Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Slammin' Salmon

Year 3, Day 99 - 4/9/11 - Movie #829

BEFORE: I didn't get to this one in my Labor Day chain last year - so instead I'll go from camp staff to wait staff. Since two films this week featured members of the comedy troupe "The State", it makes sense to move sideways over to a film from another comedy troupe - Broken Lizard, the brains behind "Super Troopers" and "Beerfest". Also sending birthday SHOUT-out #32 to Jay Chandrasekhar, last seen in "I Love You, Man". And we link from Justin Long to Carla Gallo, who appears as a restaurant guest here, since they were both in "Funny People".

THE PLOT: The owner of a Miami restaurant indebted to the mob institutes a contest to see which waiter can earn the most money in one night.

AFTER: I should also point out that the comedy troupe responsible for those great hits also made "Club Dread", which was a comic mis-fire. Not for lack of trying, but this one seems more miss than hit. I admit I didn't watch it under the best conditions - I had to break my ban on watching films on stations with commercials, but it's not my fault that this film played on Comedy Central before the premium channels (actually, that should have been a tip-off). Which also meant that the salty language got bleeped out, leaving a LOT of blank holes in the dialogue track. I bet this would have been funnier with the cursing intact, but I guess I'll never know.

There are some interesting moments behind the scenes at an upscale Miami restaurant - we learn why never to order the blackened seafood, why you should never send food back (duh...), and why you should never give an engagement ring to a waiter to surprise your girlfriend. Slipping that ring into the dessert - how could that possibly go wrong?

The rest of the comic situations seem pretty manufactured - a waitress who keeps getting burned, a crazy waiter who's off his medications, a busboy who keeps getting drunk, and a waiter who got kicked off of a TV crime show and is forced to return to his old job. All of this takes place in a restaurant owned by a former boxing champion (whose last name happens to be "Salmon") who keeps coming up with creative anatomy-based threats, and forces a competition among the wait staff to up-sell the most expensive seafood, in order to pay off his gambling debts. Yeah, it's pretty contrived.

It might have been funnier to start with a believable premise and build to a comic crescendo - but this film starts at ridiculous, and then there's nowhere to go but down. It does so in an outrageous fashion, but any semblance of reality is sacrificed.

Plenty of NITPICK POINTS as well tonight - such as the fact that a restaurant hostess would NEVER seat a person dining alone in a booth. (I've dined alone often enough to confirm this...) Similarly, a busy restaurant would NEVER let a customer sit for hours without ordering on a busy night. And a celebrity whose meal got "comped" would probably leave a tip anyway - plenty of waiters call out poorly-tipping celebrities these days via internet gossip columns.

Also starring Kevin Heffernan (last seen in "Sky High"), Paul Soter, Steve Lemme, Erik Stolhanske, Michael Clarke Duncan (last seen in "A Night at the Roxbury"), with cameos from Will Forte (last seen in "The Brothers Solomon"), Olivia Munn (last seen in "Date Night"), Jim Gaffigan, Vivica A. Fox, Morgan Fairchild, Lance Henriksen (last seen in "Jagged Edge").

RATING: 4 out of 10 Japanese albinos

Happy Campers

Year 3, Day 98 - 4/8/11 - Movie #828

BEFORE: Last night's film had a camping sequence, plus all the appearances of cast members from "The State" made me think of "Wet Hot American Summer" - so I'm moving this one up on the schedule (it was on my "last resorts" list of unlinkables). But linking is actually easy, since Paul Rudd had an uncredited cameo (as John Lennon) in "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story", along with Justin Long (as George Harrison).

THE PLOT: When a summer camp director gets injured, the diverse group of college freshmen counselors take charge and spice up the everyday routine of the camp.

AFTER: This is what I know about acting - to do it well, someone either has to speak the truth (the natural or "method" school) or be a very, very good liar. Don't believe me? Watch the conviction by a passionate person in a documentary - the REALness of what that person is saying, that's the goal. And in between telling the truth and being a very, very good liar is a huge, terrible void called "bad acting".

There's not a single person in this film that can deliver a line in a natural, believable way - and if the actors don't believe the words they're saying, the whole effect is ruined. Possible exception - Justin Long (last heard in "Planet 51"), and this was only his second film - so either he was already a fantastic actor, or he was just being real, a geeky kid playing a geeky kid.

