Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Holes

Year 10, Day 197 - 7/16/18 - Movie #2,993

BEFORE: Normally, this would be the week I'd be headed to San Diego for Comic-Con, staying up all night on Tuesday, leaving early AF on Wednesday morning, arriving at noon West Coast time, checking in to an AirBnB and then heading straight down to the convention center to set up a booth.  That's usually about 36 hours with no sleep, unless I grab a nap on the plane.  Then three hours of convention, a burger and a beer float, then collapse with exhaustion, repeating as necessary for the next five days.  But for the first time in a LONG time, I'm not doing that, I'm staying in NYC where it's hot and crowded, and well, very comic-con like, only with fewer celebrities and people in costumes.  If later on this week I feel like I'm missing out, I'll just go stand in a long line for lunch or something and get very aggravated.

I'd also be looking for a place in my chain to take a week's break, and now I don't have to do that.  (Oh, but it would have been perfect, leaving off after today's film and then starting the new subject matter when I got back...)  Sigourney Weaver carries over from "The Meyerowitz Stories", and she's going to help me kick off the Summer Rock Music Concert series tomorrow, if you can believe that.  I'm all set to "rock out with my doc out" - documentaries, that is.

I could have just gone straight into the docs after yesterday's film, but I decided to squeeze one more film in here, largely because it helps my numbering, but also because it's been really freakin' hot in NYC, and a film with a bunch of thirsty kids digging in a desert seems very appropriate.  The only potential problem here is that I've got another film with Shia LaBeouf in it, which now will be relegated to the unsinkable section at the bottom of my list.  It might have been better for linking purposes to keep those two films together, but then they would have been two unlinkable films together, so maybe that wouldn't have been much help.  It's tough to say - but maybe with enough time I can find a way to link to that other film, or eventually I may have to give up on linking entirely and just deal with what's left in some other order.


THE PLOT: A wrongfully convicted boy is sent to a brutal desert detention camp where he joins a crew digging holes for some mysterious reason.

AFTER: I've known about this film for a long time - it was released in 2003 - but never was curious enough to watch it and find out what exactly the kids were digging in the desert for.  I was OK with leaving that a mystery, and I'm glad now that I never read any reviews with spoilers, because then I'd be less inclined to watch it, and now I could go into it with a clear mind and a lot of unanswered questions.  It's based on a book for kids, I think, and usually that would be a bad sign for a movie (cough - Spiderwick Chronicles - cough) but the story here was very detailed and kept me interested.

And I got really worried whenever the story flashed back to something that seemed very tangential, like the story of the Western outlaw, "Kissin' Kate" Barlow, or the story set back in the old country about Elya Yelnats, Stanley's great-great-grandfather, how he got cursed by a fortune teller and then left for America.  These stories were so wild, it didn't seem at first like there was ANY WAY that they could have an impact on the present-day storyline.  But they did, it all came together in the end, and there was a point to everything, which is more than I can say for some other movies.

But let me back up just a bit, and put the non-extraneous side stories, umm, on the side.  Stanley Yelnats IV (yes, his first name is his last name spelled backwards, making him a human palindrome) is a regular kid who gets accused of stealing some valuable sneakers, when in fact they just fell on him as he was walking down the street.  He's sentenced to go to camp, which doesn't seem so bad, except it's not the kind of camp where you learn to paddle a canoe or sit around a bonfire singing and roasting marshmallows, it's a labor camp where kids are made to dig holes in the desert.  Hey, I just realized that a 2003 film about kids being taken from their parents and put in camps was about 15 years ahead of its time.  But these aren't immigrant kids, they're kids in trouble with the law who may need some discipline, and digging holes seems to be the method of delivery.  But is there some other reason why they're digging holes in the desert?

Well, it turns out there is.  But what they're looking for and why they're made to dig there is really the point of the story, and that's where the flashbacks (eventually) come in.  It turns out that the story of Stanley's ancestors (several of whom share his palindromic name) stretches back to the old country (they never say what country, but they filmed in Latvia) and that old curse, and then reaches the Old West, where Stanley Yelnats I apparently had an encounter with not only Kissing Kate, but also the ancestors of the mysterious warden.  It almost stretches believability to think that the descendants from these two families were one some kind of collision course of destiny, but hey, it's a story.

I didn't pick up on a couple of things right away, namely the significance of Stanley carrying Zero the way he did, and then when they went back to the camp, why they chose to dig in THAT hole again, over the others.  But my main NITPICK POINT concerns the gypsy seer back in the old country, who cursed Elya Yelnats because he forgot to come back and carry her up the mountain.  Why the heck did she want to be carried up the mountain in the first place?  Why was this so important to her?  It's a weird thing to have there and not explain.

