Saturday, April 30, 2011

My Left Foot

Year 3, Day 119 - 4/29/11 - Movie #849

BEFORE: Capping off a week of disabilities and dysfunction - blindness, OCD, alcoholism, dwarfism, and now cerebarl palsy. And Birthday SHOUT-out #36 to Daniel Day Lewis - this will kick off a three-day tribute. Linking from last night, Peter Dinklage was in "Living in Oblivion" with Catherine Keener, who was in "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" with Daniel Day Lewis (last seen in "Gangs of New York")

THE PLOT: The story of Christy Brown, who was born with cerebral palsy. He learned to paint and write with his only controllable limb - his left foot.

AFTER: Ach, I'm pretty torn on this one. Partially because this is so much Oscar bait - the Academy's got a long history of rewarding actors playing disabled people, and partially because it causes me to question what constitutes acting in such a film. When does acting disabled become disrespectful? When it involves grunting and talking in a distorted fashion, I'm not very impressed by it - not in the same way that I'm impressed by someone able to type with their foot.

I just want to call a mulligan on this one, because I don't want to buck the Academy Awards, but I do think that given enough time, the decision to reward this performance may become more questionable.

Also starring Brenda Fricker (last seen in "A Time to Kill"), Ray McAnally (last seen in "The Fourth Protocol"), Fiona Shaw (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix").

RATING: 4 out of 10 lumps of coal

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Station Agent

Year 3, Day 118 - 4/28/11 - Movie #848

BEFORE: Like last night's film, this is one of those "festival darling" films - and it's one that I've been trying to watch for a few years now. Probably never would have found the time, if not for the Movie Year project. Damn, I could have linked easily to "The Aviator", from Patricia Clarkson to either DiCaprio or Ian Holm. Wait a second, Will Ferrell was in "The Other Guys" with Bobby Cannavale (last seen in "The Promotion"). Done.

THE PLOT: When his only friend dies, a man born with dwarfism moves to rural New Jersey to live a life of solitude, only to meet a chatty hot dog vendor and a woman dealing with her own personal loss.

AFTER: OK, I feel better about the scheduling since both this film and "Everything Must Go" deal with personal loss and introspection. But don't all festival films hit those same notes?

It's easy to say that "nothing happens" in this film - but that's not exactly true. It's more that the things that DO happen don't really cohere into a formal narrative structure or "point". People watch trains, people go for walks, people drink coffee.

I wanted to like this film, but it just didn't give me enough to grab on to. Yes, it's probably tough being a little person, but is that enough for a film? And didn't we know that already?

Starring Peter Dinklage (last seen in "The Baxter"), Patricia Clarkson (last seen in "Good Night and Good Luck"), Michelle Williams (also last seen in "The Baxter"), cameos from John Slattery (last seen in "Charlie Wilson's War"), Richard Kind (last heard in "Everyone's Hero") and Joe Lo Truglio (last seen in "Role Models").

RATING: 3 out of 10 library cards

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Everything Must Go

Year 3, Day 117 - 4/27/11 - Movie #847

BEFORE: The first movie with a 2011 release date makes the countdown - "But wait," you say, "I thought the Movie Year was for classic films from decades past that you never got around to!" Very astute of you, of course that's what it's for. But I had an opportunity to attend a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, now in its 10 year (but I've never had the chance to attend before, despite my festival connections in other cities). Honestly, this was the only film in the guide that really appealed to me - and my boss had a A-level pass, so he made it happen. And as I got booted out of the ticket-holders line (since my connection hadn't shown up with my ticket yet) and I was forced to stand on the curb, who gets out of an SUV but Will Ferrell and his entourage! Walked right past me, about a foot away, and me without a camera! Anyway, I thought that this might have something to do with hoarding, or some other kind of disfunction, so it would tie in nicely with "The Aviator". And of course John C. Reilly links to Will Ferrell through films like "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights")

THE PLOT: When an alcoholic relapses, causing him to lose his wife and his job, he holds a yard sale on his front lawn in an attempt to start over.

AFTER: It's an overused movie cliché - a man comes home and finds all of his stuff on the lawn or street (sometimes tossed from a third-floor window for added dramatic effect). But what happens next? We assume the man rents a van, loads up his clothing and golf clubs (all off-camera, of course) and moves on with his life. But what if he didn't? What happens next?