This film was released the same year as "Wet Hot American Summer", which I greatly enjoyed - that film was so outrageous that it was impossible to take seriously, which added to its charm. This film takes itself WAY too seriously, with characters constantly trying to look at the meaning of everything, over-analyzing their relationships and their time at camp in great detail. Sometimes people just go to camp and enjoy themselves - or in the case of the counselors, they just do their job. If you went to your job and you were constantly wondering about the big picture, you'd never get anything done.

I went out for barbecue tonight, and I had two choices - the Texas BBQ restaurant and the Carolina BBQ restaurant. I flipped a coin to decide (and one must abide by these sort of things, or why do them) and the Carolina restaurant won out. It was a fine meal, don't get me wrong - but my main complaint about it was that it wasn't the Texas BBQ restaurant, which is more of a meat market (literally, not figuratively) and perhaps a better homage to meat - honestly, brisket that just melts.

In the same way, the main complaint about this film is that it's NOT "Meatballs" or "Wet Hot American Summer" - it made me wish I was watching one of those films instead.

NITPICK POINT: So, a camp counselor gets hit by lightning and is essentially catatonic - does anyone think that maybe bringing him to a hospital might be a good idea? Nah, better just let him sit down for a few days, he'll be fine.

Also starring Brad Renfro (last seen in "Sleepers"), Dominique Swain (last seen in "Face/Off"), Jaime King (last seen in "Blow"), and Peter Stormare (last seen in "Bad Company").

RATING: 3 out of 10 water balloons

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Role Models

Year 3, Day 97 - 4/7/11 - Movie #827

BEFORE: Even though it's Russell Crowe's birthday, and I've got his "Robin Hood" remake on the list, I'd like to get a thematic chain going instead. Paul Rudd carries over from last night (as do a couple of comedic actors in smaller roles), again playing the more straight-laced one in a pair of man-friends.

THE PLOT: Wild behavior forces a pair of energy drink reps to enroll in a Big Brother program.

AFTER: This was more enjoyable than last night's film - mostly just cleaner, less gross fun. However, there were still a lot of jokes that weren't funny, mainly from characters who were trying too hard to be funny and failing, and I just don't find that amusing. (Ah, the IMDB pointed out that this movie was made during the writer's strike back in 2007)

From the irony of two energy-drink salesmen telling kids to "stay off drugs", to a man getting dumped after proposing, to the world of live-action Medieval role-playing, there were a great number of awkward, but original, circumstances. And it finished strong, with most of the major laughs coming in the last act.

I know a bit about role-playing, since I used to be part of a D&D group (back when it was all done with dice and paper, rather than foam swords and costumes) - and mostly it was good clean fun. But the movie also shows it getting cutthroat, and it can be that too.

Again tonight we've got men in their 30's (?) coming to terms with their adult-ness, but still also finding a way to cut loose and have a good time. I don't expect a whole lot of insights this week (a little too much self-examination in "I Love You, Man") but I'm willing to give a film a pass on that if it succeeds in being entertaining.

Also starring Seann William Scott (last heard in "Planet 51"), Elizabeth Banks (last seen in "Zach and Miri Make a Porno"), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (last seen in "Superbad"), Jane Lynch (last seen in "The Rocker"), Ken Jeong (last seen in "The Hangover"), and a fair number of cast members from "The State": Kerri Kenney, Joe Lo Truglio, Ken Marino, David Wain.

RATING: 6 out of 10 sleeping bags

I Love You, Man

Year 3, Day 96 - 4/6/11 - Movie #826

BEFORE: And Birthday SHOUT-out #31 (that's 5 in a row, but who's counting?) to Paul Rudd, born 4/6/1969. I could make up some bogus connection between this week's films - or draw a connection from the uneasy friendship between Eve and Margo in last night's film, but I feel that would be reaching. Hey, this week's films all feature... ummm... awkward situations, yeah! (Don't they all?)

Now for some nimble linking: Bette Davis was in "Death on the Nile" with Mia Farrow, who was in "Be Kind Rewind" with Jack Black, who was in "Year One" with Paul Rudd. Take that!

THE PLOT: Friendless Peter Klaven goes on a series of man-dates to find a Best Man for his wedding. But when his bond with his new B.F.F. puts a strain on his relationship with his fiancée, can the trio learn to live happily ever after?

AFTER: This movie took a LONG time to get to something truly interesting. It felt like the whole first hour was a set-up for a twist that never really came - have we forgotten about six-act structure, people? There were three acts here, tops. Kind of like a song that starts out quiet, and you're sure that the full band's going to come in at the chorus and kick the song into high gear, only it never does.