Also starring Shia LaBeouf (last seen in "Bobby"), Jon Voight (last seen in "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them"), Tim Blake Nelson (last seen in "Kill the Messenger"), Henry Winkler (last seen in "Sandy Wexler"), Patricia Arquette (last seen in "Boyhood"), Siobhan Fallon Hogan (last seen in "Going in Style"), Dulé Hill (last seen in "Men of Honor"), Eartha Kitt, Khleo Thomas, Nathan Davis, Rick Fox (last seen in "Blue Chips"), Brenden Jefferson (last seen in "Crimson Tide"), Jake M. Smith, Byron Cotton, Miguel Castro, Max Kasch, Scott Plank, Shelley Malil, Damien Luvara, Sanya Mateyas, Ravil Isyanov, Ken Davitian, Noah Poletiek, Zane Holtz, Steve Koslowski, Roma Maffia, Michael Cavanaugh, Ray Baker, Eric Pierpoint, Nicole Pulliam, Allan Kolman, Louis Sachar.

RATING: 6 out of 10 cold showers

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Year 10, Day 196 - 7/15/18 - Movie #2,992

BEFORE: This is not just a link to get me closer to my Summer Rock Concert/Rockumentary chain, it's also the third film I'm watching this year directed by Noah Baumbach.  I could have linked here directly after "While We're Young", which shared two actors with this film, but that might have gotten me to the music docs a bit too soon - and, hey, look at how many films I squeezed in between that other Baumbach film and this one, that's another 17 films off the list! 

Elizabeth Marvel carries over from "Gifted". Back on Netflix for this one, I'll be spending a lot of time streaming stuff for the rest of the summer.

THE PLOT: An estranged family gathers together in New York for an event celebrating the artistic work of their father. 

AFTER: I've seen this thing quite a few times already this year - the smart or very talented father, who's also been a college professor, is dying and/or getting older, and his death or illness has an effect on his adult kids, and then all the family secrets come out.  Let's see, that describes "Proof", "Kodachrome", "Winter Passing", "One True Thing" - also "Beginners" and "Wish I Was Here", if I remember correctly.  Again, those were all watched THIS YEAR by me, so I suspect that screenwriters are running out of ideas for dramas, and are just repeating the same ideas over and over - or perhaps they all have daddy issues themselves.  Anyway, I'm about to get off of narrative films for the next month and a half, because I'm really in need of something different.

When I watched "The Squid and the Whale", another of Baumbach's films, I thought it felt very Wes Anderson-like, which I chalked up to the fact that the two men were co-writers on "The Life Aquatic" and "The Fantastic Mr. Fox", but now I think it's all just part of Baumbach's style, which seems to fall somewhere between Wes Anderson and Woody Allen.  On the whole, that's not a bad place to be.  This film reminds me somewhat of "The Royal Tenenbaums", because every character is neurotic and the family has a father who toggles between dotty and dictatorial.  And the complicated extended NYC family also reminds me a bit of "Hannah and Her Sisters", which is my favorite Woody Allen film, so putting that film together with something "Royal Tenenbaum"-like is almost right where I'd want a film to land. 

It takes a little while to unravel this complicated family, since there are three adult children - Danny, Jean and Matthew - and they keep calling each other half-brothers and half-sister.  Danny seems to be the oldest, followed by Jean and then Matthew's the more successful accountant in the family, while Danny's an ex-musician and Jean never really gets to say what she does for a living, some kind of facilitator but even the other family members don't understand her job.  Danny and Jean are Harold's children from his first wife, while Matthew's the son of his second wife, and Harold's now married to his third wife.  Perhaps this sort of thing is all too common in today's families, especially the famous ones, but it seems like a nightmare to keep everyone straight, even within the family.  And the family members here have cousins and in-laws that they've never met, largely because Matthew lives in L.A., where he does accounting for rock stars so they don't end up spending all of their money. 

(Unfortunately, I found it confusing that Ben Stiller plays the youngest sibling, because he SEEMS like the oldest, and in fact, the actor is the oldest of the three.  So it took me a while to realize his character was the youngest, because it seemed out of step with reality.)

I was joking the other day about how if everything went well at "Jurassic Park", then you wouldn't have much of a movie.  Similarly, if everyone in a family was well-adjusted, in stable relationships, and very easygoing about coming to terms with their parents' impending mortality and also their own, then you wouldn't have much of a family drama, either.  You'd probably wonder why the filmmaker chose to tell a story about them, since they have no neuroses at all and seem rather boring.  So that's why nobody in this movie seems to be able to hold down a relationship for very long, everyone's divorced, on their third spouse, or is probably due to get divorced very soon.  It's a somewhat negative view of relationships, but again, these are very disfunctional people. 

I approve of most of the points it sort of gets around to making, which are that all films made by people in film school pretty much suck, adults have a hard time dealing with their parents for more than a few days at a time (I know I sure do) and siblings tend to fight over what's best for their parents when it comes to medical and estate issues.  The ins and outs of the art museum world, I don't feel I know enough about that to comment on, but the family stuff seems to ring true.  Or true-ish, it's just taken pretty far to the extreme.

