Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Insider

Year 2, Day 29 - 1/29/10 - Movie #394

BEFORE: Let's take another look behind the scenes of CBS News, while we're here. Maybe tonight we'll see the result from all that smoking on the set and in the newsroom in the 1950's...

THE PLOT: A research chemist comes under personal and professional attack when he decides to appear in a "60 Minutes" expose on Big Tobacco.

AFTER: Pretty much the same problem as last night's film - the production of "60 Minutes" and the court cases against the tobacco companies is just not that visually interesting. Cerebral and thought-provoking, yes, but since film is primarily a visual medium, it begs the question of "Who thought this would make a great movie?"

Sure, there is some tension, as whistleblower Jeffrey Weigand (Russell Crowe) receives threats against his family, presumably from his ex-employer and their goon squad, after he decides to talk to "60 Minutes" producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). And Pacino is given a couple of those great shouty monologues that are his stock in trade ("Any Given Sunday", "Devil's Advocate"). But Weigand remains a big question-mark. Why exactly did he violate the confidentiality agreement he signed, since doing so would revoke his family's health insurance and leave him open for a lawsuit?

Sure, there's guilt and a desire to "do the right thing" - but I don't really feel that the movie got inside this guy's head and explored, despite the 2 hour and 40 minutes it was given to do so. I maintain that any movie over the 2 hour mark probably could benefit from some more editing - this one sure could have been tightened up.

Also starring Christopher Plummer (as Mike Wallace), Philip Baker Hall (as Don Hewitt), Lindsay Crouse, Debi Mazar, Gina Gershon, with cameos from Rip Torn, Michael Gambon, Lynne Thigpen, and character actors Bruce McGill, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Wings Hauser. Don't blink or you'll miss Roger Bart as a hotel manager and Breckin Meyer as Lowell's stepson.

And for the first time since starting this crazy project, the number of films I've watched is greater than the films on my list left to watch. This means I've turned some kind of corner, though I hesitate to say I'm at the halfway point, since I'm always adding more films to the list. But I'm determined to keep the list to a manageable number from here on.

RATING: 6 out of 10 depositions

Friday, January 29, 2010

Good Night, and Good Luck

Year 2, Day 28 - 1/28/10 - Movie #393

BEFORE: I apologize for the cultural whiplash, going from Ali G. to Edward R. Murrow - but they're both reporters, even if one is fictional. Last night was the State of the Union address (which gave me a chance to catch up on some TV, though I'm still watching crime dramas that aired in October) which led me to think about politics. Do some people, like government workers, have big TV parties for the State of the Union, like most people do for the Super Bowl? Maybe not, since you can't bet on it...

THE PLOT: Broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow looks to bring down Senator Joseph McCarthy.

AFTER: You can tell this represents a different era - not just because it's shot in black and white, but because everyone was allowed to smoke indoors, and cigarettes were advertised on TV.

David Strathairn plays Edward R. Murrow, facing off against stock footage of Sen. McCarthy in 1953, assisted by his producer, Fred Friendly, played by George Clooney (who also directed this film). It's an important subject, but unfortunately doesn't make for a very interesting movie - nothing blows up, nobody gets shot. How did this picture even get greenlit?

No doubt there's an allegory to be made between McCarthyism and the Patriot Act, since this was released smack dab in the middle of the Bush years. If you don't cooperate with the government, and tell them everything they want to know, then you're a godless heathen Communist, or a terrorist sympathizer.

However, the movie also highlighted to me the battle between our current President and the right-wing journalists who want to bring him down. Half the correspondents at Fox News claim that Obama is dismantling our society and destroying the social fabric, and the other half claim that he's done absolutely nothing in his first year of office. Well, which is it? Is he too active or too passive, or are you just grasping at straws?

It's funny that CBS News was once accused of being left-wing or too liberal - nowadays the average CBS viewer is about 87 years old, and instead of Kent cigarettes, their sponsors are all cholesterol-reducing drugs and incontinence medications. And the face of CBS News is Andy Rooney, who should have retired about 2 decades ago.

With Frank Langella as the great William Paley, Ray Wise, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, and Jeff Daniels, with cameos from Alex Borstein ("Family Guy"), Tate Donovan, and Robert John Burke

RATING: 4 out of 10 bottles of Scotch

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ali G Indahouse

Year 2, Day 27 - 1/27/10 - Movie #392

BEFORE: As long as I'm here, I should knock off the last of the Sacha Baron Cohen characters' trilogy...or was it the first? Wasn't Ali G a rapper or a reporter or something like that? This counts, right?