I sympathize with the main character, perhaps more than most people would - if only that were enough. One of the film's few insights is that there may be a fundamental difference between different types of men - swinging singles, and married men, for lack of better terms right now. And when a person tries to balance a career, a relationship, and a couple hobbies, there's very little time to be social and strike up new friendships. But can a single guy and a married guy have enough in common?

I've found that I've lost touch with my college friends, my vocal group friends have moved out of town, leaving me with my trivia teammates, co-workers and ex-co-workers, my wife's friends, plus any people I see semi-regularly on the beer festival and comic-con scenes. I don't have a day-to-day bromance going on, but I don't see this as much of a problem, although when viewed from afar someone might perceive it as such. Screw them. I reject the notion that a man without an active hang-buddy is somehow flawed, or somehow less of a man.

(My BFF Andy - who's performed Best Man duties for me twice, delivering the best toasts that anyone could ask for - lives in the Boston area, but we do get to hang out 3 or 4 times a year, when he comes to town on business or I travel up to see my parents)

As it turns out, the majority of people in my social circle are female - again, I don't think of this as a problem, it's just the way it is. Paul Rudd's character seems to get along fine with women - why not just run with that, and have a female Best Man? The movie rejects other possible solutions to the problem, not even considering the groom's brother as a viable option (he happens to be a gay man who only dates straight men - honestly, that's a more interesting movie plot right there)

The characters here find that you can't force a friendship - you have to let them develop naturally, just like romances, or they're no good. I know from my own experience that your wife is not always going to like your friends, especially the more uncivilized ones, so the best thing to do is just to keep them separated.

The two main characters do learn something from each other - Peter learns to let loose, embrace his inner caveman, and rock out on some Rush tunes, and Sydney learns that maybe being brutally honest and blunt isn't always appropriate, and that maybe there's something to this growing-up thing after all. However, the one area of character growth I would have liked to have seen is Sydney learning to clean up after his dog. From a story standpoint, why introduce an obvious character flaw like this, if it doesn't end up being corrected? Plus it's nasty and gives viewers bad ideas.

They couldn't make Sydney TOO obnoxious, or Peter would be justified in cutting him loose, and they couldn't make him too perfect either, or there would be no conflict. So this was a movie hampered by its own premise. I also have to remove a point for excess scatalogical humor (vomit jokes, poop jokes, fart jokes), something all too common these days.

And I don't find much humor in showing characters that struggle to be funny, and fail. Instead of laughing AT them for being unfunny, which is the intent, I find this just creates a character who truly isn't funny, and fills the film with jokes that don't land.

Also starring Jason Segel (last seen in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall"), Rashida Jones, Jon Favreau (last heard in "G-Force"), Jamie Pressly (last heard in "Horton Hears a Who"), Andy Samberg (last seen in "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist"), Jane Curtin (last seen in "Coneheads"), J.K. Simmons (last seen in "The First Wives Club"), with cameos from Rob Heubel, Aziz Ansari, Nick Kroll, Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio, Jay Chandrasekhar, David Krumholtz, Larry Wilmore, Lou Ferrigno and the band Rush.

RATING: 4 out of 10 business cards

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

All About Eve

Year 3, Day 95 - 4/5/11 - Movie #825

BEFORE: Another film that appears on most "Best of" lists - a film I've heard mentioned many times, but one that I know very little about. And yes, today I send a birthday SHOUT-out to the late Bette Davis. It took a while to come up with the best linking from last night's film, but I think I got it - Robert Downey Jr. was in "Bowfinger" with Steve Martin, who was in "Parenthood" with Mary Steenburgen, who was in "The Whales of August" with Bette Davis.

THE PLOT: An ingenue insinuates herself in to the company of an established but aging stage actress and her circle of theater friends.

AFTER: This is one of those "Behind the Scenes"-type films, with actors playing actors (how do you tell if they're acting, then?) in a stage production. What's oddly missing here is any footage of Bette Davis' character performing on stage - curiously, it's all left to our imagination.

It's a classic story about a young woman becoming an actress' friend, then her assistant, and then her understudy, and ultimately her replacement. What's wrong with just being an actress' assistant? I've always said that every creative person - every actress, musician, artist, filmmaker - needs someone doing the day-to-day tasks, so they can devote more time to their art. In fact, I've built my career on that idea, and I have no desire to replace my boss...

Does it shock you to find out that actresses can be petty, jealous, and cruel to the younger actresses that they perceive as threats? There's a lot here that seems very obvious, including some ridiculous dialogue, like "Acting is hard work - that's work that's very hard!" Duh. Plus, the characters say each other's names over and over, (in case we forgot them?) more even than characters in Japanese animation...