Also starring Adam Sandler (last seen in "Sandy Wexler"), Ben Stiller (last seen in "While We're Young"), Dustin Hoffman (last seen in "I Heart Huckabees"), Emma Thompson (last seen in "Bridget Jones's Baby"), Grace Van Patten, Candice Bergen (last seen in "Rules Don't Apply"), Rebecca Miller (last seen in "Proof"), Judd Hirsch (last seen in "Independence Day: Resurgence"), Adam Driver (also last seen in "While We're Young"), Sigourney Weaver (last seen in "A Monster Calls"), Michael Chernus (last seen in "The Dinner"), Gayle Rankin (last seen in "The Greatest Showman"), Danny Flaherty (last seen in "The Wolf of Wall Street"), Adam David Thompson (last seen in "A Walk Among the Tombstones"), Ronald Alexander Peet, Matthew Shear (also last seen in "While We're Young"), Sakina Jaffrey, Mandy Siegfried, Josh Hamilton, Justin Winley, with cameos from Jordan Carlos (last seen in "Sleeping With Other People"), Mickey Sumner (last seen in "American Made").

RATING: 6 out of 10 lunch reservations

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Gifted

Year 10, Day 195 - 7/14/18 - Movie #2,991

BEFORE: I've got just three days left before I start my Summer Rock Concert Series - or maybe it's the Summer Rockumentary series, with bonus concert footage, whichever.  So it's my last chance to get all my ducks in a row, double-check my links and make sure that I didn't leave anything out.  Up until now it's been sort of disappointing that there was one music documentary in my possession that I couldn't work into the chain - and it was "Whitney: Can I Be Me".  I was willing to table it, but then I saw that one of the cable channels is running a documentary about George Michael, and one of the people interviewed in that is Cissy Houston, and that made me think that I could work that doc about Whitney Houston into the mix.  It took some doing, but I was right.  Had to shuffle my David Bowie films down the line a bit, so they'll be appearing closer to the end of the chain, but it had to be done.

Then the only other problem was that there was a break in the chain, late in the line-up, even though people like Alice Cooper and Dee Snider have been interviewed countless times, for documentaries about themselves and others - but I just couldn't get the documentary about Quiet Riot to connect with the documentary about Black Sabbath.  Again, the solution is to add another film or two, perusing the cast lists on IMDB until I could spot a connection.  Unfortunately I was relying on a German documentary called "Cum On Feel the Noise" for my linking, but it's just not available on any channel or streaming service in America, so I had to find a replacement.  But I found another documentary about Ozzy Osbourne that connects to the one about Metallica, so I can now take the doc "Lemmy" and move it to make the connection between Quiet Riot and Black Sabbath.  Problem solved, only now the chain is 50 films long - but hey, that's a nice round number.  This rock music topic should keep me occupied for the rest of the summer now.

(There's a documentary about Queen that's airing too, but it doesn't connect to anything else, so it's out.  Sorry, Queen.  I'll wait for the biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody", which looks quite good, based on the preview.).

This all kicks off on Tuesday - but for now, Octavia Spencer carries over again from "The Shack" for another film about a really smart kid.


FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Book of Henry" (Movie #2,973)

THE PLOT: Frank, a single man raising his child prodigy niece Mary, is drawn into a custody battle with his mother.

AFTER: As I approach my 200th film of 2018, which will mark the year as 2/3 over, I realize how many things I'm going to have to total up at the end of the year.  Like the number of appearances by child actors (McKenna Grace making her third appearance today...) and also the number of fatalities - this has been a rough year on kids, in everything from "Rabbit Hole" to "The Shack".  Thankfully the genius little girl in this film fared better, it's just that her mother died (the circumstances of this, we find out midway through the film) and she's being raised by her uncle.

He apparently realizes that she has incredible intelligence and a knack for math, but he resists any suggestions of putting her in a special school.  And the reasons for this, we also learn later in the film.   The uncle himself is a former philosophy professor, but now works in freelance boat repair.  However, we're not sure if there was some kind of incident at the college (another plot point I've seen several times so far this year) or if boat repair just pays really well, or if perhaps this is just the sort of place where your philosophy degree lands you, sooner or later.

But everything in his life becomes grist for the mill once his mother comes back into his life, and wants to take Mary, her granddaughter, back to Boston.  Well, it is the home of Harvard and M.I.T., but eventually despite some very nice gifts, we realize she wants to raise the kid as a carbon copy of her own late daughter.  (Which circles me back around to the start of the week, this is a plot point from "Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom"...)

If there's a point to be made here, it seems to be something about how in confusing custody cases such as these, everyone claims to be doing what's best for the child in question - but how does anyone make that decision, is it based on income, closeness of relation, educational opportunities, living conditions, or what?  And how can anyone be sure that whoever wants custody isn't just doing what they think is best for themself, and not for the child at all?  And what constitutes a "normal" childhood, after all?  Isn't every child's experience different?