In this case, our sad protagonist has also lost his job, company car, and is a relapsing alcoholic. And his wife has changed the locks and frozen his accounts - so he has no resources, no phone, and little money. Can't rent a van, can't move his stuff, he's truly stuck. Plus he's got no motivation, no apparent future, and he needs a plan.

Plan #1 is to buy beer (usually a good plan, but perhaps not in this case). Plan #2 is to arrange the furniture on the lawn into something like a living-room setup, and set up shop there until he can patch things up with the wife. And Plan #3 is something akin to a soul-cleansing yard sale.

It's through these plans, and his interactions with the neighbors, that he slowly starts to put the fragments of his life back together and think about battling back. I don't know if the film could be a commercial success, given the subject matter, but it's certainly got what it takes to be a festival darling - dry humor, dark tone and a lot of introspection.

The film will probably get some flack for having an ending that's very open to interpretation. The three of us who saw the film had three different ideas about what the ending meant. Most likely it meant that the future was uncertain, but isn't that the way that a person's future works?

John Lennon sang about how "Life is what happens while we're busy making other plans." But this film is about those other plans that we have to develop when life happens. I've never had my stuff thrown out into the street, but I have been the one asking someone to move out, and honestly both situations suck.

Also starring Rebecca Hall (last seen in "Frost/Nixon"), Stephen Root (last seen in "The Soloist"), Michael Peña (last seen in "Lions for Lambs"), Laura Dern (last seen in "A Perfect World").

RATING: 7 out of 10 strips of bacon

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Aviator

Year 3, Day 116 - 4/26/11 - Movie #846

BEFORE: I got lucky again - Frances Conroy carries over from the end of "Scent of a Woman". I don't require that any two successive movies share an actor/actress, but it's nice when they do. (Could you imagine? Jeez, if I had to do it all over...) And we go from a blind angry veteran to an obsessive germophobic pilot, that's the reasoning.

THE PLOT: A biopic depicting the early years of legendary director and aviator Howard Hughes' career, from the late 1920s to the mid-1940s.

AFTER: I really didn't know much about Howard Hughes before watching this - which movies he (over-)produced in the 1930's, that he romanced Kate Hepburn and Ava Gardner, and founded TWA. All I really knew was that he was some kind of rich recluse in the 1950's and 60's. But every film is an opportunity to learn SOMEthing.

Leonardo DiCaprio (last seen in "Catch Me If You Can") is a fine actor, in the right role - but I don't know if this was right for him. Though he was 30 when this film was released, he still had a boyish face and voice - he still looks 16 or 17 to me. Although later on, with the beard and disheveled clothing, he did look a little older, maybe mid-20s, but Hughes was supposed to be in his 40's then.

I would have liked to learn a little more about his condition - was it just fear of germs, or was it O.C.D. (did they even have that back then?) or something else? I watched a reality show last year where they took 7 people with OCD and made them live together and do group therapy - you might think that's a really bad idea, and a bad show concept, but I learned a lot about the condition, and possible treatments. Now me, I have C.D.O. - it's kind of the same, except the letters are in the right order.

But what were Hughes' triggers? Was it the crowds, the flashbulbs, the way his mother taught him to spell while bathing him (weird...)? Was he driven to succeed, afraid of failure? And what made him repeat the same phrases over and over? Can a man be both an aviation-oriented technical genius, and a reclusive nutball? Where is the line between genius and madness?

But I feel for the guy, I really do. I can't tell you how many times I've seen someone on the subway cough or sneeze into their hand, and then put it RIGHT BACK on the pole. Really? Why don't you just cough in everyone's face? Or people in a sandwich or donut shop who wear those little clear gloves, and then think that everything is somehow sterile as they make my sandwich. Well, not if you keep wearing the gloves when you touch a doorknob or answer your phone! Your phone was just right next to your mouth, so now all that's on my sandwich! People just don't get it...

As an afterthought, who were those creepy men approaching Hughes at the end? Honestly, I'm left with more questions than answers - did Scorcese want Howard Hughes to remain some kind of riddle wrapped in an enigma? Or was he just so complex that a movie can't possibly give us much insight to his state of mind? Was there no way in, or did the movie just fail to find it?

