Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Flight

Year 6, Day 259 - 9/16/14 - Movie #1,850

BEFORE: Linking from "2 Guns", Denzel Washington carries over, and I've got 50 films to go in 2014.


THE PLOT:  An airline pilot saves almost all his passengers on his malfunctioning airliner which eventually crashed, but an investigation into the accident reveals something troubling.

AFTER: I'm not really spoiling anything by pointing out there's a plane crash in this film, because the film is really about what happened before and after the crash.  Afterwards there are toxicology reports, investigations, legal strategies, accusations and eventually revelations.  

For a while there in the news you'd often see stories about airline pilots spotted drinking in airport lounges before their flights - but not lately.  I wonder if this film set a few people straight, or if pilots just got better at hiding their substance abuse.  

This is a great example of a message film, but before it gets to a positive message, it sends out a number of confusing ones.  For example, the main character drinks to excess before and during his flight, but then performs a move that saves many lives.  Are we to assume that he might not have performed this maneuver if he were sober?  The NTSB later puts 10 (presumably sober) pilots into simulators programmed with the same parameters, and they all crash.  So, is a drunk pilot a good thing or a bad thing?  How can it be a good thing in one specific situation, but bad overall?

The airline and its legal representative are then put into a situation where it benefits them to kill the tox report, or have it ruled inadmissible.  So, telling the truth is a good thing, unless it's to your company's benefit to lie?  Another odd message.  Same goes for the pilot, who's coached to say "I can't recall" whenever the topic of his drinking comes up during the inquiry.

Then we've got the actions of the main character - when he goes to hide out from the press at his father's farm, the first thing he does is dump out all the alcohol in the house.  So, it seems like he's got a handle on his drinking, removing all temptation to drink is the smart move, but then he puts himself into situations where he does drink.  I guess this felt like a disjointed contradiction at first, but upon furthere reflection, this is an accurate depiction of what alcoholics must go through - they can take actions to get through today without a drink, but then tomorrow is another battle.

The problem with A.A. and other treatment programs for many people is the submission to a "higher power".  And it's not just about admitting that they are powerless to control their addiction, it's about putting their lives in the hands of God, or karma, or fate.  And the two issues with this are - 1) it doesn't encourage people to find the power within themselves  and 2) what if someone doesn't believe in God?  I think there's a work-around where you can declare your "higher power" is a tree or something, which fulfills the A.A. requirement, but then you have to do whatever the tree tells you.

They say an addict has to reach rock bottom before he can get better, and in a way that fits with the "always darkest before the dawn" scenarios that a lot of films show before their resolutions.  But there's really only one way to resolve this film, so why does it take so long to get there? 

Also starring Bruce Greenwood (last seen in "Star Trek Into Darkness"), Don Cheadle (last seen in "Reign Over Me"), John Goodman (last seen in "The Hangover Part III"), Kelly Reilly, Tamara Tunie (last seen in "Snake Eyes"), Nadine Velazquez, Brian Geraghty, Melissa Leo (last seen in "Oblivion"), Peter Gerety (last seen in "Hollywood Ending").

RATING: 5 out of 10 minibar bottles

Monday, September 15, 2014

2 Guns

Year 6, Day 258 - 9/15/14 - Movie #1,849

BEFORE: Linking from "The Machinist", Christian Bale was also in "The Fighter" with Mark Wahlberg (last seen in "Ted"). 

THE PLOT:  A DEA agent and a naval intelligence officer find themselves on the run after a botched attempt to infiltrate a drug cartel. While fleeing, they learn the secret of their shaky alliance: Neither knew that the other was an undercover agent.

AFTER: This is my third trip across the Mexico border in the last week, and as a plot point, that's wearing a little thin.  Also wearing thin is starting a film with the "splash scene" and then rewinding to show how we got there.  This film does that without any titles like "one week ago" to let you know we've gone back in time, so some people might easily think that the main characters robbed the same bank twice.  

