Friday, May 20, 2011

John Q

Year 3, Day 140 - 5/20/11 - Movie #867

BEFORE: No movie yesterday - I was dealing with the failing health of our oldest cat, Merlin, whose health problems I've mentioned before. I stayed up all night watching him, and since he was too weak to walk we had to take him to the vet for the last time. So it's been a pretty sad day, but we took comfort in the fact that he was twenty years old, which is older than most cats get. And I was lucky to spend so much time with the best cat in the world. I know, everyone thinks their cat is the best, but let's face it, we can't all be correct, now, can we?

This film came into my collection a few months after my Denzel Washington police/action chain, so I'll kick off a follow-up mini Denzel chain tonight. Linking from "Baby Mama", Steve Martin was in "Grand Canyon" with Kevin Kline, who was in "Cry Freedom" with Denzel Washington (last seen in "Inside Man").

THE PLOT: A down-on-his luck father, whose insurance won't cover his son's heart transplant, takes the hospital's emergency room hostage until the doctors agree to perform the operation.

AFTER: I'd normally be against an action film that also tries to serve as a commentary on the U.S. health/insurance system (pre-Obamacare, that is), AND an endorsement for organ-donor programs, but they got lucky with this one and it all sort of works together. John Q is willing to go to extremes to get attention for his son's plight - most people would host a fund-raiser or solicit charitable contributions, but I guess taking hostages is quicker.

I could nitpick about how relatively calm things remain within the emergency room (despite dealing with the you, know, medical emergencies) - most of the hostages sympathize with the man's plight, so they end up being very helpful and willing to cooperate. Is this some variation on Stockholm syndrome, or just the Hollywood-ization of a crime scene? Can the main character commit a crime, admittedly for a good reason, but still remain a hero? Seems like maybe you can't have it both ways, unless you walk a really thin line.

NITPICK POINT: Another character, the head bean-counter at the hospital, is against the son's heart transplant due to the cost, and she acts like a royal bitch when she demands cash up front before putting the boy on the transplant list. But in order for the plot to progress, she must have put him on the list at some point. When did the change in her attitude take place, and what caused it? You can't just show a character being pensive in place of actual action.

I swear that I had this film scheduled for today well in advance - I didn't know I'd be spending part of my day in a hospital, dealing with some of the same questions about what lengths to take to preserve life, and when to let go. Turns out they don't do heart transplants for kitties, so it wouldn't have done me any good to demand one. I do sort of wish I'd fought harder for my cat, but I'd been arguing his case with the doctors for months - and though we took all the actions we could to prolong his life, it was the quality of his life that was really starting to suffer. We did what we could to make him comfortable at home, with the knowledge that he might only have a short time left. It's a sucky system that's beyond my power to change.

Also starring James Woods (last seen in "Be Cool"), Robert Duvall (last seen in "Crazy Heart"), Anne Heche (last seen in "The Juror"), Ray Liotta (last seen in "Date Night"), David Thornton (last seen in "A Civil Action"), Ethan Suplee (last seen in "Fanboys"), Kevin Connolly, Eddie Griffin

RATING: 7 out of 10 ambulances

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Baby Mama

Year 3, Day 138 - 5/18/11 - Movie #866

BEFORE: Not really a fan of pulpy detective stories, and there are none on my list anyway - and I'm still not ready for the snore-fest that is "Casablanca", so instead I'll send Birthday SHOUT-out #41 to Tina Fey, born 5/18/1970, and last seen in "Date Night". I could have (and perhaps should have) watched this one along with "Juno", "Knocked Up", "Baby Boom" and "The Brothers Solomon" - could have been a nice little chain.

THE PLOT: A successful, single businesswoman who dreams of having a baby discovers she is infertile and hires a working class woman to be her unlikely surrogate.

AFTER: I won't deny that there are funny bits here, but why does Hollywood insist on portraying women who can't get pregnant as broken or imperfect, and women who choose not to get pregnant as self-centered bitches? Where are the female characters who just don't like kids, without that being a character flaw? Or ones who are infertile, and they're fine with that because they don't think they could be good mothers, anyway? I guess you don't really have much of a story arc with those characters...

It seems like in the movies, it's the women who are least fertile that WANT babies the most - or am I off-base here? At least Tina Fey's character here is career-oriented without being cut-throat (this is what passes for progress?). The best bits seem to come at the expense of the hippie-crunchy health food/vegan/yoga lifestyle, as exhibited by the CEO of a Whole-Foods like company (Steve Martin, last seen in "The Lonely Guy")

In the end, some funny material. Humor often comes from the juxtaposition of elements - a neat guy living with a messy guy, for example. Here you take a pregnant white trash girl and make her live with a non-pregnant executive type, and watch the humor flow in true "Odd Couple" style. Or take a hippie mystic type and put him in a corporate executive position. Or take a lawyer and have him open up a fruit-smoothie business. It's all a little by-the-numbers, but it works.

