Saturday, May 7, 2011

Michael Clayton

Year 3, Day 126 - 5/6/11 - Movie #856

BEFORE: Well, history will regard George Lucas as equal parts filmmaker and business man, so there's my transition back to films about the corporate world, just in time to give Birthday SHOUT-out #37 to George Clooney (last heard in "Fantastic Mr. Fox"). And Lucas made a cameo appearance in "Star Wars Episode III", which also starred Ewan McGregor, who was in a film called "Young Adam" with Tilda Swinton, who appears here.

THE PLOT: A law firm brings in its "fixer" to remedy the situation after a lawyer has a breakdown while representing a chemical company in a billion-dollar class action suit.

AFTER: I missed this film when I took a look at the corporate world last September, and I skipped over it again when I did a chain of legal thrillers in January - well, I guess there's a proper time and place for everything.

This film is guilty of that non-linear arrangement that drives me crazy - usually the sign of what would be a weak story if fully arranged chronologically. This film takes the most exciting, interesting 10 minutes and screens that segment first - then a title card says "Four Days Earlier", and we get an explanation of the events leading up to the beginning scenes.

I stand by my bias, since the result is a film with a very exciting opening, a similarly exciting climax, and a whole lot of talkie-talkie in-between. Oh, sure, there's some corporate intrigue, but it's action that perks up the audience. Corporate mergers, gambling debts, mental breakdowns - these are the elements of dramatic tension, but not actual action.

And since we've SEEN the action scene already, at the beginning of the film, it really sort of defuses some of the dramatic tension later on - we already know exactly how a particular scene is going to end. Hitchcock would have handled this completely differently...

It's a shame, because Michael Clayton seems like a really cool character - the man they call when the crap hits the fan, a good man in a tight corner, a fixer, an arranger. He may not solve the problem directly, but he'll know the right person to call, and he'll keep his cool while doing it. The cops call him when someone needs a lawyer, the lawyers call him when they're in trouble with the cops, and the ladies - well, they just call him. (I'm assuming here, because it's Clooney...)

And there's also some mildly interesting stuff about corporate law - like how long can a lawyer defend a shady company without becoming shady himself? At what point in that process does one's conscience kick in, or should it? When does defending a shady client become the wrong thing to do, instead of the right thing, and where does one's paycheck fit into all of that? There don't seem to be many easy answers, but it seems like there probably shouldn't be.

Also starring Tom Wilkinson (last seen in "Duplicity"), Sydney Pollack (last seen in "A Civil Action"), Michael O'Keefe (last seen in "Ironweed"), Terry Serpico, cameos from Ken Howard (last seen in "Clear and Present Danger"), Julie White (last seen in "The Astronaut Farmer"), Denis O'Hare (last seen in "Changeling").

RATING: 5 out of 10 memorandums (one point off for that "Four Days Earlier" stuff)

Friday, May 6, 2011

The People vs. George Lucas

Year 3, Day 126 - 5/6/11 - Movie #855

BEFORE: This one premiered in New York tonight (though I can't really say it was a packed house) - so two premieres in the last two weeks, nice! And even though this is a documentary, I can still link from last night - Jay Baruchel was in "Knocked Up" with Seth Rogen, who did the voice of an alien in "Paul", which also starred Simon Pegg, who appears here in some fan-film footage.

THE PLOT: A courtroom debate approach exploring the issues of filmmaking and fanaticism around one of the industry's most famous franchises and its creator.

AFTER: I can't really hope to be impartial here, since in addition to being a huge Star Wars fan, I'm actually IN this film! I was interviewed at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con - actually the film crew wanted to interview my boss, and he had just one Lucas-related anecdote, but he told the documentary's director that they really needed to interview ME, so they did - for about 45 minutes. I riffed on the prequels and "The Phantom Edit", taking care to point out that "Star Wars" had given me direction when I was a pre-teen, made me think about filmmaking as a career for the first time, and that it was the source of much inspiration. But since so many other people made similar points, what they ended up using from my interview, however, was about 10 seconds of me talking about the infamous 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special - which is a little like being a Civil War expert, getting interviewed by Ken Burns for several hours, and then realizing that the finished documentary only used your comments about battlefield dysentery. But hey, I'm in a movie! And since the filmmakers recorded about 600 hours of interviews, I'm lucky to be in there at all!