The story is really sketchy, I think the plan was just to cast some charismatic actors in the lead roles, and hope that people would like their characters by extension, without pausing to think about the wrongness of their actions.  Either that, or they just wanted to rip off "The Departed", which also had two undercover operatives who were unaware of each other's status.  

Technically this is another "heist" film, but an attempt to steal money from a drug cartel's bank results in more money than expected, and then every party wants to get its hands on the larger sum.  The problem, as I see it, is that THREE of the four parties involved work for the U.S. government.  And of those three parties, two of those (the U.S. Navy and the D.E.A.) shouldn't be using stolen money to supplement their budgets.  The third is the C.I.A., and who knows what's going on over there.  

It's clear that some screenwriter didn't think too long about this, so maybe I shouldn't either.  But I'd like to think that there's some procedure where different divisions of the U.S. government could talk to each other, instead of shooting first and asking questions later.  Also I kind of doubt that the U.S. Navy, an honorable organization from everything I've seen, wouldn't be interested in stolen money from drug cartels.  But what do I know?

Also starring Denzel Washington (last seen in "Ricochet"), Bill Paxton (last seen in "U-571"), Paula Patton (last seen in "Hitch"), Edward James Olmos (last seen in "The Green Hornet"), James Marsden (last seen in "X-Men: Days of Future Past"), Robert John Burke (last seen in "Tombstone"), with a cameo from Fred Ward.


RATING: 4 out of 10 safe deposit boxes

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Machinist

Year 6, Day 257 - 9/14/14 - Movie #1,848

BEFORE: I was late posting yesterday because I went to a beer festival, Beer4Beasts, which raises money for animal charities.  I love drinking even better when it's for a good cause.  The food at the event was all vegetarian, because serving meat would seem a little out of step with the cause - but it all tasted so good I hardly noticed that I went for a whole day without eating meat.  Not that I do this a lot, but once in a while it can't hurt. 

Christian Bale carries over from "American Hustle", going from a role where he had to gain a lot of weight to a role where he had to lose a lot of weight.  

THE PLOT:  An industrial worker who hasn't slept in a year begins to doubt his own sanity.

AFTER: This is one of those slow-build films, like "Requiem for a Dream", where things start to get weird and then progressively worse and worse, or at least that's the feeling.  Same cardinal sin as last night, the film starts off with a "shocking" scene and then jumps back to the past to build back up to it.  

There are two hard-to-believe premises here, the first is that someone could go for a year without sleeping.  I could maybe go a day-and-a-half, when I travel to San Diego I usually don't sleep between a Tuesday morning and a Wednesday night, but I try to doze on the plane, and grab a two-hour nap when I reach my hotel.  I have to believe that if I tried to go a week without sleep, at some point my body would just pass out and shut down.  

This is especially hard to swallow when you realize the main character here works in a factory, so there's some labor involved in his routine, plus he's seen drinking coffee, so at some point either his work would exhaust him, or that caffeine train is going to run out of steam.  What's amazing is that it's a full year before his work is affected in any way. 

But let's assume for a second that it's possible, a year without sleep.  What's causing this?  Why does he suddenly feel that his sanity is going, that he's starting to see people who aren't there, or getting messages from himself that he doesn't remember writing?  Eventually we come to realize that either someone is messing with him, or he's got a guilty conscience. 

Which brings me to the second hard-to-believe premise, that someone can do something bad and then forget about it, or make themselves forget about it.  Let's say he stole something from a store - he might think that was no big deal, but he wouldn't necessarily un-remember it.  Look at "Les Miserables" - Jean Valjean is never able to forget his crime, and not just because Javert's always in his face about it, but he won't let himself forget about it, long past the point of reason.  

But I suppose if a person does something really terrible they might try to deny it, in which case it would be the job of their subconscious to remind them of it.  Even still, I don't know if those reminders would take the form of hallucinations, or manifest themselves in the form of non-existent people, or cause a lack of sleep and appetite to this degree.  Assuming that's what is really taking place here, which quite honestly is all still a bit unclear. 

Also starring Jennifer Jason Leigh (last seen in "Miami Blues"), Altana Sanchez-Gijon, Michael Ironside, John Sharian, Anna Massey, Reg E. Cathey.

