Saturday, April 21, 2018

Owning Mahowny

Year 10, Day 111 - 4/21/18 - Movie #2,913

BEFORE: The second in this little trilogy of movies with losers played by Philip Seymour Hoffman centers on gambling, and after today I'm going out of town to a casino in Connecticut, so the timing is perfect.  I'll still watch movies (tomorrow's film is also available on Netflix, I can watch on my phone), but I probably won't be able to post until I get back on Tuesday, so I'll just have to catch up then.

We've been going to Atlantic City two or three times a year for the last three years, it's a nice, quick little break when we've gone too long without a vacation.  We've come to feel really comfortable in A.C., we've eaten at all of the buffets and most of the steakhouses, done most of the fun things to do in that town, won a little money here and there on the slots but nothing huge to speak of.  Usually whatever winnings we get go right back to the buffets and restaurants anyway.

We also usually stop at Foxwoods in Connecticut on Christmas Eve, it's a nice break from the drive up to see my parents, we play the slots for an hour or so, plus they have a nice buffet there, too.  We did that for years without telling my family why the trip up in December always took longer than the drive back to New York - eventually we let the cat out of the bag because we were tired of always telling them every year that we encountered terrible traffic right around the casino part of the state.

But hey, sometimes you have to shake things up, and since we were just in A.C. two months ago, a 48-hour trip to a casino in Connecticut sounds like just the thing.  But we're bolstered by the news that the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City is going to re-open as the new Hard Rock Casino, and the shuttered Revel Casino is also going to re-open under another name.  So the next time we go back there, we may have some new places to visit.

THE PLOT: A bank manager with a gambling problem and access to a multi-million dollar account gets into a messy situation.  Based on the story of the largest one-man bank fraud in Canadian history.

AFTER: This is based on a true story, that of Brian Molony, who embezzled over $10 million (U.S. or Canadian?) in 18 months to support his gambling addiction.  Although I don't quite understand all of the financial shenanigans that are depicted here, it seems that in some way the casinos were not just taking advantage of his gambling habits, they were somehow working with him to get more money sent from his bank to their house accounts, sort of in collusion to get more cash.  The real-life bank sued the casinos to get their money back, and the case was settled, so it sounds like they were partially successful.

But it serves as a great portrayal of addiction, and since I don't have access to million-dollar funds, I can only speak about my experiences gambling, which of course are minor by comparison.  I don't watch the high-rollers either, but I can extrapolate.  The problem with gambling is that people come to believe that the more time they spend doing it, the greater their chances of winning money, and this is just false.  The more time you spend gambling, the more money you're going to lose, or the greater chance that you'll burn through whatever you walked in with.  The hardest thing is stopping after a win, either a small win or a big win - because if you win once, it's easier to believe that you'll win again.  And if you win small, it's easy to believe that you'll win bigger, if you just keep playing.

Casino games, however, are structured so that the odds are in the casino's favor, so eventually, they'll get whatever money's being played - unless the player can find the strength to walk away after a win. This is very difficult for certain types of people, and Dan Mahowny here is one of those.  Here he keeps coming back to the casino with more money, because he needs bigger and bigger theoretical wins to get him out of the financial hole he's dug for himself.  Over time this leads to greater risks, larger wins, and bigger thrills, but ultimately larger losses too.  The casino owner even remarks that it seems like Mahowny is trying to win more and more money just so he can then lose it all.  He's stuck on a treadmill because he can't walk away, even when he's busted the table.

I'll play a slot machine with a $20 bill, and if I find myself with a sum greater than $20 on that machine, even if it's after the first spin or even if it's 50 cents over $20, I'll cash out.  Then I'll put that ticket in my wallet and move on to another machine, and start with a fresh $20 bill.  Same rule, if I'm ever up over where I started, cash out.  It's a system that sometimes allows me to turn a profit at a casino, or if I'm not successful overall, at least it minimizes my losses.  On the last trip to Atlantic City, I was up about $37 after playing the slots for a few hours, but this was on the first day.  Naturally I lost money on the second day, but what was I supposed to do, stop gambling a few hours after hitting town?  (The answer is yes, if I was only there to make money, but this would have minimized the fun for the rest of the trip.).

I've never seen the side of Atlantic City, or Vegas for that matter, that tends to show up in movies - with the giant rooms, the casino managers who will "comp" your suite and your meals.  It seems like fiction to me - heck, I'm happy if I fill up at a buffet, that alone makes me feel like I've put one over on the casino, if I paid $25 for a meal and ate maybe $50 worth of food.  Also, since we started doing this Sunday-through-Tuesday thing, we've probably saved a fair amount of money on Groupon deals. One of the casinos in A.C. is sending me offers for a free night, which drives my wife crazy because they don't send this deal to her.  I'm guessing it's probably because someone has my name and info after buying drinks at this casino, but they don't have any record of me staying there, since our room is always in my wife's name.  So they're desperate to have me come back and stay at their hotel, and maybe next time I should book the room there, if they offer me a free night again.  (Just don't tell them that I'm already a frequent guest.).

