Saturday, September 9, 2017

You're Never Too Young

Year 9, Day 252 - 9/9/17 - Movie #2,741

BEFORE: The appearance of Jerry Lewis in archive footage in "Trumbo" allows me to connect to this film, and work in a three-film tribute to Jerry, who passed away last week.  This was always part of the plan, I didn't change things up just because he died, it's also my connection to the first film in the October chain.  Honestly, I meant to get to that comedy/horror film last year, which is when I watched 7 other films with Jerry Lewis (both with and without Dean) but by the time October rolled around, I had too many horror films, and whatever didn't link together had to be rolled over into 2017.  Then I recorded this one from the Movies! channel (they run ads, so I usually ignore them) so that I could fill up the DVD - and it took me a year to circle back and pick up these last 2 Martin & Lewis films.

TCM ran their own tribute to Jerry Lewis on Labor Day weekend, of course, but it was only 5 films and I had seen all of them before - "The Nutty Professor", "The King of Comedy", "The Stooge", "The Bellboy" and "The Disorderly Orderly".  So that leaves me with tonight's film - well, at least I didn't have to add anything else to my schedule.

THE PLOT: When an aspiring barber becomes involved in the theft of a valuable diamond, necessity forces him to masquerade as a 12 year-old child at an all-girls school.

AFTER: Well, I've got a lot of questions after watching this film.  For starters, why is it noted on the poster that there are 503 girls enrolled in the school?  What possible difference could that make?  And why did they describe the film as "The Zanyest!" Did people spell "zaniest" that way back in the 1950's?  For that matter, why did the poster declare that Martin and Lewis were "Back Together!" when they hadn't yet split as a comedy team?  The previous picture that they were both in was another of their team-up films, so it's strange to point out that they're back together when they were never apart - it really should say "Still Together! (For Now)".

The poster also calls Dean Martin the "dean" of the girls' school, which he's not - that would be too confusing, if Dean were the dean, right?  Plus it says "girl's school" when it really should say "girls' school", if I'm being nitpicky.  There is a difference.

But 1955 was a different time, and there are a lot of things seen here, for the sake of comedy, that wouldn't make much sense in our modern world.  Dean's character wants to serve in the military overseas, for some reason, and give up his position as a teacher at the girls' school, where he's also got a budding romance with another teacher.  And Jerry's character wants to be a barber, at a hotel where they put big, fancy diamonds on display for some reason (I'm not sure why a hotel would do that...) but this leads to a chain of events where a man murders someone, steals the diamond, and then tries to use Dean's character, then Jerry's character, to help smuggle the diamond out of the hotel.  (It's like the screenwriter couldn't make up his mind at first, which of the two hero characters to put into the most trouble...)

The police are searching "everyone" as they leave the hotel - so why does the thief use the pockets of strangers, who are going to be searched, also?  Are the police searching "everyone" except for the young barber student?  This makes no sense - also, people can usually tell when there's something in their pockets, so wouldn't whichever character notice that there's a giant diamond in his pants, especially if that pocket was supposed to be empty?  I hate to get caught up in these little details, but there are so many better ways to get the diamond out of the hotel without it being found.  He could have mailed it or had the diamond delivered in a package to his wife, etc.

This leads Jerry's character, Wilbur Hoolick, to get out of town, as the killer tells him to do.  He doesn't have the full fare to get back to his home in Washington, so he dresses as a child to pay half fare.  But to do this, he has to find a bratty kid who's 12 but is as big as an adult, and he walks the kid into a closet, presumably knocks him out and steals his clothes.  This seems rather disturbing - the thought of luring a 12-year old boy away from his mother and undressing him, right?  Why doesn't the mother notice that her kid is missing?  And when they find the kid in the closet without his clothes, wouldn't the authorities shut down the train station until they could find the presumed pedophile?  Plus, what were the odds against finding a 5-foot tall 12-year old in the first place?

Then Wilbur has to keep up the act on the train, since the killer is also on the train, and so is the teacher who Dean's character likes at the school.  Because of course that school is on the exact same train line that goes to Wilbur's hometown.  And of course nobody seems to mind that a 6-foot tall 12 year-old is traveling without any adult supervision.  Really?  The train conductors seem concerned for about a minute, but then Wilbur acting silly just what, allows them to forget the situation?  I guess if anyone can pass himself off as a pre-teen child, it's Jerry Lewis, but the more he acts like a kid, that should drive the point home to everyone around him that he's not in the company of an adult.

I know, it's a comedy and I'm probably over-thinking this.  The goal is to get Jerry's character up to Dean's school so they can be in a sort of love triangle with the teacher.  There's another female character, who sort of has her eyes on Dean, but the film sort of forgets about her after a while, it seems she's only there to let Wilbur stay in her house with her son (who happens to be an amateur gemologist, another coincidence) - great, so the adult pretending to be a child is now bunking with a real 12-year old boy.  I'm sure that's fine, too, right?