THE PLOT: Ali G unwittingly becomes a pawn in the evil Chancellor's plot to overthrow the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

AFTER: Argh, another deviation from my theme. It turns out the "house" in the title refers to the House of Parliament, as idiotic wigger Ali G gets elected to represent his district of Staines. It's part of an attempt by a political party to connect with the youth vote - but it's a ridiculous plot device.

I wish they'd done a little more with it, like show the backstory about how Ali G got his HBO interview show, or have him try to be a real rapper and get exposed as a poser and incompetent beatboxer/breakdancer. Instead the movie's just a pale reflection of hip-hop culture, not a biting satire of it.

Back in film school, a movie that was pointless and self-indulgent was regularly labelled as "masturbation" - meanwhile, I was the kid in class wondering why masturbation had such a negative connotation that it would be used to denote a bad film... Anyway, the label works here, in both a literal and figurative sense, as the film is filled with dick jokes.

And come on, not ONE off-color joke on the town name "Staines"? How disappointing...

Oh well, at least it's off my list now. At least I can say that Ali G's character achieved some level of fame, or at least notoriety, in the film, by being at the center of a political scandal. I've got to get back on track, though -

RATING: 3 out of 10 gold chains

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Year 2, Day 26 - 1/26/10 - Movie #391

BEFORE: This fits in with my theme, since the Brüno character is some kind of fashion news reporter or TV host or something - and when this movie was filmed, apparently some people didn't know if it was real or not, just like with "Borat".

THE PLOT: Flamboyant Austrian fashionista Brüno takes his show to America.

AFTER: Yeah, this guy probably should have just stopped after "Borat". No way could this movie be as funny as that one, or have as many people doing imitations of the main character.

This guy sure likes to push the envelope - he went from nude wrestling in one film to explicit gay sex in the next. And it's just a character, right? Sure it is...

Yeah, there's a lot of Sacha Baron Cohen's signature interviewing style, where he meets with politicians or ministers or redneck hunters, and conversationally finds ways to get them to incriminate themselves. That hasn't changed, but this guy can't pull off the gay Austrian thing as well as he could the simple Kazahkstani immigrant.

Of course, he goes out of his way to shock and offend, bringing his adopted African baby "O.J." out in front of a black talk-show audience, or making out with a guy in front of a crowd of wrestling fans. I guess now we know what would happen if the gay subtext in the WWE ever manifested itself. The trick here is figuring out which of the interviewed subjects or guest-stars are in on the joke...

With cameos by Paula Abdul, Elton John, Slash, Bono, Sting, Snoop Dogg, Harrison Ford, and a lot more penises than I'm used to seeing in a movie...

RATING: 5 out of 10 bottles of champagne

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Synecdoche, New York

Year 2, Day 25 - 1/25/10 - Movie #390

BEFORE: We're really blurring the line between entertainment/fiction and reality now - this one has a playwright building a life-size town as a giant performance piece. For the record, a synecdoche is a type of metaphor, used to describe a fictional character through one body part - where a small piece of something represents the whole. And it just happens to sound a lot like "Schenectady", a town in upstate NY. This film was written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, who wrote "Being John Malkovich" and mastered the art of metafiction in the film "Adaptation".

THE PLOT: A theater director struggles with his work, and the women in his life, as he attempts to create a life-size replica of New York inside a warehouse.

AFTER: I bet this film did really well at the Sundance Festival (which coincidentally is taking place this week) because it's so obtuse and dream-like. I've been to Sundance three times, where I saw similar films like "Memento", "The Butterfly Effect" and "Donnie Darko". This film doesn't make much narrative sense, but perhaps it's not supposed to. If you're looking for an easily understood film, please look somewhere else.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a theater director whose life is in transition - while he's having success directing a revival of "Death of a Salesman", he's growing apart from his girlfriend (Catherine Keener) who wants to take a time-out in Germany with their daughter to work on her art, which is creating very tiny portraits of nude women. Cotard doesn't handle her absence well, and his life starts to skip forward, somewhat like Billy Pilgrim jumping randomly through time in "Slaughterhouse Five", but just in the forward direction.

And his health is getting worse, after hitting his head on the bathroom mirror earlier in the film, he experiences odd seizures, and loses the ability to cry and salivate. For the next few years, different relationships with actresses and assistants seem to take place, women and various daughters seem to come and go, and he doesn't seem to be aware of how quickly time is going by. It's kind of like when you bump into someone on the street who you haven't seen in years, and you have to ask them about every that's happened to them in the gap.

