Saturday, November 6, 2010


Year 2, Day 309 - 11/5/10 - Movie #675

BEFORE: Well, Authors Week ended on a bit of a down note - I considered watching "Pirate Radio", another Philip Seymour Hoffman film, to lighten things up...but the films for the rest of the year are already lined up, and if I add one in, I've got to drop one somewhere. My list of films is like a road map, and right now I don't have time for a detour, or I won't arrive at the "right" place on Dec. 31.

Instead, I'll stick to the plan and watch this film with Hoffman and Robert De Niro - this got added to my collection too late to make last year's De Niro marathon. (which ended with "Stardust", where De Niro played a gay pirate. Insert your own joke...)

THE PLOT: An ultraconservative security guard suffers a debilitating stroke and is assigned to a rehabilitative program that includes singing lessons--with the drag queen next door.

AFTER: I saw Hoffman gay it up as Truman Capote last night, though this film was made a few years before that. You can't really say that Capote was closeted, but he did at least dress conservatively and led something of a private life. Here Hoffman's drag queen character is out, loud and proud (especially loud).

This film is filled with racial and homosexual stereotypes - all gay men are flaming drag queens, all non-gays are homophobes, all whites are leery of minorities, etc. etc. Jeez, I'm a white straight male and I think I was offended. Of particular offense is the notion that gay men are really women trapped in men's bodies, and all secretly want to have the gender-changing surgery. I'm sure it's true for some gay men, but aren't some of them proud to just be gay men, and continue that way?

Actually, it's only one character in the film who wants the surgery, but it's the main gay character - and therefore by extension all gay men, all transvestites, want to become transexuals. I know there's a huge difference, and when you say, "Tranny", I think you've got to make the distinction, which this film fails to do.

Actually, there is a glimpse of some gay Republicans here, as they try to convince the drag queens to "tone it down" for the annual Pride Parade. So, the implication, again by extension, is that a gay male is either a flaming, over-the-top, in-your-face drag queen, or a closeted, ultra-conservative, self-hating fascist. Because, as we all know, there is no middle ground on these things. You have to take into consideration that this movie was made at a very different time, when people apparently weren't very enlightened about these issues - 1999, to be exact.

A tougher acting challenge is shown here by De Niro, who has to act without the benefit of moving most of his face, as his character is recovering from a stroke. The two main characters live in one of those only-in-Hollywood (I hope...) New York buildings, where the residents include a cross-section of elderly busybodies, song poets, drug dealers and crime bosses. Did the NYC Tourism Board approve this one? There's a very confusing sub-plot about some stolen money.

Naturally, the two men (OK, one man and one woman-trapped-in-a-man's body) form an uneasy partnership, as the drag queen helps the stroke victim with singing lessons, and maybe, just maybe, form a kind of friendship. Gee, do you think maybe they'll each learn a bit about life from the experience? Spare me...

The movie name-checks the film "My Left Foot", which is also on my list - but again, I'm trying not to take too many detours...

Also starring Barry Miller (last seen in "Fame"), Rory Cochrane (last seen in "Public Enemies"), Daphne Rubin-Vega, Skipp Sudduth (last seen in "Clockers") and Mark Margolis (last seen in "The Wrestler")

RATING: 5 out of 10 beehive wigs

DENIR-O-METER: 3 out of 10. Without his full vocal range and motor skills, De Niro is hobbled here, in more ways than one.

Friday, November 5, 2010


Year 2, Day 308 - 11/4/10 - Movie #674

BEFORE: Wrapping up my author chain tonight - which really started with "Misery", though I had a slight interruption for Halloween itself. Again I have to admit that this film centers on a very famous author that I know very little about.

THE PLOT: During his research for his book In Cold Blood, an account of the murder of a Kansas family, Truman Capote develops a close relationship with Perry Smith, one of the killers.

AFTER: Always a banner day when I can cross an Oscar-winning performance off of my list, and there's no question that this movie is a complete showcase for Philip Seymour Hoffman (last seen in "Synecdoche, New York"). But the usual troubles of playing a famous person in a movie apply - how much of the performance should be an imitation, how much should be improvised, and how close should an actor come to reality in his portrayal?

Capote travels to rural Kansas (along with fellow author Harper Lee) with the intent of writing a magazine article about the killing of a family. For whatever reason (the movie is sort of short on details) he decides that the subject deserves to be the basis for a book, one which eventually takes him 4 years to write, as the killers' case drags through the court system. I can sympathize, I know first-hand how a writing project can spiral out of control...