Eventually the jewel thief/killer figures out where Wilbur got off the train, and makes his way to the school, pretending to be Wilbur's father.  You know, the one who let him take a train trip by himself or lost track of him along the way.  And the school's headmistress just lets this terrible "father" walk out of there with his son, instead of alerting the authorities.  But the cops show up, too, and this leads to a boat chase across the lake with Wilbur supposedly water-skiing and doing stunts.  (Clearly it's a stuntman, because the shots with Jerry Lewis in them are obviously rear-projection stage shots.).

Wikipedia tells me this is a gender-flipped remake of "The Major and the Minor", a 1942 film where Ginger Rogers pretended to be a young girl to get a half-fare on the train.  She ended up in the train cabin of an older man who taught at a military academy, and honestly that doesn't sound any less lurid or ridiculous.  This version then added in the diamond theft and a bunch of tepid songs, like "Simpatico" and "Face the Music".

That's it for a couple of weeks - I'll be back with Martin and Lewis on October 1 for Halloween stuff!

Also starring Dean Martin (last seen in "Bells Are Ringing"), Raymond Burr (last seen in "Rear Window"), Diana Lynn (last seen in "Every Girl Should Be Married"), Nina Foch, Mitzi McCall (last seen in "EdTV"), Whitey Haupt, Tommy Ivo, Veda Ann Borg (last seen in "The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer"), with cameos from Hans Conreid (last seen in "The Barkleys of Broadway"), Nancy Kulp (last seen in "The Caddy"), Tor Johnson.

RATING: 4 out of 10 calisthenics

Friday, September 8, 2017


Year 9, Day 251 - 9/8/17 - Movie #2,740

BEFORE: It occurs to me that this week has really been all about Communism and the Cold War era.  From fighting the Communist China-backed troops in "We Were Soldiers" to Bobby Fischer facing Soviet chess players in "Pawn Sacrifice", and even "Arrival" dealt with Communist leaders who were also in contact with the aliens.  So, since that's my loose theme for the week, I might as well lean into it with this film about the blacklisting of American Communist screenwriters.  And Michael Stuhlbarg carries over from "Arrival" for the last time this year, I think.  But I'll see Bryan Cranston again at the end of October's Halloween chain, more about that later.  But I'm going to get very sneaky with the linking after this, since I'm counting appearances made via archive footage.

And for the sake of the Halloween chain, which is going to really be two or three little chains sort of "Frankensteined" together, appropriately, I'm going to allow characters, like, umm, Dr. Frankenstein, to carry over between films whenever possible.

THE PLOT: Dalton Trumbo was Hollywood's top screenwriter, until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs.

AFTER: I know it seems hard to believe, but there was a time in American political history where Communists were ostracized or even jailed just based on the way that they thought, or if they belonged to a particular political party - which was (and still is) a legal thing to do.  These days we don't imprison people who have dealings with Russia, it seems we elect them President now...  Yes, we all know that there was a couple of giant countries on the other side of the globe that were also Communist, and those countries were threatening to destroy us at the time, but that still didn't give the U.S. government the right to tell people how to think or what to say.  Sure, it's hard to let people speak their mind sometimes, especially in times like now, when some people are spouting racist things or reviving old Nazi ways of thinking, but trying to function like the thought police never really ends well - it's better in the long run to allow people to be wrong, if that's the way that you perceive their ideas, and hope that they will learn the error of their way of thinking in the long run.  (The minute that they physically harm someone, or interfere with someone else's rights, though, feel free to point that out...)

Hollywood keeps making movies about the blacklist, or the HUAC or the McCarthy hearings, like "Guilty By Suspicion" and "Good Night, Good Luck" - maybe Hollywood just likes making movies about making movies, and this is a sneaky way to do it and seem politically important.  The funny thing about Dalton Trumbo, one of the "Hollywood Ten" screenwriters who were, in fact, members of the American Communist Party (which again, at the time they joined, was a legal thing to be) is that he never really stopped working - after he served 10 months in federal prison he wrote screenplays under other people's names, or phony names, and wrote screenplays for B-movies and maybe even a few C-movies.  Finally he landed a gigs writing "Spartacus" for Kirk Douglas and "Exodus" for Otto Preminger and was able, after many years of hustling, to get his name back on the screen.

A couple of Oscar nominations for pseudonyms - people who didn't really exist - probably didn't hurt, and Trumbo's wife and kids stood by him, even though they were forced to answer the phones for several non-existent people and deliver screenplays to the various studios all over Hollywood.  Hey, kids, it's good experience, it builds character - you'll appreciate this one day for sure.  And I should know, I pretty much started my career in film production by doing deliveries.  And then the Academy finally came around and presented Dalton Trumbo with his Oscar for "The Brave One" in 1975.