There's some examination of the nature of acting - an egotistical actress is compared to a piano that thinks it wrote the concerto. But mostly, we learn again and again that women get old, and are eventually replaced by younger actresses. Again - duh.

Bette Davis is one of those actresses who always looks old to me, even in an older film when she was technically young(er). Alec Guinness always looks old to me, even when he wasn't. Brando's another one - he was 26 when he was in "Streetcar", but maybe because he was old off-screen my whole life, he always feels older - as opposed to James Dean, who died young and looked young in "Giant", even when his character was old.

And this is another film with a great movie quote, for which I never knew the context - Bette Davis' character saying "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"

The film begins and ends with the same award ceremony, with the young Eve accepting the drama award - and since in-between we learn how manipulative an actress can be, the movie seems to be setting us up, so that the 2nd time we see the ceremony, we realize that everyone she thanks in her speech is on to her B.S., and hates her for one reason or another. Yeah, that seems about right.

Also starring Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, and a cameo from a very young (and young-looking) Marilyn Monroe.

RATING: 4 out of 10 curtain calls

Sherlock Holmes

Year 3, Day 94 - 4/4/11 - Movie #824

BEFORE: Amazingly, this question came up tonight at bi-weekly Team Trivia - "What pair of enemies battled over Reichenbach Falls in "The Final Problem". Nailed it! (Our team still came in 9th place, though we're usually in the Top 5) And I was already planning to watch this film tonight, since Birthday SHOUT-out #29 is going out to Robert Downey Jr., born April 4, 1965, and last seen in "The Soloist". Linking from last night's film, Marlon Brando was in "The Godfather" with James Caan, who was in "Flesh and Bone" with Gwyneth Paltrow, who was in "Iron Man" with Robert Downey Jr.

I've read all of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, and I've seen "Young Sherlock Holmes", "The Seven Percent Solution", and even "They Might Be Giants" - but I haven't watched the faithful (?) filmed versions of Holmes' adventures, not the Basil Rathbone films, and not the more recent BBC or PBS miniseries. Should probably get on that one of these days.

THE PLOT: Detective Sherlock Holmes and his stalwart partner Watson engage in a battle of wits and brawn with a nemesis whose plot is a threat to all of England.

AFTER: Of course, it's Holmes' mind that should be his greatest asset, his powers of observation, deduction and reason should drive the plot. So I'm not sure about Guy Ritchie adding bare-knuckle brawling to his skill set. I always thought Holmes preferring refined things like fencing, and playing violin, to fisticuffs. Still, we see him work through all the punching and kicking options in his head at the speed of thought before acting, so it must be the mental aspect of boxing that appeals to him, right? Did a focus group of teens think that Sherlock Holmes was too much of a pussy? Are we trying to attract the "Mortal Kombat" crowd? That's pandering.

I had high expectations for this film, but I found it rather hard to follow - which, in addition to the brawling, is another similarity to Ritchie's films "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels". The think accents, both real and fake (Downey's) didn't help either.

In addition, the film seems to open in the middle of a case - elements of the case later become very important, but where's the fun in just watching Holmes and Watson wrap up a case? The fun is in the solving, no? We're also sort of re-booting the character in the middle of his career - why not re-start the franchise a bit closer to the beginning, like "Batman Begins" did?

NITPICK POINT: The map overlay bit was done first, and better, in "Angels & Demons".

NITPICK POINT #2: So, black magic works? Or it doesn't? Make up your mind. Anyway, Sherlock Holmes should be all about disproving such things, and in a quicker fashion.

While we're discussing famous movie quotes, something is intentionally missing here - Holmes saying "Elementary, my dear Watson!" But at least Holmes says "The game is afoot!", along with a conglomeration of lesser-known quotes from famous Conan Doyle stories.

Also starring Jude Law (last seen in "Repo Men"), Rachel McAdams (last seen in "Wedding Crashers"), Mark Strong (last seen in "Stardust") and Robert Maillet, aka WWE wrestler Kurrgan (last seen in "300").

RATING: 6 out of 10 ravens

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Streetcar Named Desire

Year 3, Day 93 - 4/3/11 - Movie #823

BEFORE: Of course, I went into this crazy project with a background knowledge of movies, even of ones I hadn't seen. But I've also been reading movie "best of" lists to figure out where the gaps are in my viewing experience. There's a book called "1001 Movies to See Before You Die" (which is strange, because I don't understand how you can see them after) plus I've gone through a list the top 250 movies on IMDB. So far I've seen 248 of the 1,001 MTSBYD, and 144 of IMDB's Top 250, so I'd say I'm doing pretty well. This is a film that appears on just about every "Best of" list - which puts it in my Top 10 most glaring movie omission, along with films like "Gone With the Wind" and "Gandhi".