However, after much research and many interviews, Capote drags his feet in starting the actual writing - he claims to have a 94% recall rate when it comes to conversations, so I suppose that explains why we never see him, you know, taking notes or anything. You know what's more boring than a movie about a man writing a book? A movie about a man NOT writing a book, that's what. I stand by the definition of a writer as "someone who writes".

In the end, Capote is deeply affected by the process, and we see how it affects his friendships, and his relationship. (We can assume that the man he lives with is his life-partner, but again, the movie is a bit short on the details...) He is caught in a strange situation - he wants to help the accused killers, but since he's writing the book, technically he's supposed to be impartial. So his forced inaction leads him to deep depression, and eventually alcoholism. I suppose it's possible that the term "drama queen" was coined to describe his plight - maybe at first they called him "King of the Dramatic Form", then realized that title wasn't quite right.

I've been dealing with publicity people for a movie we just opened in L.A., and it's quite obvious that someone dropped the ball, they didn't do what they were supposed to do, and if you don't get your publicity out, people tend to not show up. But if I don't get my work done on time, or I don't show up where I'm supposed to be, you know what? I own up to it. I don't have time for people who get depressed, then lie their way out of these situations or pass the buck. I got my Oscar paperwork in this year two weeks early, for both a short film AND a feature film - if I hadn't, there would have been hell to pay, but I wouldn't have passed the blame on to someone else.

So kudos to Hoffman (does he go by "The Hoff"?), but I've had it with these tortured topic, please. I suppose it would make sense to watch "Infamous" next, or even the film version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" - but I don't have copies of either movie handy.

Also starring Catherine Keener (last seen in "Death to Smoochy"), Bob Balaban (last seen in "The Majestic"), Chris Cooper (last seen in "Me, Myself & Irene"), Mark Pellegrino (last seen in "The Number 23"), Bruce Greenwood (last seen in "Hollywood Homicide"), Amy Ryan (last seen in "Gone Baby Gone").

RATING: 4 out of 10 martinis

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Where the Buffalo Roam

Year 2, Day 307 - 11/3/10 - Movie #673

BEFORE: Bill Murray stars in tonight's film, but there's something of a connection to Johnny Depp, who played Hunter S. Thompson's alter-ego, Raoul Duke, in the "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" film. Most of what I know about Thompson, which admittedly isn't much, comes from that film, and the other character (loosely) based on him, Uncle Duke from the Doonesbury comic strip.

THE PLOT: Semi-biographical film based on the experiences of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

AFTER: Finally, an author who uses an electric typewriter! An IBM Selectric, to be exact. Of course, Thompson also uses a cassette recorder for dictation, various video and audio equipment, a case of gin, a fifth of tequila some peyote and 12 grapefruits...

This film is neatly divided into three flashback sections - detailing Thompson's reporting on the prosecution of hippies in San Francisco for minor drug possession offenses, his wild partying during the 1972 Super Bowl, and his work for Rolling Stone reporting from the 1972 Presidential campaign.

During, the first segment we're introduced to Thompson's former attorney, Carl Lazlo, who is waging a crusade against the unfair sentences given to S.F. hippies - and then Lazlo turns up during the other 2 segments, like a bad penny, to disrupt the "serious" reporting that Thompson was hired to do. Though it's doubtful that he would have been focused on the matter at hand, anyway. One could even make the argument that perhaps Lazlo is not real in the later sections of the film - perhaps he's just a figment of Thompson's imagination, or a hallucination that convinces him to ditch his assignment. (Too many drugs? Or not enough?)

There's no question about whether Thompson led an interesting life, and a surreal lifestyle. No book or movie could probably come close to detailing half the crazy stuff the guy got away with - and what we do know is probably pieced together from facts, eyewitness accounts, and wild conjecture. But is this film coherent? Not really, but that's sort of the point.

If you want to play along at home, you can have fun just by adding "gonzo" to your job title. Why be an accountant when you can be a gonzo accountant? Gonzo lawyer, gonzo fireman - it's fun, you try it! Or do what I do - when you talk to your boss, try to begin every sentence with, "As your attorney, I advise you to..."

