Krueger, Keith Arthur Bolden, R.L. Stine

RATING: 4 out of 10 garden gnomes

Thursday, November 15, 2018


Year 10, Day 318 - 11/14/18 - Movie #3,093

BEFORE: Christopher Walken carries over again, but for the last time, and Jack Black will now be the link for the rest of November.

THE PLOT: A man becomes increasingly jealous of his friend's newfound success.

AFTER: I've definitely got a loose theme going here, because one key plot point in "The Stepford Wives" was that the husbands were all very jealous of their wives' career successes, and the fact that they earned more money.  Then in "The Family Fang" you could say that the parents in the family, who were moderately successful outsider video pranksters, were jealous of the mainstream success of their children, who were a professional actress and a published author.  And then in "Jersey Boys" I saw the petty jealousies that worked to tear apart the Four Seasons.  Tonight that concept got taken to the extreme, as one friend becomes wildly successful, creating envy in the less successful other friend.

After a wild invention of a spray that makes dog poo miraculously disappear, so that no pet owner ever has to pick it up again, this man makes a fortune overnight. The less successful friend had a chance to invest in the product, but chose not to, thinking that the product was not possible, then not marketable, and then of course he finds that he missed the financial opportunity of a lifetime.  Suddenly everyone has bought multiple cans of this product, while a fringe group gathers to protest and ask the semi-serious question, "Where does the poo go?"

This is a teachable moment for your kids, too, if you want to get them thinking about environmental issues. What happens to the things we throw in the trash, what happens to the things that we flush down the toilet?  They all have to go SOMEWHERE, it can't just be a case of "Out of sight, out of mind" like it was for previous generations.  So the lesson here is that it's not easy to get rid of things, even if it feels like it.  Yes, there's a big floating plastic mass the size of Delaware in the Pacific Ocean, but even if we clean that up and get it out of the ocean, where's it going to go THEN?  There was a news story a few years ago about dried human waste that was being hauled away from New York City by train, and brought to other states like Arkansas or Oklahoma, I think at some point to possibly used for fertilizer, but at some point it became too much, umm, stuff and they had no use for it, so it was just lying on train cars in rail yards, stinking up the place.  Then there was the famous garbage barge of 1987 that set out to sea from Long Island, and couldn't find any landfill space for its tons of garbage, not in North Carolina, not in Florida, not in Mexico or the Bahamas.  Finally it was returned to Brooklyn to be incinerated, having run up transport costs close to $1 million.

So as a society, we're rapidly running out of places to PUT our trash.  That incident with the garbage barge led to more recycling laws being implemented in New York, but what happens when even THAT'S not enough, and all the landfills eventually fill up again?  I'd be very surprised to find out there's a plan in place for that.

Apart from that veiled ecology lesson, there's not much to recommend here, except the other lesson that if you don't find a way to get rid of envy, that it will make you feel "less than", and then turn into resentment, and you may find yourself hating the people who were once your friends.  Or I guess that message would have been a little clearer if not for the psychotic drifter, the missing horse and the malfunctioning carousel.  Plus it's a shame that we'll never find out if one character's state Senate campaign was successful, or what flan is made of, or who won the bowling tournament.  That's my way of saying there's a lot going on here, and not all of it connects or serves a purpose, it's just sort of all over the place.

Also starring Ben Stiller (last seen in "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)", Jack Black (last seen in "Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage"), Rachel Weisz (last seen in "The Lobster"), Amy Poehler (last seen in "The House"), Sam Lerner (last heard in "Monster House"), Ariel Gade, Connor Matheus, Lily Jackson, Hector Elias, Maricela Ochoa (last seen in "Mercury Rising"), Tom McAlester (last seen in "Million Dollar Baby"), Blue Deckert, John Gavigan, Terry Bozeman.