RATING: 5 out of 10 Post-It notes

Saturday, September 13, 2014

American Hustle

Year 6, Day 256 - 9/13/14 - Movie #1,847

BEFORE: My week of lies and deception has led me here, to a film all about that, and the end of the Bradley Cooper chain.  Seems like the chains are getting shorter and shorter these days, but that's bound to happen as the films left on the list become more and more random.  Actually there are 4 actors carrying over from "Silver Linings Playbook", two with major roles tonight and two with minor ones, so, really you should have seen this one coming.  Same director as an added bonus.


THE PLOT:  A con man, along with his seductive partner, is forced to work for a wild FBI agent, who pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia.

AFTER: I'll be heading back to Atlantic City in a couple weeks - those casinos still owe me $80 from the last trip, and if I can't get it in cash, I'll take it in food from the buffets.  I've been there twice before, it seems I've always known it as a gambling mecca.  That's why I was so surprised to learn that gambling has only been legal in New Jersey since the mid-1970's - I've been around longer than legal gambling in Atlantic City?  I'm absolutely shocked.  Of course, illegal gambling has been taking place there since forever, or at least the 1920's.  

I also had no idea that the development of Atlantic City casinos was tied to the Abscam scandal of the 1970's.  Corrupt politicians in New Jersey (there's another shocker...) were doing whatever they could to get in on the action, including taking bribes from undercover FBI agents, thinking that the money was coming from an Arab sheik, and promising to fast-track the sheik's immigration process through special legislation, in order to make his investments in A.C. legal.  Yeah, but making him a citizen wouldn't have made the bribes legal - is that what the politicians thought?  

I sort of remember reading about Abscam when I was a kid.  I didn't really understand why someone was impersonating an Arab, or what crime was being committed.  I still don't fully understand it, because some would say that giving a politician money in exchange for him promising to do something that doesn't really need to be done might constitute entrapment, while others would say that you've got him dead to rights as soon as he picks up that briefcase.  

I liked the plot in this one, and the characters (except for the fact that Bale seemed to be playing much the same character that Tom Cruise did in "Tropic Thunder") and the way it got rightly treated as a "heist" film instead of, say, a political one.  But, there really was no need to start the film with a scene from the middle, and then jump back to when the main character was a kid to give us his complete back-story, and (eventually) catch up to where we started, just to play out that whole scene AGAIN.  I penalize for unnecessary time-jumping, don't you know.  

Really, the whole FILM is a flashback, to the time of discos and turntables.  And the fashion!  Velvet suits, plunging necklines, tight curls and nail polish - and that's just the men!  The women looked even better!  

Also starring Christian Bale (last seen in "Velvet Goldmine"), Jennifer Lawrence (also carrying over from "Silver Linings Playbook"), Robert De Niro (ditto), Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Michael Peña, Elisabeth Rohm, Jack Huston, Paul Herman (yep, another carry-over from "Silver Linings Playbook").  

RATING: 7 out of 10 microwave ovens

Friday, September 12, 2014

Silver Linings Playbook

Year 6, Day 255 - 9/12/14 - Movie #1,846

BEFORE: The Bradley Cooper chain rolls on.  This is one of those films that simply everyone was talking about last year, and I admit sometimes the more I hear about a film, the more likely I am to add it to the list.  However, that sometimes is a double-edge sword, because if I hear too MUCH about a film, then when it finally makes it to the top of the list, I know so many details that watching it almost becomes an afterthought.  This is what happened with "Gravity", for example.



THE PLOT:  After a stint in a mental institution, former teacher Pat Solitano moves back in with his parents and tries to reconcile with his ex-wife. Things get more challenging when Pat meets Tiffany, a mysterious girl with problems of her own.

AFTER: Yeah, I'm kind of torn on this one, and I'm not sure I can adequately say why.  Clearly this struck a chord with audiences because of its portrayal of mental health issues (my theory is that everyone's a little bit crazy) or maybe because it showcases an underdog character who's trying to deal with a failed marriage.  God knows a lot of people have been through that, myself included.  