Also starring Peter Boyle (last seen in "The Dream Team"), Bruno Kirby (last seen in "Hoffa"), Rene Auberjonois, Mark Metcalf (Neidermeyer from "Animal House" and the Maestro from "Seinfeld") and a quick cameo from Craig T. Nelson.

RATING: 4 out of 10 press passes (still better than "Fear and Loathing", though)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Finding Forrester

Year 2, Day 306 - 11/2/10 - Movie #672

BEFORE: I don't know much about this film, but I recall that Sean Connery plays an author.

THE PLOT: An African-american teen writing prodigy finds a mentor in a reclusive author.

AFTER: Connery (last seen in "The Avengers") plays a Pulitzer-winning author who has an irrational fear of leaving his Bronx apartment (but I say if he lives in the Bronx, maybe the fear is rational...). He probably doesn't want to be recognized - but it's probably been so long since he's been in public, it's doubtful that anyone would recognize him. There's an obvious reference to J.D. Salinger, or perhaps Thomas Pynchon.

Jamal Wallace, a black teen, who happens to be a secret genius, is dared by friends to break into his apartment - which seems like a contrived way to get the two main characters to meet. Jamal's test scores are off the chart, but it's his basketball skills that get him a scholarship to a prep school. And his ensuing friendship with William Forrester, the famous author, nurtures and vastly improves his writing skills.

There are similarities to "Good Will Hunting", from the same director, Gus Van Sant, but with creative writing in place of math, and basketball in place of...well, janitorial skills, I guess. As with Will Hunting, small-minded people assume that someone from a lower-class neighborhood can't possible be strong academically.

Jamal butts heads with a professor who has a history with Connery's character, one that derailed his own writing career. Small world, I guess - or else it's another contrived coincidence. The professor is played by F. Murray Abraham (last seen in "Mobsters") - playing a jealous failed genius is right in his wheelhouse, he even won an Oscar for it once.

Unfortunately there's too much talky-talky and not enough basketball. Of course every high-school sports film features a shot at the "state championship", but we only see about 5 minutes of game-play in this film. I realize that Van Sant doesn't usually have a focus on sports, but if you're trying to point out that this kid is talented in several arenas, why show so little of a (presumably) very exciting climactic game?

NITPICK POINT: As in "Misery", writers here are shown using manual typewriters - I guess there's something very cinematic about them, something classy and old-school. They look (and sound) great on camera, but are they practical? Wouldn't you expect a student, even an inner-city one, in a film made in 2000 to be more familiar with using a word processor than an old typewriter? Who writes essays on a typewriter these days, and goes through draft after draft?

I'm reminded of an article I read a few weeks ago about Wally Wood, who was a famous comic-book artist in the 1950's and 60's. He reportedly worked tirelessly, bouncing between Marvel and DC comics and MAD magazine as well, and had a creative output second to none. When his health failed and work dried up in the 1970's, he committed suicide - and his recent biography has led several of today's comic-book artists to make sure that they develop interests outside of their work - a hobby, a bowling league, or just meeting friends for drinks once a week - because any creative field also has the ability to take over one's life. It's great advice that I firmly believe in - I sure felt renewed after taking just a 4-day trip upstate.

Also starring Rob Brown, Anna Paquin, Busta Rhymes, and Michael Nouri. Plus a cameo from Matt Damon (last seen in "The Brothers Grimm"), which reinforces the connections to "Good Will Hunting".

RATING: 5 out of 10 foul shots

Monday, November 1, 2010

Finding Neverland

Year 2, Day 305 - 11/1/10 - Movie #671

BEFORE: Johnny Depp carries over from last night's film, as does the U.K. setting. But I'm back on the subject of authors - a profession that got short shrift during my Labor Day chain, and which I touched on during Stephen King week - but there, they were all tortured psychos (Aren't they all, though? Really, aren't they?)

THE PLOT: The story of J.M. Barrie's friendship with a family that inspired him to create Peter Pan.

AFTER: This was a touching and endearing story about how "Peter Pan" (the original stage play, not the Disney-fied cartoon) was created. Of course, inspiration can come from unlikely sources, and in this case, it came from the author's playtime with the four young boys of the Davies family, who are recovering from the death of their father. It's a great symbiotic relationship, as the boys need cheering up, and the author has an imagination that needs a jump-start, and by play-acting as pirates, Indians, and lost castaways, he gains insight into the type of stories that kids enjoy.