The film uses a LOT of fan-made footage - of course, since it's readily available, and they can only use a tiny amount of real "Star Wars" film footage without paying licensing fees. And there are some important points covered here about whether a filmmaker "owns" his films, or whether they belong to fandom in general. There are fans from the original trilogy who pontificate against the prequel films - who somehow fail to realize that in the 15-year drought between 1983 and 1998, the Star Wars saga didn't really change, but in fact they did. Most adults seem to hate the silliness of the CGI-generated Jar Jar Binks, but I never realized that kids don't seem to mind him that much. Does that mean that I need to be a kid at heart to appreciate him?

And, of course, people point out that people wouldn't hate (parts of) Star Wars films so much, if they didn't love Star Wars so much. As I (also) pointed out in my interview, the opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is indifference. People who don't love Star Wars don't watch the films, and they sure don't complain about them so much.

As for the trial, with George Lucas standing accused of his "crimes" against huge-fanity, which include altering the original films and not releasing the versions some of us grew up with, changing whether Han shot first (and thus whitewashing his rogue smuggling character - let's face it, the guy was a drug mule), producing "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull" (which some people have equated with raping their childhood - might be a bit harsh) and creating Jar Jar Binks - who's to say? The man has entertained America - doesn't he deserve to also maintain control over the way that those films are viewed?

The film suggests that his early career resembles that of a young rebel, railing against a corrupt Hollywood system - while learning the mystical ways of his bearded mentor, Francis (Obi-Wan) Coppola - so Luke Skywalker = Luke S. = Lucas. But in the later years, in maintaining a strict tyranny over his own media empire, while living in isolation, and perhaps losing faith in his own storytelling power, he might have become more of a Darth Vader type. Perhaps that's a little extreme, but you can be the judge.

Also starring Neil Gaiman, Chris Gore, David Prowse, Jon Stewart, and many more...

RATING: A very biased 7 out of 10 action figures (perhaps it would be a 6 if I weren't in it...)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Year 3, Day 124 - 5/4/11 - Movie #854

BEFORE: Happy Star Wars Day! It may be a made-up holiday (but, essentially, aren't they all?) but it's one I plan to celebrate - I only found out about it last year, a few days too late. Now, most people probably celebrate by watching one or more of the two Star Wars trilogies back-to-back, but I don't have that kind of time. Plus I'm all about movies I haven't seen - maybe I'll watch the Star Wars films again while I'm on break in November. Linking from "Shanghai Knights" to Jedi Knights is easy, since Owen Wilson was in "Wedding Crashers" with Vince Vaughn, who was in "Couples Retreat" with Kristen Bell.

THE PLOT: Star Wars fans travel to Skywalker Ranch to steal an early copy of "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace".

AFTER: These, for better or for worse, are my people - the geeky, the nerdy, the sci-fi fans, the costumed and the clueless. We are simple folk, we watch movies, we harvest our crops, and we go to conventions.

But a funny thing happened with "Star Wars", and the phenomenon was later repeated with "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" - people BONDED over Star Wars. People of like minds FOUND each other because of Star Wars. Friendships, relationships and careers were determined because of a set of corny sci-fi films. I probably wouldn't have the interest in movies that I do, if not for these films - my life might be directionless, it's tough to say.