I found parts of this film to be quite funny, though I don't think it was designed to be a comedy.  But some parts showed how ridiculous a process the whole screenwriting / movie-making thing can be, and if you happen to work in that industry, those gags can have twice the impact.  All the talk about making schlocky horror films was relevant, too, especially as I'm getting set up to watch a bunch of those in October.  Now, I realize that a man going to jail to defend his beliefs is not particularly funny, that's the not the part I'm referring to.

At least this film didn't have too many scenes of a writer staring at a blank page in a typewriter, the way so many of the films about writers seem to do.  Writer's block didn't seem to be a problem for Trumbo, if anything he seemed to have the opposite problem, that he had to keep on writing and didn't seem to be able to stop.  I didn't really understand why he typed while in the bathtub - I suppose I could see it if someone was such a prolific writer that he had to type all the time, even while bathing, but here it seems like Trumbo used this as part of his process, and I don't see how sitting in a tub of water could help - wouldn't his fingers get all pruney, which would make it harder to type?  Wouldn't the paper get all soggy?

Also starring Bryan Cranston (last heard in "Kung Fu Panda 3"), Diane Lane (last seen in "Untraceable"), Helen Mirren (last seen in "Calendar Girls"), John Goodman (last seen in "Patriots Day"), Stephen Root (last heard in "The Fox and the Hound 2"), Alan Tudyk (last heard in "Moana"), Louis C.K. (last heard in "The Secret Life of Pets"), Richard Portnow (last seen in "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai"), Roger Bart (last seen in "Last Vegas"), Elle Fanning (last heard in "The Boxtrolls"), Dean O'Gorman (last seen in "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies"), John Getz (last seen in "Jobs"), David Maldonado (last seen in "The 5th Wave"), Dan Bakkedahl (last seen in "Get Hard"), David James Elliott, Madison Wolfe, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (last seen in "Concussion"), Christian Berkel (last seen in "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."), James Dumont (also last seen in "Patriots Day"), Sean Bridgers (last seen in "Free State of Jones"), J.D. Evermore (last seen in "Deepwater Horizon"), Peter Mackenzie, Mark Harelik, with archive footage of Eddie Albert (last seen in "Hustle"), Lauren Bacall (last heard in "Ernest & Celestine"), Lucille Ball (last seen in "Follow the Fleet"), Humphrey Bogart (last seen in "Dark Victory"), James Garner (last seen in "How Sweet It Is!"), Cary Grant (last seen in "Destination Tokyo"), Audrey Hepburn (last seen in "Two for the Road"), Danny Kaye (last seen in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"), John F. Kennedy (last seen in "Pawn Sacrifice"), Richard Nixon (ditto), Deborah Kerr (last seen in "Julius Caesar"), Jerry Lewis (last seen in "The Ladies Man"), Laurence Olivier (last seen in "A Bridge Too Far"), Gregory Peck (last seen in "Roman Holiday"), Ronald Reagan, Julius Rosenberg, Ethel Rosenberg, Joseph Stalin, Jean Simmons (last seen in "The Robe"), Woody Strode (last seen in "The Black Stallion Returns"), Dalton Trumbo.

RATING: 6 out of 10 pieces of birthday cake

Thursday, September 7, 2017


Year 9, Day 250 - 9/7/17 - Movie #2,739

BEFORE: Welcome back to Day 3 of the world's first and only Michael Stuhlbarg Film Festival, as he carries over again from "Miles Ahead".  This ran on cable starting about a month ago, so I didn't have to dip into the Academy screeners pile again, I'll save that for tomorrow.

But I wanted to get this one worked in this year, not next, because spoilers - plus I've been very curious about it, this film got so much buzz last year - or was it early this year, during awards season?  I figure if I already watched "The Fifth Wave" this year, and I'm also planning on watching "Independence Day: Resurgence" PLUS a few notable alien invasion films during October, I should also include this one, because that will make for a better wrap-up on this topic when the year is over.

I had an internal debate about adding "Rush" to this year's list, because that's another Chris Hemsworth film, which will not only give him an edge over his brother Liam when I start totaling up 2017's appearances, but also removes a potential link to next year's "Avengers: Infinity War".  I've had the same problem 3 times this week, watching "Arrival" with Jeremy Renner and"Miles Ahead" with Don Cheadle and "Labor Day" with Josh Brolin means three fewer potential links to that film.  But I can't concern myself with that right now, I've got to finish this year the best way that I can - plus "Infinity War" has a HUGE cast with many notable actors - I'm sure I'll find another way to link to it somehow.

THE PLOT: When twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the alien visitors.

AFTER: This is a very tough film to review, especially if, like me, you're in the habit of trying to avoid spoilers.  Note that I said "trying" - because it may be impossible to talk about this film without giving something important away, so if you haven't seen this one yet, stop reading now, or pause and go see it and come back, whichever.  I think I could talk about OTHER films that "Arrival" seemed to liberally borrow from, and then maybe I can be all around it without being right on it.  OK?  (And if you haven't seen the films that I'm about to reference, either, please stop reading, or go out and watch them and come back.)

