Monday, June 17, 2019

1922

Year 11, Day 167 - 6/16/19 - Movie #3,264

BEFORE: Wrapping up my weekend in Massachusetts, taking my parents out to dinner tonight.  Driving around my old home town is always weird, because there's a new mix of restaurants and stores, very few of the places I used to go to as a teen are still around - the local ice cream store is still there, that hopefully will never go away, but the best restaurants from my childhood memories are all gone.  In the same way, my parents' house is filled with a weird mix of things, like toys and games from my childhood, furniture from my grandmother's house, stuff left behind by people who've stayed there over the years, etc.  My cousin's living in my old bedroom, so I had to sleep in my sister's old room, but at least the mattress there was very firm, my back appreciated that.  But things are just all sort of crazy-backwards there now, it's not like when I was a teenager at all.

Brian D'Arcy James carries over from "Molly's Game" - and he'll be here for four films total, so I think he's kind of like my Caleb Landry Jones for 2019, in that I'd never heard of him before, but once I know who he is, he seems to be everywhere, and I absolutely need to use him as a link to make my chain progress the way I want.


THE PLOT: A simple yet proud farmer in the year 1922 conspires to murder his wife for financial gain, convincing his teenage son to assist - but their actions have unintended consequences.

AFTER: I got a bit excited when I read the plotline for this film, because in its own twisted, horror-based way, it seemed like it would tie in with Father's Day well.  In that creepy, Stephen King sort of way, I hoped - and that turned out to be the case.  If I'm going to pull off a "perfect year" in 2019, that means I've got to relax my own rules on the genres a little bit - and horror films have spilled out of October somewhat, and then other genres seems to want to spill INTO October - I'm putting one superhero film there (Dark Phoenix) and several animated films, and even one film about golf.  Whatever helps maintain the chain and doesn't allow it to be broken.

So, in that same spirit, I'm allowing a bit of the horror genre to overlap or spill into Father's Day.  Primarily, this is a film about a man that kills his wife, but he does that with the help of his own son - yes, he uses his influence as a father to turn his son against his own mother, and that maybe gives us an idea about how families were different back in the early part of the 20th century, when men were in the power position, women had fewer rights and had only had the right to vote for a very short time.  Divorce was stigmatized, I mean it existed but who wanted that kind of scandal in their history, and courts might be more likely to side with the father where parental rights were concerned, unless that child was still so young that it needed constant care from the mother.

But the plot has to sort bend itself over backwards to create a situation where spousal murder is considered the only option.  Of course it wasn't, this couple could have parted ways more amicably, but it's so complicated, and neither side wants to budge.  Nebraska farmer Wilfred James owns 80 acres of land where he farms corn, and then his wife Arlette inherits another 100 adjoining acres from her father.  He wants to stay and double their output of corn, but she wants to sell both plots and start a new life in the big city, Omaha.  Since they can't agree it looks like divorce is imminent, only she wants to take their son with her to the city, and this would both reduce the manpower on the farm AND take him away from his new girlfriend, who lives down the road on the next farm.  So while in more modern times other options would be possible - like selling the 100 acres to an interested client to fund her dress shop and then maybe a trial separation, that way if her dress shop failed or she found that she really missed her husband and/or farm life, she could move back.

But in 1922, in this circumstance, to this man, under stress to come up with a hasty solution, murder seemed like the best way out.  But that's just the start of the story.  How should one hide a body, and make it look like she left under her own power?  What's involved in covering up the crime, and what happens when the local sheriff (played by Brian D'Arcy James) comes around making an inquiry?  And then, over time, can the father and son move forward, knowing what they've done, and not let any information about their crime slip out?  How do you look your father (or son) in the eye when you know, deep down, what he's capable of?

Then there are other unexpected consquences that arise - which might lead one to conclude that hiding a crime is much harder than committing the crime, or that perhaps the family is now cursed, or perhaps that's just a matter of interpretation, and the regular hardships of farm life are amplified by the farmer's guilt, so perhaps his bad luck only seems supernatural.  But the latter part of this film plays out sort of like the Edgar Allan Poe story "The Tell-Tale Heart" - hey, if you're going to steal plot points, steal from the best...  In that Poe story, a murderer's guilty conscience made him imagine that he could hear his victim's heart beating through the floorboards, which was of course impossible, but a metaphor with that kind of American Gothic gore-based creepy 19th century stuff.

I thought that every Stephen King story was set in the same county in Maine, so it's strange to see one set on a Nebraska farm.  But it turns out a farmhouse is pretty creepy during the dark days of winter, especially when a farmer with a guilty conscience is troubled by images of his dead wife.  Maybe it's a side effect of that infected bite he got from a rat, who's to say?  But the rats were pretty creepy, too.

This is the second Stephen King-based film I've watched this year, the first was "Gerald's Game".  I was planning on getting to a third when "It: Chapter Two" comes out, but now I think that's one of the films I'll need to drop this year, in order to make the count come out right.  Come to think of it, I need to put off "The Dark Tower" this year also - I could have linked to it via Idris Elba right after "Molly's Game", but I couldn't see a way back to my planned chain from there.  So two this year, then maybe two more next year.

Also starring Thomas Jane (last seen in "Drew: The Man Behind the Poster"), Molly Parker (last seen in "Hemingway & Gellhorn"), Dylan Schmid, Kaitlyn Bernard, Neal McDonough (last seen in "Game Over, Man!"), Tanya Champoux, Bob Frazer, Eric Keenleyside, Patrick Keating.