But the titular Star Wars fanboys are directionless, unfortunately - in their early twenties with no long-term plans, no goals, no girlfriends - except for one who's got a career in car sales that doesn't seem to interest him. Star Wars - or at least the prospect of seeing a new Star Wars film early - gives them a plan, a goal. I, for one, took that as a metaphor, but your mileage may vary. I understand that not everyone chose a career in film just because they liked a sci-fi film. And read George Lucas' biography. You get the idea.

But what I learned last week after seeing a film in a theater (for the first time in what, two years?) that it's not just about the film, it's the shared experience. The big screen, the smell of popcorn, people having a mock lightsaber battle in the aisle. You're there with your friends or loved one (hopefully) and you're sharing time, witnessing the same thing.

And that's the crux here - it's not the Star Wars film at the end of the trip (or at the end of the 6-month countdown to the premiere), it's the journey itself that's important, having a goal, having hope. I'm proud of the fact that I saw 5 out of the 6 Star Wars films on opening day - but it's probably a bigger accomplishment that I had friends that I saved seats for, and bosses that were willing to give me the day off (provided I saved a seat for them, too).

However, even though the film was nerdier than "Freaks & Geeks", had more Star Wars references than "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back", and just a little less Rush music than "I Love You, Man" - I'm not sure that it fully coalesced as a film. Great subject matter, no doubt - but a lot of random silliness along the way. An emotional ending doesn't fully make up for the long, winding path that it took to get there.

At the last minute, the characters celebrate the dimming of the lights, and the start of the Star Wars theme music and have one last regret - what if the movie sucks? Yeah, I sort of have a bit of that feeling myself after watching this...

But, I have found that many of life's problems can be solved by knowing a great deal of Star Wars trivia - so the movie at least gets that right. And there is no feeling in the world like watching a new Star Wars film for the first time (almost makes we hope to get amnesia someday, so I can watch them again, for the first time). I had an opportunity when "Phantom Menace" came out to attend a charity event and see the film a day early for about $500 - I figured, I've got 500 bucks, I'll probably make another 500 bucks in the future. But then I figured I could wait one more day and stand in line, that would be more sporting, and I'd save 490 dollars.

Also starring Sam Huntington (last seen in "Superman Returns"), Jay Baruchel (last seen in "Knocked Up"), Dan Fogler (last seen in "Taking Woodstock"), Chris Marquette, with cameos from Billy Dee Williams, Carrie Fisher (last seen in "The Man With One Red Shoe"), Ray Park, Seth Rogen (also last seen in "Knocked Up"), Danny Trejo (last seen in "Heat"), Christopher McDonald (last seen in "The House Bunny"), William Shatner, Kevin Smith (last seen in "Chasing Amy"), Jason Mewes, Ethan Suplee (as Harry Knowles!), Will Forte (last seen in "The Slammin' Salmon"), Craig Robinson ("Knocked Up"), Danny McBride (last seen in "Observe and Report") and Joe Lo Truglio (last seen in "The Station Agent").

RATING: 4 out of 10 stormtrooper helmets

Shanghai Knights

Year 3, Day 123 - 5/3/11 - Movie #853

BEFORE: A rare third-year enjoyable film last night, so let's see if the sequel holds up.

THE PLOT: When a Chinese rebel murders Chon's estranged father and escapes to England, Chon and Roy make their way to London with revenge on their minds.

AFTER: I should have pointed out the anomaly of "Moulin Rouge" style proportions last night, using modern songs from ZZ Top, Kid Rock, and Aerosmith in a film set in the 1880's. But, honestly, I was too busy having fun to care. This one works in songs from the 1960's British Invasion - The Who, The Kings, The Zombies - and I get the joke, since part of the film is set in London...

But the movie is so over-filled with these winking references that it (almost) forgets to weave a plot around them. There are anachronistic shout-outs to "Singin' in the Rain", "Oliver!", "Midnight Cowboy", the Beatles, and the slightly more time-appropriate Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and the Keystone Kops.

And I get that "Shanghai Noon" is a riff off of "High Noon", but what about this title? "High Nights" doesn't mean anything, does it? "Shanghai Times" or "Shanghai Tea" would have been better puns, but what do I know?