The first obvious reference is to "2001: A Space Odyssey", a film that is still driving people (like my boss) mad, because they don't understand the ending.  What's to understand?  I saw a guy reading the "2001" novel on the subway platform the other day, and I was tempted to go up to him and say, "I know the ending - the monolith did it!" but I resisted.  That would not have been cool.  Seriously, though, Dave Bowman gains mastery over time and space and becomes the cosmic starchild, is that so difficult to process?  Sure, Kubrick got all "arty" with it, showing him as an old man, then a fetus and so on, but the message seems pretty clear to me.  Whatever the monolith is - a cosmic guardian, a vessel for an advanced cosmic being, a time machine, an evolution aide - you can learn more about it by reading Arthur C. Clarke's follow-up novels, "2010", "2061" and "3001".  I have, and it's a shame that nobody seems to be making "2061" into a movie right now, probably because nobody truly understands the first two films.  Again, I blame Kubrick for screwing it up - I've always liked the film  "2010" with John Lithgow, Roy Scheider and Helen Mirren, better anyway.  "Arrival" has some cool spaceship that sort of calls the monolith to mind.

The second reference is to Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five", one of my favorite books.  In that story (made into a film in 1972) Billy Pilgrim becomes "unstuck" in time and is able to travel through the past events of his life, which ends up playing out before us like one of these bio-pics of Miles Davis or James Brown, so we get to see all the ironic connections between events in the past, present and future.  Late in the book/film it's revealed that Pilgrim was (possibly) abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who put him in an alien zoo and eventually gave him mastery over space and time, which justifies the time-jumping through his life.  Now, whether you believe in these aliens, or you assume that Billy Pilgrim has gone crazy or was brain-damaged somehow, that's up to you.

The next obvious reference is to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", one of the classic "alien contact" films, which I saw during its initial release in 1977.  In that film aliens had been abducting humans since the 1950's, all in an effort to obtain our advanced entertainment technology, because they were apparently in dire need of some sort of cosmic nightclub. But it wasn't until the 1970's that such technology existed, and once we built the aliens a discotheque on top of Devil's Tower in Wyoming, and started communicating with them via a Moog synthesizer, that the two races were able to understand each other.  Let's face it, the 1970's were a very strange time.

I don't want to leave out "Contact", another film based on one of my favorite books, this one written by Carl Sagan.  In that story, the aliens communicate with us via our own old TV transmissions, and the first one of any note that was broadcast to space happened to be the 1936 Olympics - so the aliens' first transmission back to us, by way of saying "hello", happened to be footage of Adolf Hitler.  Way to make a first impression, aliens.   Naturally people on Earth started freaking out for fear that there might be Nazis in space (side idea for a possible future film - "Astro-Nazis".  Or maybe "Cosmo-Nazis"?) - and it's worth noting that this little plot point was in the novel, but did not appear in the 1997 film, which chose to focus instead on what the existence of aliens meant to human religion.  And when the aliens did finally appear to the main character, they took the form of her father, which was a cheap way to gain her trust, if you ask me.

Finally, I want to reference the 2 TV shows I've been watching lately, "Twin Peaks" and "11.22.63", which both are connected to time-travel.  (At least, I THINK the finale of "Twin Peaks" had some time travel in it...)  After all, if you can travel between worlds, the distances are so great that you're not just traveling through space, but also through time...  "11.22.63" is all about a man traveling back to try to prevent the JFK assassination, and in "Twin Peaks", Cooper had to make one final play to try to save Laura Palmer, which meant going back to the day she was killed.  But there's a problem here where time travel is concerned, which is that if you go back to prevent something from happening, and you succeed, then there's no version of you that was aware of the bad thing that would then go back to prevent it.  So you end up caught in a time-loop, where the bad thing happens, then it doesn't, then it does again, or something like that.  So you can't ever succeed in changing the past, or more likely, you can't travel back in time in the first place, except in fiction.

There would be similarities to other alien films, such as "Independence Day" or "Signs" or "The War of the Worlds", if you want to believe that these aliens in "Arrival" are here to take over - but are they?  How do we know that they're not here to fix global warming, or end famine, or just maybe to borrow a cup of uranium or something?  Ah, language.  If only there were a linguistics expert available who could try to understand them in a race against the clock, one who also happens to be easy on the eyes and in need of a purpose in her life.  Wait, we might know just the person...

But even though it borrows liberally from the films above, I think it managed to take all those elements and blend them together in a new, innovative way.  And for a film that's very flashback-y and non-linear, which usually drives me crazy, that sort of turned out to have a real purpose here, kind of like the engine driving the car, rather than being the car itself.  I'm not sure about the "aliens-ex-machina" ending, but it did make me want to go back and watch the film a second time to see what I might have missed.  Plus, it's such a darn elegant film, even in its subversive structure.

