Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Simpsons Movie

Year 2, Day 135 - 5/15/10 - Movie #500

BEFORE: It might seem like an odd way to close out the week, but what family is more dysfunctional than the Simpsons? I wanted a big, important film for Movie #500 - plus I really need some laughs after watching "Ordinary People" and "The Prince of Tides".

THE PLOT: After Homer accidentally pollutes the town's water supply, Springfield is encased in a gigantic dome by the EPA and the Simpsons family are declared fugitives.

AFTER: Well, it was big, and sort of important (several Simpsons characters make what are, I assume, their final appearances...) but best of all, it was funny. Maybe I was still feeling the effects of the previous films - but I chuckled out loud quite a few times.

There were at least as many gags as one would expect from, say, three episodes of the long-running Fox animated show - but also a significant message about environmental concerns. Lisa Simpson, of course, has been a long-time animated advocate for vegetarianism and other green concerns - so she's front and center as Lake Springfield is determined to be just one more dumping away from becoming a toxic wasteland. She hosts her own Al Gore-style Powerpoint session, and for once the town residents actually listen to her.

However, Homer does not, and before long the town is encased in a dome, and the Simpsons family is attacked by a mob with torches and pitchforks. I couldn't help but think of the similarities to the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and wonder if the BP executives came up with the "solution" to their problem by watching this film.

Albert Brooks voices the head of the EPA (Brooks always seems to elevate the material when he guests on a Simpsons episode), who presents President Schwarzenegger (that's right, in the cartoon universe this could happen...) with solutions for how to deal with the "Springfield problem", and the Simpsons family, which has relocated to the paradise of Alaska, has to decide whether to return and help save their town.

My wife, a long-time Simpsons fan who sort of gave up on the show two seasons ago, watched this film with me, and although she chuckled a few times, mostly at the physical gags, offered this as her two-word review: "Enough already."

I have a differing opinion - the show can run for another 20 seasons, provided they keep coming up with fresh material, and keep bringing the funny. I'm glad that they went big for this film, and tried to make some real changes in the characters - Homer really seems to learn his lesson, for example.

However, I feel I need to say a word or two about "cartoon physics". Sure, we all know those old Looney Tunes moments where a character would run off of a cliff and NOT fall, at least not until they realize that they're not standing on anything. But the Simpsons characters appear to live in a world where the laws of gravity are similar to our own. Homer falls down, because it's FUNNY to see Homer fall down. I have to take umbrage with the climax of the film, a motorcycle stunt that defies the rules of physics in ANY universe, and the law of gravity in particular. There HAS to have been a way to end this film without openly defying these rules, (despite the fact that I personally can't think of one) and in addition, so blatantly setting it up earlier in the film.

With references to (or digs at) Disney, Star Wars, Spider-Man, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Twins, Erin Brockovich, Titanic, Alive, The Truman Show, Happy Feet, An Inconvenient Truth, and many more...

Starring: The Simpsons voice cast (do I really need to list them at this point?) plus Albert Brooks, Tom Hanks, and Green Day.

RATING: 8 out of 10 squirrel eyeballs

Ordinary People

Year 2, Day 134 - 5/14/10 - Movie #499

BEFORE: Dysfunctional Family Week continues, with a film that won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars - so I really should have watched this by now.

THE PLOT: The accidental death of the older son of an affluent family deeply strains the relationships among the bitter mother, the good-natured father, and the guilt-ridden younger son.

AFTER: Meh...this one didn't affect me the way I thought it would. I did feel sorry for the son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), who blamed himself for his brother's death. God, he looks like 8 miles of bad road at the start of the film, when he can't sleep, can't eat, and he's just come out of the hospital.

But it's hard for me to feel sorry for his parents (Donald Sutherland + Mary Tyler Moore) because it seems like their biggest problem is what golf resort to go to on their next vacation. Oh yeah, I know it's probably a brave front, but by burying their emotions about the family tragedy, it makes them seem callous somehow, like mourning their son is somehow beneath them. Was that the point?

Judd Hirsch does a great job as Dr. Berger, the psychiatrist, but I don't know about casting America's Sweetheart of the 70's, Mary Tyler Moore, as a cold, emotionless guilt-inducing mother... Boy, what a week it's been for mothers - first we had Anjelica Huston as a con-artist mom, then Kate Nelligan playing favorites with her kids, then Maureen Stapleton ignoring her husband's abuse of her daughter. It turned out to be a real back-handed slap at dysfunctional mothers, right after Mother's Day! I swear, I didn't plan it...

Maybe I'm jaded, but I just found most of the film to be very boring. It's mostly people sitting around, talking about their feelings, and I always say, "Show, don't tell."