As the title goes, so goes the film. It's got the same characters, same basic structure, similar concept, but somehow the jovial spirit is gone, or the comic timing is off, or something. And the fights seem just a little too choreographed, with Jackie Chan using ladders, vases, ropes, or whatever's handy to pummel people who've never seen kung fu before (but somehow know JUST how to attack this guy in a vulnerable fashion...)

Maybe it's the setting, you take these characters out of the Old West, and they lose a bit of their charm in a big city like New York or London. Probably why the proposed third movie, "Shanghai Dawn", never got made. Logically, that should have featured a return to China, and a restoration of the family honor, but it looks like that ship has sailed.

And once again, outtakes before the closing credits confirms that you Hollywood-types really just have no idea what you're doing, do you? It would look a whole lot more professional if you just showed some restraint and left them out - save 'em for the DVD extras.

Also starring Tom Fisher (last seen in "The Illusionist"), Aiden Gillen, Fann Wong, Aaron Johnson (also seen in "The Illusionist"), Donnie Yen (last seen in "Blade II"). Maybe they should have cast some more name actors in the sequel - ya think?

RATING: 6 out of 10 steamer trunks

Monday, May 2, 2011

Shanghai Noon

Year 3, Day 122 - 5/2/11 - Movie #852

BEFORE: While last night's film couldn't really be called a Western, it did take place on America's frontier, at the time. That's got to be enough of an excuse. Linking's made from Daniel Day-Lewis, who was in "Nine" with Kate Hudson, who was also in "You, Me & Dupree" with Owen Wilson (last heard in "Fantastic Mr. Fox"). No, I'm not proud of that one.

THE PLOT: A Chinese man who travels to the Wild West to rescue a kidnapped princess teams up with a train robber, and the unlikely duo takes on a Chinese traitor and his corrupt boss.

AFTER: I can learn something from almost any film, but it doesn't always have to be very introspective, or about some conflict like the French-Indian War. Sometimes a movie just needs to show me how much FUN it can be, and that's the case here.

While I'm not a big fan of Jackie Chan (last heard in "Kung Fu Panda"), I've come to appreciate Owen Wilson through the Wes Anderson films, like "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Darjeeling Limited". He brings the same sort of persona, the new-agey ladies man type, to his role here as an outlaw - but in doing so, he turns it into perhaps the first post-modern Western.

There's a great deal of humor here, mostly of the inside-joke variety, since the film pokes fun at specific Westerns, and at the genre as a whole. Chan's character is named Chon Wang, a homonym of sorts for John Wayne, and he's told that it's a "terrible cowboy name". The corrupt sheriff is named Van Cleef, an homage to "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly". And so on - the movie's winking at us the whole time. Jeez, even the title is a play off of "High Noon".

Packed with more action and stunts than you can shake a (chop)stick at - the movie keeps rolling onward through fight after fight, except for a drag during the obligatory "training" sequence. That was ironic for Wilson's character, Roy, to train Chan's character to shoot a gun, since he can barely hit a target himself. The time would probably be better spent with Wang teaching Roy some of his moves.

NITPICK POINT: Late in the film, Roy reveals his real name, and is told that it also is a "terrible cowboy name". However, it's the name of a very famous real Western hero. To stick with the John Wayne joke, wouldn't "Gary Cooper" have worked better?

NITPICK POINT #2: In the final shoot-out/karate fight at the mission, there are THREE other Chinese guardsmen - yes, they had to guard the princess, but couldn't ONE of them helped our heroes in the battle?

Also starring Lucy Liu (last seen in "Chicago"), Xander Berkeley (last seen in "The Fabulous Baker Boys"), Roger Yuan, Walton Goggins (last seen in "The Bourne Identity").