RATING: 3 out of 10 employee review forms

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Jersey Boys

Year 10, Day 316 - 11/12/18  - Movie #3,092

BEFORE: This is a film that's been on my list for a long time, I'd guess at least two years, possibly more.  But it's filled with actors that haven't been in many movies, so linking to it and away from it have proven impossible until now, when I finally developed enough of a chain to have two other movies with Christopher Walken, so I could sandwich this one in between them.

THE PLOT: The story of four young men from the wrong side of the tracks in New Jersey who came together to form the iconic 1960's rock group The Four Seasons.

AFTER: There's a fair amount of talking to the audience, or "breaking the fourth wall", here, each of the band members does it at different times, but first we hear from Tommy, who tells the audience that if you grew up in New Jersey, there were only three ways off the streets - to join the army, join a gang or become famous.  I've got a big problem with this, because I really doubt that's true.  You also hear this from a lot of NBA or NFL players, when they look back on their childhood they'll say something like "Where I grew up, you either joined a basketball team or you joined a gang."  Really? This sounds more like someone trying to justify their lifestyle choices, and it seems like an over-simplification of how a person could get from here to there.  A person's life is rarely that simple, I think.

There are probably many ways to get off the streets.  How about studying hard and getting a scholarship, why wasn't that an option?  What about getting a job sweeping floors in a store, and working one's way up to stock-boy or even cashier?  What about memorizing the Presidents and state capitals and trying out for Jeopardy's Teen Week?  I'm not saying all of these things are likely to happen, but they represent other ways off the streets, alternatives to sports and gangs.  Besides, what if an impressionable teen misreads the message and thinks, "Well, I'm short and I can't shoot a basketball very well, so I guess I'd better join a gang, since there are apparently only two ways to get off the streets..."  It's a bit like saying that if you're hungry, you can only eat breakfast, there's no lunch or dinner or brunch or dessert, which would be ridiculous.

The breaking of the fourth wall, of course, exists here because this film is based on the long-running Broadway play of the same name, and in a play, the characters would do a great deal of talking to the audience.  We're living in an incredible time, where there's a lot of symbiosis between Broadway and Hollywood, tons of plays have become recent hit movies ("Mamma Mia!", "Fences", "Les Miserables", "Rock of Ages", "Sweeney Todd") and it seems like just as many movies are now hits on Broadway ("King Kong", "Mean Girls", "Frozen", "School of Rock", "Groundhog Day", "Waitress" and so on...) And it used to be that they had to wait for a Broadway run to be OVER before turning a play into a movie, but these days it seems they can even run concurrently and one won't damage the business of the other.

(How long before "Hamilton" is a movie, and what's taking so long with the "Cats" movie?  Just wondering.)

But apparently the breaking of the fourth wall in the stage version of "Jersey Boys" serves a greater structural purpose, as the play is divided into four sections (or "seasons"), called Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter (however did they come up with this?) and a different member of the group narrates each season - Tommy DeVito in Spring, Bob Gaudio in Summer, Nick Massi in Fall and Frankie Valli in Winter.  Collectively there are four different takes on the group, and damn, that's a bit of clever - I might even consider seeing the show (now running off-Broadway) to see how that all plays out.  But the movie doesn't really make this clear, or enforce this structure, and the talking to the camera is drastically reduced, so that it nearly feels out of place when it does happen.  You can't have actors playing their parts 90% of the time and then talking to camera just 10% of the time, that doesn't work.  If that's the bit, you've got to commit to it, "Deadpool"-style, just to make it viable, or else when it does happen, then it's going to take the audience out of the picture, and that works against the suspension of disbelief - suddenly I'll be aware that I'm watching a film with actors saying things, and that's going to break the illusion.