Also starring Elizabeth McGovern, James Sikking, and M. Emmet Walsh as the swim coach.

RATING: 4 out of 10 gold medals

Friday, May 14, 2010


Year 2, Day 133 - 5/13/10 - Movie #498

BEFORE: We're spending some time on the analyst's couch this week - and Barbra Streisand carries over from last night's film, because that's how I roll. But I think two appearances by Babs in a row is all that I can handle.

THE PLOT: A high-class call girl accused of murder fights for the right to stand trial rather than be declared mentally incompetent.

AFTER: This really belongs in the category of "legal dramas", but I really don't have many of those on my list. Anyway, it's the sanity of the defendant that's the issue, so it sort of fits here.

Unfortunately this is one of those "screamy" movies, where people yell whenever they need to make a point - which is a quick way to induce dramatic moments, particularly during courtroom scenes. Some would say it's a sign of overacting, and a dramatic shortcut - I think this movie came close to that a few times, but in the end there was enough actual drama to back it up.

In contrast to last night's film, tonight I saw the "reveal" coming a mile away...maybe because it was sort of similar. The difference is, last night Streisand was the therapist, and tonight she's the one who needs professional (and legal) help.

I'm not really sold on Streisand as a "high-class" call girl, not at her age. It's been a long time since "The Owl and the Pussycat". But I do buy the character's back-story, it seems quite plausible.

But can I put the image of Leslie Nielsen, wearing tiny briefs, beating up a hooker into the "Things You Can't Un-See" file? Now I need some mental floss...or some kind of palate cleanser.

What a cast, though - Richard Dreyfuss, Karl Malden, Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach and James Whitmore. Collectively, I think that helped elevate much of the material here.

RATING: 5 out of 10 objections overruled

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Prince of Tides

Year 2, Day 132 - 5/12/10 - Movie #497

BEFORE: I had to alter my intended movie plans, since a DVD that I ordered on eBay got shipped via Media Mail, which took longer than I thought. So I'm calling an audible until I hit Movie #500, when I can get back on track.

Last night, Sam Rockwell as a sex addict put the "fun" into "dysfunctional" - so let's keep with the theme of messed-up men and watch this one, which my wife's been recommending for years.

THE PLOT: A troubled man talks to his suicidal sister's psychiatrist about their family history and falls in love with her in the process.

AFTER: I've got a lot of quibbles - let's say "issues" - with this film. And there's a lot of blame to go around...where do I start? Let me do something a little different, and address the movie's characters directly.

Let's start with you, Sally Wingo (Blythe Danner) - your husband travels to New York to help out his suicidal sister, and you pick that exact time to tell him you're in love with someone else? Not cool. And when you don't know who to choose, you turn for comfort and understanding to the man you're cheating on? There's a way to break up with someone, and you're doing it wrong. You're selfish and spineless.

And you, Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte). Your wife says that another man has caught her eye - so your response is to run away and spend as much time in New York as you can? Sure, that'll help. I understand you're in town to help out your sister - so do you think maybe you could take some time away from visiting museums, art galleries and coffee shops to, I don't know - spend more than an hour a day with her? And when your therapy sessions start to be more about YOU than your sister, how exactly does that help her? Essentially, she's become your therapist - do you think maybe you could avoid flirting with her? I know you're going through a tough time and all - but that doesn't mean you should end up in bed with the first woman you meet in NYC. This isn't going to save your marriage (oh, wait, I forgot, this is a movie - apparently this is just want the doctor ordered...) And you still have three daughters, how about visiting them once in a while - sorry to tear you away from the Big Apple, though.

Then we have Lila Wingo (Kate Nelligan) - did you really think it was a good idea to tell each of your kids that they're your favorite? That just sets up competition - it's called sibling rivalry, look it up. And you stayed with an abusive husband, how did that help you or the kids? Feeding your husband dog food, now that's constructive. These kids are going to grow up needing tons of therapy. (Happy Mother's Day, everyone!)

Now, Dr. Susan Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand) - where are your ethics? I realize that officially, Tom Wingo is NOT your patient - but you're still giving him therapy sessions, since he is his sister's "memory" (she's conveniently blocked out any parts of her childhood that would give us any insights). Isn't he sort of your patient, by transitory properties? How about some boundaries? You dance with him at a party, hire him as a football coach (/substitute father...) for your son, and c'mon, admit it - you find that Southern charm irresistible. Maybe you should refer him to a therapist that's not so personally involved. You obviously know he needs help, or at least you would if you weren't so wrapped up in yourself.