There, I think that I've pretty much told you everything, without telling you anything at all.  I hope you're now as intrigued as I was.

Also starring Amy Adams (last seen in "Big Eyes"), Jeremy Renner (last seen in "Captain America: Civil War"), Forest Whitaker (last heard in "Ernest & Celestine"), Mark O'Brien, Tzi Ma.

RATING: 7 out of 10 cans of Play-Doh

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Miles Ahead

Year 9, Day 249 - 9/6/17 - Movie #2,738

BEFORE: Michael Stuhlbarg carries over from "Pawn Sacrifice", and I'm getting the feeling this guy is a chameleon of sorts - well, at least he's a character actor and he's worked a LOT in the last couple of years, so that helps make my linking a lot easier, and it allows me to get to some films that I've been very curious about, or at least very interested in crossing off the list.  Sometimes it's hard for me to tell the difference.  Two more Stuhlbarg appearances this week before I go on break - so this guy has a shot at beating Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Nick Offerman and maybe even Chris Hemsworth for the 2nd most appearances this year, after Fred Astaire.  Stuhlbarg's on track to be in 7 films that I've watched in 2017, which is a pretty good showing for an actor I never noticed before, not until he had a role in "Fargo" this last season.  Chris Hemsworth may also appear in 7, if I add in "Rush" at the last minute, but that would mean I'd have to drop a film from the October chain.  I need to think about this first, though.

THE PLOT: An exploration of the life and music of Miles Davis, depicting his attempts to get his career back on track following a period of inactivity and drug addiction in the 1970's.

AFTER: Once again, it's a film following this trendy recent trend of breaking a notable person's life up into fragments, and letting them splay out across a movie screen in (more or less) random order.  This trend shows no sign of slowing any time soon, and come the end of this Movie Year, I'll need to make a full accounting of how many films followed this ridiculous pattern.  Why does everyone seem to hate linear narratives so much?  And can you really say that a bio-pic has done justice to its subject, by focusing on just a few key (in this case, probably fictional) scenes in his life?  I mean, all of us live in our lives in linear fashions, don't we?  Why do recent films have such a hard time representing this?

Unfortunately, I don't know enough about the life of Miles Davis to be able to put this fractured movie back into some kind of linear order.  I get that he didn't release any music for a period of about five years, during which time he had both a drug addiction and some health problems with his hip.  But if the goal here was to introduce Miles Davis to people like me who did NOT follow his career or listen to his music, or know anything about the story of his life, then I have to say that the format was not conducive to educating me, because now I'm more confused about what he did and what happened to him than ever.

Plus, this malarkey with the journalist from Rolling Stone who wanted to interview him, but also kind of wanted to steal the recording demo for his new album - if this part of the story never happened, then it's a complete waste of everyone's time.  You can't give us a feel for who Miles Davis really was if you show us things that didn't really happen.

Unfortunately, I don't have much of an ear for Davis' music, or jazz in general, it all sort of ends up sounding the same to me - which I think has a lot to do with the freeform nature of jazz, but that comes at a cost, if you ask me.  I honestly can't tell Miles Davis from Charlie Parker or Thelonius Monk, sorry.  The only inroad I have into jazz is knowing what instrument some of the musicians are famous for, so if I hear a prominent clarinet, I could guess Benny Goodman, or if I hear a lot of trumpet, that could be Dizzy Gillespie or Louis Armstrong - but beyond that, I'm kind of clueless.

So with that in mind, I'm apparently missing out on whatever insight I was supposed to get by hearing the results of his varying creative process, as seen at different points in his life.  Since the music all sounded the same to me, I didn't get how what was going on his life got represented in the music at the different stages.  Here, I'm not sure if the problem was inherent in the film or my lack of hearing differences in the music, but either way, whatever message was meant to be conveyed was not received by me.

There was a little bit of a story when he was arrested for loitering outside the nightclub that he was playing at, and this almost came close to making a point about racism in America in the 1960's, but in the end this felt like a throwaway nod to the times, nothing really came of it, which is a shame, because the way this country is going right now, this part could have been relevant.

Also starring Don Cheadle (last seen in "Captain America: Civil War"), Ewan McGregor (last seen in "I Love You Phillip Morris"), Emayatzy Corinealdi, Lakeith Stanfield (last seen in "Snowden"), Brian Bowman, Christina Karis, Austin Lyon (last seen in "Pitch Perfect 2"), Jeffrey Grover (last seen in "Compliance"), Theron Brown, JT Thigpen, Morgan Wolk (last seen in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"), Nina Smilow, Drew Lachey, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter.