I know that music biopics are hot again, what with "Bohemian Rhapsody" and yet another remake of "A Star Is Born", meanwhile Broadway is giving us a musical based on the life and songs of Carole King, and a new one featuring three actresses playing Cher at different stages in her career. (Why they didn't title this musical "Cher and Cher Alike", I can't quite figure out...) But since I've watched over 50 documentaries about rock and pop music already this year, I'm totally burned out on this topic.  So forgive me if I find a band's petty infighting, plus depictions of the party lifestyle destroying the band as all too familiar, not to mention the problems of signing a bad contract, having problems collecting royalties and paying taxes, and life on the road.  Boring, I've seen all this before, and even though the Four Seasons pre-dated most of those other bands, it's clear that musicians never learn, and they all end up making the same mistakes.  OK, so the Four Seasons maybe had their little unique pocket, the bridge between doo-wop music and rock and roll, but that doesn't mean I'm a big fan of their music, I'm just not.

I honestly knew very little about Franki Valli and the Four Seasons going in to this, but I guess I was willing to learn.  That being said, I can believe that the name of the band came from the name of a bowling alley, but if the depiction here of how they came up with the title of the song "Big Girls Don't Cry" is at all accurate, I'll eat my hat.  That's just now how songwriting works.

And now I know why I had such a hard time linking to this film, because instead of casting actors known for being in movies, they retained the stage play feel here by casting actors directly from the stage production.

The character of Joey in this story (with no last name given) is based on Joe Pesci, who in real life introduced Bob Gaudio to the other three musicians, thus forming the Four Seasons.  Pesci did this when he was 16 years old, then he later played guitar in several bands, including Joey Dee and the Starlighters, where was replaced by (get this...) Jimi Hendrix.  Weird, huh?

One of the last scenes in this film was a depiction of the four original members of the band being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and having seen this as the coda to a fair number of rock documentaries, this sort of felt like a narrative cop-out.

But hey, Frankie Valli's still with us, probably one of the only 1950's music stars still hanging around, I think maybe now it's just down to him and Little Richard, since Fats Domino died a couple years ago. Wait, Jerry Lee Lewis is still alive, too?  How is that possible?

Also starring John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza, Renée Marino, Kathrine Narducci (last seen in "Miracle on 34th Street"), Lou Volpe, Mike Doyle (last seen in "Rabbit Hole"), Freya Tingley, Elizabeth Hunter, Grace Kelley, Rob Marnell, Johnny Cannizzaro (last seen in "The Muppets"), Donnie Kehr, Jeremy Luke (last seen in "Don Jon"), Joey Russo, James Madio, Erica Piccininni, Steve Schirripa (last seen in "The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas"), Barry Livingston (last seen in "War Dogs"), Miles Aubrey, Kim Gatewood, Jackie Seiden, Kyli Rae, Troy Grant, Heather Ferguson Pond, John Griffin, Chaz Langley, Billy Gardell, Francesca Eastwood (last seen in "True Crime"), Michael Patrick McGill (last seen in "Danny Collins"), Louis Lombardi (last seen in "Wonderland"), Sean Whalen.

RATING: 4 out of 10 hotel towels

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Family Fang

Year 10, Day 314 - 11/10/18 - Movie #3,091

BEFORE: It's the end of the road for Nicole Kidman today, as she carries over again from "The Stepford Wives", but I'm already set up for the next chain, thanks to the other actor who carries over, and that's going to help me get a film off my list next time, one that's been there way too long, thanks to it's near un-linkabliity.

Thanksgiving's coming up fast, I've got my parents coming to town like they did last year, so I've already got the dinner reservation in place, and then we'll be on a fast sprint to Christmas, so next I've got to start thinking about shopping for presents and getting my holiday mix CD made.

THE PLOT: A brother and sister return to their family home in search of their world-famous parents who have disappeared.

AFTER: This is a weird one, though it touches on some of the themes I've already been exploring this year, with a lot of adult children having interactions with their parents, be they absent or straying fathers, neurotic or overprotective mothers, and then of course their screwed-up children, who are now screwed-up adults.  And true to form, there are a lot of flashbacks here, showing the kids at various ages trying to survive with these mixed-up parents in a mixed-up world, but I think I have to allow it here because all the time-jumping seems to serve a purpose, namely to slowly clue us in about who these parents were and what this family was all about.