You're partially to blame, Henry Woodruff (Jeroen Krabbe) - you're a famous concert violinist, always on the road, so what right do you have to get mad when your son takes up football? Or when your wife gets attracted to a Southern man? Plus you're having an affair with your pianist - and you antagonize your dinner guests with musical taunts like "Dixieland" played on your Stradivarius. You're just a huge douchebag.

Finally, we have Bernard Woodruff (Jason Gould, Barbra's real-life son). Quit whining. "Oh, I didn't make the football team!" Man up and stop sulking. I didn't even get to THINK about playing sports, and I turned out all right.

I'm giving a pass to Eddie (George Carlin), the gay neighbor. Why? Because I like George Carlin. My rules, I make 'em up. (and yes, that's a reference to Carlin's great stand-up routine about sports) And for once, I had no issues with the way that a gay man was portrayed in a film. He showed some restraint and wasn't a lisping, drama-queen caricature.

The other thing that bothers me is how this film coddles Barbra Streisand, and I'm not just referring to the usual camera angles and soft-focus lenses. Her therapist character is portrayed as the one with all the answers, the magical, faultless genius - but therapy is a long, complicated process. It's not enough to expose a man's inner demons, then leave then just hanging out there - without figuring out what it all means, or helping him deal. No, let's just rip off that scar tissue and let the wound bleed - that'll fix everything. And when that fails, just have sex with him - because somehow sex with the magical one will fix his marriage - huh? Having an affair will get him ready to go back to his wife? I'm not following.

See, good things happen to the characters who join the cult and accept Barbra as their personal savior...

But just because other people are having affairs (even your spouse), it doesn't make YOUR affair right. If everyone you knew was jumping off a bridge, would you? (Why, yes, Mom, it's called bungee-jumping...) But men, pay attention because this movie essentially gives you license to cheat on your wife. "But, Honey, I only slept with her so I would be emotionally ready to go back to you!" And if you can find a woman who buys that as an excuse, then you're golden.

RATING: 4 out of 10 shoulder pads

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Year 2, Day 131 - 5/11/10 - Movie #496

BEFORE: Sam Rockwell carries over from last night's film...I always like Sam Rockwell's performances, he just usually seems very believable to me somehow, no matter what type of character he's playing. I like these chameleon-type actors. He's on the big screen right now in "Iron Man 2", but so far in the countdown I've seen him in "Moon", "Frost/Nixon", "Safe Men", "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind", and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford".

THE PLOT: A sex-addicted con-man pays for his mother's hospital bills by playing on the sympathies of those who rescue him from choking to death.

AFTER: OK, maybe this can be my Mother's Day movie, a couple of days late. Sam Rockwell's character may do a lot of bad things, but he does take care of his mother, even though she doesn't always recognize him when he comes to visit.

This is based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, who also wrote "Fight Club", which was an even more messed-up movie, but in a good way. Instead of underground fistfights, Victor Mancini gets his thrills from sex - no-commitment, occasionally anonymous sex with strangers, co-workers (he works at one of those Colonial re-enactment sites) and most of the nurses in his mother's hospital ward. He even has hook-ups during his sex-addiction group meetings.

Victor was raised part-time by his mother, who was a con artist, or possibly demented, and by a series of foster parents while his mother was doing time. So is that what made him a sex addict? The implication is that he pretends to choke in restaurants for attention and the momentary human contact it brings - but I'm not sure it's a direct line between parental neglect and sex addiction. Maybe it's an Oedipal thing, maybe not.

My own upbringing was quite the opposite - I wasn't allowed to play sports or go to camp, because my mother always envisioned the worst-case scenarios that could happen. If I played sports, I would no doubt have broken my arm, or at least my glasses. And camp? In her mind, I would have either drowned in a lake or been eaten by a bear, I suppose. Yes, my Mom put the "Mother" in "smother", but I restrained myself from adding the extra "S" to her Mother's Day card this year.

Either way, you can't win. Just accept that your kid's probably going to be screwed up - after all, I think sanity is overrated, and there are just 5 billion different forms of disfunction in the world.

Not to quibble, but wouldn't it make more sense for Victor to sue the restaurants he pretends to choke in? I mean, if his goal is to raise money, wouldn't that be more profitable? A restaurant would probably give him cash just to settle a lawsuit and get rid of him. And if someone gave him the Heimlich maneuver and saved his life, wouldn't he be indebted to them, rather than the other way around? I'm just sayin'...

Also starring Anjelica Huston and Joel Grey.