I don't do any sports betting, that just seems really risky to me.  The movies have always managed to make that look very dangerous, like dealing with a bookie who will then have his goons break a few of your bones if you don't cover your losses.  It just seems too easy to start betting with money that you don't have, and then where will you be when you lose?  At least when I go to the casinos, I'm aware that I'm probably going to lose whatever money I'm walking in with, and therefore I shouldn't bring any amount that I can't afford to part with.

Also starring Minnie Driver (last seen in "Ella Enchanted"), Maury Chaykin (last seen in "Where the Truth Lies"), John Hurt (last seen in "Jackie"), Sonja Smits, Ian Tracey (last seen in "Stakeout"), Jason Blicker (last seen in "The Walk"), Chris Collins, Matthew Ferguson, Janine Theriault, Conrad Dunn, Philip Craig, Vincent Corazza, Eric Fink, Judah Katz, Russell Yuen, Joe Pingue (last seen in "Drive"), with a cameo from Sandra Oh (last seen in "Rabbit Hole").

RATING: 5 out of 10 orders of ribs

Friday, April 20, 2018

Love Liza

Year 10, Day 110 - 4/20/18 - Movie #2,912

BEFORE: Kathy Bates carries over from "Dolores Claiborne", and it seems like maybe I accidentally programmed a film perfect for April 20 - or close, anyway, since I have no interest in watching "Half Baked" or "How High".  Still, there are plenty of "stoner" films out there, and maybe I should have found my way to one of them, but it's not really a holiday that I tend to celebrate.  Or I could have gone the other way and watched "Downfall", since it's also Hitler's birthday.  Maybe next year. 

THE PLOT: Following the unexplained suicide of his wife, a web designer turns to gasoline and remote-control airplanes while avoiding an inevitable conflict with his mother-in-law.

AFTER: Well, this is a downer of a movie.  And I'm going to follow it up with two similarly depressing films that also star Philip Seymour Hoffman, so it should be anything but a fun weekend.  Why did he always gravitate toward these roles where he played a doughy loser?  I guess he found his acting niche and rode that horse about as far as he could.  I think he established this persona in "Boogie Nights" and just kept coming back to it, or maybe those were the only roles that he was offered for a long while? 

Anyway, there's not much of interest here - the plot is basically "guy huffs gas" which is followed by "guy huffs more gas" and "guy finds a new way to huff gas".  The only other thing that happens, or rather, mostly doesn't happen, is that he spends his time NOT opening the letter that his late wife left for him.  This goes on to the point where the audience may realize that opening the note is basically the only plot point, so as soon as it happens, the movie might as well be over, so this event is therefore delayed as long as possible. 

The gas addiction, of course, gets in the way of the other activities in his life - but watching someone get high and pass out does not tend to make for an interesting movie.  It's the technical definition of the absence of activity, after all.  I guess you can make a case for some scenes that take place within the community of people who race RC planes and boats, but I think the main character only gets into that scene as a cover story, like "this is why I need the gasoline".  Still, it's good to have a hobby and a purpose in life, but then if the hobby turns counter-productive, there comes a time when one needs to get a better hobby. 

Besides, we're told near the start of the film that RC planes definitely do NOT use the same fuel that we put in our cars.  So why would he go to the gas station, late in the film, and try to use this as a cover story?  We all know that this excuse won't work, so why does he try to use it?  Now I've gotta call a NITPICK POINT on this. 

Secondly, there's a female co-worker who's got a crush on him, and it's quite obvious that not enough time has passed following his wife's death, because when she tells him she's attracted to him, he runs away as fast as he can.  Literally.  But this scene is unlikely in the first place, because we all know that women don't just throw themselves at you when you're fresh out of a relationship.  Irony dictates that as soon as you get remarried or enter a new committed relationship, THAT'S when all the women tell you about their feelings for you.  Am I right?  Get it straight, Hollywood. 

At least it's not as flashback-y as last night's film, and it does sort of seem on theme - dead husband last night, dead wife tonight - but about the best thing I can say about it is that it keeps my chain going and gets me to this 3-film P.S. Hoffman section, and I can move on from there.

Also starring Philip Seymour Hoffman (last seen in "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2"), Stephen Tobolowsky (last heard in "Mr. Peabody & Sherman"), Sarah Koskoff (last seen in "The Clearing"), Jack Kehler (last seen in "Lost Highway"), Wayne Duvall, Jimmy Raskin, J. D. Walsh, Erika Alexander (last seen in "Get Out"), Cullen Douglas, Daniel Farber, Kelli Garner, Kevin Breznahan, Joanne Pankow (last seen in "Junebug"), Chris Ellis, Jim Wise.