Speaking personally, I tested very well on math when I was in grade school, and some of my grade school teachers did give me extra work, or challenged me to complete my work faster than the other students.  When I hit 7th grade, I was put in an 8th grade math class - and during 8th grade, I was sent up to the high school each day to take Algebra II with the 10th graders.  But this caused problems because the junior high and the high school were on different class schedules, so I was always missing some 8th grade class to take advanced math.  And then by the time I'd reached 10th grade for real, I took Algebra II again, so things sort of balanced back out - and in 12th grade, I took calculus and did all the work, but honestly I have no idea what it was all about, or any memory of it now.

Something similar happened with computers, back when my parents were looking to keep me busy and mentally challenged during the summer, I took advanced summer courses at a college in Massachusetts - things like chess, logic, problem solving, and even radio broadcasting.  Computers were high-priority then, like learning the BASIC programming language was important.  (This would have been about 1981 or 1982.)  From there, some students went on to learn Fortran and Pascal, but I sort of hit the wall at the tender age of 13, and after a couple days of a computer course at M.I.T., I realized I was in over my head, and asked my parents if I could quit.  I think I made the right choice, because those languages never became important for anything, right?  A few years later, everything was all HTML and Java and I would have been wasting my time if I'd stayed on that track - or at least that's what I tell myself.

But what I learned was that in many ways, it's better to be a large fish in a small pond.  I knew I wasn't the smartest one in my high school, or the kid with the best grades, but I felt maybe I was in the top 10.  My school started a program called "Academic Distinction" when I was a freshman, and I found that if I took a couple courses on independent study, I could keep my music elective classes and still qualify for the program.  I did really well on the PSAT and other standardized tests, even got a little scholarship money out of that, but the best move I made was to take as many Advanced Placement courses as I could - the bonus was that if you took the A.P. test in one of those courses, it counted as your final exam, so by the middle of May in my junior and senior year, I could pretty much coast until June.  And then all of those A.P. credits counted when I got to college, so I could take fewer of the required math and science courses at NYU (I think I took just Intro to Psych and Astronomy, both of which interested me...) and then got to graduate a year early!

I think that if I had been placed in a more advanced school, I might have felt out of place, or worse, felt like I was in over my head.  Instead I chose to stay in the public high school and I waited for my chances to excel at things, like standardized tests.  I know they say you shouldn't hide your light under a bushel, or something like that, but there's another school of thought that says if you under-promise, once in a while you get a chance to over-deliver.  That's how I learned to live my life, anyway.

As for the movie, it's easy for me to pick someone to root for - whichever custodian is nicest to the girl's cat, and lets her keep him.  See, that was easy.  Next case...

Also starring Chris Evans (last seen in "Avengers: Infinity War"), McKenna Grace (last seen in "Ready Player One"), Lindsay Duncan (last seen in "Alice Through the Looking Glass"), Jenny Slate (last heard in "Despicable Me 3"), Glenn Plummer (last seen in "Frankie and Johnny"), John Finn (last seen in "The Human Stain"), Elizabeth Marvel (last seen in "Aloha"), Jon Sklaroff (last seen in "Masked and Anonymous"), Jona Xiao, Julie Ann Emery, Keir O'Donnell (last seen in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"), John M. Jackson, Joe Chrest (last seen in "On the Road"), Kelly Collins Lintz (last seen in "The Accountant").

RATING: 5 out of 10 dioramas

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Shack

Year 10, Day 194 - 7/13/18 - Movie #2,990

BEFORE:  Today is Friday the 13th, which has a reputation for being unlucky, or for some people it's a justification to watch or program slasher films.  Well, I save my horror films for October, so call me crazy, but the 13th is just another day - by my reckoning it should fall on a Friday about 1/7 of the time, and it's a big fuss over nothing.

It's also the final Manhattanhenge of 2018, that's one of two times each year where the setting sun aligns with the east-west numbered streets of Manhattan, so if you stand on a wide cross-street, like 14th or 42nd, and avoid getting run over, you can get a great view of the sun setting over New Jersey, right between the tall buildings of Manhattan.  I went out to see it four years ago, and caught some great pictures from Times Square, I think this time I'll try a different street, and move further east, which some people say creates a more dramatic effect.  I'll explain my reasons later for bringing these things up before watching THIS particular movie.

Now, I do own a copy of the book "The Shack", but it's been residing on the heater in my bedroom for several years - I must have started it at some point, realized it was a bunch of religious claptrap, and never picked it up again.  Watching the movie version tonight will at least save me some time, now I'll never need to finish reading it.

Octavia Spencer carries over from "Fruitvale Station".


FOLLOW-UP TO: "Collateral Beauty" (Movie #2,899)

THE PLOT: A grieving man receives a mysterious, personal invitation to meet with God at a place called "The Shack".