Also starring Amy Poehler (last heard in "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel"), Greg Kinnear (last seen in "Dear God"), Dax Shepard, Maura Tierney (last seen in "Liar Liar"), Sigourney Weaver (last heard in "The Tale of Despereaux"), with cameos from James Rebhorn (last seen in "Silkwood"), Will Forte (last seen in "Fanboys"), Fred Armisen (last seen in "The Promotion"), John Hodgman (last seen in "The Invention of Lying"), and Siobhan Fallon (as a birthing coach with an unfortunate Elmer Fudd-like accent)

RATING: 6 out of 10 ultrasounds

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Big Sleep

Year 3, Day 137 - 5/17/11 - Movie #865

BEFORE: Last night was a noir(ish) thriller, so another one of those is in order. I inadvertently set up a chain of films based on novels from noted authors - Booth Tarkington wrote "The Magnificent Ambersons", Graham Greene wrote "The Third Man", and tonight's film is based on a novel from Raymond Chandler (and William Faulkner worked on the screenplay!). Backtracking a bit with the linking - Joseph Cotten from "The Third Man" was in "Airport '77" with Jimmy Stewart, who was in "The Shootist" with Lauren Bacall (last seen in "Misery").

THE PLOT: Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by a rich family. Before the complex case is over, he's seen murder, blackmail, and what might be love.

AFTER: The second film that Bogart and Bacall made together (first was "To Have and Have Not"), it's a real twisty mystery story - maybe too twisty. I should note that I was feeling the first effects of a spring cold, and that Bogart's monotone has proven in the past to have a soporific effect on me. Those two things didn't help, in fact they made the film's title very appropriate.

But, at the end of a film that's as confusing as this one, I'm hard pressed to determine whether the fault is mine, or the film's. If I have to look up the plot summary on IMDB or Wikipedia after, then a failure has occured - now I just need to assign blame.

From posted comments, I find I'm not alone - there are simply too many characters in this film, too many shady suspects, and we never really find out for sure who killed whom, or who in fact is behind it all. That's also a result of this 1940's "shoot first, and sort it out later" mentality. Dead men can't offer up a defense, so isn't it a little too easy to say which crimes they were responsible for? What happened to fingerprints, DNA evidence, and gunshot residue? Or were they all invented later?

So we've got blackmail, gambling debts, a missing husband, pornography dealers, and other seedy bits from the original novel that were edited out of the film due to the Hays Code. (Couldn't have references to gay men, and what Carmen was doing in the blackmail photos had to be left to the imagination) And a long conversation between Marlowe and the D.A., laying out the facts in the case, was apparently also chopped. So it's not just me, the film is by its very nature confusing and abstract.

I put forth the notion that maybe Lauren Bacall's character was the criminal mastermind behind everything, though there is no direct evidence to support that (but wouldn't a criminal mastermind eliminate all direct evidence?). Her husband disappeared (and don't the police always suspect the spouse first?) and she hangs out with a lot of shady men, plus she always turns up in this film as the dirty deals are going down. And I'm not all moony-eyed over her like Marlowe is - so I think she's in it up to her sultry eyeballs. Am I crazy?

Also starring Martha Vickers, John Ridgely, with cameos from Charles Waldron and Elisha Cook, Jr.

RATING: 4 out of 10 promissory notes

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Third Man

Year 3, Day 136 - 5/16/11 - Movie #864

BEFORE: Joseph Cotten carries over from "The Magnificent Ambersons", as does Orson Welles (as an actor here, not as a director).

THE PLOT: Arriving in Vienna, Holly Martins learns that his friend Harry Lime, who has invited him, recently died in a car accident.

AFTER: Cotten plays a pulp-novel writer here, who gets caught up in foreign intrigue like something out of one of his own stories. He tries to uncover the truth about what his old friend might have been involved with (shades of the reporter digging into the past of Charles Foster Kane?), which might involve black-market trading and thinning down medicine for profit. Tsk tsk.

The end credits say the film was shot at Shepperton Studios in London, but that really does the film a disservice. The exteriors shot in post-war Vienna are just breathtaking, with amazing depth and grays for a black and white film. Even the bombed-out buildings and the underground sewer system look amazing!

I'd go so far to say that Vienna is like the star of the film, both for its beauty and for its importance to the plot. Where else (besides Berlin) would you find a city divided into French, German, English and Russian zones, with an international police force?

I went into it knowing nothing, but appreciating a good, intriguing plot. And you know with a character named Harry Lime, there's going to be a twist, right? Twist of lime? Oh, never mind.

Also starring Trevor Howard, Alida Valli, and Bernard Lee, with a cameo from Wilfrid Hyde-White.

RATING: 6 out of 10 plane tickets

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Magnificent Ambersons

Year 3, Day 135 - 5/15/11 - Movie #863

BEFORE: Just back from Maryland - two days on this road trip, without access to a DVD player, means I'm two movies behind in the count, and for the first time, I'm not planning to catch up. Losing a couple days here, and 5 days in July for Comic-Con will mean that I'll hit movie #1000 in mid-October rather than late September, and that will help me get rid of those last few horror films, and end my chain the way I want to. It's all part of the plan, and there's really no way to make a mistake, I just have to move a couple of things around.