You guessed it, today would have been Marlon Brando's birthday, so he gets SHOUT-out #28. Linking from last night's film, Alec Guinness was in "The Empire Strikes Back" with Billy Dee Williams, who was in "Brian's Song" with James Caan, who was in "The Godfather" with Brando.

THE PLOT: Disturbed Blanche DuBois moves in with her sister in New Orleans and is tormented by her brutish brother-in-law while her reality crumbles around her.

AFTER: Like last night's film, it's a look at how much tension can be created just by having different people living under one roof. Last night it was a criminal and his landlady, tonight it's an uppity neurotic Southern belle, who lost the family estate, and has to stay with her sister Stella and her lower-class husband, Stanley Kowalski (Brando, of course).

Stanley's hobbies include bowling, playing poker, drinking, and ummm, amateur boxing, but using his wife as the punching bag. But he's hip to the fact that Blanche may be hiding family money from her sister, and that Blanche's stories seem to be full of holes.

A word about the acting, since most everyone in this film came out of the "method" school, Brando most notably. We went to see a high-school production of "Phantom of the Opera" today, and it was done pretty well, for a school production. Some of the actors, however, got a little lost on the stage, or seemed to not know what to do between their lines. Stage acting (generally speaking) requires actors to be big, bold, and to stay in character between lines. However, the same rules don't always carry over into film acting. The performances of Brando and Vivien Leigh here felt over-the-top to me, I'd go so far as to call it "over-acting".

And even though I was paying attention, and stayed awake for the whole film - I still had to read up on the original Broadway play to figure out the subtext. Like, what really happened to Blanche's husband? What did they mean by pointing out that Blanche was hanging out at a hotel? And what, exactly happened while Stella was in the hospital? I guess there were things that you couldn't blatantly say in a film in 1951, they had to sort of hint at things and dance around them.

As a result, whatever the takeaway was supposed to be about the struggles between men vs. women, or between upper and lower classes, I didn't really get it. Did I miss it, or was the film just being too oblique?

The film is perhaps most famous for two quotes - Brando screaming "Stella!" while standing in the rain, and Blanche saying "I've always depended on the kindness of strangers" in her Southern drawl. I know the quotes, of course - it's nice to finally get some context, in order to ascertain what they might mean.

Also starring Kim Hunter, Karl Malden (last seen in "On the Waterfront").

RATING: 5 out of 10 coke bottles

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Ladykillers (1955)

Year 3, Day 92 - 4/2/11 - Movie #822

BEFORE: Back-to-back caper/heist films - and a chance to send Birthday SHOUT-out #27 to Alec Guinness, born 4/2/1914 and last seen in "Kind Hearts and Coronets". Yes, I realize that the man stopped having birthdays as of 2000, but the sentiment is still there. I didn't realize that Peter Sellers was also in this film, that makes linking from last night's film easy. Meryl Streep did a voice in "Fantastic Mr. Fox", and she was also in "Postcards From the Edge" with Shirley Maclaine, who was in "Being There" with Peter Sellers.

THE PLOT: Five oddball criminal types planning a robbery rent rooms from an octogenarian widow under the pretext that they are classical musicians.

AFTER: This is a classic dark comedy, one that got remade later on by the Coen Brothers (damn, I love Coen Brothers films, I should add that one to the list...) about a group of thieves who devise a "perfect" robbery - one in which a kind old lady is used to deliver the cash, as her involvement would never be suspected by the police.

As you might imagine, things hit a snag when the proper English landlady figures out that the 5 men who rented her room have not, in fact, been rehearsing as a string quintet, but instead using her boarding house to plan and execute said robbery. Now the thieves are faced with a terrible dilemma - leave and risk capture once the old lady goes to the police, or find a way to eliminate her.

It's a tight little situation that is filled with potential - every move is a potential game-changer, and it forces the true nature of each criminal to be revealed, some just don't have the stones for murder, especially for murdering such a dear old proper "mum" - so the group is fractured and begins to fall apart.

Also starring Herbert Lom (who later co-starred with Sellers as Chief Inspector Dreyfus, Inspector Clouseau's boss and nemesis in all the Pink Panther films).

RATING: 5 out of 10 gramophone records