RATING: 5 out of 10 dresses left behind in the closet

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Molly's Game

Year 11, Day 166 - 6/15/19 - Movie #3,263

BEFORE: I'm back on high-stakes poker tonight, I'll get back to World War II later on this summer.  Jessica Chastain carries over from "The Zookeeper's Wife"


FOLLOW-UP TO: "Lucky You" (Movie #3,237)

THE PLOT: The true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic-class skier who ran the world's most exclusive poker game and became an FBI target.

AFTER: Since it's Father's Day weekend, let's review what I've seen so far this year about fathers, and also mothers. Notable fathers, good and bad, include the lead characters in "Suburbicon", "The Beaver", "Goodbye Christopher Robin", "Last Flag Flying", "Wakefield", "The Week Of", "The Hero", "Nights in Rodanthe", "What Happened to Monday", "Christopher Robin", "The Place Beyond the Pines", "A Wrinkle in Time", "White Boy Rick", "Captain Fantastic", "Hanna", and "Billy Elliot".

For notable films about mothers, there's "Mother!" (though that was really about Mother Earth/Nature), "The Light Between Oceans", "The Meddler", "Peace, Love & Misunderstanding", "Vox Lux", "Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again", "The Most Hated Woman in America", "Tully", "Notes on a Scandal", "The Gift", "Crazy Rich Asians", "20th Century Women", "The Grifters".  I'm probably missing a lot here, such as films like "A Quiet Place" with a focus on both parents, but you get my drift.  Fathers and mothers are all over the countdown, and I could have worked with any of the above if they happened to land on these parental holidays.

But I can certainly use "Molly's Game" as a tie-in.  When we first see Molly Bloom, she's skiing in the Olympics, or perhaps trying to qualify for the Olympics, it's hard to be sure.  But her father is right there during the competition, and the film later qualifies his appearance there with a riddle - How many female Olympic athletes have demanding fathers?  All of them.  I can't say for sure if that's true, but it feels kind of true.  Is this something that drives successful strong athletic women, trying to please Daddy, or is this an over-simplification?  Discuss. Molly's father is also a college professor and practicing therapist (or is he a psych professor?  This is also a bit unclear.)  But the flashback scenes with a teen Molly talking back to her father are quite insightful, because the implication is that she grew up wanting to control powerful men. But this doesn't really track, because running an illegal poker game doesn't seem like a direct route to controlling men - or is this just a way to try and explain or justify her actions after the fact?

What's clear is that she was driven to be an over-achiever in some fashion.  But the film raises this question, about why she did some illegal things if she could have been successful at anything she attempted - and then it never really gets around to answering it.  Yeah, the money of course, any illegal operation is liable to be quite profitable, but that's not a complete answer - why put herself at risk if she didn't absolutely have to.  Why not quit the poker scene after she raised enough money to attend law school?  After her L.A. game got shut down, why start up another, higher-stakes game in New York?  Was it the money? Power? Drugs?  Maybe there's no single, simple answer.

Maybe I shouldn't expect one from a film written and directed by Aaron Sorkin - nothing on "The West Wing" was ever really cut and dry, that show tackled a lot of complicated issues and dissenting opinions, in addition to its overlapping dialogue and conversations that took place while walking through White House hallways.  But speaking of flashbacks, there's an excessive amount of them here, as the film kicks off with Molly's arrest by the FBI, and then she has to over-explain her whole story to her potential lawyer. Yeah, I get it, it's tempting to start the film with the most exciting bit to make a splash, but then snapping back for all the details that should have gone before then can get quite tedious.  We're waiting, waiting to catch up with the present so we can find out (eventually) how her court case is going to go.

Once again, I'm fascinated by the mechanics of poker playing and poker betting.  Knowing which hands beat other hands is the easy part, but that also gets over-mansplained here. There's a little bit about how people bet when they've got good hands in the initial deal, and how they bet differently when they're bluffing, but not nearly enough.  And then I completely didn't understand how someone running a poker game with a high buy-in would extend so much credit to some of the players.  If someone comes to the game with $50,000, let's say, then if they LOSE that $50,000, they're done for the night.  Isn't that simple?  The house shouldn't extend credit to someone on a losing streak, because chances are they're not going to be able to collect from that person - so that sort of didn't add up here. Why keep throwing good money after bad?

Molly started getting her dealers to take a percentage of large pots for the house, but I don't see why this was necessary in the first place - it wouldn't have been if she just didn't extend the players so much credit.  It would have made more sense to take a percentage of the buy-in, but what do I know? But hey, if you're running an illegal gambling operation, even if you set up a corporation to do so, what could possibly go wrong?  Oh yeah, that's right, how about everything?  Getting players from the famous Brooklyn game to come to her game in Manhattan unknowingly puts her in touch with members of the Russian mafia, and that also puts her on the radar of the FBI.  Not to mention that the Italian mafia wants to work protection for her games, and they're also very hard to say no to.

But hey, good news, her trial on RICO charges brings her father back into her life, and they can work out all the outstanding psychological Elektra complex stuff, so that's something, right?  And we can finally learn why he loved his sons more than his daughter, or at least appeared to.  Maybe they just got honest jobs and didn't run illegal high-stakes poker games?  Just a thought.

NITPICK POINT: The poker games in both L.A. and New York are shown taking place in hotel rooms, and feature bars with top-shelf liquor and fancy cigars in humidors.  But when was the last time that you could legally smoke in a hotel room?  Like 99% of hotel rooms have been smoke-free for years, and the fines for smoking in a non-smoking room could have been enough to torpedo her whole operation.  Am I right?