RATING: 4 out of 10 powdered wigs

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Year 2, Day 130 - 5/10/10 - Movie #495

BEFORE: I may not have been able to watch a Mother's Day-related film yesterday, but at least I can watch a film set on the moon on a Monday, which of course is named for the moon. This will wrap up my astronaut films, and sci-fi (for the moment)

THE PLOT: Astronaut Sam Bell has a quintessentially personal encounter toward the end of his three-year stint on the Moon.

AFTER: Talk about weirdness - this is like "2001: A Space Odyssey" meets "Multiplicity".

It takes place on the far side of the moon, where a lone astronaut (played by Sam Rockwell) tends some mining machinery, which harvests the energy from moon rocks. His only companion is a HAL-like computer/robot named GERTY. You might expect someone to go a little stir-crazy, three years without human contact - whittling and watching old recorded messages from the wife only do so much to pass the time.

Then things get complicated - after an accident, Sam is awakened by GERTY, and when he goes out to rescue the vehicle he crashed in, he finds...himself? How is this possible? Has he finally gone off the deep-end? Is this lunar lunacy kicking in, or is there some kind of rational (or irrational) explanation for it all?

And what should a person do, coming face to face with himself? Should he make friends, or (more likely) use what he knows about himself to push his own buttons, really get under the other guy's skin, which is just like his... Before you know it, Sam and his doppelganger (clone? hallucination?) are at each other's throats.

The mining company this guy (these guys?) work for must be a subsidiary of that "Company" seen in the "Alien" films - there's such little respect for human (clone?) rights and basic decency.

Casting Kevin Spacey as the voice of GERTY was a little slice of genius - there's an obvious nod to the voice of HAL, and Spacey hits the right balance between monotone and forced, insincere concern. "I'm sorry, Sam, I can't let you do that..." And just like in "2001", I don't think you can blame the computer for its programming - let's put the blame solely on the programmers when they ask computers to lie. (this was revealed in the sequel books to "2001", that HAL was not, in fact, an evil computer)

Directed by Duncan Jones, who was previously known as Zowie Bowie. Yes, the son of David Bowie, who had to adopt his stage name to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of the Monkees. How appropriate that the son of "The Man Who Fell to Earth", aka Ziggy Stardust, came up with this. But where are the Spiders from Mars?

Starring Sam Rockwell, Sam Rockwell, and oh yeah, a cameo from Sam Rockwell. It's probably an actor's dream to have a showcase film like this offered to them - comparisons to the Patty Duke Show and Peter's doppelganger from "The Brady Bunch" notwithstanding.

RATING: 6 out of 10 emoticons

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Right Stuff

Year 2, Day 129 - 5/9/10 - Movie #494

BEFORE: I know, it's Mother's Day, but how should I commemorate it? By watching "Sophie's Choice" or "Terms of Endearment"? I already have other plans for those films. Plus I'm sort of locked into my astronaut chain, and I don't want to break that up. Look, if I'm still doing this next Mother's Day, I promise to watch "Baby Mama" and/or "Knocked Up".

Turner Classic Movies ran this last year to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1969 moon landing - so I'm marking that too, I'm just a bit behind. Or maybe the 50th Anniversary of the first official Mercury flight in 1960 - yeah, that'll work...

THE PLOT: The original US Mercury 7 astronauts and their macho, seat-of-the-pants approach to the space program.

AFTER: What was that I was saying about 3-hour long films? This one actually deserved to be that long, it covered a lot of ground. I started this film just before midnight and ended up staying up WAY too late - but I didn't feel tired, the film was that exhilarating!

And it's sort of broken down into three hour-(or so)long segments - the race to break the sound barrier, the recruitment and training of the Mercury astronauts, and then the initial manned forays into outer space. This was all fascinating stuff to me - I never went through an "astronaut" phase when I was a kid, and I've never really taken the time to learn the difference between the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. So this is a "crash" course (forgive the pun...) in the lives of the Mercury 7.

Initially, the film's focus is on Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), the first man to break the sound barrier in an airplane - I suppose it would have been too confusing if Sam Shepard had played Alan Shepard instead of Yeager... Shepard flew out of Edwards Air Force Base in California, which then attracted a generation of hotshot pilots once the word got out, including Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) and Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid).

What you really get a sense of is the camaraderie, but also the spirit of competition, which is by nature the spirit of America. Anything you can do, I can do better, and faster, and with more style... But every time someone sets a new speed record, Yeager is there to break it, and earn the nickname "The Fastest Man Alive".

After the USSR launches Sputnik, setting off the "Space Race", recruiters come to Edwards Air Force Base looking for their first U.S. astronauts, and they find Grissom, Cooper and Deke Slayton. Also recruited were John Glenn (Ed Harris) from the Marines, and Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Scott Carpenter and Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen) from the Navy. Now they had men from different branches of the military competing against each other, so you know they'll each want to try and outshine the others.