It seems inspirational in that we all encounter times in our life when things don't go so well, either on the job front or in relationships, and it's important for people to remember that hope springs eternal.  There can always be a new job or a new relationship on the horizon, if we just set out to look for it.  (Funny thing about the horizon, though, it's always far off - if you carry the metaphor to the extreme, you will never actually reach the horizon...)  

It also comes down to whether you're the sort of person who sees the proverbial glass as "half full" or "half empty"..  Me, I tend to see a glass that's twice as big as it needs to be.  Plus I want to know who the heck's been drinking from my glass?  

I don't have much experience with bipolar people - but I know what it feels like to manufacture cause and effect relationships in life.  If I search for a new job, I will find one - but only if I wear my lucky tie to the interview, or something like that.  I don't have the kind of OCD that makes me turn light switches on and off multiple times, but I've got the kind that makes me want to alphabetize and organize things the way I like them.  Fortunately, this can be overcome with plain, old-fashioned laziness.  Sure, I want to have my comic books in order, the compulsion is always there, but damn, that involves a lot of lifting of very heavy boxes.  Maybe tomorrow...or the day after that, and so on.

The main character here gets it in his head that if he can perform well at the dance competition, he can get his wife back.  But dude, why would you WANT her back?  This is the strange mindset of someone who got cheated on - the conflict comes when he wants his old life back, he wants things to be the way they used to be, and at the same time, he's blind to the fact that maybe things were never that good to begin with.  But he's got to realize this on his own terms before he can move on.

There's an obvious connection made to the lunacy of sports fans here, who believe that if they wear their lucky shirt, or watch the game in the exact same chair or with the exact same people they were with the last time, their team will win again.  I think every sports fan HAS to know, deep down, that their actions or attitudes have no bearing on the results of the game - yet somehow watching a football game in the U.S. has become an activity, instead of what it really is, which is a "passivity".  Or a non-activity, whichever term you prefer.  Why do so many people shout at the TV during sporting events?  They know the team can't hear them, right?  

So we have this sort of mass hysteria, and it's not just in this country, I'm including soccer fans into the mix too - it's this weird competition where people need to prove they are bigger fans of THEIR team than other people are of another team.  People, the competition is on the field, not in the parking lot or your living room.

To me this is putting the cart before the horse - a team needs to accomplish something first before I will pay attention, otherwise I'm wasting my time and just setting myself up for the heartbreak of failure.  Red Sox, Mets, Patriots - I'm not watching any games until they make the playoffs.  It's just a time-saver.  People who attend every game, follow all the stats, play in fantasy leagues - need to have their heads examined.

Also starring Jennifer Lawrence (last seen in "X-Men: Days of Future Past"), Robert De Niro (last seen in "New Year's Eve"), Jacki Weaver (last seen in "The Five-Year Engagement"), Chris Tucker, John Ortiz, Julia Stiles (last seen in "O"), Dash Mihok (last seen in "The Thin Red Line").

RATING:  5 out of 10 crabby snacks

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Words

Year 6, Day 254 - 9/11/14 - Movie #1,845

BEFORE:  Bradley Cooper carries over from "The Hangover Part III", and have you spotted this week's unintentional running theme yet?  It's all about secrets, lies and deception.  First we had the Princeton admissions officer's secret shame, then the lies about personal finances the couple told each other in "This Is 40", and the deception of the fake family ruse in "We're the Millers".  The third "Hangover" film had some deceptive elements in its story, and also managed to deceive audiences into thinking the franchise still had some life in it.  Tonight's film seals the deal, with a writer committing plagiarism.

THE PLOT: A writer at the peak of his literary success discovers the steep price he must pay for stealing another man's work.

AFTER: There's a point late in this film where a character yells "Bullshit!" and it was well-timed, for I had just finished saying that aloud three times, in relation to this film's plot.  I have to call shenanigans because it turns out that I have just two rules of screenwriting, and this film violates both of them.  