AFTER: It's a tough film to get through, if you're an agnostic/skeptic like I am.  I eased my way out of the Catholic religion in my late teens, occasionally went to a Presbyterian church when I was married the first time, but by my late twenties, I was out again.  The reason I brought up Friday the 13th and Manhattanhenge earlier is that they both represent perfectly natural phenomenons that people have attached some weird mystical meanings to, and the science-based explanations are more simple, yet less widespread.

If anything bad happens to you on Friday the 13th, you may of course draw a conclusion that this happened to you because of bad luck, bad mojo, whatever.  But if that SAME thing happened to you on Thursday the 12th, or Saturday the 14th, you wouldn't even try to make any connection, you'd just say, "Well, a bad thing happened," and that would be it.  Similarly with the sun setting at a particular angle with reference to Manhattan architecture, if someone discovered this thousands of years from now, after the Hunger Games/Apocalypse/Dinosaur take-over, they might try to attribute some meaning to the alignment.  But simple science tells us that because of the tilt in the Earth's axis, combined with the planet's revolution around the sun, the sun is going to set in a slightly different spot on the horizon each night, and then after the summer solstice, it's going to start edging back the other way.  So for two of those nights, it's going to set in a particular spot, and then line up.

The problem is, human culture placed certain meanings on things years ago, and even though we know more than humans from thousands of years ago, our culture and our language has not caught up.  We still say "the sun rises" and "the sun sets" when of course it does no such thing - the sun is staying in the same place, relative to our solar system, and the earth is turning, creating the illusion that the sun is moving across the sky, and then sinking below the horizon.  We don't FEEL the earth moving, but we can SEE the sun moving, so that's what we call it - but instead "the sun is setting" we should say "the earth is turning, moving me into shadow".

And that's how I feel about religion - people looking for answers to things they didn't quite understand made up stories to fill in the gaps, based on what they saw or experienced, and those stories are still with us, even though modern science can offer very little proof that they happened. Was Jesus alive, did he die on the cross, did he rise again?  Well, that's what the stories say, but there's not one bit of hard evidence for any of that.  The Bible is filled with great stories like that, but they were all written for the purposes of creating a society (and for some entertainment value) in order to convince people to behave a certain way.  Somebody obviously felt that the world would be a better place with less theft and murders in it, so they created an afterlife with a points-based reward system to shame people into not robbing and killing so much.

And then these modern novelists and screenwriters try to build on the mythologies that came before, only they're convinced they can do it better, they can mix it up and change it around and make it more appealing to today's audiences, but really, it's the height of arrogance to say, "This is the way that life and death works, I've just decided."  Well, what if I choose to believe otherwise, or perhaps think for myself?  Look, if you want to create a galaxy far, far away and tell me how the Force works, that's one thing, but you're messing with people's LIVES here.  How many people don't get out and live their best life because they're focused on the next life instead of this one?  And then what if THIS one turns out to be all you get?

This story is very cagey, though - the lead character, Mack, slips on the ice early on and hits his head. So, then everything he experiences at the Shack could be in his own imagination, obviously.  And so therefore his subconscious is telling him what he needs to hear, in order to heal - that God forgives everyone, even the bad people, and he should too.  I like the codicil, however, that he can still stay MAD at the person who took his daughter from him, but he has to learn to forgive him.  That's a very fine legal distinction, but perhaps it is an important part of the grieving process.  Even if he could take God out of the equation, which I don't think he's capable of doing, that idea could still have some merit.  But it's buried under SO much religious B.S.

We're supposed to believe after the "Wisdom" character posits her points - like "How do you decide which one of your kids goes to heaven, and which one goes to hell?" (This is like a religious version of that party game, the one that asks you if you'd rather fight a duck the size of a horse, or a hundred horses the size of a duck...). Sure, God's got a tough row to hoe - but wait, I thought God was all powerful, so this contradicts that.  Why can't God determine some kind of eternal punishment-based system that is also easy for him to manage?  Why does it need to be difficult for him/her?

The answer, of course, to that question - and other ones like "Why does God allow there to BE bad people?" is that they all presume the existence of God in the first place.  When you take that part out, you're left with "Why are there bad people?" which is a much easier question to answer - they benefit from the things they do, or they were damaged somehow and this is their way of dealing with it, or they never learned to be good.  See?  Easy-peasy.

But hey, keep on believing that God lives in a shack with his/her other two personas, and they make dinners and weed gardens and do other things that are probably all metaphors and lessons, in that preachy God way.  (And it keeps bouncing between winter and spring, because heaven has no respect for continuity whatsoever.)  God can't even make you a salad, apparently, without driving home some point about sin or how much she loves you.  Especially you, God needs your love and faith so much that she can't even see that if she loves EVERYONE in a special way, then that's not really special, is it? It's like when Alex Trebek wishes "Good luck" to all three contestants at the start of Jeopardy! -  it negates itself and therefore becomes meaningless.