Also starring Idris Elba (last seen in "Avengers: Infinity War"), Kevin Costner (last seen in "Rumor Has It..."), Michael Cera (last heard in "The Lego Batman Movie"), Jeremy Strong (last seen in "Time Out of Mind"), Chris O'Dowd (last heard in "Mary Poppins Returns"), J.C. MacKenzie (last seen in "The Wolf of Wall Street"), Brian D'Arcy James (last seen in "Rebel in the Rye"), Bill Camp (last seen in "Vice"),Justin Kirk (ditto) Graham Greene (last seen in "The Shack"), Angela Gots, Natalie Krill, Madison McKinley (last seen in "The Other Woman"), Stephanie Herfield, Joe Keery, Claire Rankin, Victor Serfaty, Michael Kostroff, Jon Bass (last seen in "Loving"), Whitney Peak, Samantha Isler (last seen in "Captain Fantastic"), Piper Howell, Khaled Klein, Matthew Matteo and a cameo from Aaron Sorkin.

RATING: 6 out of 10 inadequate bagels

The Zookeeper's Wife

Year 11, Day 165 - 6/14/19 - Movie #3,262

BEFORE: I'm in Massachusetts at my parents' house, which means that the cel phone service is unreliable, and I have to type on a PC instead of a Mac, so in many ways this is crazy backwards land.  There's a DVD player, but I have to jump through a lot of hoops to get it to work, like finding both remotes, fiddling with both remotes, replacing dead batteries in the remotes.  It's a process - both parents would rather watch whatever is on TV than try to figure out how to play a DVD.  My mom wants to watch "Hidden Figures" tomorrow night, so to do that I had to bring the DVD with me from NYC, and I have to play it for them, I don't think they know how.

In the meantime, I can stay up late, after everyone else goes to bed, and watch a movie - it's just like things were when I was a teenager in that respect.  I'm very lucky tonight that I found two movies on almost exactly the same theme, and Iddo Goldberg carries over from "Defiance".


THE PLOT: The account of keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, Antonina and Jan Zabinski, who helped save hundreds of people and animals during the German invasion. 

AFTER: I'll try to keep my comments short today, because my Dad's probably waiting to use the computer to play solitaire.  This is another powerful true story about people who (mostly) outsmarted the Nazis, in the style of "Schindler's List".  Hiding Jews, making phony passports for them, and getting them out of the ghettos and occupied territories through a system of safe houses, hidden passages and other devices.

In this case, the director of the Berlin Zoo was put in charge of the Warsaw Zoo, and under the pretense of protection, took the rarest animals to Berlin for "safekeeping", at least the ones that didn't run away after the first bombing of Warsaw.  This is a city that was in chaos after the invasion, and what probably didn't help was the increased chance of being attacked by a lion or a cheetah in the streets, or getting trampled by a runaway camel.

The bottom line here is that you just can't trust Germans - not the Nazi ones, anyway.  This zoo-happy Nazi had a secret agenda, which was to cross-breed certain species of European bison in order to bring back the aurochs, which I've learned was an extinct species of wild cattle.  Now, of course, we know a little bit more about genetics, and I'm pretty sure you can't reproduce a vanished species unless you've got some preserved DNA and you place that in a similar embryo, "Jurassic Park" style.  Which reminds me, didn't they find some preserved wooly mammoth some years ago, and wasn't someone going to try to put that DNA in an elephant embryo to try to bring that species back?  I'll have to check later on how that process went, because who wouldn't want to eat some BBQ mammoth for the first time in about 10,000 years?

I remember a few years back when my wife and I were in Las Vegas, and we went to Caesar's Palace

But the zookeeper and his wife come up with a plan to get back at the Nazis, and to keep control of their zoo, which had been turned into a daytime armory/barracks for German soldiers.  They turned the place into a pig farm, ostensibly to create pork to feed the soldiers - but then to feed the pigs, they offered to drive into the Jewish ghetto to collect garbage.  And if a couple of Jews happened to fall into the garbage truck, well, they could hardly be held responsible for that, now could they?  And then they also had plenty of cages, kennels and underground rooms that were used for storing animals, add a couple of cots and those rooms could easily be repurposed for living quarters for Jewish refugees.

As with "Defiance", the secret to defeating Nazis came in figuring out their patterns.  The soldiers would occupy the zoo during the day, to store weapons and materials there, but would leave at night to barracks elsewhere.  If there's one thing that Germans are, they're well-organized and they live and die by their rules and routines, OCD-like.  It turns out that the sitcom "Hogan's Heroes" wasn't that far off, if you could just figure out the routines of the Nazi army, you could just work around them to your advantage, and make the best of this terrible situation with the resources and personnel that you had.  That comedy was set in a German prison camp, but they had underground rooms, working radio equipment, and they were always smuggling prisoners in and out or disguising themselves as Nazi officers because they had a whole disguise shop and printing operation in the back room.

This film adds the extra wrinkle of a love triangle, because the Nazi zookeeper/officer seems to have the hots for the Warsaw zookeeper's wife, and she couldn't exactly reject him, because that might tip him off to how many Jews they were smuggling out of the ghetto under his nose.  So she had to be flirty with him without exactly giving in. 

Also starring Jessica Chastain (last seen in "A Most Violent Year"), Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Bruhl (last seen in "2 Days in New York"), Michael McElhatton (last seen in "Albert Nobbs"), Efrat Dor, Shira Haas, Val Maloku, Timothy Radford, Martha Issova, Goran Kostic, Arnost Goldflam.

RATING: 5 out of 10 escaped monkeys

Friday, June 14, 2019

Defiance

Year 11, Day 164 - 6/13/19 - Movie #3,261

BEFORE: After today I'm going back out of town again, just a ride on Amtrak up to Massachusetts to see my folks and go out for Father's Day.  I feel like a bad son if I don't go and stay with them for a week in the spring, but then again, I don't know if I can deal with them for that long, so two days it is.
Adding "Billy Elliot" to my chain turned out to be a little stroke of genius, because initially I was going to watch "First Man" on Sunday, but now the extra film has pushed a different film on to Father's Day, and it's going to be so blissfully ironic.  Here I was complaining that I really didn't have a Father's Day tie-in, and I should have known, sometimes these things take care of themselves, only in weird ways.