Also starring Cate Blanchett (last seen in "The Talented Mr. Ripley"), Kate Beckinsale (last seen in "Underworld: Evolution"), Alec Baldwin (last seen in "The Juror"), John C. Reilly (last seen in "Anger Management"), Ian Holm (last seen in "The Fifth Element"), Alan Alda (last seen in "Flash of Genius"), Danny Huston (last seen in "How to Lose Friends & Alienate People"), Adam Scott (last seen in "Knocked Up"), with cameos from Brent Spiner (last seen in "I Am Sam"), Edward Herrmann (last seen in "The Man with One Red Shoe"), Willem Dafoe (last heard in "Fantastic Mr. Fox"), Jude Law (last seen in "Sherlock Holmes"), Gwen Stefani and Loudon Wainwright III (also last seen in "Knocked Up").

RATING: 5 out of 10 milk bottles

Monday, April 25, 2011

Scent of a Woman

Year 3, Day 115 - 4/25/11 - Movie #845

BEFORE: In a happy accident, James Rebhorn carries over from last night's substitution film. But the real impetus is to give Birthday SHOUT-out #35 to Al Pacino (last seen in "Heat"). The count of films left on my list remains at 300, due to the fact that I'm still adding to the list, at a rate of about 1 film every 2 days. So despite watching 845 films, the original count of 435 has not been reduced as much as I'd planned, and I've got no hope of finishing once I reach #1,000 - or this year, for that matter.

THE PLOT: A prep school student needing money agrees to "babysit" a blind man, but the job is not at all what he anticipated.

AFTER: I took the day off today, because my cat Merlin seemed to be having trouble breathing, and didn't each much food all weekend. Merlin's two months over 20 years old, which in cat years is...well, mighty old, and over the years he's had a number of health problems, including a broken paw, a heart murmur, bad teeth, high blood sugar (followed by low blood sugar), kidney problems, and a slow-growing tumor near his thyroid. Each time I take him to the vet, they're pleasantly surprised to find out that he's still alive, and I worry that he won't be coming home with me afterwards. Today's x-ray revealed fluid in his lungs, kidney stones (just like me!) and a heart condition.

The vets drained his lungs and gave us heart meds, but the question once again came up about whether we're doing the right thing by prolonging his life. I'm fortunate that I haven't had to make the dreadful decision - even if he was in pain, I'd still want to take him home and make his last days comfortable, but I'm not sure that's the right call. A more appropriate tribute to the world's greatest cat (in my opinion, of course) will be forthcoming at a later date - for now, he's back home and breathing easier.

So it's weird that a similar topic came up in tonight's film - as Al Pacino's character plans a fantasy weekend in New York, as his way of going out with a bang. He's a blinded veteran who's haunted by his disability, and drags his hired helper to his brother's Thanksgiving dinner, and then wine, women and tangoing in the Big Apple. Meanwhile, his prep-student aide faces a crisis of conscience at this school - you don't suppose this crazy pair could find some way to help each other out? Or at least some common ground?

Obviously the main reason to watch this film is for Pacino's Oscar-winning performance - but my mind is on the quality-of-life issue, and that will figure in to a few other movies coming up this week.

Also starring Chris O'Donnell (last seen in "The Chamber"), Philip Seymour Hoffman (last seen in "Pirate Radio"), with cameos from Bradley Whitford (last seen in "A Perfect World"), Gabrielle Anwar, Ron Eldard (last seen in "The Last Supper"), Frances Conroy (last heard in "The Tale of Despereaux").

RATING: 7 out of 10 limousines

Head of State

Year 3, Day 114 - 4/24/11 - Movie #844

BEFORE: It's Easter Sunday, but I've got nothing to tie in with that - I've got little interest in watching "The Passion of the Christ" or even "Easter Parade" for that matter (though if I had thought to record it off TCM this morning, maybe...). Though I did watch two films about death and resurrection earlier this week - "Down to Earth" and "Switch", though I failed to make a Biblical connection there.

It's also Barbra Streisand's birthday, and I'd originally planned to suffer through "The Mirror Has Two Faces" - but then I remembered that my wife made me watch it years ago (I think it was some kind of boyfriend test, and I passed) because I remember calling it "The Camera Has One Angle". So I'm crossing that one off the list, making a nice even 300 films left on the list.

So I'm calling for a substitution - two of the last three movies had characters who were running for President, so I'll pick up on that little thread. And of course we link back from Eugene Levy to Chris Rock through "Down to Earth".

THE PLOT: When a presidential candidate dies unexpectedly in the middle of the campaign, Washington D.C. alderman Mays Gilliam is unexpectedly picked as his replacement.