NITPICK POINT: Mack takes the fact that there are no footprints in the snow around the mailbox as "proof" that the letter came from God.  What a crock.  First of all, it contradicts that parable about walking on the beach with Jesus (because even the Lord leaves footprints, duh) and it couldn't possibly be that someone put the letter in the mailbox, walked away, and THEN it started to snow, could it?  Or that after they walked away it snowed very hard, and that new snow covered up their prints?  Give me a freakin' break.

Also starring Sam Worthington (last seen in "Hacksaw Ridge"), Radha Mitchell (last seen in "Olympus Has Fallen"), Tim McGraw (last seen in "Tomorrowland"), Graham Greene (last seen in "Maverick"), Avraham Aviv Alush, Sumire Matsubara, Alice Braga (last seen in "On the Road"), Megan Charpentier, Gage Munroe (last seen in "Immortals"), Amélie Eve, Ryan Robbins (last seen in "Warcraft"), Jordyn Ashley Olson, Derek Hamilton, Tanya Hubbard, Carson Reaume, Lane Edwards, Kendall Cross, Chris Britton, Jay Brazeau, Ty Olsson

RATING: 3 out of 10 life-jackets

Friday, July 13, 2018

Fruitvale Station

Year 10, Day 193 - 7/12/18 - Movie #2,989

BEFORE: Michael B. Jordan carries over from "Fahrenheit 451", to a film from the director of "Black Panther" that I've heard good things about, but still managed to learn nearly nothing about.  I'll watch just about anything right now that gets me one step closer to the Summer Rock Concert, even if it costs me $2.99 to watch this On Demand.


THE PLOT: The story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family and strangers on the last day of 2008.

AFTER: This is another of those based-on-a-true event type movies, though again, I was unfamiliar with the story of Oscar Grant and what happened to him, and in my mind, the film slipped up by showing us the incident in question right away, then flashing back to show us how things came to that point.  Which of course is very trendy these days, "Atomic Blonde" did basically the same thing, showing us the end (or an important moment near the end) and then proceeding with the flashbacks.  And you know I hate this sort of structure - at one point in "Fruitvale Station" Oscar flashes back to the previous year, when he was in prison, but that's a flashback WITHIN a flashback.  That shouldn't be allowed, not ever, because people don't live like that, all jumping around in time.  Start at the beginning, end at the end, I always say.

Other than that flashback, which really should be ignored and discounted, because it doesn't really add anything to the story that couldn't have been stated with a line or two of dialogue, the film shows a day in the life of Oscar Grant, and good things happen during the day, and bad things happen during that day, and it's all very normal and mundane, umm, until it isn't.  That may seem frustrating, but it's the point of the film (and I think the only point, unfortunately, because the film doesn't seem able to dive too deeply into the causes of the incident, or the backgrounds of the others involved). 

Look, I'm not going to get into the debate over Black Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter, or even All Lives Matter, because I don't really have a dog in that fight, and I don't think those statements should be contradictory or exclusionary, but that's the way that everyone seems to use them.  This film won a bunch of prizes at Cannes and Sundance and such, but it's just not in my wheelhouse.  I didn't even pick up on who the guy on the train was, and how he knew Oscar from before.  I guess I should have paid more attention?

This was supposed to be a week of sci-fi and fantasy films and this one doesn't fit in with that topic at all, so I'm just going to use it for the link I need and move on.

Also starring Octavia Spencer (last seen in "Hidden Figures"), Melonie Diaz (last seen in "Hamlet 2"), Ahna O'Reilly (last seen in "CBGB"), Kevin Durand (last seen in "Hard Time: Hostage Hotel"), Chad Michael Murray, Ariana Neal (also last seen in "Hidden Figures"), Caroline Lesley, Jonez Cain, Trestin George, Marjorie Crump-Shears.

RATING: 5 out of 10 crab legs

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Fahrenheit 451 (2018)

Year 10, Day 192 - 7/11/18 - Movie #2,988

BEFORE: I'm less than a week away from kicking off the Summer Rock Concert series, perhaps the longest chain I've ever put together on one topic.  But this will help clear away a lot of the films on my Netflix list, even if it doesn't directly reduce the numbers on my watchlist.  I've only got about 13 of the films on physical media, less than a third, but hey, I'm trying to move toward more streaming and on-demand use anyway, so this helps push me in that direction.  I shouldn't have to wait for a film to hit premium cable in order to view it, not when I have so many other options available to me, including Academy screeners (when they choose to work, that is).

Sofia Boutella carries over from "Atomic Blonde", and the question is, can I link from here to the Beatles in under a week?  You know that I can...


THE PLOT: In a terrifying future, Guy Montag, whose job as a fireman is to burn all books, questions his actions after meeting a young woman and begins to rebel against society.