I can still send Birthday SHOUT-out #40 to the late Joseph Cotten. I couldn't honor Orson Welles, director of this film, on his birthday because it coincided with George Clooney's. So let's get to the big man today. Linking from last night, Jimmy Stewart was in "Airport '77" with Joseph Cotten (last seen in "Tora! Tora! Tora!"), now wasn't that lucky?

THE PLOT: The spoiled young heir to the decaying Amberson fortune comes between his widowed mother and the man she has always loved.

AFTER: Thematically this links pretty well from "The Philadelphia Story", since it's about American high society and family affairs - though it's set a few years earlier, and doesn't paint such a rosy picture. And this picture's also got a fine reputation, nominated for 4 Oscars and generally considered a "classic", though I'm left wondering if that reputation might be unwarranted.

I'm a fan of "Citizen Kane", and at first it seems like there are similar themes in play here, with businessmen rising and falling due to their investments in the budding automobile industry. But Kane deserved his success, and George (Amberson) Minafer, is portrayed as a selfish brat. He doesn't even attempt to earn a living until late in the film - and then it seems like it's almost too late for his redemption.

A stronger theme here seems to be that of unrequited love - Joseph Cotten's Eugene Morgan tries to romance Isabel Amberson, but fails and has to watch her marry the much more stable (boring), Wilbur Minafer. Years later he returns (with a daughter, Lucy) to try again after Mr. Minafer dies. But George gets in the way, while trying himself to romance Lucy.

I'm sort of left with a feeling of "Is that all there is?" after watching this - a feeling that I missed something, or something was left out. I wondered if there was an implication that Eugene was really George's father, instead of Wilbur - or was I reading too much into things? A little research told me that Orson Welles lost control of the final edit of this film, and that 40 minutes were cut by the studio, and a happier ending was re-shot. One wonders what this film could have been if Welles had had final cut - it would be longer, sure, but would it also have been better?

Also starring Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter (last seen in "All About Eve"), Tim Holt (last seen in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"), and Agnes Moorehead.

RATING: 4 out of 10 headlights

The Philadelphia Story

Year 3, Day 132 - 5/12/11 - Movie #862

BEFORE: OK, no more films about toxic accidents - but last night's film did feature Chevy Chase's character in a very cordial relationship with his ex-wife, and that's a theme that gets repeated here. Tonight I send Birthday SHOUT-out #39 to the late Katherine Hepburn. And linking seemed like it would be difficult, until I remembered that Dabney Coleman from "Modern Problems" was also in "9 To 5" with Jane Fonda, who was in "On Golden Pond" with Katherine Hepburn (last seen in "Stage Door").

THE PLOT: When a rich woman's ex-husband and a tabloid-type reporter turn up just before her planned remarriage, she begins to learn the truth about herself.

AFTER: Of course, this film is also about a society wedding, and with great synchronicity, it takes place on a Thursday before a Saturday wedding - and tonight is Thursday, and I'm getting ready to drive to Maryland for a co-worker's wedding. So let's send this one out to a couple of crazy kids, Gina and Zach, who tie the knot this coming weekend. (Personal note: Gina, who gets married in the middle of Season Finale week? Do you know how full my DVRs are going to be when I get back?)

This is a high-pedigree film, was nominated for 6 Oscars and won 2 (Jimmy Stewart as Best Actor, and Best Screenplay) and as I found out in "The Aviator", reversed Kate Hepburn's reputation as being "box-office poison".

So, this is what romantic comedies looked like in the 1930's? It's interesting to see how much things have changed, in just a few generations. For one, there's a very strong stigma against divorce - one of the characters in the love quadrangle was ashamed to even mention that she'd been married before. For Hepburn's character (Tracy Lord, a moniker later semi-adopted by a porn star), there's no hiding the fact that she was also divorced, since it would have been in all the papers. But then when it comes time to get married again (and she simply must do so, or somehow be regarded as "incomplete"), when her stuffed-shirt fiancé doesn't seem like the right fit, oh, well, just marry someone else! And she's got no shortage of choices, with Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant's characters on hand.

The woman is the prize, and marriage is the goal - it just all seems somewhat antiquated, and I kind of thought that Hepburn's sensibilities would have been more ahead of their time. It hardly seems like her character has any choice at all over who she marries or re-marries. It just takes a few drinks for her to see another man as a better choice than her intended - so, really how much in love was she?

NITPICK POINT #1 - do we ever find out why Hepburn and Grant's characters got divorced in the first place? Yes, we see him storming out of their house, and then pushing her to the floor - but what preceded/provoked that? The IMDB plot summary says they married impulsively, and he was a drinker, and she was unforgiving of his imperfections, but I don't recall all of that being stated in the film.

NITPICK POINT #2 - can you just substitute in a new groom like that? Doesn't there need to be a marriage license listing the correct groom? And back then didn't there need to be a blood test or something? Screw it, the guests are here so let's just proceed? I sort of doubt it.

Also, I found the precocious teen sister to be much too...well, precocious.

RATING: 5 out of 10 invitations