Today, Jamie Bell carries over again from "Billy Elliot" and completes a three-peat.


THE PLOT: Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe escape into the Belarussian forests, where they join Russian resistance fighters and endeavor to build a village, in order to protect themselves and about one thousand Jewish non-combatants.

AFTER: I'm finally ready to start with my World War II material, a bit later than I expected, but there's nothing to it but to do it.  Two films this week on this topic and then I'll pick it up again in August.

This is a powerful film that's set in a country that we perhaps don't think about enough, Belarus.  We're all too familiar with the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps across Germany and Poland, but it's easy to forget about some of the other, smaller countries in Eastern Europe that were also invaded during World War II and also had their Jewish populations devastated by a group of madmen.  And there's a ripple effect, too - it's not JUST that Jews were systematically killed, but the fact that their own countrymen were forced by the Nazis to turn them in, because those people were too afraid that they would share their fate.  It might seem like the lesser of two evils, to turn on your friends and neighbors when the invaders come, that way you might get to see another day and maybe live through the war.  But at what cost?

This film also highlights the horrors as seen from within, the lack of information about what might have taken place in another city, or even in the next village - for families that were separated, to be unsure if their husband, wife or parents were still alive.  Then, to finally get some news from that city, and find out that hardly anyone survived, so their relatives were most likely dead.  Still, some Jews chose to remain in the ghetto, refusing to believe that they'd be taken to camps, and then even if they were, the camps were most likely just labor camps, not death camps as some of the rumors stated.

The Bielskis were a group of three (or is it four?) brothers in Belarus who witnessed their parents being killed by local police, under instructions from the Nazis, and they struck out for the forests to hide, and plan their revenge.  After tracking down the chief of police and killing him during a family dinner, they stayed in hiding, and more and more Jews joined them in the forest, creating a small nomadic society that evaded Nazi patrols for years.  Food was scarce and the winters were rough, and people took "forest wives" and "forest husbands" to cope with the situation, though having children was forbidden, because there wasn't enough food to feed themselves, let alone babies.  I'd love to learn the logistics of this, but that's probably TMI for a film to deal with.

Two of the brothers had a falling out, so Tuvia stayed to lead the Jews in the woods, while Zus went off and joined the Soviet partisans to fight the Nazis directly.  There are some rather obvious parallels made here to the Book of Exodus, only the Jews here are wandering in a forest, not a desert - but they make references to crossing the Red Sea when they have to escape from patrols through a swamp and a large river.

Even when fighting alongside the Russians, Zus and his fellow Jews were regarded as some kind of second-class citizens, one commander wouldn't share a latrine with a Jewish man, for example.  So there was systemic racism even among the Russian "comrades", even though that was strictly forbidden by the tenets of Communism.  This may be part of the reason that Communism has never really worked, because while on paper it creates a society where everyone is supposedly equal, in reality there is no such thing.  There will always be the high-ranked government and military people, who feel that they deserve more than the commoners and peasants.

Similarly, the society of Jews living out in the woods strove to be a "perfect" society, without racism or sexism, etc.  But at first there was a traditional division of labor, the men were assigned to stand guard and the women were expected to cook and sew and do other chores.  Eventually the women were trained to shoot also, out of necessity.  Still, problems remained as then some of the men claimed that due to being superior fighters, they deserved more food.  So even in this nomadic egalitarian society, it was hard to stamp out all traces of Old World sexism.

This is a true story, three of the four brothers survived and later came to the USA to run a trucking company in New York City.  Which means this film should be considered on the same company as "Schindler's List", another true story about saving hundreds of Jews from the Nazis.

Also starring Daniel Craig (last seen in "Logan Lucky"), Liev Schreiber (last seen in "Movie 43"), George MacKay (last seen in "Captain Fantastic"), Alexa Davalos, Allan Corduner (last seen in "Florence Foster Jenkins"), Mark Feuerstein (last seen in "What Women Want"), Tomas Arana (last seen in "Guardians of the Galaxy"), Jacek Koman (last seen in "Australia"), Mia Wasikowska (last seen in "Crimson Peak"), Iben Hjejle, Jodhi May, Kate Fahy, Iddo Goldberg, Sam Spruell (last seen in "The Voices"), Martin Hancock (last seen in "24 Hour Party People"), Jonjo O'Neill (last seen in "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs"), Mark Margolis (last seen in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2"), Vidas Petkevicius, Ravil Isyanov, Rolandas Boravskis, Leonardas Pobedonoscevas, with archive footage of Adolf Hitler (last seen in "The Doors: When You're Strange").

RATING: 6 out of 10 bottles of vodka

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Billy Elliot

Year 11, Day 163 - 6/12/19 - Movie #3,260

BEFORE: OK, this film was completely unplanned, it was NOT on my list of films to watch this year, which of course recently I finished working out, all the way to Christmas.  But I saw in the IMDB trivia for "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool" that two of that film's stars were reunited on screen, having both appeared in "Billy Elliot" years before.  And I was about to watch "Defiance" and kick off some World War II programming, but since I've never seen "Billy Elliot", and heard good things about it, AND found that it was currently available on Netflix, I figured I'd drop it in here, between two other films with Jamie Bell.

