Friday, November 23, 2018

The Polka King

Year 10, Day 327 - 11/23/18 - Movie #3,097

BEFORE: It's Black Friday, and if you want to get trampled while fighting over Christmas gifts in a mall somewhere today, more power to you.  But I'll celebrate my "Jack Black Friday" my way, with the last film in his chain - that's FIVE in a row, so he's definitely making the year-end countdown, which I'm in the middle of tallying up now, even though I still have three films to watch.

I haven't watched anything on Netflix in a while, not since clearing all those rockumentaries from my list, then a couple of Paul Rudd films to get me back on track.  But I've got to try and get to the important Netflix films in January, because who knows when they'll start disappearing off that service?  I'm taking a chance just by waiting that long.  Plus I should probably take a spin through the new releases there to see if there's anything new I want to add to my list, like that "Ballad of Buster Scruggs" film.

After this comes a Christmas movie, so I'm on break until, let's say mid-December.  I need to finally re-organize some comic books, make a Christmas gift list, and figure out what my theme's going to be for my holiday mix CD.  So I'll still have a lot to do, even if I'm not watching movies for a few weeks.   Time at the end of the year always seems to go by much more quickly, so I can't just stop and take a break, not until we're in the car driving up to Massachusetts.


THE PLOT: Local Pennsylvanian polka legend Jan Lewan develops a plan to get rich that shocks his fans and lands him in jail.

AFTER: It's clear that Jack Black wants to be known for his character work, and sometimes that's a positive, like when he plays a teen girl stuck in the body of a male jungle explorer, but it can be a drag when the character is so one-note, which maybe seems like an ironic description for a polka musician.  Beyond talking in a weird European accent and commiting fraud via a Ponzi scheme, there's just not much to the Jan Lewan character.

I'm usually the one complaining when a biopic or a film "based on a true story" (as if "true" and "story" weren't contradictory) changes the facts around, but perhaps this film shows what can go wrong when a story is left alone and not messed with for dramatic purposes.  Because things happen here, don't get me wrong, but very few of them seem to have a meaningful purpose, the parts aren't arranged in a way that properly builds to something greater.  There's very little running narrative, in other words, it just comes off like a series of unrelated things that happened.

We're told that Lewan's financial dealings are very complicated, but were they?  We can't be sure if the film doesn't even try to explain what he was doing, or why it was illegal.  At least in "The Producers" there was a semi-rational way to make money - raise too much cash from investors, make sure the play flops, so the investors won't demand their money back.  But Lewan's music is consistently popular on the German/Polish circuit in the Pennsylvania area, so how is he making money?  We assume it's from taking the money from the new investors and giving it out as dividends to the older investors, but that's only because we the audience are familiar with other similar schemes from the likes of Bernie Madoff.

When an investigator from the SEC comes around, and points out that Lewan never registered his business properly, and informs him he'll have to give all the money back within three days, it's unclear why the investigator just took him at his word, and didn't ask to even look at the books.  I'm not an expert on this, but I'm used to dealing with workers compensation and disability policies for my employers, and there's always an auditor who wants to see our payroll records, so I make sure they're always in order.  I find it hard to believe that an investigator would be satisfied with a phone call saying everything wrong has been fixed.

It seems like he just started the same scheme over under another name, like he didn't register the second business either, but he uses this to start a record label and a pierogi-making business - and at NO TIME does any government entity want to see the official paperwork on those companies?  I also find that hard to believe.  Jan goes on to use the profits from his schemes to bribe beauty pageant judges so his wife will win, and also to get a group of vacationing Americans an audience with the Pope.  Well, maybe there's something to his "dream it, then make it happen" mentality.  How else can you explain someone with a failing real estate empire, a failed vodka brand, a failed university and a failed steak company failed his way all the way to become President?  The only rational explanation is that something illegal is going on behind the scenes.

