Friday, June 3, 2011

The Other Guys

Year 3, Day 153 - 6/2/11 - Movie #880

BEFORE: Back-to-back buddy cop films, and I put this one next for linking convenience, since Burt Reynolds from "City Heat" was also in "Boogie Nights" with Mark Wahlberg (last seen in "Date Night").

THE PLOT: Two mismatched New York City detectives seize an opportunity to step up like the city's top cops whom they idolize -- only things don't quite go as planned.

AFTER: I found this one to be quite inconsistent and all over the place, despite the presence of Will Ferrell (last seen in "Everything Must Go") the movie didn't seem to go far enough in a comedic direction, like "Anchorman" or "Semi-Pro". And I couldn't say that it could be taken seriously as an action film either - so it felt like the movie couldn't decide what it wanted to be.

There's a bit at the end where one of the characters can't tell a joke right, and in fact the whole movie seemed a little like a joke that wasn't being told right. You can't go, "oh, wait, I forgot to mention the guy was a pimp" when you tell a joke, it ruins the timing. It's a shame because the set-up is a good one, with a wanna-be tough cop partnered with a wimpy accountant - but then we find out that the tough guy's not so tough and the wimpy guy's actually not that wimpy. So, where's the contrast then? Why set things up just to tear them down?

I get the part where the movie spoofs off of films like "Lethal Weapon" - the "star cops" are seen here, and the movie's supposed to be about the type of cop you see in the background of those films, the cops that direct traffic or issue tickets - but then those cops are thrust into the types of car chases and shoot-outs that we expect from the Hollywood hero cops. So again, why set things up just to tear them down?

Also, I doubt that street-level detectives would be able to notice Wall Street fraud, let alone pursue it as one of their cases. It just didn't make sense - nor did the exact nature of the fraud. Couldn't you use the term "ponzi scheme" so we'd understand it? And if I don't understand it, it makes me feel like the cops didn't understand it either - so how do they know it's illegal?

Also starring Michael Keaton (last seen in "The Dream Team"), Eva Mendes (last seen in "Training Day"), Samuel L. Jackson (last seen in "A Time to Kill"), Dwayne Johnson (last heard in "Planet 51"), Rob Riggle (last seen in "The Hangover"), Steve Coogan (last seen in "Tropic Thunder"), with cameos from Bobby Cannavale (last seen in "The Station Agent"), Rob Huebel (last seen in "I Love You, Man"), Anne Heche (last seen in "John Q"), Zak Orth, Derek Jeter, Brooke Shields, Rosie Perez, and Tracy Morgan (last seen in "Head of State").

RATING: 5 out of 10

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

City Heat

Year 3, Day 152 - 6/1/11 - Movie #879

BEFORE: The last Clint Eastwood film on my list (for now, at least), Clint making his 18th appearance in the countdown tonight, and I didn't even watch all of the Dirty Harry films, or those two films he made with that orangutan (look it up, kids, that really happened). True, today was Marilyn Monroe's birthday, and I could have watched "The Seven Year Itch", but I'm trying to maintain a larger plan. Plus the title drew me in, since it's been hot as blazes in NY the last 2 days. As usual, there was only about 2 weeks of nice temperatures between sweater weather and, um, sweaty weather.

THE PLOT: A slick private eye and tough police lieutenant--former partners--reluctantly team up to investigate a murder.

AFTER: Well, that was ill-advised. Probably should have gone with the Marilyn flick.

Nostalgia is a tricky animal - I've found that in most cases, romanticizing events of 20 to 25 years ago works best. Look at the way "Happy Days" kept the 1950's alive in the 1970's, or "That 70's Show" worked in the late 1990's. Go back any further than 25 years, and you risk a dis-connect. (There is the rare exception, like "Taking Woodstock" - but that rode a very fine line between comedy and parody) Why did "The Green Hornet" do so poorly last year? Because the storyline came from the 1950's, I think. "Alvin and the Chipmunks" might have been reaching too far back - but the makers of "Miami Vice" and "The Dukes of Hazzard" were on the right track.

So the attempt to bring back 1930's-era detective stories with this film in 1984 seems really ill-advised. Unless you're going to do a flat-out "Airplane"-style parody of a 1930's gumshoe story, like in "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid", it's best not to just go half-way with the comedy.

This became a downward spiral for me - some slapstick fights and a few jokes that didn't land, and suddenly I wasn't so interested in the story. Which meant that my attention wavered, and my eyes closed. Then I had to rewind and catch what I missed, but by then the damage was done.

Part of this obsessive film-watching process has made me realize that I don't actually care for noir-style detective fiction. Whodunnit? Who cares? Everyone from that decade is dead and gone anyway. "The Maltese Falcon" was way over-rated, and "The Big Sleep" was more like "The Big Snooze". Let's face it, once "Charlie's Angels" and "Magnum P.I." came along, detective fiction was changed forever (speaking of nostalgia...). And then "Law & Order" and "CSI" came along and changed it again, so there's no going back to the era of Sam Spade and Mike Hammer.

I've reviewed the plot on-line, and read the reviews where other people found the film confusing - so the judges have allowed me to move on.