AFTER: Of course, I've seen the 1966 film version of this story, which was directed by Francois Truffaut - his only English-language film, apparently.  And anything made in 1966 would probably seem dated - though that film from over 50 years ago seems to have predicted the popularity of reality TV and its impact on viewers choosing to live vicariously through its cast members.  Bradbury might have been ahead of his time, but there's no question that as a movie, this story may have been in need of an update.  These dystopian future films usually portray a time that logically results from current events, but seem sort of JUST out of our current reach.  Anyway, at the time the book was written, people thought that TV was a huge threat to books and education, so that's the germ of an idea that was then extrapolated out to the extreme - naturally a writer would be in favor of preserving the written word from such external mind-killing menaces.

That being said, I'm not sure this film, which made substantial changes to the original story, went about things the right way.  For starters, there are a lot of references to a sort of internet, which of course was not around when either the novel or the 1966 movie was made.  Here the web is called "The Nine" and contains only three books - the Bible, "Moby Dick" and "To the Lighthouse", only they're all in some kind of emoji form.  Makes sense, people in the future would naturally get lazier and lazier, and the need for pictographs over words would mean that people wouldn't have to work as hard.  And beyond those three books, what more would people need?

Ah, but there's the "Dark Nine", part of the internet that's used for uploading and downloading all the classic books, so people can read them before the firemen burn them.  Yes, this is still a future where firemen don't put out fires, but instead they start them, to burn all the books.  OK, so what do they call the people who put out the fires after the firemen start them?  Fire-stoppers?  Anti-firemen?  This is all a little unclear.

The second problem, after changing the story to reflect internet technology, comes in reminding the younger viewers what a "book" is.  Yeah, good luck with that.  But I guess you have to do that before pointing out why burning them is bad, and what that represents.  Even then, one of today's teens would probably think, "What's the big deal if somebody burns that book, I could just download another copy to my e-reader or find it posted on the web somewhere - or better yet, I could just watch the movie version and save myself some time."  Ah, so now the firemen have to burn not only books, but also VHS tapes, DVDs and computer servers too.  OK, the story's getting a little weaker by this point, but it's still workable.

They kept the part where a bunch of renegade people decide to preserve books by each memorizing one, and then they identify themselves by the book they've chosen.  One person becomes the living embodiment of "The Grapes of Wrath", another learns to recite "David Copperfield" from cover to cover, and eventually former fireman Guy Montag chooses to commit Edgar Allan Poe's "Tales of Mystery and Imagination" to memory to preserve it, and I've got to think that if I had to memorize a book, that's probably the one I'd choose.  But just how reliable is each person's memory?  Couldn't the story change slightly with every telling, if the person memorizing it wasn't 100% accurate?  This always bothered me just a tiny bit.

This remake also throws in a few jabs at overly P.C. culture, as fire Captain Beatty explains that certain books were removed from the libraries because they were sexist books written by men, or racist books written by white people - "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is often found on lists of banned books because it uses the "N" word, but anyone familiar with the context in the story would realize that Jim the slave character is portrayed as a regular human, not as property, that the book is really anti-racist in its overall message, so banning it is really like throwing the baby out with the bath-water.  With that in mind, I can kind of see where they were going with this idea, but it just doesn't work - we've seen over the years that the banning and burning of books usually comes from conservative sources, liberals are more likely to be free-thinkers and protectors of free speech, therefore much less likely to ban books.  Unless Captain Beatty is lying here, and trying to cover up the real reason that books were banned, which is possible, however the use of the P.C. dodge is therefore quite misguided.

The final plot point concerns something called OMNIS, which is some kind of storage system that takes advantage of the limitless capacity of DNA, umm, or something, but this is never fully explained either, so the science seems clunky at best.  And where the DNA is stored, and where it ends up just seems like an unanswered question or a dangling plot point, so I'm not sure why someone took the story in this direction in the first place.

At one point we see that there is a burning book authored by Ray Bradbury, which means that in the fictional universe the Bradbury created, there is also an author named Ray Bradbury, but then it becomes unclear if that fictional version ever wrote a book called "Fahrenheit 451", or if that would be too meta.  I met the real Bradbury one time, at the Sundance Film Festival of all places, back in 1998.  Someone had filmed a version of his short story "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit", and cast a number of Latino actors in it, like Esai Morales, Edward James Olmos and Liz Torres (along with Joe Mantegna and Sid Caesar) and Bradbury attended the premiere screening.  I somehow found the nerve to talk to him and get his autograph, and this was VERY early in my autograph-seeking career.

Speaking of multi-cultural casting, changing Guy Montag to an African-American character seems like an interesting move at first, but then they don't really do anything with it.  Based on the argument I made last night about a lesbian spy, it's still an important move to make, but I just think it should mean something when it's done.  But the opposite holds true for the flashbacks that Montag has here about his father - they go nowhere, and prove nothing, so why include them?