RATING: 7 out of 10 "Wanted" posters (I'm subtracting one for the Hal Needham-like outtakes at the end)

The Last of the Mohicans

Year 3, Day 121 - 5/1/11 - Movie #851

BEFORE: Another 150 movies, about 5 months' worth, and then I'm taking a break - and I definitely need one. I feel like I've been stuck in a slew of merely average movies, and I wonder if that's because I hit the best movies already in Years 1 + 2, or if it's my perception toward movies that's changed - some kind of mental movie burnout. Anyway, here's the third in the trilogy of period films starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

THE PLOT: Three trappers protect a British Colonel's daughters in the midst of the French and Indian War.

AFTER: This was not bad, pretty action-packed from start to finish. And it made me want to learn more about the book by James Fenimore Cooper, and also the French and Indian War. If only there were some kind of network of collective human knowledge that I could connect to and use for researching these things - it's a shame, really. There ought to be a way.

It was a little confusing for me since the Native Americans seemed to be helping both sides, the French and the English, at different times - and some were pretending to help on side while actually helping the other. I guess different tribes acted in different ways?

Part of the action in this film takes place at Fort William Henry, at Lake George, north of Albany, NY - which interests me since we took a road trip up to Lake George last October, even visited that exact fort. OK, so we visited the gift shop, the admission price to the fort itself seemed outrageous for a weekday. But we also took a cruise on the lake, it's really gorgeous up there - though it looks like they filmed this movie in North Carolina, not upstate NY. Makes sense, it's a little too developed up there to pass for Colonial times.

So the siege of Fort Henry was a real event, the movie gets that right - but it also drastically changed the storyline of Cooper's novel (which honestly sounds even more confusing) - but it works as an action film, so despite being mostly against the Hollywood-ization of classic literature, this is one time where I'm going to allow it.

Also starring Madeleine Stowe (last seen in "Impostor"), Russell Means, Eric Schweig, Wes Studi (last heard in "Avatar"), with cameos from Terry Kinney (last seen in "Devil in a Blue Dress"), Pete Postlethwaite (last seen in "Alien 3"), Colm Meaney (last seen in "The Commitments") and Dylan Baker (last seen in "Head of State").

RATING: 7 out of 10 tomahawks

Sunday, May 1, 2011

There Will Be Blood

Year 3, Day 120 - 4/30/11 - Movie #850

BEFORE: Another pedigreed film, so back-to-back Oscar-winning performances by Daniel Day Lewis.

THE PLOT: A story about family, greed, religion, and oil, centered around a turn-of-the-century prospector in the early days of the business.

AFTER: I've usually got a bent against any movie over 2 1/2 hours, unless it's on a part with "Titanic" or "Lord of the Rings", and I'm not sure this one is. This is kind of slow-paced (representing the early 1900's, a slower time?) but I have to think one could cut at least 20 minutes out somewhere. Thematically, it's hard to believe the same director made "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia".

There were parts that were oblique and sort of hard to follow - of course, I don't know much about the oil business, so maybe some things could have been explained better, without the use of milkshake-based metaphor. (But if your milkshake was underground, see, nobody would really want to drink it. So that doesn't really work.)

At least Daniel Day Lewis got to speak some real dialogue in this film - but there was something about his accent, but I couldn't quite place it - was he doing Sean Connery? The IMDB says it was reminiscent of John Huston in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", and I did think about that film when Plainview was filing his claims.

But why have one actor play two different characters? Sure, they were brothers, but it was still confusing. I wondered why Plainview was meeting that person for a second time.

I guess there's some overall metaphor about religion vs. business, the spiritual vs. the material, family connections, and general dishonesty, but it didn't completely coalesce for me.

Also starring Paul Dano (last seen in "Taking Woodstock"), Dillon Freasier, Ciaran Hinds (last seen in "Road to Perdition"), Kevin J. O'Connor (last seen in "Van Helsing"), cameo from Paul F. Tompkins.

RATING: 6 out of 10 bowling pins