I will credit the film, however, for allowing me to finally get the sexual subtext of the "Red Riding Hood" story. (Hint: it's not only the wolf's eyes, nose and teeth that are big.)

Also starring Burt Reynolds (last seen in "The Dukes of Hazzard"), Madeline Kahn (last seen in "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother"), Jane Alexander (last seen in "Kramer vs. Kramer"), Irene Cara (last seen in "Fame"), Rip Torn (last seen in "The Insider"), Richard Roundtree (last seen in "Earthquake").

RATING: 2 out of 10 bottles of "furniture polish"

Gran Torino

Year 3, Day 151 - 5/31/11 - Movie #878

BEFORE: The war-movie chain is over, but the Eastwood train rolls on - just in time to give a big 81st birthday SHOUT-out to Clint, who's inspired his third chain in the countdown, thanks to spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry/prison films.

THE PLOT: Disgruntled Korean War vet Walt Kowalski sets out to reform his neighbor, a young Hmong teenager, who tried to steal Kowalski's prized possession: his 1972 Gran Torino.

AFTER: In the ongoing debate between character and action (and I don't know why there's occasionally confusion between WHO someone is and WHAT they do), along comes a movie that says, "Well, why can't we have BOTH?" A Korean war veteran who has to live next door to a Korean family, well, that's already a tasty little conflict. Throw in a recently-deceased wife, his own failing health, two estranged sons, a priest making repeated house calls, and a city full of gang members, and it's a perfect breeding ground for a curmudgeon.

Kowalski's like the last holdout from a simpler time, when the neighborhood wasn't falling apart or filling up with foreigners, when Asians were "the enemy" and men weren't asked to raise or show affection to their children or talk about their feelings. When it was OK to toss around a few racial stereotypes, and people affectionately (?) called each other "Mick" or "Polack" or "Dago".

When the Korean gang tries to initiate the neighbor boy by making him steal Kowalski's prize 1972 Gran Torino, it sets off a chain of events with the older man taking the boy under his wing, teaching him about home repairs, how to polish a car, and how to land a date. Sort of like "The Karate Kid" in reverse, minus all that karate.

In the meantime, Kowalski learns, to his surprise, that he gets along with the Korean family better than his own, that he likes their food and their way of insulting each other. He can't help but make his sons feel like they've never measured up or done anything right - just like a Korean grandmother would.

So the character is a great one, then we've got the action, which contains plot points I won't reveal here - but I will say it's a battle between Kowalski and the Korean gang over the soul of Thao, the neighbor boy. And in a way, it's a battle for his own soul, as revealed in his conversations with the young priest. It reveals a look inside the head of a veteran, someone who might still be tortured by the acts he was made to commit decades ago.

Turns out there's a lot of meat on these old bones.

NITPICK POINT: As the violence escalates (as it tends to do in these situations) how come no one ever decides to go to the police? Do the Hmong people have a track record for not reporting crimes, or is that just a convenient way of advancing the conflict?

That's going to wrap up another month - with 122 movies to go until I take a break in mid-October. I've made pretty good progress this year, in 151 days I was able to reduce the list from 338 to 289, a drop of 49. So for every movie I watched in 2011, I must have added another two. But in 365 days last year I only reduced the list by 72, which meant for every film I watched, I added another four. If I can get the list down close to 200 by October, I'll be happy.

Also starring Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Brian Howe, Christopher Carley and John Carroll Lynch.

RATING: 6 out of 10 roofing hammers

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Flags of Our Fathers

Year 3, Day 150 - 5/30/11 - Movie #877

BEFORE: I've been traveling around the last two weekends, so a three-day weekend at home suits me just fine. I set out to accomplish three things this weekend (in addition to finishing off this war-movie chain): 1) catch up on some sleep (check) 2) clear some movies and TV shows off of my 2 DVRs (check, both are now in the 20% full range, which for me is an major feat) and 3) sort some comic books. The daily movie-watching has put me behind on this, I still don't have time to do "the big sort" but at least I got about 6 months of comics into an order, so they'll sort more easily into the collection down the road.

This is the companion piece to last night's film, shot back-to-back (or was it side-to-side), also directed by Clint Eastwood.

THE PLOT: The life stories of the six men who raised the flag at The Battle of Iwo Jima, a turning point in WWII.

AFTER: Actually, the film mainly focuses on three of the six men, the three who survived the month-long battle and were returned home to aid in a publicity campaign to support the war bond drive. The famous photo of the raising of the flag was a major icon in the closing days of the war, inspiring the U.S. citizenry and making folk heroes out of the soldiers depicted.

Problem was, you couldn't see the soldier's faces in the photo - so there was some controversy over exactly who was in the photo. The fact that there were two flag-raisings on Mt. Suribachi didn't help either - and the fact that only three of the six men made it off the island alive probably didn't help recruit any soldiers, it was probably a wake-up call to the harsh reality of war.

The film follows the three men as they're trotted around to major U.S. cities, appearing in stadiums and forced to re-create the famous flag-raising, while dealing with their memories of the battle and the loss of their comrades. Powerful stuff.