RATING: 3 out of 10 pancakes

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Dolores Claiborne

Year 10, Day 109 - 4/19/18 - Movie #2,911

BEFORE: One of the toughest things about putting my linking chain together is showing some restraint, trying to predict when to NOT include every film I have with a particular actor or actress in it. Back in like Year 4 or 5, if I knew someone like David Strathairn was in three films on my list, I'd automatically throw all three of them together.  But I've learned that sometimes it's best to watch only two out of the three, say, because that can keep my linking options open for later.  He also appears in this film called "Hemingway & Gellhorn" which is on HBO on Demand, but if I save that for a Nicole Kidman chain later on, let's say, then I'll have more ways to link out of that section.  Similarly, I could follow today's film with "The Blind Side", which also has Kathy Bates in it, but it's not football season, so that would seem out of place.  Plus, I may need to connect to "Bad Santa 2" when Christmas rolls around, so it's better to give myself a possible way to do that.

Anyway, I've got my eye on Mother's Day, and right now it looks like I can still hit it on the nose, more or less, so adding another film to my plan would throw that off.  I think I've already added one too many films with Samuel L. Jackson to the May line-up, but there's also a film with Margo Martindale that's no longer available on Netflix, so I think I can drop that one and nearly make up for it.  It's a delicate balance, and this is why I can never consider next month's line-up to be certain, there has to be some flexibility that allows me to add two or drop one as needed.

Anyway, David Strathairn carries over from "The Spiderwick Chronicles", and "Hemingway & Gellhorn" and "The Blind Side" are tabled for now, with an option for future consideration.

THE PLOT: A big-city reporter travels to the small Maine town where her mother has been arrested for the murder of an elderly woman that she worked for as a maid.

AFTER: A great reason why this film got included, and not left out like that other film, is that I've heard good things about this film over the years, and always wondered about it.  I think I may have passed on watching it several times, because I didn't know THAT MUCH about it, and I didn't have anything to pair with it on a DVD.  But a few months ago I had three films with Philip Seymour Hoffman coming on to the list, and usually two films fit on a DVD.  Rather than cram them all on to one disc at the 6-hour speed, I looked for another film to pair with one of them - one also had Kathy Bates in it, as you'll see tomorrow, so it made sense to pair that film up with this one, and not sacrifice anything.

Plus, I'm kind of on point putting this one here, coming out of a "Half-Halloween" theme, this one's about a murder case AND is based on a story by Stephen King.  I've now worked my way systematically through 22 films based on the stories of Stephen King, all that I really have left is "Salem's Lot", "Children of the Corn", "The Dark Tower" and that remake of "It".  Maybe there are still a few stragglers beyond that, like "The Mist" and "1922" but I'm not going to worry too much about it, I mean, Jeez, the guy's got like 260 writing credits on IMDB.

There's a lot to admire about the way that "Dolores Claiborne" unfolds, even though it relies heavily on flashbacks - but it's a great example of the way that flashbacks SHOULD play out, in this time where they are so often heavily abused in unnecessary fashion.  Too many directors use this technique just so they can start their movie at the absolute most exciting, intriguing moment, and then snap back to show the audience how we got there, which also has the benefit of allowing them to pace the movie however they want, and skip over the boring parts.  It's a very seductive trap, because it seems to so easily cover over any story problems, like a belt sander on a rough floor.  But the end result is often confusing, and puts the burden of assembling the story squarely on the viewer, who may not possess the wherewithal, or the desire, to piece everything together.

"Dolores Claiborne" at first seemed like it would play out this way, because it starts with the momentous event where her employer appears to be thrown down a set of stairs, and then Dolores runs to the kitchen, ostensibly to look for some kind of weapon that will finish her off, settling on a heavy rolling pin.  The postman rather inconveniently walks into the house (because this is a small Maine town, after all) and witnesses this scene, with Dolores full of murderous intent, which then leads to her arrest, and then later her daughter's arrival from New York to investigate - of course her daughter is a reporter, someone with the wherewithal, and the desire, to piece everything together.

Then the flashbacks start rolling in, and they're handled in a unique way, things don't get all fuzzy or suddenly cut to an obviously older scene with a subtitle like "20 Years Ago".  Instead, a character from the past will walk into the present-day scene, and then the scene will gradually shift to the past.  We briefly see the present-day character awestruck as they're witnessing the past, and in one flashback later in the film, walking through the past scene, in the style of Ebenezer Scrooge from "A Christmas Carol" walking through his own past or future as an unseen observer.  You don't see this much any more in the language of film, because directors have mostly all shifted over to the cut-and-paste school of scene-building, this is a reminder that things used to be much fuzzier where flashbacks are concerned.

And this is key, each flashback arrives at the optimal time to gradually reveal the background information we need to cast new light on the present-day storyline.  Ultimately we want to know if Dolores killed her employer, but first there are a number of other questions that need to be addressed. Did she kill her husband, 20 years prior, as the whole town believes?  Was she a victim of domestic abuse?  What happened between her husband and her daughter?  There are multiple layers of dysfunction that need to be stripped away before we can get any clear answers.