Eventually the authorities figured out that Lewan's accounting practices warranted a closer look - maybe in the near future they'll finally catch up with Trump's tax returns, too.  That NY Times article a couple months ago certainly suggested that things haven't been done legally since Trump was a small child "inheriting" businesses from his father.  So like several other films already this year, this is another one that ended up full of accidental veiled references to Trump.  The fixed beauty pageants, the media and culinary empire, the central figure who's more of a showman and huckster than a legit businessman - the signs are all right there.

Also starring Jenny Slate (last seen in "Gifted"), Jason Schwartzman (last seen in "I Heart Huckabees"), Jacki Weaver (last seen in "The Disaster Artist"), Vanessa Bayer (last seen in "Trainwreck"), J.B. Smoove (last heard in "The Smurfs 2"), Willie Garson (last seen in "Play It to the Bone"), Robert Capron, Lew Schneider with archive footage of George Burns, George H.W. Bush, Donald Trump, Judy Tenuta and the real Jan Lewan.

RATING: 4 out of 10 mustard stains

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Saving Silverman

Year 10, Day 324 - 11/20/18 - Movie #3,096

BEFORE: OK, now the end of Movie Year 10 is really coming up very fast.  Just four film slots left after tonight.  And already I've got a list of films that I meant to get to this fall that I couldn't squeeze in, like "Venom" and "Ralph Breaks the Internet" and "Bohemian Rhapsody".  Oh, and "Mary Poppins Returns" and "Won't You Be My Neighbor", I won't be able to get to those during 2018.  But the Academy screeners are still coming in, so maybe in late December or early January I'll have a chance to go through them and start thinking of ways to work them into the chain, possibly starting in March.

For now, it's the penultimate Jack Black film, I'll watch the last one on the day after Thanksgiving - or I guess that will be "Jack Black Friday" for me. 


THE PLOT: A pair of buddies conspire to save their best friend from marrying the wrong woman.

AFTER: I wasn't expecting something completely hysterically funny here, but I thought maybe this one would be good for a few laughs, but most of the comedy comes from such a weird place, it just all feels too obvious or something.  And being obvious in humor is sometimes worse than not being funny at all.  The director, Dennis Dugan, is best known for a string of Adam Sandler films, and of course all of that humor is either slapsticky or super obvious, but I guess Sandler is a little better at pulling off unsubtle humor, if that makes any sense.

It's like the new "Murphy Brown" episodes, which are all filled with very obvious humor, like some writing team somewhere is just not trying, they're just going for the easiest Trump jokes, the lowest hanging fruit, and there's no artistry or subtlety involved.  Yeah, I'm watching the "Murphy Brown" revival, and one level it's great that the stories aren't pulling any punches and going straight at our Cheeto-colored Commander in Chief, but it all just feels too easy somehow.  And then it pisses me off that it feels like nobody's doing a lick of research to see if this is really how a cable morning news show functions (umm, I'm guessing no) or how election night coverage works, or whether Murphy's son would get such a high-profile job on a competing network in the SAME time-slot as hers - the odds are astronomically against such an occurence, but they're not letting that get in the way of telling a story, because some writer mistakenly thinks that just making random stuff happen is an efficient way to tell a story.

And that's how I feel about "Saving Silverman", all the humor comes from putting the comedy cart before the horse, like some of the early Farrelly Brothers films - take your pick from "Kingpin", "Me, Myself and Irene" or "There's Something About Mary".  They all seem to me like someone wrote a collection of random jokes and slapstick that end up driving the story, rather than writing the story as a framework and then adding the jokes on, like decorations on a Christmas tree.  Do you know what I mean?  Like Jim Carrey's character in "Me, Myself and Irene" had three black sons - why?  Because somebody thought that would be a funny gag, and then the story ends up being based on the gag, rather than the other way around.  The "hair-gel" gag in "There's Something About Mary" drove the story, it became a plot point instead of just a sight gag, and to me that's backwards.

So "Saving Silverman" ends up being one lame gag after another - from the very fake raccoon attacking exterminator Wayne, to Judith being somehow flipped out of a recliner and getting covered in salsa, to the guy in the bar doing terrible magic tricks to try to break the ice with women.  These things just don't happen in real life, not to this degree at least, so it's a little sad that a writer couldn't pay enough attention to the real world to make up gags that at least have one foot in reality.  And if you do that too many times in one film, you end up with a film that's so far removed from real that absolutely none of it can be taken seriously.