But there's an inconsistency to the structure of the film, as it bounces between the battle scenes, the publicity tour, and the present-day, where the son of one of the soldiers is interviewing his late father's fellow soldiers, who are now senior citizens. We eventually find out which soldier he's the son of, and this man takes over as narrator about 2/3 of the way through the film - there's no consistent narrator throughout the film, as there was in "Saving Private Ryan".

Also, I'm forced to question the non-linear storytelling. My guess is that if the events were all told in proper sequence, there would be a build-up (introduction of the key players at base camp), a very exciting middle section (Battle of Iwo Jima), and then a longer, less-exciting ending sequence (the publicity tour). So even though I understand the reasoning for it, I still don't condone all the time-jumping. We know which three men survive to make it back to the States, so once we've sorted out who's who, we know who will die in battle, and much of the suspense is gone. The deaths of three major characters, reduced almost to an inevitable afterthought.

By the way, whatever happened to war bonds? Our country's been in 2 wars in the Middle East for almost a decade, while our economy took a nosedive. All those calculations about the cost of invading Iraq and Afghanistan, and our national debt climbing to the ceiling - what if you could get all those people who say they "support the troops" to buy war bonds? Or is it just an idea whose time has come and gone?

I do have one more thing to do this weekend - and that's to try and remember that the luxuries and freedoms that I enjoy come at a price, and that price was paid by other people decades (and even centuries) ago. Love or hate a film like this, that should be the take-away.

Starring Ryan Phillippe (last seen briefly in "Crimson Tide"), Jesse Bradford (last seen in "Falling in Love"), Adam Beach (from "Law & Order: SVU"), John Benjamin Hickey (last seen in "The Ice Storm"), Barry Pepper (last seen in "Enemy of the State"), Jamie Bell, Paul Walker, Neal McDonough, Joseph Cross (last seen in "Milk", though I confess, I thought he was Aaron or Shawn Ashmore), with cameos from Robert Patrick (last seen in "The Men Who Stare at Goats"), Judith Ivey (last seen in "The Lonely Guy"), Harve Presnell (last seen in "The Chamber"), Len Cariou (last seen in "Secret Window"), Jon Polito (last seen in "The Tailor of Panama"), Ned Eisenberg (last seen in "Head of State", but more famous for playing attorneys on "Law & Order"), David Rasche, John Slattery (last seen in "The Station Agent", but more famous for "Mad Men"), and David Patrick Kelly (Jerry Horne from "Twin Peaks") as President Truman.

RATING: 6 out of 10 stretchers (probably deserves a 7, but I'm docking for faulty non-linear structure)

EDIT: While laying (lying?) in bed early this morning after signing off, I realized the obvious (to me, anyway) fix for this film. There needed to be more scenes (or at least stronger scenes) with the adult son interviewing his father's fellow veterans. More of a "Citizen Kane" approach to the storyline was warranted, I believe. As it is, those scenes were very short and random for the first 90 minutes, and as a result it wasn't very clear that the whole battle was in flashback. Stronger interview scenes with 4 or 5 senior citizens would also have justified the fragmentation of the narrative - what are the chances all of those guys would remember everything about the war in order, and not go off on tangents?

This could have made the film as strong as "Saving Private Ryan", which kind of screwed up its own framing device, since Matt Damon's character somehow remembered the things that happened to Tom Hanks' character, when he wasn't even present.

You're welcome...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Letters from Iwo Jima

Year 3, Day 149 - 5/29/11 - Movie #876

BEFORE: Clint Eastwood carries over this time, moving from actor to director. I scored both this film and tomorrow night's from my boss's pile of old Academy screeners - he got these in 2006, so since no one's claimed them from the pile yet, I figured they were up for grabs. Call it a perk, I pay enough money for premium cable and PPV to nab a freebie once in a while.

THE PLOT: The story of the battle of Iwo Jima between the United States and Imperial Japan during World War II, as told from the perspective of the Japanese who fought it.

AFTER: The Japanese defense of the island of Iwo Jima is interspersed with narrations and flashbacks representing letters and recollections from the enlisted men and officers. Structurally, it's brilliant, but unfortunately my rating is (mostly) based on how enjoyable a film is, and there are parts here that go against that ruling, and are downright difficult to watch, like soldiers being shot to bits or set on fire, or blowing themselves up with grenades rather than being captured by the enemy.

But in depicting this, the film becomes a dissertation on the nature of war itself - questioning whether it's better to follow orders blindly, or to disobey said orders in the interests of staying alive. Does one better serve one's country by fighting and dying, or surrendering and living? And once a soldier learns that he and his enemy are mostly alike, does it make sense to continue to try and kill him?

Important questions all around - but, again, the score does not reflect significance, but my own personal satisfaction. With a high degree of difficulty (long running time, subtitles), the film's got a lot going against it - dare I grade on a curve?

Starring Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, and Ken Kensei, with cameos from Mark Moses (last seen in "Born on the Fourth of July") and Roxanne Hart (last seen in "The Good Girl").

RATING: 4 out of 10 shovels