This means that now I'll really have to double-up on documentaries next week, in order to hit my July 4 film right on target AND I'll have to find a third film to drop from the line-up.  I've been running with a schedule that's JUST a bit over-packed, and I knew I had to drop two films, but now it's three.  Hey, you never know, a film could suddenly become unavailable for streaming, so there's always a chance I'd have to cut down the line-up anyway.  I think I know which three films I want to drop - I have to sort of look for three in a row with the same actor, and just postpone the middle one - but I'll deal with this once I make it through the documentary chain, which will run from mid-June to mid-July now.


THE PLOT: A talented young boy becomes torn between his unexpected love of dance and the disintegration of his family.

AFTER: I didn't really have anything for Pride Month, it's not an occasion I tend to celebrate or mark, but perhaps this will serve.  It's not really a gay film, but there's plenty of material here that questions what it means to be a boy, with depictions of outdated gender stereotypes, like thinking that boys should play sports and girls should study ballet, and the reverse is somehow unacceptable.  The coal miner's strike seen in this film apparently sets it in the year of 1984, and that's an early year for the cause of gay rights, and well before the wave of teen gender fluidity that we're seeing now, with not just trans people but also people identifying as gender-neutral or using the "they" pronouns - honestly I find a lot of it to be nonsensical, but then if I go and say that, then I'm being insensitive to people who identify that way.  We're in an age where everyone is supposed to love everyone, but that doesn't extend to homophobes and insensitive people, so it's a bit hypocritical to think that its OK to bully someone online for being queer-phobic or try to force someone to be more accepting.

But then again, this isn't a gay film at all, because it's just about a boy who wants to study ballet instead of boxing.  And he declares several times that he's not a "poof", as the Brits say - he's not out to prove a larger point about pre-conceived gender roles or change the way that boys and girls spend their extra-curricular time, perhaps he's just bad at boxing.  Though he claims to be good at it, which seems weird, because what he does in the ring seems a lot closer to dancing than boxing.  I don't know, I didn't really feel that the shift from one activity to the other was that well-explained - like, did  he want to hang out with girls because he felt "girly", or did he want to get close to girls because he was attracted to them?  Or both, or neither?  We don't really get inside Billy's head until much later in the film when he's applying to ballet school and FINALLY talks about his urge to dance, and how dancing makes him feel.  Why wasn't this mentioned up at the start of the film?  Why keep it ambiguous for so long?  I wish they'd made the point clearer that Billy's FATHER wanted him to learn how to box, and that Billy himself wasn't all that into it.

But then again, this kind of is a gay film, because Billy has a friend named Michael, who likes to wear his sister's dressed and put on make-up - apparently so does his dad, when he thinks no one else is home.  And Michael might be hanging out with Billy because he's attracted to him, and that's fine, even if Billy doesn't feel the same way. I know, I shouldn't confuse being a transvestite with being gay, those are two separate things, only the movie doesn't treat them as separate, so now I can't either.   We know a lot more about gay and trans issues than we did back in 2000, I think, only I sometimes wonder if we've gone too far, because I think we already are indulging kids way too much, so letting them cross-dress and get gender reassignment surgery seems in some ways like the ultimate in renegade indulgent behavior, and part of me does miss the bygone days that were much simpler, when only girls wore pretty colors and boys played with trucks, not dolls.

And then at the end of the film (sorry, SPOILER ALERT) Billy is seen grown-up, and dancing in a version of "Swan Lake" where all of the parts are played by men.  Yes, this film looked 15 or 20 years into the future and correctly predicted how much gender-bending would be going on in the world of entertainment.

By some logic it's been something of a cart-before-the-horse thing, I think - after the push in the 1990's and early 2000's to create more gender-neutral toys and fashions, we're seeing a world now with much more gender fluidity as a possible result.  Are there more queer teens and gender-neutral attitudes today because that's a more accurate reflection of the way things really are, or are things that way simply because teens have been allowed and encouraged over time to develop and self-actualize in those directions?  Or, just hear me out here, are there more queer teens because it's some form of trendy, which in my opinion might belittle the whole situation just a bit?  I remember David Bowie talking about how he felt a lot of pressure in the 1960's to present himself as a transvestite/queer artist, and then over time he felt that wasn't really the whole story, and sort of outed himself as a straight person?  So I maintain that's it's possible in these modern times for kids to get caught up in the Pride movement and the perceived "coolness" of LGBTQ culture, and a (probably small) percentage could conceivably be coerced into gay culture when it doesn't represent who they really are inside.  The problem with all revolutionary dogma is that can only replace the rigid outdated guidelines of the past with potentially equally rigid forward-thinking ones.

But let's get back to "Billy Elliot", which I now realize is serving as a good lead-in for Father's Day, since a main focus is the relationship between Billy and his coal-mining father, who of course is also very strict and conservative, and doesn't take the idea of his son being a ballet dancer well at all.  First he forbids it, since what would the other blokes at the union hall think?  Plus Billy's older brother is the leader of the striking miners, and he's also very against the concept of men dancing ballet - but come on, the most famous ballet companies in the world have both male and female dancers, and those men have to come from somewhere.  It could just as easily have been that Billy wanted to become a chef, or a fashion designer, or a doctor - the main argument concerns how "girly" the ballet is, but the family had no money to send him to a special school for any career.  So his father crosses the picket lines, because once he does decide to support Billy's dancing, he's got to raise the tuition somehow.