RATING: 4 out of 10 signed album covers

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Pawn Sacrifice

Year 9, Day 248 - 9/5/17 - Movie #2,737

BEFORE: I forgot to mention yesterday that I was watching "Labor Day" from another Academy screener.  It hardly matters any more whether I'm watching something off a screener, or on Netflix, or iTunes (which has helped me track down several films already this year that have NOT popped up on cable) or in the movie theater.  Which has been a big change for me this year, it's really opened up my possibilities and linking opportunities - after 9 years, I'm finally able to ask myself, "What do I want to watch next?" instead of "What does the schedule dictate that I watch next?"  

I'm fairly sure that "Labor Day" did air on premium cable, since it came out in 2014.  But maybe not, I haven't seen it, maybe I missed it but I can't be sure.  No channel certainly decided to run it this past weekend as an obvious tie-in to the calendar, like I did.  Tobey Maguire carries over from "Labor Day" into tonight's film, as I get to another Academy screener, another film that came out last year that I was very curious about, but not enough to go to the theater to see.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Bobby Fischer Against the World" (Movie #2,121)

THE PLOT: Set during the Cold War, American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer finds himself caught between two superpowers and his own struggles as he challenges the Soviet chess champions.

AFTER: Aside from the fact that Tobey Maguire doesn't particularly resemble Bobby Fischer, the other main negative here is that nearly all of this material was covered in the documentary about him, which I watched about two years ago.  But even if it doesn't bring anything new to the table, it's still a fascinating topic, and I understand that some people just don't watch documentaries, and they need things presented to them in a dramatic form.

I wish this one had gotten more into the specifics of chess, but I guess that might have alienated any viewers who aren't familiar with the game or its intricacies.  But the downside to this is that someone didn't have the time or inclination to get into the gameplay, it was an easier or safer choice to cut right to the end of each match so we don't have to wait to find out who won.  Which feels like a constant narrative copout, but on the other hand, it's what was necessary to do in order to avoid all that chess stuff.  Because come on, even if you're a chess fan, you have to admit that the majority of the match is quite boring, all except for that bit at the end - and watching people sit and THINK about what moves they want to make is even more boring than watching them do it.

The whole film clearly falls into the "Bobby Fischer's got ISSUES" camp, first as a young boy who demands to know who his father is, shortly after becoming the world's youngest grandmaster, and then later as a professional with a constantly changing set of demands, finding an excuse to not play whenever a match doesn't seem to be going his way.  And then by the end of the film, as a psychotic nut who made anti-American and anti-Semitic statements - despite coming from a Jewish background himself.  You can say that maybe chess or the pressure of matches made him crazy and drove him into exile, but that still doesn't excuse the racist stuff and his belief in conspiracy theories.

How are you supposed to root for the only American to win the FIDE World Chess Championship and the youngest International Master if he also denied the Holocaust happened?  I think this is similar to some of the debates we're having now in America, concerning everything from Civil War statues to Charlie Sheen.  How do we celebrate the successes that people had if there's also something shady in their past?  Does a successful presidency or a military victory or two outweigh the ownership of slaves?  Discuss.

But as long as we're in political Cold War territory (as seen over the weekend with two films about politics in southeast Asia in the 1960's) I can't help but notice the similarity between Fischer's matches with Boris Spassky and the Ia Drang Valley battles seen in "We Were Soldiers" - chess is an allegory for war, right?  And in both cases, we see how one opponent gained an advantage by switching tactics, which causes the other opponent to change tactics/gameplay, and then that change causes the first opponent to change tactics, and so on.  The "Pawn Sacrifice" in the title refers to a series of moves in chess where a player loses a pawn intentionally because this gains him another advantage, such as gaining more space for his pieces or getting other pieces into a better position - so by extension, aren't soldiers just pawns who are sacrificed so that their team/country gains a little bit of ground - it's like losing a battle in the hopes of winning the war as a result.

Insert my usual complaint (I should just have some kind of standard form for this by now) about the film starting at the most crucial point (Game 2 in the Championships in Iceland, when Bobby failed to appear...) and then flashing back to his childhood in a defiance of narrative form.  Geez, isn't everyone tired of these splash-page antics by now?  I've seen this happen so many times this year alone that I can't stand this format any more.  But the trend has taken root, there's just no killing it at this point - but it's still a CRUTCH used by lazy screenwriters.  Instead of starting with the most interesting scene and flashing back to the boring stuff, why not find a way to make the boring stuff more interesting?  Isn't that the JOB of a screenwriter, after all?