See this for Michael Shannon's performance, he smolders (as usual) while the books burn, but there's not much else going on here, except for visual nods to "Blade Runner", and if you want those, why not just watch "Blade Runner"?  Now, if the film had chosen to make a more coherent argument by depicting a society where everyone's always staring at their phones and playing "Candy Crush" instead of reading books, it might have come closer to making a more relevant point.

Also starring Michael B. Jordan (last seen in "Black Panther"), Michael Shannon (last seen in "Nocturnal Animals"), Lilly Singh (last heard in "Ice Age: Collision Course"), Martin Donovan (last seen in "Ant-Man"), Andy McQueen, Khandi Alexander (last seen in "Patriots Day"), Dylan Taylor, Saad Siddiqui, Grace Lynn Kung, Keir Dullea (last seen in "The Good Shepherd"), Raoul Bhaneja, Lynne Griffin, Joe Pingue (last seen in "Owning Mahowny"), Ted Dykstra, Jane Moffat (last seen in "Superstar"), Sean Jones, Ted Whittle (last seen in "Suicide Squad"), Aaron Davis, Warren Belle and the voice of Cindy Katz.

RATING: 4 out of 10 protesting eels

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Atomic Blonde

Year 10, Day 191 - 7/10/18 - Movie #2,987

BEFORE: Well, that was an action-packed film yesterday, with lots of dinosaur-based thrills.  Let's keep the action rolling with a spy film from last year.  Toby Jones carries over from "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom".


THE PLOT: An undercover MI6 agent is sent to Berlin during the Cold War to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a list of double agents.

AFTER:  Well, this one really got away from me, with all of its twists and turns and double-crosses.  I had to read the Wiki plot summary to find out what really happened, underneath all the changes.  Maybe you'll have better luck than I did following it.

Here's what I know - a very sexy British agent named Lorraine (which seems like a contradiction of sorts, that's not a very sexy name at all...) is sent to Berlin, just days before the end of the Cold War, to get her hands on a very special list (secret code name: "The list", where do they come up with these names?) that has the identities of agents on both sides.  So I get that, everybody wants this list, and it exists in two forms, one is a guy who memorized it.

So everybody wants either the list or this guy, but the guy just wants to get himself and his family across the Berlin Wall, from the East side to the West side.  Which was no easy task back in those days, when East Berlin was controlled by the Soviets.  And it's bitter irony to see so many agents going to such trouble to either get this guy across the border (or prevent that) when all they had to do was WAIT THREE MORE DAYS for the wall to come down.  Come on, didn't they have any clue that this was going to happen?  Seems like an awful lot of fuss and bother for no good reason, or is that just me? 

Sure, there's action a-plenty, and a big sequence in the middle where Charlize Theron's character takes out like 10 or 12 guys, one by one, with guns and knives and judo and such.  But what does it all add up to in the end?  And way too much time-jumping, as we toggle between the things happening, and the debriefing taking place 10 days later where everyone's talking about the EXACT SAME THINGS that we just saw happening.  Was this framing device really necessary, it added nothing to the story, and in most cases, didn't even explain what was happening any better, it was just more talky-talky that slowed down the action.

Look, this is why I hate time-jumping so much - the film opens in Berlin, with an agent getting killed, then flashes to "Ten Days Later" where people are talking about the agent getting killed, and we see the agent who was sent to investigate, she's giving her side of the story.  So then we flash BACK to one day after the agent was killed - but we were JUST THERE, we could have continued forward narratively from that point, there was no need to flash ten days into the future just to return to the past a minute later.  All this did was make the film even more confusing than it was before, and it was already pretty confusing. 

OK, so she's a lesbian, or at least swings both ways.  Big deal, which is to say, OK, great, but we should probably be at a point in our understanding of other humans where this should NOT be a big deal.  Right?  What does it say about me that I was more excited by all the 80's songs in this film than the sex scenes?

And hey, James McAvoy is still having a great year, this makes eight appearances for him so far in 2018, and there are still a lot of chances for more, though nothing else with him is on the docket.  But we'll be seeing him mentioned for sure in the year-end countdown - it probably didn't hurt that he was in (essentially) the same film three times over, and I watched all three of those.

Also starring Charlize Theron (last seen in "North Country"), James McAvoy (last seen in "Deadpool 2"), John Goodman (last seen in "Trumbo"), Til Schweiger (last seen in "Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life"), Eddie Marsan (also last seen in "Deadpool 2"), Bill Skarsgard (ditto), Sofia Boutella (last seen in "Star Trek: Beyond"), James Faulkner (last seen in "Bridget Jones's Baby"), Sam Hargrave, Roland Moller, Johannes Haukur Johannesson, Daniel Bernhardt, Barbara Sukowa (last seen in "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing"), with archive footage of Kurt Loder, Ronald Reagan.

RATING: 4 out of 10 tiny bottles of Stoli