The parents turn out to be performance artists, rather than con artists, which in some cases seems to be worse, because at least con artists would have a solid motivation for tricking people, namely to separate them from their money.  But these people are tricking people just to make video art, and I'm not sure that's really even a thing, like I've never heard about performance artists who involved their children in their pieces.  I mean, this would have been before the YouTube generation, at a time when people were making home movies just to preserve memories, not to confound everyone at the bank or in a public park.  I'm not sure I even understand the video prank that the Fangs pulled at the bank, like I don't see what point they were trying to make or what larger purpose it served.  I kept expecting them to rob the bank, only they didn't, they just wanted to make art disguised as a bank robbery.  Huh?

Any comedy has to have at least one foot in reality, like even "The Stepford Wives" had a solid jumping-off point, which was the battle between the sexes and a feminist fear of losing control and becoming subservient.  But there's no foundation here, therefore I don't see how anyone got this story to where it is, like what is the origin of the idea here?  The same goes for the piece with the fake coupons for chicken sandwiches, like what was the goal, what did they set out to prove?  By the way, this little scam would never have played out like this, so I have to call a NITPICK POINT.  Any employee at a fast-food chain would be keenly aware of what promotions would currently be going on, so there's no way a server would mistake a phony coupon for a real one.  Sorry.  This goes double for the manager, he would have known immediately that a coupon was phony.  It's a little interesting that the scammer here got scammed, because he intended to cause a riot or at least ill will among the customers, and instead found that the staff was TOO accommodating, so he himself was caught unaware and had to punt, and cause the disruption himself.  I just don't see things playing out like this in reality.

And then we come to the final "piece", where the Fang parents disappear, and seem to have met a tragic end at the hands of some killer that finds his victims at rest stops.  That much I can believe, but then the question becomes - can a pair of performance artists, known for tricking people, just disappear, or is this also another one of their tricks?  And if it is a trick, then what purpose does that serve, allowing people, including their own children, to believe that they're dead?  We eventually do get an answer, but I'm just not sure that it's enough.  So it's right down the middle today, nothing that really stood out as offensive or grating, but nothing really thrilling or extraordinary, either.

Also starring.Jason Bateman (last seen in "The Gift"), Christopher Walken (also carrying over from "The Stepford Wives"), Maryann Plunkett (last seen in "The Squid and the Whale"), Kathryn Hahn (last seen in "The Do-Over"), Harris Yulin (last seen in "The Emperor's Club"), Taylor Rose, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Kyle Donnery, Jack McCarthy, Jason Butler Harner (last seen in "Blackhat"), Frank Harts, Josh Pais (last seen in "I Saw the Light"), Grainger Hines (last seen in "Lincoln"), Robbie Tann, Michael Chernus (last seen in "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)", Gabriel Ebert (last seen in "Ricki and the Flash"), Eddie Mitchell, Patrick Mitchell, Linda Emond (last seen in "North Country"), Scott Shepherd (last seen in "Hostiles"), Charlie Saxton.

RATING: 5 out of 10 spud guns

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Stepford Wives (2004)

Year 10, Day 312 - 11/8/18 - Movie #3,090

BEFORE: So far this alternating plan is working out, watching a movie every other day instead of every day - I'm still making progress, just not as quickly, and I think I can stretch out my chain until the end of November before I have to stop until Christmastime.

Nicole Kidman carries over from "Queen of the Desert", and I'm still not done with her chain - one more film tomorrow.

THE PLOT: The secret of a Stepford wife, how women become different and immobilized robots, lies behind the doors of the Men's Association.