Also starring Liev Schreiber (last seen in "Spotlight"), Michael Stuhlbarg (last seen in "Steve Jobs"), Peter Sarsgaard (last seen in "Jackie"), Lily Rabe (last seen in "All Good Things"), Robin Weigert (last seen in "Two Weeks Notice"), Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick (last seen in "Moonrise Kingdom"), Conrad Pia, Evelyne Brochu, Alexandre Gorchkov (last seen in "RED 2"), Vitali Makarov (last seen in "Rollerball"), Katie Nolan, Edward Zinoviev, Brett Watson, with archive footage of Dick Cavett (last seen in "Listen to Me Marlon"), Muhammad Ali, Bobby Fischer (last seen in "Bobby Fischer Against the World"), Boris Spassky (ditto), John F. Kennedy, Jackie Kennedy, Richard Nixon, John Lennon (last seen in "Steve Jobs"), Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr,

RATING: 6 out of 10 draw offers

Monday, September 4, 2017

Labor Day

Year 9, Day 247 - 9/4/17 - Movie #2,736

BEFORE: See, now, this is where I wanted my linking to lead me, to where I could watch "Labor Day" on Labor Day - how much more appropriate could this be?  So far this year I managed to land "Finian's Rainbow" on St. Patrick's Day, "The Passion of the Christ" and "Risen" on Easter weekend, and "Mother's Day" on Mother's Day.  I think I'm doing all right in 2017.  If I can just hit Halloween with something appropriate and finish the year the way I want, I'll be satisfied.  No Christmas movies this year, because no channel has run "Bad Santa 2" yet or "Office Christmas Party", and the plan's already in place to get me to the end of the year without leaving any spaces for those movies.

Thankfully, "Labor Day" is not a Garry Marshall-directed ensemble comedy with 20 different name actors in it.  Clark Gregg carries over from "We Were Soldiers".

THE PLOT: A depressed single mom and her son offer a wounded man a ride.  As police search town for the escaped convict, the mother and son gradually learn his true story as their options become increasingly limited.

AFTER: Clark Gregg plays the ex-husband here, and the father to the young central character who watches as his mother slowly falls for an escaped convict who's chosen their home to hide in on a long Labor Day weekend, as he waits for the trains to start running again so he can hop aboard and leave town.  (Apparently he never saw the film "Into the Wild", train engineers don't like it when people jump on freight trains for free rides...)

As the weekend progresses, I wasn't sure if we were seeing a take on the Stockholm syndrome, where people under stress tend to have feelings for their captors - or if this convict was a genuinely good man, who didn't deserve to be in prison in the first place.  This little fact, though important, is a mystery at first, but we do his life story unspool in flashbacks as the film goes on.  No spoilers, but suffice it to say that we're dealing with people who are damaged in different ways, and the implication is that they could be the solution to each other's problems - or the convict could be manipulating the mother to get a ride out of town, it's impossible to be sure.

With the setting of a small Massachusetts town (Red Sox hats are everywhere) and the tension that gets created with a convict invading this family's home, I had to check twice to make sure that this wasn't based on a Stephen King story - it had that same kind of feel to it.  The dramatic tension that Hitchcock achieved with visuals often comes through in a King story, but through wondering about people's intentions, or the impact of confinement in buildings ("Misery", "The Shining") on people who are close to the edge.  I think if Stephen King ever set out to write a romance, it might come out something like this.

I was also reminded of those two escaped convicts in upstate New York, Richard Matt and David Sweat in 2015.  This film was released in early 2014, with a similar storyline - one of those convicts was having a relationship with a woman who worked at the prison, who was supposed to pick them up in her car after they broke out, but she changed her mind at the last minute.  After the news broke, people wondered how a prison inmate could be so charming to a married woman, to make her consider leaving her husband and driving off with him, but it could happen.  And I remember everyone figured these two would make a run for the Canadian border, but me, I would have headed for Mexico - a lot further away, but nobody would be expecting it.

But back to the film - Frank, the convict, passes the time by doing odd jobs around the house, like changing the oil in the car or fixing that squeaky door - in just a couple of days, it's like he's lived there for years, even teaching young Henry how to hit a baseball.  In a very short time, he takes over all the husbandly and fatherly duties, filling the gap caused by the absent ex-husband.  Much can be drawn from the scene where he teaches mother and son how to make a peach pie, which is not the kind of thing you tend to learn in prison, so perhaps this is some remnant of his previous life?  Discuss.

Labor Day is a strange holiday (we get the day off to celebrate hard work?) and some people use the long weekend to go on vacation, but others use it to get things done around the house - like changing the oil or baking a pie?  Me, I got out in the backyard today and chopped down weeds for a couple of hours - the grapevine grows all spring and summer long, and by September it's spread new tendrils out into the neighbor's yard, and also up into their tree.  If I don't cut it back, it will eventually kill that tree, so once the weather gets a little cooler, I've got to deal with it.  Now I can watch those far-off leaves slowly whither and die over the fall, which means I've kept all the nearby vegetation alive for another year.

So in many ways, Labor Day is about endings, it's the ending of the summer season, and I've also managed to get to the end of several TV series in the past week - "American Gods", "Twin Peaks" and (very soon) "11.22.63".  It's time to clear the DVRs and get ready for the new TV season, and I'm also only a few days away from the end of my September chain - next weekend I'll go on hiatus for about three weeks, and I'll be back on October 1.  But before that, it's another mixed bag of films this week, most of them with Michael Stuhlbarg in them.