One of the key flashbacks depicts a total solar eclipse taking place in Maine, and I bet you can tell what's coming here, it's a huge NITPICK POINT that people gather to view the eclipse without the proper protective eyewear.  Since it coincides with such a major turning point in her life, Dolores herself stares right into an eclipse and suffers no ill effects.  (But then again, so did our President last year, so make of that what you will.)  However, in the case where someone is in the path of totality, where the sun completely covers the moon, it seems to be (relatively) OK to look at an eclipse, briefly anyway.  BUT, this is when the sun's corona is visible, and that's dangerous to look at, too.  I thought it might be another NP that Dolores mentions that this particular eclipse lasted for over six minutes and "set a record", because I just assumed that every eclipse solar would last for the same amount of time, but it turns out that the times vary, and may last as long as 7 1/2 minutes.  Who knew?

Also starring Kathy Bates (last seen in "Around the World in 80 Days"), Jennifer Jason Leigh (last heard in "Anomalisa"), Christopher Plummer (last seen in "Beginners"), John C. Reilly (last seen in "Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie"), Eric Bogosian (last seen in "Wonderland"), Judy Parfitt (last seen in "Ever After"), Bob Gunton (last seen in "Rendition"), Roy Cooper (last seen in "The Exorcist"), Wayne Robson (last seen in "McCabe & Mrs. Miller"), Ruth Marshall, Ellen Muth, Weldon Allen, Tom Gallant.

RATING: 6 out of 10 bedpans

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Spiderwick Chronicles

Year 10, Day 108 - 4/18/18 - Movie #2,910

BEFORE: Freddie Highmore carries over from "A Good Year", for what looks like a kid-friendly fantasy film.  But then, I never know these days what exactly I'm in for.  I've had my share of horror films already this April, it seems like the linking has forced me to celebrate "Half-Halloween", which is kind of like when people celebrate their half-birthdays at the six-month point.  We're about as far away from Halloween right now as we can get - but I doubt that "Tusk" or "Get Out" or this film would link up to anything that's on the docket for this coming October, so I don't mind letting them slip in here.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" (Movie #2,819)

THE PLOT: Upon moving to the run-down Spiderwick Estate with their mother, twin brothers Jared and Simon Grace, find themselves pulled into a world full of faeries and other creatures.

AFTER: Based on the timing, it's hard to not treat this film as a sort of "Harry Potter" knock-off, considering that the movie was released in 2008, at the height of Potter-mania (between "Order of the Phoenix" and "The Half-Blood Prince" films) and even the first book came out in 2003, which is after the first Harry Potter film.  It checks a lot of the same boxes - three teens, one of them especially attuned to using magic, absent parent (one here, two for Potter), a hereditary connection to more powerful magic experts, and a field guide to dangerous magical creatures (OK, that last one's more of a connection to "Fantastic Beasts", but that's also in the Potter-verse...)

The difference, however, is that everything in today's film feels very rushed, and nothing gets explained very well, while everything in the Potter-verse feels more drawn-out and lengthened (and even then, fans complained that there were sub-plots from the book that got ignored or glossed over...).  There's a simple reason for this - where the Potter-verse made longer movies, even turning the last book into two movies, "The Spiderwick Chronicles" turned FOUR books into one 90-minute movie, so of course it feels compressed and sped-up.

So, unfortunately, there's not really time to explain what's happening or why, most of the time, anyway.  The actors were evidently told to speak very quickly to cram in as much information as possible into an hour and a half, but it's all for naught, because I haven't got a clue how anything works in this magical story.  The IMDB plotline says the humans got "pulled into an alternate world", but that's not accurate.  It's more like the world of goblins, trolls and faeries is always there, but most people don't have the resources (or imagination?) to see it.  So it's kind of weird that people manage to not bump into all these invisible creatures that are everywhere in the forest - so are they really there, or not?  Or is it possible that people have to believe, or be a little crazy to see them?  This is all quite unclear.

Who, exactly, was Arthur Spiderwick, other than the great-uncle of these kids?  How did he first gain the knowledge of these magical creatures, or the ability to see them?  What made him special (or crazy?) and how did this effect his daughter, Lucinda, who happens to be the kids' aunt?  (On their mother's side, we suppose, but this isn't really explained either, except that their mother believes she's going to inherit the house, but never bothers to check the paperwork on that.  Not cool.)

There's a whole bit with the absent father, and while Jared believes that the father's a great guy and that the break-up is his mother's fault, the other two kids seem to have a better handle on things.  I'm fine with them not really delving into the failed relationship, because it's probably a downer, and its only real purpose is to further distinguish Jared from Simon - and this is needed because the twin boys are played by the same actor.  Different haircuts isn't enough.