By spending so much time with the four boys and their mother, Barrie puts a strain on his own marriage - his relationship with Mrs. Davies is portrayed as platonic, however, it supposedly sparked a lot of society gossip. Apparently there were also rumors that Barrie's interest in the young boys was also less than pure - so it's easy to draw a connection here to a certain recently deceased entertainer that also enjoyed spending time with young boys (and named his ranch after a location in "Peter Pan"...hmmm....)

This one hit home for me, particularly during the first performance of the finished play. When I was a young kid, my parents were very active in the Boston diocese, and performed a lot of charity work - so if we went to the circus or the Ice Capades, it was usually with a group of about 50 inner-city kids, and my dad would somehow get us to pop a huge amount of popcorn to bring for them - it was a little odd.

It was nice to see some of the backstage actions as the play was being rehearsed and staged - but the sequences where J.M. Barrie and the boys were pretending to be pirates had much better special effects - is that because no play (or movie) can measure up to the imagination of a child? And a little bit of "Jack Sparrow" seems to creep into Depp's performance during the pirate play-acting...

However, it's a little disappointing to find out that the filmmakers monkeyed with the timeline quite a bit, changing the dates of some very key events in the lives of these people, in order to create a more dramatic effect. Little facts, like the boys' father actually being alive at the time of the play's premiere...

Also. it would have been nice to see ALL of the play's inspirations - there must have been more. Who inspired the female characters, like Wendy? Is Peter Pan based on young Peter, or Barrie himself? And I happen to know that the same actor usually plays Mr. Darling and Captain Hook - was this due to an actor shortage, or is there something more Freudian going on? The play is so rich, it must have drawn from more sources, that's all I'm saying.

For another play about a boy who never grew up, I recommend the Pee-Wee Herman Show, now playing on Broadway. While the plot is very similar to the old L.A. stage show (that he put on before getting into children's TV) there are some updates (the Playhouse gets wired for internet) but a lot of the original cast returned - Miss Yvonne, Jambi and Mailman Mike. Cowboy Curtis was re-cast, of course, and Captain Carl is sorely missed - but it was still a hilarious night out for me last week.

Also starring Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman (last seen in "Last Chance Harvey" - but didn't he also play Capt. Hook once?), Freddie Highmore, Julie Christie (last seen in "Heaven Can Wait"), Radha Mitchell, and Ian Hart (last seen in "Enemy of the State") as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

RATING: 7 out of 10 Indian headresses

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Year 2, Day 304 - 10/31/10 - Movie #670

BEFORE: Continuing with the Johnny Depp chain - and I saved perhaps the most gruesome film for Halloween night. After this, no more horror films - back to films about war, spies and politics. Which reminds me, isn't there an election coming up? In deference to our new Republican overlords, I spent the evening participating in a socialist re-distribution of candy resources, doling out Smarties and Snickers to a crowd of (presumed) neighborhood anchor babies. It would have made more fiscal sense to put the kids to work sweeping up leaves in the backyard, as part of the trickle-down economic theory - hey, I would have paid a fair wage, so they could buy bags of their favorite candy, but most of them didn't bring two forms of ID, and I can't hire undocumented aliens, so there you go. Now me, I'd be too proud to take bailout candy...

Seriously, I almost ran out of candy, and if the weather had been warmer, and it hadn't been a school night, I might have had to break into the emergency Kit Kats. I was pretty close to handing out leftover lollipops in wrappers that read "Being 40 Sucks" - hey, they might as well find that out now - maybe they'll appreciate being young more.

This is why I'm not cut out to be a Dad - because instead of spending $40 on a costume so my kid could get $10 worth of random candy, half of which he probably wouldn't like, I'd offer him $20 cash to go to the drugstore and buy bags of his favorite kind - see, I'd save money, the kid would get his favorite treats, and everybody wins, right? Except I'd be sucking all the fun out of the holiday.

THE PLOT: The infamous story of Benjamin Barker, a.k.a Sweeney Todd, who sets up a barber shop down in London which is the basis for a sinister partnership with his fellow tenant, Mrs. Lovett.

AFTER: No lie, the first thing I did after watching this was shave...

It sort of made me wonder if you ever see a barbershop located over a meat-pie shop in London. A while back here in Queens NY we had a barbecue restaurant right next door to a veterinary clinic, and I made sure not to eat there.