At some point, Cotard is award a MacArthur "genius" grant, and decides that he wants to create a theater project that is honest, gigantic and brutally real (note how he forgets to mention "entertaining") so he decides to build a giant, town-sized theater project in a Brooklyn warehouse (I think...) At this point, his life is such a mess and he's so depressed and lonely, I can almost understand the desire to create an idealized reality, but no, he just wants to re-create life, good and bad, as an enormous working theater project, with hundreds of actors playing themselves, after being taught how to stop acting and just be real (I think...)

But there are so many little things that don't make sense, it made me wonder if the whole thing was a dream, or some kind of afterlife - a shot of Cotard lying dead in front of the bathroom mirror would have been a welcome inclusion... I don't get why his girlfriend's house seemed to constantly be on fire - was this a metaphor? And if he found his daughter's diary that she wrote when she was 4 years old, how did he read about her teenage thoughts in it? And why do the notes from his ex-wife include her coughing in the voiceover - who puts their coughs into a written note?

Eventually, Cotard realizes what's missing in his enormous theater project - himself. So he hires a non-actor named Sammy (Tom Noonan) to play himself, and another to play his girlfriend, so he can watch and direct from the sidelines as the actor playing him tours the set, giving stage directions to the other actors. (my head hurts...) And eventually even the actor playing Cotard hires another actor to play himself - because that's what Cotard would do. (ouch, make it stop!)

I happen to know Tom Noonan - he's a friend of my boss, and he roomed in our rental house the last time we went to Sundance in 2004. He did a voice cameo in a film I produced, and he's a nice guy and a great actor. It's nice to see him not playing a villain or serial killer - and he does off-beat very well.

The project goes on for years, and never makes it out of the workshop stage, so it never plays in front of an audience (how could it?) and the actors involved find their real lives and fictional lives blurring together. Perhaps that's the point - life doesn't end, so neither does the project, and Cotard keeps changing the name of the play, representing his changing attitude toward life. But each "actor" has to come to terms with the fact that their character will eventually die, as do we all. William Shakespeare said it better, and much simpler: "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." So a playwright must feel very frustrated, to look out at all the people in a city, and not be able to tell all of their stories.

There's a point where an extremely minor character has something of a monologue - about how life is so f'ed up, how our lives are a fraction of a cosmic second, since we spend so much time waiting to be born, and then so much time being dead with just a short lifespan in-between, and we waste most of that time waiting for a phone call that never comes, or a look from someone to make it all right, instead of grabbing life by the short-and-curlies and making our dreams happen. Our choices determine our fates, and there are no second chances. So we spend our time in angry regret, looking for something to make us feel connected and loved as we head toward our deaths. If that's the message of the film, then kudos are in order - but why be so oblique about it?

Also starring Samantha Morton, Hope Davis, Michelle Williams, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Emily Watson.

RATING: 5 out of 10 lighting cues (aggregate score - there are parts of this movie that stuck with me and warrant an "8" but other parts which confounded me and suggest a "2")

Tropic Thunder

Year 2, Day 24 - 1/24/10 - Movie #389

BEFORE: What's the connection? Last night's film had a couple of fake monster-hunters forced to become real monster-fighters - so that leads me to a group of actors playing soldiers, in a similar situation. And I heard it's very meta...

THE PLOT: Through a series of freak occurrences, a group of actors shooting a big-budget war movie are forced to become the soldiers they are portraying.

AFTER: The concept is great, and the execution is hilarious - if completely unbelievable, though the movie manages to halt itself before completely devolving into an "Airplane"-like spoof. Still, though I usually hate movies about people making movies, this one has the intention of turning a bunch of Hollywood's cows into hamburgers - funny, funny hamburgers.

I think my favorite part of the film was the fake trailers at the beginning, which were there to give us some background on the lead characters. Tug Speedman (Ben Stiller) is shown in "Scorcher 6", an action movie about global warming that is so out of ideas the planet Earth is actually freezing over instead - Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is seen in a trailer for "Satan's Alley", a sort of "Brokeback Mountain" with monks instead of cowboys - and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) in a trailer for "The Fatties, Fart 2" which is a direct dig at Eddie Murphy films like "Nutty Professor 2: the Klumps", where he plays all the members of a flatulent family. These faux trailers set the perfect tone for the movie, and accomplish more exposition in 3 minutes than a half-hour of dialogue would.