I meant to talk about "Counterpart" the other day, after the film "Allied", where a wife's identity as a possible spy was called into question.  It's a series on Starz that I recorded on the DVR, and I've only had the chance to watch it in the last 2 weeks.  One episode a night for 10 nights, and that's the only way I can binge-watch a series, it seems.  (Gotta get to "The Amazing Race" and "The Detour" next, then maybe I can finally finish "Stranger Things" and then watch "Lost" this summer...)   Anyway, "Counterpart" is a spy series set in two worlds with different timelines, and J.K. Simmons plays a dual role as his character from one parallel world crosses over to the other.  I'm guessing any actor would jump at the chance to play two roles, to portray two "mostly identical" characters, but with some subtle nuanced difference.  The split-screen effects hearken back to "The Patty Duke Show" with its genetically-impossible "identical cousins", or maybe it's more of a "Prisoner of Zenda"/"Man in the Iron Mask" thing, but either way it's a staple of acting that's only gotten better with SPFX.  J.K. Simmons is great on "Counterpart" because he can bring so much to each role, the nicer Howard who's faithful to his wife, has a menial job at the agency and the other Howard who's more ruthless and a top-notch spy.

It's often hard to distinguish between the two brothers here, other than the fact that one speaks in a higher, softer voice and the other one disobeys and acts out more.  Plus the movie is always finding ways to separate them, in order to cut down on the number of effects shots, no doubt.  Jared, the one who finds the book, is the more daring one, but he's also less likely to follow directions - like there's a note on the book that explains all the dangers to come from reading the book, but he dives right in anyway.  What part of "Do NOT Read this Book" did he fail to understand?  This whole thing is very hard to understand - who writes a book that shouldn't be read?  What, exactly, happens to people who read the book?  What was he supposed to do INSTEAD of reading the book?  Unclear, unclear, unclear.  He needed the knowledge in the book to defeat the nasties, and if there were some repercussions that came from reading the book, what were they, and why didn't they happen?

Furthermore, he's told time and time again that the book MUST stay in the house, that's the only place where it's safe.  So WHY does he keep taking it with him when he leaves?  This kid is just terrible at following instructions - and again, what, exactly, is the danger of taking it outside the circle, and why don't any of those bad things seem to happen?  And how, exactly, would the big boss ogre use the book to take over faerie-land?  Doesn't he already know what these creatures are, and how to dominate them?

Even when Jared brings the book to his great-aunt, the only other person who understands it, things get even more unclear.  "Oh, dear, you read the book, that's very bad!"  "Don't worry, I only read part of it!"  So, then, that's only sort of bad?  Are there degrees of good and bad?  Typical millennial kid, he doesn't even have the attention span to read a whole book - I bet he only read the Cliffs Notes, that's safe, right? 

Also starring Mary-Louise Parker (last seen in "Red Dragon"), Sarah Bolger, David Strathairn (last seen in "Bob Roberts"), Joan Plowright (last seen in "101 Dalmatians"), with the voices of Seth Rogen (last seen in "Take This Waltz"), Nick Nolte (last seen in "The Ridiculous 6"), Ron Perlman (last seen in "Moonwalkers"), Martin Short (last seen in "The Big Picture"), and a cameo from Andrew McCarthy (last seen in "St. Elmo's Fire"). 

RATING: 4 out of 10 bags of tomato sauce

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A Good Year

Year 10, Day 107 - 4/17/18 - Movie #2,909

BEFORE: Yesterday was extremely rainy in NYC, and I took a fall as I rounded the corner on Sixth Ave., with my Monday morning bagel and coffee in one hand, and the umbrella in the other.  There was a wet cardboard box on the ground that was slicker than an ice patch, and my left foot slipped right off of it, forcing me down to land hard on my knees.  I leaned over forward and had to let go of my umbrella but managed to keep my breakfast from landing on the sidewalk.  Someone grabbed my errant umbrella before it could get too far, and another guy rushed over to help, but was shocked and said, "Hey, you didn't even spill your coffee!"  I couldn't tell if he was impressed or disappointed.  But today my knees and shins are really hurting, because that's how I landed - I'm honestly pretty good at falling down and not getting hurt.  I can endure the pain, because hey, it could be worse - I could have lost both my lower legs in a killer whale show at French Marineland, and I didn't.

I suppose this would be a great time to watch "La Vie en Rose", the biopic about Edith Piaf starring Marion Cotillard, but I don't have a copy, and I'm just not interested enough to seek it out. Then again, she did win a Best Actress Oscar for that film.  But I've got my schedule to maintain, and it's already going to be tricky to make it to Mothers Day in time, given that I'm going on a small trip next week

THE PLOT: A British investment broker inherits his uncle's chateau and vineyard in Provence, where he spent much of his childhood.  He discovers a new laid-back lifestyle as he tries to renovate the estate to be sold.

AFTER: I sort of don't know what to do with this film, because it spent its first half trying hard to be a comedy, and failing miserably at that.  Then it sort of shifts gears trying to be a romance, and is at least moderately successful at that.  The whole thing's supposed to act as a kind of redemption story for this stock market guy, who's an asshole and proud of it, but who's to say that being a vineyard owner later on is any better?  A good vineyard owner is also a good businessman, so who's to say that they can't also be assholes?  Does it take a ruthless jerk to properly run a business, and if not, what's different about the wine-making business?  Is it because of the scenery, or the company, or is it all that wine that they're drinking?  Perhaps more research is required.