Also starring Kate Winslet (last seen in "Steve Jobs"), Josh Brolin (last seen in "Hail, Caesar!"), Gattlin Griffith, Tobey Maguire (last seen in "The Great Gatsby"), Tom Lipinski, Maika Monroe (last seen in "The 5th Wave"), Brooke Smith (last seen in "Interstellar"), Lucas Hedges (last seen in "Manchester By the Sea"), Micah Fowler, Alexie Gilmore, Brighid Fleming, with cameos from J.K. Simmons (last heard in "Zootopia"), James Van Der Beek.

RATING: 6 out of 10 Friendly's Fribbles

Sunday, September 3, 2017

We Were Soldiers

Year 9, Day 246 - 9/3/17 - Movie #2,735

BEFORE: As you might imagine, I would have preferred to save this one for a holiday like Veterans' Day or even Armed Forces Day, but the linking prevails.  I need to put this one here to link to tomorrow's Labor Day-themed film, with Mel Gibson carrying over from "The Year of Living Dangerously".  My schedule for October through December is fixed now, anyway, so there's little chance of me shuffling things around at this point.  But I recently got copies of "Hacksaw Ridge", along with "Heartbreak Ridge", so at least I can put one of those on an appropriate day next year, perhaps.

THE PLOT: The story of the first major battle of the American phase of the Vietnam War and the soldiers who fought it, while their wives waited nervously at home for the good news or the bad news.

AFTER: It's a logical leap from last night's film to this one, right?  Both have Mel Gibson, both films are about war in Southeast Asia, both are set in 1964-65 or so.  But Gibson was closer to the start of his acting career in "The Year of Living Dangerously", and by the time this was made, 20 or so years later, he was a grizzled veteran - playing, of course, a grizzled veteran.  

I've seen quite a few war films by now, and I treat them in a manner similar to how I treat boxing films - in that I appreciate them, but I don't always understand the technical details of what's taking place.  But this one seemed to be going out of its way to get involved in those details.  We see Gibson's Lt. Col Moore going over plans before the Vietnam War starts, weighing the pros and cons of what the new helicopters can do, and realizing that they're going to be integral to the strategy of a new kind of war, one that's fought on the ground and from the air simultaneously.  And then during the battle scenes we see just how correct he turned out to be, with the copters delivering soldiers, then helping with the attack from above, then picking up wounded soldiers to bring back to base, then coming back with more ammo and supplies for the troops who are still holding their position.

And I kind of dig stuff like that, not to mention the peek inside the enemy's bunker as the Viet Cong plan flanking maneuvers, or change their strategy once they figure out what kind of war the Americans decided to wage.  Then the U.S. troops change THEIR strategy when the V.C. attack, and so on.  That being said, the resulting scenes of troops being shot or burned up (on both sides) are so graphic that I felt that much of this film bordered on a sort of war porn.  But maybe it needed to be, to drive the point home to the audience that this is what happened, this is how it went down.

By contrast, the scenes back in the U.S., where Moore's wife takes it upon herself to intercept the telegrams from Western Union meant to inform soldiers' wives that they died in battle, delivered very impersonally by a cab driver to prove that the Army failed to prepare adequately for this situation.  Mrs. Moore is able to offer the widows the comfort and support that the Army could not, and that helps to put a human face on the tragedy - each soldier is not just some random person in uniform shot by enemy fire, he's a husband and/or a father who will be missed.

So I'm split on this one, it's an important reminder about what happened in Vietnam, even though that's been seen in many other movies, but it also felt a bit exploitative to me, getting the maximum amount of drama out of historical tragedy.  Maybe we can learn something from the fact that both sides claimed victory in this skirmish at the Ia Drang Valley, or maybe it's worth pointing out that though some of the Lt. Col's promises were kept (to be the first man in and the last one out), others obviously were not (to leave no man behind, whether alive or dead).

Also starring Madeleine Stowe (last seen in "Another Stakeout"), Greg Kinnear (last seen in "Stuck on You"), Sam Elliott (last heard in "The Good Dinosaur"), Chris Klein (last seen in "American Dreams"), Keri Russell (last seen in "Free State of Jones"), Barry Pepper (last seen in "25th Hour"), Mark McCracken, Duong Don, Ryan Hurst (last seen in "CBGB"), Marc Blucas (last seen in "Sleeping With Other People"), Josh Daugherty, Jsu Garcia, Jon Hamm (last seen in "Keeping Up with the Joneses"), Clark Gregg (last seen in "The To Do List"), Blake Heron, Desmond Harrington (last seen in "Riding in Cars With Boys"), Robert Bagnell, Erik MacArthur, Dylan Walsh (last seen in "Betsy's Wedding"), Brian Tee, Bellamy Young, Jim Grimshaw, Daniel Roebuck, Luke Benward, Taylor Momsen (last seen in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"), Sloane Momsen (ditto), Devon Werkheiser, Josh McLaurin.

RATING: 5 out of 10 bayonets