Rule #1: Show, don't tell.  Film is a visual medium, and any time things get too talky-talky, you should start to question if there's a better way to film it.  Sure, talking reveals character's thoughts, and people have to talk to each other, just as they do in the real world.  But talking can't advance a plot forward the way that actions can, so if given the choice between showing a character doing something and having a character talk about doing that thing, the first option is most often the better choice.  

The codicil to this rule is that people want to see a story happen, they don't want to see a story being written.  Stories about writers don't interest me because of the inevitable scenes of writers writing, or hammering away at a typewriter or keyboard, which by its technical definition is an action, but on screen might as well be inaction.  Even worse are shots of writers TRYING to write, which means that action-wise, they're doing absolutely nothing.  So if I see one more story about a writer with writer's block, I may throw up.  I don't know why writers find writers with writer's block so fascinating to write about.  Wait, yes I do - it's because they don't have any other ideas themselves.  

(And the codicil to this codicil is: avoid the cliché of a writer's pages flying all over the place, and him losing everything, because that's his only copy.  We have computers now, and some even make automatic back-ups, so as a plot device, this should be dispensed with.  Any writer who types with an old manual typewriter because it's hip or retro or whatever deserves to lose his manuscript if he creates it in a manner that isn't backed up.  There is a writer losing his manuscript in "The Words", but at least this takes place before computers were invented, and at least it just gets misplaced, without the pages flying everywhere.)

Rule #2: Avoid excessive flashbacks and other non-linear storytelling.  "The Words" starts in one place, then flashes back five years, then catches up with where it started and we have to see some scenes for a second time.  That's wrong, try again.  Worse than that, the place it starts is actually the story-within-the-story, and it's a story being told by one author about another author, who steals his story from a THIRD author.  

So let's see if I've got this straight: Author #1 writes a book about Author #2, who copied a story from Author #3, and this whole thing was written by a screenwriter - I'd love to hear that pitch, this is some "Inception"-level style of storytelling.  When we see author #3's flashback, that's a story within a story within a story.  And that flashback is about HIM writing a story.  

Funny thing, though, about that "best-selling" story within the story's story - we never get to read it, or even hear it.  It's SO built-up that nothing anyone writes could possibly live up to the hype.  Oh, we get to see people's reactions to it, how it elicits great emotion from everyone who reads it.  I'm reminded of Monty Python's sketch about "The World's Funniest Joke", which is so funny that everyone who hears it laughs themselves to death.  The sketch never reveals the actual joke, because it can't - it doesn't exist.  Instead we just see people reading the joke, doubling over with laughter, and then dying.  (See also: the mysterious contents of the glowing briefcase in "Pulp Fiction")

Another example of bullshit is Author #2 visiting Author #3, prepared to pay him money for his story or atone for his sin of plagiarism somehow, not because it's the right thing to do, but because he doesn't want to get sued, and he doesn't want his new lifestyle and status to go away.  When the author refuses his payoff and sends the author packing, here's the bullshit part: at no time did the plagiarist ask him to sign a release - that's the only way anyone avoids lawsuits these days!  

I'm sending out releases now at work - to people who worked on the animated feature "Cheatin'", which state that the work they did on the film was a for-hire project, and they pre-waive any claims to its ownership.  This seems a bit unnecessary, because I have all of their timesheets and paystubs, so as employees it would seem like a for-hire situation is implicit, but we live in a litigious society, and these releases are the sort of thing that a potential distributor would want to see. 

So, I'm forced to declare a NITPICK POINT - when the author found the story, why did he just assume there would be no repercussions from copying it?  Why didn't he make any attempt to track down the author, or find out if the author was dead or alive?  (For that matter, why didn't the original author sign his work, or check with the train's lost and found department?)  Why didn't he at least change the names of the characters so he could state that the stories were merely similar?  And how did he know that the manuscript had never been published before - did he somehow check every book ever made?