It would be helpful if this film could just focus for a minute, or let me know when it's finally in the mood to getting around to making some kind of point.  But it just sort of ambles, and flashes back almost randomly to when the main character was a boy, and he spent time with his uncle, who owned the vineyard.  This in itself is a bit confusing, because we're told that Max Skinner's parents have both died in an accident, but he only spends summers living with his uncle.  Where does the boy live the rest of the time?  This is one of many things that are unclear.  And I realize that things are different in Europe, but should a young boy be drinking so much wine?  I guess I can see how his uncle could be giving him an appreciation for the finer things, but still...the kid's how old?  12? 13?

25 years later, the uncle dies and Max is informed that he's inherited his uncle's estate, so he goes there, shortly after one of his trademark "manipulations" of the market - pretending to buy to raise some stock's price, then selling off at the high point, which causes the shares to plummet, then he buys the stock AGAIN when it hits the low point.  Umm, what's wrong with "buy low, sell high", I thought that was every investor's plan?  Apparently Max did something shady to make the stock high before he sold and then low before he bought, but the film never explains what, exactly, he did, or why it was illegal.  Probably because some screenwriter doesn't understand trading - you know, he did "business stuff" and manipulated the market, which is probably wrong-ish.  Umm, sure, let's go with that.

Once he's in Provence, unfunny slapstick ensues as Max has problems with his GPS and drives around the parking lot in circles before he can get on the road - because apparently he's only a genius when it comes to the stock market.  More unfunny events as he nearly runs a bicycling woman off the road while he's fumbling with his phone.   Because accidents caused by driving while texting are hilarious, right?  Then while surveying his new property, he falls into an empty swimming pool and can't climb out, no matter what he tries - which is also not funny.  What are the odds that the woman who can help him climb out would be the SAME woman he almost hit with his car?  Well, pretty good, it turns out, and her solution is to fill the pool with water (which somehow she knows how to do...) and soak Max in the process.  OK, this is a little bit funny because he totally deserves it.

But what are the odds that he'd fall for this woman, later on in the film.  Again, pretty good if you know the rules of movie-making.  She owns the café in town, and wouldn't you know it, has a local reputation for being not only beautiful, but hard to romance.  Oh, if only some vineyard owner who's really a ruthless businessman owed her an apology, and could make some grand romantic gesture to win her heart!  But, come on, what are the chances of THAT happening?  Oh, yeah, right.

While waiting out his suspension for his trading shenanigans, Max has time to clean up the villa and vineyards, and get it ready to be sold - and what a coincidence, his best friend is a real estate broker who thinks they can get millions for the property - which is strange because every indication we have about the wine is that it's quite terrible.  Max describes it as "headache-inducing" and claims that it only makes people angry, not happy.  Then why does he keep drinking the stuff?  This is another thing that is very unclear.

I have a long list of other unanswered questions, too - why are there so many scorpions in the vineyard?  Why does the caretaker's wife say "Lavender!" whenever someone gets scared by a scorpion?  Does lavender attract the scorpions, or repel them?  Why is there one wine that the vineyard makes (Le Coin Perdu) that's actually good?  What does it mean when they say that wine was made from "illegal vines"?  Does anybody want to maybe help out the audience members that may not understand the finer points of making wine?

Before too long, a woman shows up at the vineyard, claiming to be Max's uncle's daughter, aka his cousin.  (But he apparently wants to sleep with her, too, I guess just in case things don't work out with the café owner?  Another thing that was quite unclear.)  She has the unfortunate timing of seeking out her father shortly after his death, but that by itself doesn't mean that she's only there to collect her inheritance, or that she's pulling some kind of scam.  But since she just HAPPENS to be from Napa Valley and knows a lot about winemaking, naturally that's where Max's shady business mind takes him.

You'd think that if his childhood memories of living on the vineyard with his uncle were so great, that he'd be eager to keep the property, move to France and become an itinerant winemaker, following in his uncle's footsteps.  And you'd be right, it just takes way too long for Max to realize that's what he wants to do.  His company's odd solution to reinstating him after his suspension is to offer him either a discharge with a large settlement, or a partnership with an even larger income.  What?  This makes no sense, is he being punished for his shady trading techniques, or rewarded?  Since when does getting in trouble for manipulating the market get you promoted, or do I just not understand how business works?  (Or, as I suspect, neither does the screenwriter...)

Anyway, it's nearly too late to take the settlement and go back to the vineyard, because his broker already sold it - but never fear, another shady business deal gets it back in the hands of his cousin, because this guy never met a business deal he couldn't manipulate with a bunch of lies.  But, then, doesn't this prove that he didn't learn ANYTHING from his time in Provence?  Once a cheater, always a cheater.  It's a very murky moral message here, but then, there are many many things in this storyline that are very cloudy, like, say, an unfiltered wine.

In the end, I don't know enough about wine-making to call any NITPICK POINTS here, but I'm sure they exist.  Like, if the director wanted THAT party to own the vineyard in the end, there were much, much simpler ways of making that happen, why jump through all these other hoops to get there?  There's so much strange bending-over-backwards in the plot to make the ending happen just so.