After that, the three stars are seen making the film-within-a-film "Tropic Thunder", and it's not going well - in 5 days of shooting, somehow the film is a month behind schedule, no thanks to an inept director (Steve Coogan) and an even more inept effects guy (Danny McBride). The film is based on a book (also called "Tropic Thunder") by grizzled Vietnam vet "Four Leaf" Tayback (Nick Nolte) and the name itself is even a parody of "Tropic Lightning", the nickname for the 25th infantry Army division.

While the movie shoots in Vietnam, back home Speedman's manager (Matthew McConnaughey) is fighting for his client's rights against movie mogul Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), who's aching to pull the plug on this project before it loses any more money. So the director and Tayback hatch a plan to airlift the actors into the middle of the jungle, which is rigged with hidden cameras and pyrotechnics, in order to get realistic footage of what a scared, desperate group of soldiers would look like.

Of course, things spiral out of control, in ways I won't spoil here - but sometimes it's a delight to see things go so terribly, terribly wrong. And along the way, the film finds ways to parody "Platoon", "Apocalypse Now", "The Deer Hunter", "Saving Private Ryan", and countless others. And as mentioned, the actors are forced to act like real soldiers, following the fake movie's plot in order to rescue one of their own from militant heroin dealers.

The movie walks a fine line with Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Kirk Lazarus, an Australian actor who undergoes a "pigmentation operation" in order to look African-American. As a method actor, Lazarus gets so far into his role, he manages to forget who he really is, and one has to wonder about a guy playing a guy playing a guy playing a guy... (yeah, that's right.)

Plus there's plenty of indirect digs at Hollywood - Tom Cruise is almost unrecognizable as Les Grossman, a paunchy, balding movie executive with a potty-mouth. It's funny, but maybe hits a bit TOO close to the mark... Plus there are satires of actors who play retarded roles, never fully read scripts, and are addicted to drugs. Jack Black's portrayal of Jeff Portnoy as a Chris Farley-type also hits a bit too close to home.

Also starring Jay Baruchel ("Undeclared"), Bill Hader (SNL, "Superbad"), with cameos from Tyra Banks, Jon Voight, Lance Bass, Tobey Maguire, and Kevin Pollak

RATING: 7 out of 10 cans of "Booty Sweat"

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Brothers Grimm

Year 2, Day 23 - 1/23/10 - Movie #388

BEFORE: While I'm on the topic of fiction writing - I hope this film is self-reflexive enough to count as metafiction. Directed by Terry Gilliam, the maker of "Adventures of Baron Munchausen", so I've got high hopes.

THE PLOT: Will and Jake Grimm are travelling con-artists who encounter a genuine fairy-tale curse which requires genuine courage.

AFTER: It's an ambitious idea, to portray the Brothers Grimm as a pair of scammers who use local folklore to trick villages into hiring them to dispel curses. Along the way, brother Jacob (Heath Ledger) keeps track of all the details of the various legends and stories, and we assume that ultimately they will be inspired to write them down into their famous storybooks. Brother Wilhelm (Matt Damon) is more of the leader among the two, while Jacob is more of a bookworm.

But when traveling through French-occupied Germany, they encounter a REAL enchanted forest, with moving trees, a Big Bad Wolf, and a number of missing little girls. The Grimm Brothers are arrested by a French general (Gilliam regular Jonathan Pryce) and forced to work with a crazy Italian (Peter Stormare) to investigate the enchanted woods.

There are elements of a number of famous fairy-tales seen here, including Rapunzel, Snow White, Red Riding Hood, and Sleeping Beauty, but it's like all of those stories are mashed up in a blender, and the result is a mish-mash that's more like an action movie, with none of the charm of the original elements.

It was extremely confusing for me to follow, partially because nothing was explained very well, and I found several of the actors difficult to understand, most notably Ledger and Stormare. Crazy accents and affected speech really hurt this film - as did the lack of any helpful lighting in the dark forest scenes.

Terry Gilliam has directed some of my favorite films of all time, like "Time Bandits", "Brazil", "Twelve Monkeys", and of course "Monty Python and the Holy Grail". So it's disappointing to me when he makes a movie like this one, or "Jabberwocky" or "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" that's so far out of my comprehension. It's like he sometimes forgets how to make a movie, or that the audience needs to understand what's going on in order to enjoy it.

As it is, I have to count this as a mis-step for both Gilliam and my countdown.

RATING: 3 out of 10 dead crows