There's a warning in here for me as well - what if I write my story about my circle of friends from years ago and one of them tries to sue me?  I'm going to chance the names, of course, but is that enough?  Am I going to need to get signed releases from all of them, even the ones I don't like or have lost touch with?  Then again, I was there, so I'd just be telling MY story as I see it.

Anyway, it turns out that Hemingway's wife once lost some of his early stories in a similar fashion, and they were never recovered.  So even the one bit of action seen here in the story-within-a-story is itself plagiarized from real life events, so that's either ironic, or one final bit of bullshit.

Also starring Dennis Quaid (last seen in "Postcards From the Edge"), Jeremy Irons (last seen in "The Merchant of Venice"), Zoe Saldana (last seen in "The Terminal"), Olivia Wilde (last seen in "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone"), with cameos from Michael McKean (last seen in "Whatever Works"), J.K. Simmons (last seen in "Hidalgo"), Ron Rifkin, Zeljko Ivanek (last seen in "Argo").

RATING: 3 out of 10 ivy plants

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Hangover Part III

Year 6, Day 253 - 9/10/14 - Movie #1,844

BEFORE: I've got a good run of films this week from 2012 and 2013.  And Ed Helms carries over from "We're The Millers", into the OTHER film from 2013 that's about people traveling down to Mexico for illicit reasons.  Let's just acknowledge right now that Bradley Cooper's had a pretty good run during the last couple of years.

THE PLOT:  When one of their own is kidnapped by an angry gangster, the Wolf Pack must track down Mr. Chow, who has escaped from prison and is on the lam.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Hangover Part II" (Movie 1,285)

AFTER: Well, really society is to blame for this one.  The audience obviously came out in droves to support "The Hangover" Parts 1 + 2, so completing the trilogy probably seemed like a no-brainer.  Yes, I can confirm no brains were used in the decision-making process while producing this film.

Like "This Is 40", this film also features toxic characters who manage to screw up every situation they touch, but at least here that's used for maximum comic effect.  When you see these four guys set out on a road trip, you just KNOW something (everything) is about to go horribly wrong, because that's what worked twice before.  

This time the minor villain character from the previous films, Mr. Chow, takes center stage as the main adversary, and another gangster/thief/drug mogul is added to the mix as well.  So there are elements here of a classic "heist" film, and those almost always appeal to me, while still retaining the feel of the first two films.  And really, the first "Hangover" set the new standard in modern filmmaking for one of these filled-to-the-brim random subplot comedies.  Throw in a baby, or a monkey, an exotic setting like Las Vegas or Thailand, some drugs, alcohol, prostitutes and a celebrity or two.  It's almost like Hollywood producers started playing "Mad Libs" a few years ago to come up with their plots, or there's a giant wheel of plot elements somewhere that studio executives spin as needed. 

I kind of wish that it wasn't always the SAME member of the Wolf Pack who ends up missing or kidnapped.  There are FOUR main characters, so either this guy just has the worst luck of the bunch, or we have to acknowledge that it's the names of the other three guys on the marquee that are putting asses in the seats. 

I think it's acceptable to expect diminishing returns with every sequel film in a series - however, if you feel that this film didn't go far enough with its outrageous ideas, then just keep watching for an additional scene during the credits.  However, if you're quite satisfied with the film up until that point, then just don't watch the credits, because then you might feel like they've taken things a bit too far.   However, no matter how you slice it, the film is forced to go to more outlandish lengths each time it needs its characters to wake up in a hotel room, surrounded by strange animals and sex toys, with no memory of what's taken place the night before.  You'd think some of these characters would eventually learn their lesson, but I could say the same thing about the moviegoing audience.

Also starring Bradley Cooper (last seen in "Limitless"), Zach Galifianakis (last seen in "The Campaign"), Justin Bartha (last seen in "The Hangover Part II"), Ken Jeong (last seen in "Zookeeper"), John Goodman (last heard in "Monsters University"), with cameos from Melissa McCarthy (last seen in "This Is 40"), Jeffrey Tambor (last seen in "Pollock"), Heather Graham (last seen in "Lost in Space"), Mike Epps.

RATING: 5 out of 10 hotel sheets