EDIT: I checked the plot of the novel "A Good Year" on Wikipedia, and it is quite different.  It seems the book is a lot clearer about many things, including why there are two different wines coming from the same estate, and how that is happening, and how one is better than the other.  It's also clearer from the book's plot who hired the wine expert to give the vineyard a bad assessment, and why, and what "illegal vines" are.  Also, the inheritance of the vineyard is a lot cleaner in the book - it ends up in the same hands as the film, but in a way that makes more sense, from a legal angle.  But it seems this noted director couldn't be bothered to explain any of this, and he decided to go his own way with the plot of the film.  And then when it came to filling in the gaps about how market trading or running a vineyard work, he just decided to make stuff up, in lieu of doing any research at all.  What a shame. 

Also starring Russell Crowe (last seen in "War Machine"), Albert Finney (last seen in "Two for the Road"), Abbie Cornish (last seen in "Robocop" (2014)), Didier Bourdon, Isabelle Candelier, Freddie Highmore (last seen in "Finding Neverland"), Tom Hollander (last seen in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation"), Rafe Spall (last seen in "The BFG"), Richard Coyle, Archie Panjabi (last seen in "A Mighty Heart"), Kenneth Cranham (last seen in "Layer Cake"), Daniel Mays (last seen in "Atonement"), Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Giannina Facio.

RATING: 4 out of 10 tennis rackets

Monday, April 16, 2018

Rust and Bone

Year 10, Day 106 - 4/16/18 - Movie #2,908

BEFORE: Marion Cotillard carries over from "Allied", and she'll be here tomorrow, too - that was really the only way to work in this nearly "unlinkable" film, with mostly French actors.  I guess the lead actor here has been in a few major films, but I have no plans to watch "Red Sparrow" any time soon.  And if this is a romance-y type film, maybe it really belongs in February, but again, that's just moving the linking problem to a later date.  Better to follow the linking and get this one off the list when I can.

THE PLOT: Put in charge of his young son, Alain leaves Belgium to live with his sister and her husband in Antibes. Alain's bond with Stephanie, a killer whale trainer, grows deeper after Stephanie suffers a horrible accident.

AFTER: When I look back on the last week of films, it's quite the mixed bag of subjects, from pirates to psychos to detectives, superheroes and Nazis (both the true-life life-size ones and the miniature ones made of sausage...). But there is a sort of a thread running many of the films, from pirate swords to tusks to scalpels and even the weapons of the Dora Milaje - so it was a very stabby week, all things considered.  But there's another thread that runs through "Tusk", "Get Out" and this film, if you've seen all three you may get what I mean.

This is a relationship story, but one where the relationship between two people gets changed by an accident, one that takes place at French Sea World (or the equivalent) but the exact cause of the accident is unknown, because it sort of happens off-camera.  We see a giant Orca jump up on a platform, and I assume he wasn't supposed to be there - but did that lead to a piece of equipment damaging the character's legs, or did her injury come from the bite of an Orca?  That wasn't very clear.  I'm not saying it should have been depicted on camera, but someone mentioning the exact cause of her injury would have been helpful.

Anyway, Alain has his own problems, from getting frustrated with his precocious son to only finding work as a security guard four nights a week, so for extra money he has to help with some shady security camera installations, and the guy in charge of that turns him on to some amateur MMA-style fights - and you know they're legit because they happen in a dark warehouse or someone's backyard.  He does have some talent for this, but finds it difficult to practice because he's always either helping Stephanie swim at the beach, or he's having sex with random floozies.

Yeah, I get it, life throws a bunch of unexpected twists at nearly everyone, and you do what you have to do to make some money and keep yourself sane.  But I'm not sure I'm picking up on any life lessons here, assuming that there are any.  Don't get involved with a fight club?  Don't work with killer whales?  Sex is a little freaky with an amputee?  

What I did enjoy was thinking about how lucky I've been over the years - sure, I've been sick, from TB to kidney stones and several other things, even had minor surgery, but only on an outpatient basis.  I've never spent one night in a hospital bed (I'm knocking on wood here...) and I'm nearly 50 years old.  That's a pretty good track record, and I'd like to see how long I can maintain that.  Of course, part of the reason I got to where I am is because I don't engage in a lot of high-risk activities, I don't swim in the ocean (sharks, and now orcas, are a concern...) I don't play sports and I don't take drugs recreationally.  I also try to refrain from getting into fights or even pissing people off, because you just never know.

Also starring Matthias Schoenaerts (last seen in "The Danish Girl"), Armand Venture, Corinne Masiero, Celine Sallette, Bouli Lanners, Mourad Frarema, Jean-Michel Correia, Yannick Choirat.