I thought the film did a great job of showing the different personalities of the astronauts, they weren't (all) just cookie-cutter alpha-macho horndog types. And then when they united against a common foe, be it the rocket designers, the USSR, or the use of chimps as test subjects, they were a force to be reckoned with.

And the film explores the hardships of the astronauts' wives as well - who had to deal with the very real possibility of their husbands not surviving a test launch, or dealing with the aggressive media if their husbands lived, and succeeded on a mission.

I didn't really get the digression with the Australian aborigines and the lights floating around Glenn's capsule - but there were a thousand other little details that I was thrilled to learn about. I also didn't see the point of returning to Chuck Yeager again so late in the film - I guess it was to contrast his career with Glenn's, since Yeager turned down a chance to train as an astronaut.

Also starring Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Kathy Baker, David Clennon, with Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer (!) as the NASA recruiters. And a cameo by Chuck Yeager himself, as the bartender at Pancho's!

RATING: 7 out of 10 explosive bolts

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Capricorn One

Year 2, Day 128 - 5/8/10 - Movie #493

BEFORE: When I was a kid, it was rare to get my Dad to go to the movies - he'd just say, "Eventually, the movie will be on TV, and I can watch it for free..." Though I did get him to make exceptions for "Star Wars", "Ghostbusters", and maybe one or two others. But I now find myself in a somewhat similar position - I haven't been to the theater in over a year, and today I was in a Barnes & Noble and considered purchasing "Avatar" or "2012", either of which would fit well in my current chain - but they were each about $30, so I passed. So my credo is, "Eventually, these movies will be on premium cable, and I can watch them for (almost) free..." I just hate paying more than $5 for a movie - between the $5 DVD store, and $1.99 movies on demand, why go to the theater?

Instead, I'll circle back and pick up the astronaut movies I accidentally skipped a few weeks ago. I think this movie is set in the near-future (made in 1977) but they never give an exact year.

THE PLOT: A NASA Mars mission won't work, and its funding is endangered, so they decide to fake it just this once. But then they have to keep the secret...

AFTER: It's somewhat appropriate to watch this movie now - the main reason to fake the Mars landing stems from a fear of losing government funding for NASA (though I don't think they ever say "NASA" in this film, they just say "the Program") and recently there have been reports of our government ending all funding for manned space flight. And it's not because of Stephen Hawking's warnings about aliens, I think it's probably just the recession kicking in - plus, what financial benefit would we get from sending men to Mars?

(ASIDE: why is it always men going to Mars? Doesn't NASA know that "Mars Needs Women"? Plus that long trip to Mars gets awful lonely - throw these guys a bone and send some eye candy along...)

Anyway, in a nod to the eternal "moon landing hoax" urban legends, this film depicts a Mars landing that is faked on a sound-stage. The three astronauts go along with the ruse, having been convinced that it's what's best for the space program. The real rocket heads to Mars, but since the life-support system doesn't work right, the men stay on Earth and broadcast from a remote location, with an extra time-delay added to simulate the distance between Earth and Mars.

Any NASA technician who notices anything hinky is made to disappear - and this leads a journalist (Elliott Gould) to start nosing around. Once the mission is over, and the space capsule burns up on re-entry, the astronauts realize that their being seen alive would be a publicity nightmare, and that NASA's probably going to rub them out too.

Believable? I dunno... NASA's been known to scrub a mission at the drop of a hat - so why continue with a mission that's doomed to fail? And you expect me to believe that the space program can launch a rocket, get a capsule to Mars, land an unmanned capsule remotely on Mars, get it BACK from Mars, and just not be able to include any astronauts on board? Why not wait another couple weeks and just work out the kinks in the life-support system - or am I missing something?

And the way that the lie leads to another lie, and to another cover-up... Don't you think that the U.S. people would understand that the government lies, after Watergate, Vietnam, and the Warren Commission?

And we see the same plothole with "Soylent Green" - there would be so many people involved in the deception, faking the Mars landing - what are the chances of every single person involved keeping completely quiet?

Starring James Brolin (both of Barbra Streisand's husbands in the same film!), Sam Waterston, O.J. Simpson, Hal Holbrook, Brenda Vaccaro, Karen Black, and cameos from David Doyle, Telly Savalas and David Huddleston (famous for the line about "We don't want any Irish!" from "Blazing Saddles" as well as being the "Big Lebowski" in the movie of the same name)

RATING: 4 out of 10 jumpsuits