I'm happy to knock this one off the list - my wife watched it a few months ago, and she's been playing some of the songs on long car trips, so it's nice to give them some context. Plus the Sondheim musical featured prominently in an episode of "The Office" a couple of weeks ago.

I have to say, I'm pleasantly surprised by Johnny Depp's singing ability, as well as that of the other actors, like Sacha Baron Cohen (last seen in "BrĂ¼no") who has a small but memorable role as a rival barber. He darn near stole the show...

The story is a simple one at heart - Todd wants revenge against those who wronged him in his previous life, a pretty basic intent. But there are some twists to what unfolds, which I won't reveal here. But anyone familiar with the story knows the gist of what happens here, a partnership between a murderous barber and a conspiring baker. If you thought revenge was a dish best served cold, turns out it's actually piping hot, fresh out of the oven...

It's interesting that this film takes place in a poverty-stricken London, and then was released in the U.S. just before the Recession of 2008 - now I'm not saying that poor U.S. citizens have resorted to cannibalism, but statistics do show that about 100,000 people go missing each year, just in the U.S. - I've never really understood where they all go...

NITPICK POINT: Doesn't anyone ever notice that so few people are seen leaving the barbershop? I guess it's in the middle of the big city and all, but come on, how many people can go up those stairs to a small shop, with no one coming down, before someone gets suspicious?

That's going to wrap up October and the horror chain, which is a shame since I just got copies of the original "Phantom of the Opera" and "Invisible Man" films off of TCM. Oh well, they'll have to wait.

Also starring Helena Bonham Carter (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"), Alan Rickman (ditto), Timothy Spall (ditto again - hey, it's a three-fer!).

RATING: 6 out of 10 tankards of ale

SPOOK-O-METER: 8 out of 10, for gruesome blood-letting (special FX can sometimes be too real...) and of course, meat pies. (So meaty!)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Ninth Gate

Year 2, Day 303 - 10/30/10 - Movie #669

BEFORE: No authors tonight - but Johnny Depp carries over, and plays a rare book dealer, which is sort of in the same ballpark. Directed by Roman Polanski, so obviously this was shot in Europe, not in the U.S.

THE PLOT: A rare book dealer, while seeking out the last two copies of a demon text, gets drawn into a conspiracy with supernatural overtones.

AFTER: Depp's character, Dean Corso, is sort of shady - estimating the worth of people's book collections, while walking out with the rarest of the books under his arm after paying them a fraction of their value. But for the latter part of the film, he's the one taken for a ride as he tries to verify a rare book, called "The Nine Gates". It seems there are allegedly only three copies in the world, but one of the owners wants to prove that his is the only original, so he hires Corso to track down the other two and compare them to his.

The kicker is, the book supposedly contains some way to raise the Devil himself, if you read the book, or decipher the illustrations, and solve the riddles, divide by pi, and...look, it's complicated, OK? Did you think it should be easy to invoke the Devil? Absolutely not, otherwise anyone could do it - and really, don't you think it should be left to the professionals?

So Corso heads for a tour of Europe's book experts, meets a mysterious girl on a train, and then finds that anyone who helps him or owns one of the books starts to meet with an untimely accident (there's a lot of that going around this week). Funny how he keeps blacking out at inopportune times - you don't suppose...nah...

I suppose this also would have been a good candidate for Movie #666 - but the actual nature of the book, and Satan's presence, is so ambiguous here. I guess I'm glad I saved it for Halloween Eve, because I did watch 1/2 of the movie on Oct. 31, which according to folklore would be the best time to hold a Black Mass, as the veil between our world and the netherworld would be at its thinnest...oohhh...scary.

What's really scary is to see characters who are described as book experts and book collectors handling rare books without wearing gloves - or smoking and drinking near them. As a collector myself (OK, comic books, but still) it made me cringe. Doesn't anyone in Europe even wash their hands first? Similarly, Depp's character is given an ultra-rare book to study, and the way he tosses it around, throws it into his bag and even leaves it unattended should have gotten him fired from his gig on Day 1. Where's the chain of custody if he just leaves the book in his hotel room? Couldn't someone have just switched it when he wasn't looking?

Also starring Frank Langella (last seen in "Superman Returns"), Lena Olin (last seen in "Hollywood Homicide"), and Emmanuelle Seigner.

RATING: 5 out of 10 black robes.

SPOOK-O-METER: 3 out of 10. A couple gruesome deaths, but no payoff.