There are dozens more examples here - the high-school mascot costume, the logistics of being in a Neil Diamond cover band, the lack of security at a Neil Diamond concert, the way that a tranquilizer gun works - I've got minor issues with all of these things.  The way that someone takes vows to become a nun - did anyone do any research into this, or did they just go with the "Hollywood" version of how people think this works?  My money is obviously on the latter.  The way that the Coach breaks people out of prison - come on, that wouldn't work in a million years. 

I think the worst offense, however, comes from the depiction of a woman who happens to be a psychologist, and the dumber characters in the film (which is basically all of them) are helpless against her "mind tricks" that take advantage of things like Stockholm syndrome, and also she's extremely dominating in her relationship with Darren.  I'm sure there are some good psychologists out there who are not always looking for ways to psych out their romantic partners, right?  But here the only person with a college degree is not only lording it over everyone else at every opportunity, but she's also a complete bitch.  Which I think ends up selling a lot of people short.  And then later she gives therapy sessions to J.D. and either helps him determine that he's gay, or tricks him into thinking that he's gay.  I think both of those trivialize the self-awareness that lead to coming out, and honestly I'm not sure which one is worse.  Probably if she tricked him, right?  But it's yet another sensitive subject that wasn't handled with any subtlety at all - he's either gay or he's not, there's no in-between here, and I think in reality there are more subtle levels to this topic. 

The love triangle is also incredibly over-simplified - Darren's either in love with Judith, or he's not.  Where in reality love and hate are not opposites, and there are many degrees in-between.  He's either in love with Judith, or he's in love with Sandy.  Well, why can't he be in love with both?  In real life there could be times where a person could have feelings for two people at once.  But again, why let the real world have any bearing at all in creating this non-sensical story? 

Honestly, it feels like whoever wrote this was an alien from another planet who knew nothing at all about what it means to be in a relationship.  Sometimes you see writing this bad in comic books, when you can tell that a writer is a nerd who's been single his whole life, and doesn't know how to write about an adult relationship.  This usually then leads to killing off the wife character, or sending her on a long business trip so the hero character can be single again for a while, because that's what the writer knows about. 

It's not all terrible, there were a couple funny moments, like when the coach was quoting inspirational messages like "If you can dream it, you can do it" only he was talking about things like kidnapping and murder.  I can't hear the Disney song "When You Wish Upon a Star" without thinking that its lyrics are hopelessly out of date.  The lyrics "no request is too extreme" and "anything your heart desires will come to you" are overly simplistic and misleading, because there are a LOT of people out there in the world with some very sick requests and desires, and they shouldn't be led to believe that those will come true.

(At least they didn't pull a wedding switcheroo at the end, where they change the bride or groom, and two people get married on the spot who didn't have a marriage license.  Movies pull that crap all the time, and they forget that such a ceremony would not be legally valid.)

Also starring Jason Biggs (last seen in "Anything Else"), Steve Zahn (last heard in "War for the Planet of the Apes"), Amanda Peet (last seen in "Sleeping with Other People"), Amanda Detmer (last seen in "The Majestic"), R. Lee Ermey (last seen in "Body Snatchers"), Neil Diamond (last seen in "The Jazz Singer"), Kyle Gass (last seen in "Jacob's Ladder"), Lillian Carlson, Mark Aaron Wagner, Steven McMichael, Norman Armour, with cameos from Dennis Dugan (last seen in "You Don't Mess with the Zohan") and the voice of Richard Kline (last seen in "Don't Think Twice").

RATING: 3 out of 10 faked photos

Monday, November 19, 2018

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 7 out of 10 albino rhinos

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Goosebumps

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4 out of 10 garden gnomes

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Envy

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3 out of 10 employee review forms

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Jersey Boys

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4 out of 10 hotel towels

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Family Fang

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 5 out of 10 spud guns