AFTER: Looking back through the last few Nicole Kidman movies is very telling - much like Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies, they can be separated into two types of films, ones where the lead female characters are strong, decisive and accomplish great things, and then ones where they are in trouble, threatened by men or by forces outside of their control.  And that seems to be the underlying fear for the modern woman, fear of not being successful, fear of not being in control, fear of being dominated by men.  (I realize that just viewing a small subset of Nicole Kidman movies is not an accurate system for a commentary on an entire gender, but work with me here for just a minute.)

Gertrude Bell is deemed a successful character because she achieves on her own, she goes into the desert and DOES stuff (umm, with the help of male servants...) but without the need for a relationship with a man dragging her down.  In "Dead Calm" Rae is a less successful character, because she's not only grieving due to the loss of her son, but she's tortured and manipulated by a man, and has to work hard to accomplish, and find her husband again.  In "Ghost Story" Kidman played a mother who tries hard to protect her children, but unknown forces seem to be haunting the house, and prevent her from taking care of them the way she wants to.  And then in "Before I Go to Sleep", there's that dreaded loss of control again, as her character is easily manipulated by men who take advantage of her unlikely (and unbelievable) medical condition.

So there's a loose theme here, and it's amped up tenfold in "The Stepford Wives" as she plays a disgraced TV executive who's brought down by a man who appeared on one of her reality shows and lost his wife to the affections of other men on the show.  This man went nuts and shot a bunch of people after appearing on the show, so that's the end of her career, since as we all know, the president of the network is ultimately responsible for everything that happens on every show.  (Umm, no.)  So the only thing for her to do is to move away with her husband (who had a VP role at the same network, I'm not sure how that worked, like who took care of their kids?) to the town of Stepford, CT, to find herself again without the stresses of her former high-profile executive job.

But to really analyze this film, where it's coming from and what it's trying to say, I've got to travel back to a long-past time in history, back when a simple time gender politics were different, back before everything got changed around.  Yes, I'm talking about 2004.  That's pre-Weinstein, pre-Spacey, pre-Louis C.K., and it might even be pre-Cosby.  George W. Bush ran for re-election against the old upstart John Kerry, Jude Law was People's Sexiest Man Alive, Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt were still together, and Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez were breaking up.  On TV we said goodbye to "Friends" and hello to "Desperate Housewives".  And in the middle of all of this, someone thought it would be a good idea to re-make a film from the 1970's that depicted a bunch of suburban women as robotic, mindless sexpots who all cooked, cleaned and served their husbands without complaints, only they'd put a modern spin on it, turn the tables just a bit.

And hey, we'll add a gay couple into the mix, because it's 2004 and there aren't enough depictions of gay people in pop culture yet, so by being more inclusive and diverse we're really going to show how liberal and accepting we are.  Only this, more than anything, was really two steps forward and one step back, and I think like many things in this film, it was a huge misstep.  Because to depict a gay couple in the framework of this suburban farce, then one of the men has to be overly flamboyant, obsessed with fashion and way over-the-top, and I don't think this really helped.  Also, that meant they had to fall back on the butch/femme stereotype, where one of the men is essentially the "wife" in the couple, and I've been told that this is a fallacy.  Why can't they just be two husbands together, why does one have to be dominant and the other submissive?  And why does one have to be flamingly gay and the other one could pass for straight?  Fiction's depiction of two gay men is probably a projection of the whole bottom/top thing, and I just don't think the personalities involved are necessarily that clear cut, and what we get as a result is a straight writer's imagining of what a gay couple is, rather than a depiction based on a real dynamic.

But let me put that on hold for a second and get back to the straight couples seen here.  The men are all slobbish, nerdy, losers who are tired of playing second fiddle to their more successful wives, who were all executives, judges, or sports stars who were more successful than them, earned more than them, and so somehow the men moved to this town (after the women were burned out and tired from "having it all") and chose to subject their wives to some treatment that would subvert their personalities in favor of this "happy homemaker/fembot" overlay.  And that sound you hear is the women's movement being rolled back toward the 1950's mentality, that didn't work back than, and shouldn't be expected to work again.  Whereas it would have been easier for all of these men to go to therapy and learn to deal with their inferiority issues, or at least learn how to accept their wives as successful, instead a costly, experimental medical procedure that would implant mind control chips was seen as the preferred course of action.  Forget how illegal this would be, or how immoral to completely remove all consent from a woman for not only a medical procedure, but also the change to her personality, it's just abominable.