It's one thing to find the career path that really speaks to you, it's another thing entirely to pay for it.  How many people find their bliss and decide to devote themselves to one particular cause or line of work, only to have to give it up because they can't afford the training?  You've got to pay the cost to be the boss.  I remember back when I was in junior high and these new things called "computers" came into my life, I took a summer course in the BASIC programming language, and for a 13-year old kid to start to understand how computers function, that was a big deal.  So the next summer, my parents enrolled me in a summer computing course at MIT, of all places, to study what seemed like the next logical step, which was called Pascal.  After one class, I knew I was out of my depth, and I had to approach my parents and tell them I hadn't understood a thing, and I didn't want them to waste their money on classes where I wasn't learning.  How would my life have been different if I'd stuck with the class and tried just a bit harder?  Could I have become a millionaire programmer in Silicon Valley?  A year or two later I thought I might give filmmaking a go, and there was that feeling that I was making a better choice for myself, but perhaps that feeling was an illusion, since I'll never get rich working in the medium of independent filmmaking.

Like many films, from "Beetlejuice" to "King Kong", this film has now been turned into a stage musical, which ran in London from 2005 to 2016 and on Broadway from 2008-2010.  Eventually everything will get turned into a stage musical, from "Pretty Woman" to "Heathers", and from "Shrek" to "Groundhog Day".  Can "The Lego Movie: The Musical" or "Crazy Rich Asians: The Musical" really be far off?

Also starring Julie Walters (also carrying over from "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool"), Gary Lewis (last seen in "Joyeux Noel"), Jamie Draven, Jean Heywood, Stuart Wells, Nicola Blackwell, Colin Maclachlan, Mike Elliott, Billy Fane, Janine Birkett, Charlie Hardwick, Joe Renton, Matthew James Thomas, Stephen Mangan (last seen in "Rush"), Patrick Malahide (last seen in "Bridget Jones's Baby"), Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Neil North, Lee Williams, Adam Cooper, Merryn Owen, Zoe Bell.

RATING: 5 out of 10 white tutus

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool

Year 11, Day 162 - 6/11/19 - Movie #3,259

BEFORE: I'm just back from Atlantic City, where we did one of our patented Sunday-to-Tuesday two-day trips, as it turns out the hotel rates are cheaper if you book off-peak.  We do this a couple of times a year, take a Monday off here and there so we don't get too burnt out between holidays and longer vacations, though we also tend to do this in March or April, before the summer crowds show up, or late in the season like September.  This time we stayed at the Ocean Casino Resort, or I think maybe it's the Ocean Resort Casino, which has only been open for about a year, it used to be called Revel but became one of those casinos that folded back in 2014 before we got a chance to visit that end of the boardwalk.

It's a beautiful hotel, we had a corner suite on the 43rd floor with a phenomenal view of the casino strip and beach on one side, and the rest of Atlantic City and the three "waterfront" casinos on the other side.  Then on Monday a fog rolled in over the whole city, and we couldn't see a thing from our room - that seems about right.  But we also went to a Pentatonix concert, had a giant order of BBQ from a place in the casino called "Pit Boss" (get it?) and then had the breakfast buffet at the Borgata on Monday morning.  I had a couple minor wins on the slots but lost money overall, which always puts me in a funk.  I shouldn't bet with any money that I'm not prepared to lose, I know.  And my betting systems work fine, right up until the point that they don't work at all.  Still, we had fun for two days and would probably be more relaxed if we didn't try to go everywhere and do everything.

We always find fun, like we found this store called Rocket Fizz, hidden within the shops at Ocean, and they sell classic and foreign candies, gag gifts, and a bunch of weird sodas with flavors like buffalo wing, bubble gum and ranch dressing.  There's even grass and dirt-flavored sodas, but I don't know who the heck would buy those.  I bought some of my favorite candies, along with sodas that taste like apple pie, key lime pie, coffee cake, and grape (OK, that last one's a little boring, but it's made with cane sugar, so it could taste fantastic...).

I took a day off from movies, which I shouldn't do at this point if I want to hit my July 4 movie on time, but I can double up on documentaries next week.  Annette Bening carries over again from "The Grifters".


THE PLOT: A romance sparks between a young actor and a Hollywood leading lady.

AFTER: There's a stylistic connection to "The Grifters" here, since in her early career appearance as Myra in that film, Annette Bening was essentially playing her character as a tribute to Gloria Grahame's performance in "The Big Heat".  I thought for a bit she was doing a Marilyn Monroe impression, with that "boop boop-be-doop" lilt to her voice, but most film fans seem to agree that she was doing Grahame, not Marilyn.  (Of course, I know Grahame better from her role in "It's a Wonderful Life", but that's neither here nor there...)  And there's another thematic connection to one of last week's films, "Life", which showed James Dean landing his role in "Rebel Without a Cause".  The director of "Rebel" was Nicholas Ray, and he was married to Gloria Grahame from 1948 to 1952.

Ray was Grahame's 2nd husband, and she had a total of four husbands and four children.  Her fourth husband happened to be the son of her 2nd husband, so that means that she married her own step-son, Anthony Ray, and had two kids with him.  They were married from 1960 to 1974, and this was well before Woody Allen made it fashionable (or at least acceptable) to marry one's step-child, if you were a celebrity.  I thought perhaps this movie would center on that period where she was married to that younger man, but no, this film is set in 1981, when she's dating a different younger man.

This is another one of those narratives that jumps around in time - and just when I was thinking that I hadn't seen a film be annoying like that in a good, long while.  After feeling ill after performing in England, Graham contacts her former lover, Peter Turner, and asks to stay in his parents' home while she recuperates.  Then the film flashes back to show us how the lovers met, and their travels together to Los Angeles and New York before breaking up when he takes an acting job back closer to home.  There's just no reason for this, I mean, there is the slow release of back story as each of them remembers the times together in the past, but there's no reason why the film couldn't have started with them meeting, traveling together, breaking up, and then re-connecting in the proper sequence of events, except to do those "arty" types of transitions from the present back to the past.  Also, some dates on the screen to let us know that we've jumped back in time to the start of their relationship would have gone a long way towards clarifying everything here.