AFTER: It's tough for me to get a reading on this film, because everyone probably views it now as being very prescient of the 2008 election - though the film was made in 2003 and takes place during the 2004 election. Did the filmmakers predict the outcome of the 2008 campaign, or is it just a coincidence? In depicting a black man running for president, was the attempt to show a possible set of events, or an extremely unlikely one?

I have to lean toward the latter, since the candidate here acts in ways which, by the movie's own admission, would make him un-electable. Would any presidential candidate, black or white, be taken seriously if he made a music video, or dressed like a rapper?

Also, by the movie's own admission, it would make more sense for a party (presumably Democratic, though that word is cleverly absent here) to pick a respected Senator or Governor to replace a candidate so close to an election. But this is sort of covered by the fact that Chris Rock's character is chosen merely as a gesture to minorities, his party leaders don't expect him to win - it's only when he decides to go off-message and speak his mind that he gains ground in the polls (see also: "Bulworth").

Regardless of the intent, this is another clever way to work the comedy routines of Chris Rock (last seen in "Down to Earth") into a narrative framework - just make them part of his campaign speeches!

But the movie doesn't think very highly of Californians, does it? The implication is that a lot of them are racists, who would rush to the voting booths to prevent a black man from being elected. Isn't California notoriously a liberal "blue" state, one that went for Obama?

Also starring Bernie Mac (last seen in "Soul Men"), Dylan Baker (last seen in "Road to Perdition"), Lynn Whitfield, James Rebhorn (last seen in "The Talented Mr. Ripley"), Robin Givens (last seen in "Blankman"), Stephanie March (last seen in "The Invention of Lying"), with a cameo from Tracy Morgan (last heard in "G-Force").

RATING: 5 out of 10 endorsements

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Going Berserk

Year 3, Day 113 - 4/23/11 - Movie #843

BEFORE: I've been hitting a lot of comedies lately, the list of them is dwindling fast - especially ones starring ex-SNL stars. Tonight, some respect paid to ex-SCTV stars. For those not in the know, SCTV was like Saturday Night Live's Canadian cousin in the 1980's, a sketch comedy show that produced talents like John Candy, Martin Short, and Catherine O'Hara. Linking from last night's film, Adam Sandler was in "Grown Ups" with Chris Rock, who was in "Down To Earth" with Eugene Levy, who appears here playing a character very similar to his "Bobby Bittman" SCTV character, a showbiz-weasel type.

THE PLOT: A drummer/chauffeur engaged to a congressman's daughter encounters a sleazy film director, the leader of an aerobics cult, and other crazed characters during the days leading up to his wedding.

AFTER: This plays out like an extended SCTV sketch, minus a few of their regular actors. It's like their take on "The Manchurian Candidate", with an unsuspecting man programmed to assassinate a prominent politician. However, the programming doesn't really work right, and when the poor dupe sees the trigger (why is it always a playing card?) he instead turns into a horny lounge-lizard type.

The movie also riffs on "The Blue Lagoon", dubbed kung fu films, fugitive-on-the-run films, bikers, punks, and yes, an evil cult whose members all do aerobics (I KNEW it!). As such, the film is very disjointed, and more often than not, forgets to be funny.

The wedding scenes remind me of my favorite recurring SCTV skit, a soap-opera spoof called "Days of the Week". It had all your standard soap plot-lines, like the rich man with amnesia, the crook impersonating him to win his inheritance, the evil doctor, etc. The various plotlines all came to a head in a wedding scene, when terrorists attacked - leading to a cliffhanger ending. I thought they should have just ended the skit right there, confounding everyone's expectations, but unfortunately they persisted and drove the gags into the ground. Check the clips out on YouTube and see if you agree.

As for this film, the ending seems extremely rushed, as the main character's programming is broken (somehow) and he is awarded a limo service in Africa (where there are no limos - huh?)

Starring John Candy (last seen in "Armed and Dangerous"), Joe Flaherty (last seen in "1941"), Alley Mills, Dixie Carter, Ernie Hudson, Pat Hingle (last seen in "Maximum Overdrive"), Richard Libertini (last seen in "Lethal Weapon 4"), with cameos from Kurtwood Smith (last seen in "A Time to Kill") and Paul Dooley (last seen in "Sixteen Candles").

RATING: 2 out of 10 male strippers