Of course, there is the possibility that nothing here is meant to be taken seriously, once a writer creates an implausible or impossible situation, why not go all the way with it, and have the most outrageous things depicted, like a woman being able to spit $20 bills out of her mouth like an ATM, when it would be so much easier for a man to just carry a wallet around?  And thus we see that the movie bent over backwards to "solve" problems that weren't even problems to begin with.  But again, it's a nonsensical farce, though it would have been easier to swallow if it just stuck a little bit closer to reality, then it might have hit home more effectively.  As it is, we're not sure if the women are being transformed, or killed and replaced with controllable clones, or killed and replaced with robots, or what.  We're only told that this "process" happens, and suddenly they're happier, healthier and more controllable, and they only lose all of their free will with regards to the relationship.  And I'm still waiting for some indication that this was a good basis for a comedy.

Maybe it's just that I'm looking at this 2004 comedy post-MeToo and post-TimesUp, but how exactly is this situation any different from a man drugging a woman to have sex with her?  It's the whole town here that took away their women's (and one gay man's) right to say no, and yet someone thought this could be seen as funny?  I'm sorry, but that's a comedy fail.  Even if it was done to make a larger point, and I'm still not clear on what exactly that point was, this is now a taboo thing to make fun of.  The film tried to turn everything on its ear and almost succeeded in doing so, but then it completely tanked it in the end - and the final explanation of who was really behind everything, who set up this town this way and why, well, that made no sense at all.  You can't just change everything in the last few minutes and hope that makes up for the sins of the previous 85 minutes of movie.

I'm too tired to even try to tie this one to the election somehow, because I could very easily point out that America still seems to be supporting Trump and his political allies, despite the fact that we're all aware of his long history of degrading women, treating some them as sexual objects, and then ridiculing the appearances of the others.  Watch any press conference he holds and you'll notice that he hardly ever calls on female reporters, and then when he eventually does (I'm assuming only at the point where he's answered all the men's questions) he can't stop from interrupting them when they ask a question.  This is how bias is allowed to continue, when an obvious sexist is still elected to power and his behavior is not kept in check in any way.  We need more women in power, not just for the reasons of equality but because having too many men in power brought us to where we are now, and things aren't looking so great.

Because seriously, is this really the stuff we should be concerned with, men, that our wives are more successful than us?  We've only got like 20 years left before half of our coastline is under water, and we're fretting over who in the couple makes more money?  Can we prioritize a bit, please, because if we don't start worrying about the right problems, it's game over for everyone.  Look, my wife makes more money than I do, but I don't care. I work in the independent film game, and she doesn't, so in a way it's to be expected.  I'd have to go into another line of work if I wanted to be the breadwinner - our jobs are equally as stressful, but it's possible that I enjoy mine more, I have more fun, so like anything else, it's a trade-off.  Maybe I don't really want to work that hard or struggle more to get ahead.  Maybe I just enjoy her picking up the check more often at restaurants, I don't have such an outdated fragile ego that I let that get to me.  Besides, anyone with a two-income family shouldn't stress over these things, when there are so many other couples with only one or even zero incomes.  Rich people and their problems, am I right?

I think I'm forced now to review my opinion of the film "Get Out", which I watched earlier this year.  Because this film came first, and now "Get Out" just seems like a rip-off of this concept, only with racism instead of sexism.

One last thought, this film cast Mike White as a contestant on a reality show, set on a tropical island - and he's on the season of "Survivor" that's airing right now, so a little bit of art imitating life?