Grahame lived a lot later than I thought she did - she's seen here doing "The Hustle" (or some other disco dance) with Peter Turner some time after they first met, and they bond over "Saturday Night Fever" and go see "Alien" on the big screen.  I forgot that Grahame appeared in the film "Melvin and Howard", which was released in 1980, that's 34 years after the release of "It's a Wonderful Life" (she was only 22 at the time.)  Though she was only 58 when she died, she was in classic movies with Jimmy Stewart, Glenn Ford and Humphrey Bogart, and she still made a film or two in the 1980's.

I wanted to like Gloria Grahame as a character, but the film kept giving me reasons to not do so - like how she was in her late 50's when she wanted to play Juliet on stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company.  Was she serious about that?  Was she in some form of denial about her age, or delusional, or just trying to make a larger point?  Did she still see herself as a young person, or did she just like younger men because they were more vital and energetic?  And then to be in such obvious denial about her failing health, that pushes me more toward the delusional theory.  I mean, none of us want to think about getting sick and dying, but not dealing with your failing health might feel better in the short term, but that isn't going to help things in the long run.

To make matters worse, there were characters in the film that didn't seem to be explained very well, like this character of "Eileen" - I can't tell you who she was or how she was important to either Gloria or Peter.  They went and visited her together, but who was she?  I'm left scratching my head, maybe I fell asleep for a bit during this part of the movie, but regardless of whether the film didn't explain this or I missed it, either way, that's not a good sign.

Also starring Jamie Bell (last seen in "Snowpiercer"), Julie Walters (last seen in "Paddington 2"), Kenneth Cranham (last seen in "A Good Year"), Vanessa Redgrave (last seen in "Atonement"), Stephen Graham (last seen in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales"), Frances Barber (last seen in "Mr. Holmes"), Leanne Best (last seen in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"), Suzanne Bertish, Ben Cura, Tom Brittney, with a cameo from the real Peter Turner, and archive footage of Gloria Grahame (last seen in "Song of the Thin Man"), Edmund Gwenn, Bob Hope (last seen in "I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story")

RATING: 4 out of 10 vocal exercises

Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Grifters

Year 11, Day 160 - 6/9/19 - Movie #3,258

BEFORE: It occured to me yesterday that I watched "The Stanford Prison Experiment" on Thursday, and the next day was the opening of the "Dark Phoenix" movie, which originally had been part of my June line-up, before I changed things around and scheduled my review of that film for October, to help bring about a "perfect year".  So it's weird to think that if I had stuck with the original plan, I could have seen the new "X-Men" film on opening day, and the link would have been RIGHT THERE.  I feel like Robert De Niro's character at the end of "Midnight Run" when he realized there was still some time left before his deadline - damn, I would have made it.  That would have been a nice coffee shop.

BUT, I'm looking at the big picture here, and even though I could have linked to "Dark Phoenix", my outro probably would have been a film with Jessica Chastain in it, and I'm going to get to those films next week anyway, but now I've got an extra three or films in between, and that's going to help with my count.  Anyway, my wife wants to see "Dark Phoenix" with me, but she doesn't want to fight the crowds on opening weekend, so we'll probably see it in about two or three weekends from now.  I'm not that worried about spoilers, because I've probably read the comics they're basing the story on, so nothing would really surprise me about the plot. (I think it's a difficult story to tell, no matter which way they want to go with the story, and I think all X-Men fans probably know what I'm talking about.)

And knowing that an unbroken path to the end of the year is possible, that's motivating my decisions right now, I want to stay on that path if I can and make the perfect year happen - so to do that, I have to do a number of things, like go to see "Dark Phoenix" and "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" in theaters, and sit on the reviews for a couple of months, because I don't think those films will necessarily be available for streaming in October, and if they are, that could be expensive.  So I've got to sneak a couple extra films into my schedule and mess with the timeline JUST a little bit, I just hope in the end it will all be worth it.  142 films to go to make it all work out - a lot can go wrong between now and Christmas.

I'm going all the way back to 1990 for this one - I sort of half-feel like I must have seen this one at some point, but I can't honestly tell you one thing that happens in this film, and that's usually a sign that I have NOT seen it, or at least not all the way through, or maybe didn't pay very close attention.  I'm going to chance it tonight and watch the film, if it starts to feel very familiar I can always skip over it and I've got a couple extra films to choose from if I need to drop in a replacement later on.

Annette Bening carries over from "20th Century Women".


THE PLOT: A small-time conman has torn loyalties between his estranged mother and new girlfriend - both of whom are high-stakes grifters with their own angles to play.

AFTER: I don't know why I never watched this whole film before - the only thing I can imagine is that I was young and horny and only interested in a certain few scenes with Ms. Bening in them - and if you've seen this film, you probably can guess which ones those are.  This wasn't exactly her first film, but it was very early in her career (she was 32) and I guess when you're just starting, you can't really refuse a couple of nude scenes.  Or who knows, maybe she was proud of her body and wanted to show it off - but of course now we know, looking back, that nudity is like a form of currency in Hollywood and most actresses did it because they felt it was necessary to advance their careers, or because they didn't have the power to refuse.  Most will stop doing that after making a name for themselves, but others (like Nicole Kidman and Maggie Gyllenhaal) just kept going with it, to the point where it's not shocking any more, it's almost boring to see them naked.

I was quite the collector of such scenes, back in the days before the internet collected them for everyeone, which wasn't easy - but now of course, I'm finally interested in the story around the nude scenes, and I hope in some way that atones for my movie sins. Since I didn't recall anything about this movie's plot outside of those two scenes, I'm going to say I never really watched this one before, but now I'm finally crossing it off the list.