RATING: 4 out of 10 expired yogurts

Sunday, April 15, 2018


Year 10, Day 105 - 4/15/18 - Movie #2,907

BEFORE: I'm going to put a pin in the Russell Crowe track, and I'll circle back to him in a couple of days, because following the Brad Pitt track gets me to one of the "nearly unlinkable" films on my list.  These are usually films that have only one major common star, so the only way for me to watch them, while still following my own rules, is to wait for two more films with that actor or actress, and sandwich it in between them.  Anyway, that's tomorrow's film, today's film at least had a few linking possibilities, actors like Jared Harris and Simon McBurney keep turning up again and again.  Brad Pitt, not so much, because at this point, of the (approximately) 35 major movie roles he's had, after tonight I will have seen 34 of them, leaving only "The Tree of Life".  Someday I'll have to do a major accounting of the top stars, to see who's made it into the countdown the most times over 10 years - it's probably not Brad Pitt, but then this leads to the question - who is it?

THE PLOT: A Canadian intelligence officer in North Africa encounters a female French Resistance fighter on a deadly mission behind enemy lines.  When they reunite in London, their relationship is tested by the pressures of war.

AFTER: I had an interesting experience two days ago when I got an e-mail from a contact at a film festival in Australia.  I'd met him a few years back when he visited NY, and he confessed to me last week that before that, there was some discussion in Australia about whether I existed.  Even though I'd dealt with him and his staff several times over the years, because my boss is an independent animator who has a reputation for doing everything himself, even though he has a staff that assists with both production and administration.  But when he's out on tour, he probably speaks so much in the first person - "I animated this film" or "this company hired me to direct a music video" that some people naturally think of him as a one-man studio.  So the theory went that any time he said, "My office manager will handle that..." or "My office manager says I have to charge a higher fee..." it was some kind of dodge, he made up a phony name for a fake office manager to cover the fact that these were his decisions.  Sort of like Trump did when he supposedly took calls during his campaign, pretending to be a made-up campaign manager.

I took this in stride, trying to see the humor in this, but then found myself in the unique position of proving to people half a world away that I existed.  Even after one person from the festival met me in person, the rumors in Australia persisted that I was a made-up entity.  So I sent them a link to my listing in the IMDB, because those are very hard to fake, to prove that I had both producing credits and voice-acting credits.  My boss might be able to send e-mails under my name, but no way could he do voices for animated characters in French, German and SoCal accents like I have over the years.  I'm not on Facebook or Instagram, but at least I'm on Twitter and I have a LinkedIn profile, so I could at least point to that.  But it's an interesting problem in this modern world, with people hiding between avatars, TwitterBots and fake Facebook profiles, how do we know anyone these days is who they say they are?

Now think about how bad this same problem was, even BEFORE there was an internet.  Back in World War II there was no way to look up someone's photo if they gave you a phony name.  Governments had to keep hard-copy dossiers on enemy agents, complete with photos and all known aliases, but if someone kept changing their name and/or moving around, there was just no way to keep up with that.  In the latter half of this film, after our Canadian agent hero has married the French secret agent he worked on a mission with, his handlers tell him that she may in fact be a German spy who took over the identity of the French spy.  However, it's possible that this information is false, and is merely a test of this man's loyalty.  Is he not only willing to suspect everyone around him, including his wife, but to act appropriately once suspicion is placed on her?

The first part of that, no problem.  It's easy enough to assume that she's fooled him, because she's already proven what a flair she has for intelligence work.  But when directed to continue to act normal, and to plant false information where she can find it, then wait for further instructions, he fails miserably.  Instead he goes rogue trying to contact former and current French agents who knew her before, and then takes matters into his own hands, disobeying orders in an attempt to get to the truth sooner.  Jeez, man, it's just one more weekend, couldn't he wait for Monday's intelligence report?  He puts himself and every other agent in jeopardy, just to shake out the truth two days ahead of schedule, and that's not cool.

And if she does turn out to be a German spy, supposedly it would be up to him to take her out, or face charges of treason himself.  I'm not sure this would be genuine spy protocol, because why take the chance that a husband wouldn't be emotionally able to kill his own wife.  Wouldn't the spy agencies have someone else available to take an agent down, because of the possibility that this guy couldn't do it?  Besides, it would make more sense to keep an enemy agent in place, to either keep feeding her (and therefore the enemy) false information and also have the opportunity to find out more about her contacts and other enemy agents nearby.  So this "burn notice" policy seems very suspect.

Also starring Marion Cotillard (last seen in "Assassin's Creed"), Jared Harris (last heard in "The Boxtrolls"), Matthew Goode (last seen in "Leap Year"), Lizzy Caplan (last seen in "Orange County"), Anton Lesser (last seen in "Miss Potter"), August Diehl (last seen in "Inglourious Basterds"), Camille Cottin, Charlotte Hope (last seen in "The Invisible Woman"), Marion Bailey (last seen in "Mr. Turner"), Simon McBurney (last seen in "Body of Lies"), Daniel Betts (also carrying over from "War Machine"), Thierry Frémont, Raffey Cassidy (last seen in "Snow White and the Huntsman"), Vincent Latorre, Anton Blake, Josh Dylan, Iain Batchelor.

RATING: 5 out of 10 air-raid sirens