Also starring Matthew Broderick (last seen in "You Can Count on Me"), Bette Midler (last seen in "20 Feet from Stardom"), Christopher Walken (last heard in "The Jungle Book"), Glenn Close (last seen in "Le Divorce"), Roger Bart (last seen in "Trumbo"), Faith Hill, Jon Lovitz (last seen in "Matilda"), Matt Malloy (last seen in "Loving"), David Marshall Grant (last seen in "The Devil Wears Prada"), Kate Shindle (last seen in "Capote"), Tom Riis Farrell, Lorri Bagley (last seen in "The Crew"), Robert Stanton (last seen in "Bob Roberts"), Mike White (last seen in "Orange County"), KaDee Strickland (last seen in "Something's Gotta Give"), Lisa Masters, Christopher Evan Welch (last seen in "The Hoax"), Colleen Dunn, Jason Kravits, Dylan Hartigan, Fallon Brooking, Carrie Preston, with cameos from Larry King (last seen in "Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars"), Meredith Vieira, Billy Bush (last heard in "Big Hero 6")

RATING: 3 out of 10 square dances (that should really be a NITPICK POINT, I don't think anyone has done a square dance anywhere in Connecticut in the last 100 years, at least...)

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Queen of the Desert

Year 10, Day 310 - 11/6/18 - Movie #3,089

BEFORE: Nicole Kidman carries over again, and I'm going from a film set on the ocean to a film set in the desert, the irony is not lost on me.  But there used to be that old song from America that had they lyrics "the desert is an ocean with its life underground", or something like that.  "A Horse With No Name", that's the song.  But there's a lot about that song that didn't make any sense, like, why couldn't the narrator just give the horse a name?  That seemed like a very fixable problem, he could have just called it "horse" and that would be fine, right?  Why wasn't that possible?  And why did the lyrics have to use a double negative like "There ain't no one for to give you no pain..."

Another line from that song is "It felt good to be out of the rain" and I find I must agree.  It rained a lot this morning, of course just during the time when I was walking to the polls to go and vote, so even with an umbrella I got pretty soaked.  But the upside was that fewer people chose to go out and vote while it was raining, so I didn't have to wait long to sign the form and cast my vote.  The whole thing took about 5 minutes.  But even if there's a record turnout and a long line, we should all get out and vote, because it's one of the few guaranteed freedoms we have left, and we don't want this one or any of the others to be taken away.  And if you're in a place where your vote is suppressed, please fight for your right.

With everything that's gone on in the last two years, it's come to feel like our democracy is edging toward a dictatorship, given all the party politics, executive orders, lies, fake claims of "fake news", not to mention gerrymandering and voter suppression.  When people now say, "Get out and vote", it feels like there's an implied follow-up of "Get out and vote...if you agree with my politics.  If not, please stay home."  And we can't let that happen, either through malice or our own inactivity.  I didn't vote in the 2016 election and I regretted it, but the good news is that they let me vote twice today to make up for it.

(I'm kidding, don't freak out or accuse me of voter fraud.)

THE PLOT: A chronicle of the life of Gertrude Bell, a traveler, writer, archaeologist, explorer, cartographer and political attaché for the British Empire at the dawn of the twentieth century.

AFTER: It could have been a nice tie-in that this film is about Middle East politics in the early 20th Century, that had the potential to be somewhat interesting.  But on the whole, I just found the political aspect of this film very confusing, much like Middle East politics today.  From what I was able to understand, the Ottoman Empire was crumbling for some reason (I'll have to look this up...) and the territory it once occupied was set to be divided between the U.K., Greece, France and Italy, with only a small section of the old empire to remain, and I presume that eventually this became the country of Turkey.