This is the story of three "grifters", which is just a more artful term for con artists - but there are three different kinds of con artists here.  There's Roy, who works small cons like winning bar bets and palming twenties after showing them to bartenders, and the flashbacks seem to imply that he's probably learned a bunch of card tricks and could run something like a three-card monte scam.  His girlfriend Myra has been working longer cons, we eventually find out, the kind that get people to invest a lot of money in what they think is an illegal stock trading venture, then just before paying out they'd get some fake FBI agents to come in and shut the operation down, forcing the mark to run off without getting his money back.

Roy's mother, Lilly, works a different kind of operation, she visits racetracks on behalf of mobsters and places very large bets that change the odds in the race, and this somehow benefits somebody somewhere, but I'm not exactly sure who.  I guess this keeps the racetrack from paying out too much money when the longshot wins?  But then how did they know there was a danger of the longshot paying out, I mean, it's a longshot so aren't the odds against that happening?  And why does the betting affect the odds anyway, I mean, aren't the odds of THAT horse winning based on his ability to run, the jockey, the track conditions, and other factors?  I'm no horse-racing expert, which is clear if I didn't know that the odds, and therefore the payouts, could change based on how much money people bet on that horse.  See, this is why I don't bet on sports, I have very little idea how it works.

(Ah, a little research tells me there are two types of betting, fixed-odds betting and pari-mutuel.  With fixed odds, the track has already calculated the odds of each horse winning and therefore the potential payouts, and they aren't going to change, no matter how much people bet on each horse.  But under pari-mutuel, the odds change as more people make their wagers, because if the payouts become too great, then the track may not make enough money to cover their expenses and also turn a profit.  So a big enough bet will sway the odds just to lower the payout.  Lilly bet $5,000 to win at 70 to 1 odds, so if that horse wins, the track owes her a lot of money, and they need to reduce the odds to make sure that others who bet later don't also cash in like her.  Umm, I think.  Most people at the track probably don't make these huge bets that change the odds, I guess.)

It's not even really that important to the plot to understand how horse racing bets work, but it's enough to know that Lilly is getting paid for her efforts, and also apparently skimming a bit of the money she's supposed to be betting with.  And when she's late for a race because of L.A. traffic, because after re-connecting with her son she realized he was injured and needed medical attention, that puts her in trouble with her boss, Bobo.  I had a little bit of trouble following the confrontation scene between her and Bobo, he was nice to her, he threatened her, he injured her, then he paid her.  That's a pretty messed-up and complicated business relationship.  Or maybe it's just his unique management style, some version of "the carrot and the stick" or "who moved my cheese?"

I couldn't really tell what year this story was supposed to be taking place, either - was it set in 1990, or in some non-descript year in timeless California, when people still used payphones and placed bets at the track and conned sailors out of their money with loaded dice?  You know, that could be the late 1950's or the pastel-coated 1980's, it's a bit tough to say.  The novel this is based on was published in 1963, that's very possible too, there's nothing about it that really screams "This is happening now, put down that Rubik's Cube and put some En Vogue on the walkman..."  There are certain settings, like parking garages, seedy L.A. hotels and smoky bars that feel sort of stuck in time.  And black velvet sad clown paintings - what year were they in style?  Were they ever?  Or does Roy have them hanging on his wall ironically?  Maybe if I knew more about cars or fashion I could place the timeline a little better.

There are more twists to the relationships between these three different scammers - like Myra accuses Roy of having an attraction to his mother during an argument, falling just short of saying that they've been sleeping together, and I'm not sure where this came from.  Was she just grasping at straws, or did she somehow know this was true, or perhaps she just felt like she was competing with Roy's mother for his affections, or felt that Lilly was influencing Roy's decision to not work future long cons with her.  It's a bit tough to say, or maybe it's one of those things I mentioned and it's not so tough after all.  But it's still complicated, and there are more twists that follow that I won't disclose here.  But if you're like me and you waited almost 30 years to watch this, it might be worth giving it a look, even if it doesn't have the big action and special effects of a modern major Hollywood thriller.

I don't know if this film has really aged all that well, but then again, it still has that timeless feel to it, so perhaps it doesn't matter.  This is going to bring my neat little "California trilogy", which has taken me from Stanford to Santa Barbara and now tonight from Los Angeles to La Jolla, to a close.

And with that, I'm off to Atlantic City later this morning (after a few hours of sleep), to do a little gambling of my own.  I don't play the horses, just the slot machines, but we're also going to hit a buffet or two and see a Pentatonix concert at the Hard Rock.  I'm taking Monday off from watching a movie, but I'll be back here on Wednesday to post a review of Tuesday's movie.

Also starring John Cusack (last seen in "The Paperboy"), Anjelica Huston (last heard in "Isle of Dogs"), Pat Hingle (last seen in "Shaft"), Henry Jones (last seen in "Support Your Local Gunfighter"), Gailard Sartain (last seen in "Nashville"), J.T. Walsh (last seen in "The Big Picture"), Charles Napier (last seen in "Swing Shift"), Stephen Tobolowsky (ditto), Noelle Harling, Paul Adelstein, Jeremy Piven (last seen in "Bob Roberts"), Xander Berkeley (last seen in "North Country"), Frances Bay (last seen in "The Wedding Planner"), Sandy Baron (last seen in "Sid and Nancy"), Lou Hancock, with a cameo from Steve Buscemi (last seen in "The Death of Stalin") and the voice of Martin Scorsese.

RATING: 5 out of 10 oranges in a towel