For that matter, her influence and advice led to the creation of the countries we now know as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Armenia.  But God, so many bad things have happened in these countries in the last 100 years that I honestly don't know if Gertrude Bell should be considered a hero or a villain. I mean, didn't people learn anything from the U.K.'s colonization of India, which worked for a while, but over time just became a terrible situation for that country's natives?  What gave these white European allies the right to dictate how things should work in another part of the world?  These countries were and are mostly desert, there's nothing there, except maybe oil, but how ego-centric do you have to be to look at another country's stuff and say, "Oh, yeah, we want that, so therefore it should be ours."  NO, you've got your stuff in your country, and they've got their stuff, so if you want their stuff too, you have to trade for it, that's how international business and politics works.

But I'm sorry, I don't really get the point of this film - so Gertrude Bell felt a little bit out of place in British society, because she'd gone to Oxford and got a history degree, but couldn't handle all the dumb suitors she encountered at social functions?  So her answer to that was to go to work in Tehran and then tour the Middle East?  Right, because they're SO much more enlightened about the role of women in society in Middle Eastern countries...  Isn't reality the exact opposite of that?  I mean, if she couldn't find her place as an educated woman in the U.K., why then spend time in countries where, even today, women are automatically treated as second-class citizens?  And this effect must have been even more pronounced in the former Ottoman Empire, predominantly Muslim countries.  So I really don't understand her lifestyle choice at all, at least the way it's presented in this film.

It might have made more sense if she were some kind of political operative and spy, but according to this film, she wasn't.  So by removing those reasons for traveling to Persia, learning Farsi, meeting various sheiks, and replacing them with essentially nothing but her whim to travel and see the world, I'm left with a giant plothole here, there's no WHY to explain what she did.  Why go to a dangerous part of the world, just to take a couple photos and cross the desert on a camel - just to say you did it?  I get the desire to travel, but this all seems a bit extreme, like it was a lot of work for a very small payoff.  And then to make her guides fill up her canvas bathtub with water, which is no doubt the single most important resource in a DESERT, just so she could wash her hair and rinse the sand off of her body every once in a while?  This does not portray her in the best light, because it makes her seem very spoiled and snooty.  God forbid if she didn't look picture-perfect as she was traveling through a sandstorm on a smelly camel.

The only motivation we get for her spending so much time in the desert, traveling from one sheikdom to the next, is the loss of her love, Henry, the man she fell for while they were working in the British Embassy in Tehran.  Her parents disapproved of this marriage (this was back when parents could do that) so he jumped off a cliff.  Or, another interpretation is that he committed suicide so he WOULDN'T have to marry her, I think that's just as valid.  Years later, she finally opens her heart again to a married military man, Richard Wylie, and he chooses to re-enlist and head into battle.  So I think I've spotted the pattern here, men just couldn't stand to be around her, and her lovers all took the coward's way out.  She's also shown sort of flirting with T.E. Lawrence (aka "Lawrence of Arabia") and look what happened to him...

All in all, this character reminds me of the guy who tried to launch himself into space a few months ago, in a homemade rocket, just to try to prove that the Earth is flat.  How do we know that Gertrude Bell's "good intentions" in visiting these sheikdoms didn't result in making the Middle East the messed-up region that it is today?  Like sailing, you can add MidEast politics to the list of things that I know very little about, and this film didn't really do anything to change that, in the end.

Also starring James Franco (last seen in "The Disaster Artist"), Damian Lewis (last seen in "Dreamcatcher"), Robert Pattinson (last seen in "Maps to the Stars"), Christopher Fulford (last seen in "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger"), Mark Lewis Jones (last seen in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"), Jenny Agutter (last seen in "Equus"), Holly Earl, Beth Goddard (last seen in "Edge of Tomorrow"), Michael Jenn (last seen in "Cinderella"), Assaad Bouab, Jay Abdo, David Calder (last seen in "Rush"), Nick Waring, Sam Kanater, Sophie Linfield, William Ellis, John Wark, Younes Bouab, Fehd Benchemsi, Anas Chrifi.

RATING: 4 out of 10 overloaded suitcases  (Really? Isn't this a stereotype about women when they travel that should go the way of the dinosaur?)