Saturday, June 25, 2011

The French Lieutenant's Woman

Year 3, Day 176 - 6/25/11 - Movie #902

BEFORE: From the French Chef to the French Lieutenant's Woman - and it seems like this one also has a split narrative, so that's a neat coincidence.

THE PLOT: A film is being made of a story, set in 19th century England, about Charles, a biologist who's engaged to be married, but who falls in love with outcast Sarah. During the shooting of the film, two actors go through a relationship that runs parallel to that of their characters.

AFTER: It's an interesting concept for a film, but the idea got very muddled somehow - at first it just seemed like there were two concurrent stories being told, with the same two lead actors. Perhaps the modern-day actor-characters are descendants of the people in the Victorian-era story? Or just lookalikes?

Eventually we learn that the actors are starring in a film, and their character names are the same as the people seen in the 19th-century story. Does that mean that reality is just the play-within-the-play? Is it less real? Are both realities real, or just one, and if so, which one?

The problem is, we never see an explanatory shot of the actors acting (only rehearsing, in plain clothes), or someone doing the costuming or make-up on the 19th century characters - so the Victorian romance seems real within the context of its own reality. But perhaps Meryl Streep's character in the 19th century is insane, and the modern actors represent her insane thoughts? I'm probably over-thinking this.

Both situations are complicated - in the 19th century, Charles Smithson falls for the mysterious Sarah, though he's engaged to another woman. And in the 20th century, both actors carry on an affair/show-mance even though they're both married. Society's got rules for this sort of thing, especially in the earlier story, and they're being broken again and again.

Of course, there are parallels between the two stories, but tonight they're somewhat more obscure. I felt like I was reaching to draw a satisfactory conclusion, and then I wondered why, as a viewer, I was doing all the work. Without being given something definitive, it seems like someone was just shooting for "arty". And that's a shame.

NITPICK POINT: The last scene in the 20th century reality takes place in a bedroom, in the lead actor's home, that is clearly a re-decorated version of Sarah's room from the 19th century. But the actor's house wasn't used as a location for shooting the period piece, was it? Confusing, confusing. Or were the filmmakers (the real ones) just lazy or cheap?

Also starring Jeremy Irons (last seen in "Dungeons & Dragons"), with cameos from Leo McKern (last seen in "Damien: Omen II") and David Warner (last seen in "The Omen"...nice).

RATING: 3 out of 10 tennis rackets/ping-pong paddles

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Julie & Julia

Year 3, Day 175 - 6/24/11 - Movie #901

BEFORE: Kicking off the home stretch - 100 more movies before I take a break for a few months. The list is still bigger than I'd like (279 films) but maybe in the next 100 days I can get it close to 200. From Meryl Streep as a Danish author to Streep as cookbok author (and chef) Julia Child.

THE PLOT: Julia Child's story of her start in the cooking profession is intertwined with blogger Julie Powell's 2002 challenge to cook all the recipes in Child's first book.

AFTER: Yes, half the story here is about a blogger working her way through a cookbook, one or two recipes a day. I wasn't sure that I'd find something here that I could relate to. Who does stuff like that?

I mean, sure, lots of people write books, and cookbooks, and screenplays for that matter - and a lot of people wonder if what they're doing is worthwhile, and whether anyone out in the world's going to be interested. How arrogant it is for anyone to assume that their ramblings will have any impact, or even any entertainment value?

I started out thinking this would be a week of classy films, since Streep's the record holder for Oscar nominations (16) - then after the last three films I thought the theme was more like adultery and betrayal. But the real theme this week seems to be that of self-obsession. The lovers in "It's Complicated" and "She-Devil" who were only concerned with their own pleasure, and Karen Blixen wondering when the universe would deliver the love of her life to her door. Now we've got a blogger, thinking that all of her thoughts are worthy of being published on the internet, and then in a book?

God, I hate self-absorbed people. Now, where's MY book deal? Where's the movie about ME?

All kidding aside, I'm down with a lot of what's seen here, including great food (though I don't have much time for the cooking of it, I do my fair share of eating it) and how hard it is to keep forging ahead on a seemingly endless project - but thank God for my OCD that forces me to keep organizing and rating things. And I know how a vanity project like this can consume a person's time and put a strain on a marriage (but apparently so can infidelity - though Julie's cheating was covered in her 2nd book, and not mentioned in this film).

So congratulations to Julie for doing all that cooking, and for Julia for doing all that cooking AND writing AND all that secret spy stuff she did during WWII that she was always too humble to brag about. No, I'm serious - you can look it up.

Also starring Amy Adams (last seen in "Catch Me If You Can"), Stanley Tucci (last seen in "Jury Duty"), Chris Messina (last seen in "Away We Go"), with cameos from Jane Lynch (last seen in "Role Models"), Mary Lynn Rajskub (last seen in "Firewall"), Frances Sternhagen (last seen in "Misery"), Deborah Rush (last seen in "She-Devil", but I still confuse her with Rachael Harris and/or Leslie Mann), Mary Kay Place (last seen in "It's Complicated") as the voice of Julie's mother, and Dan Aykroyd as himself.

RATING: 7 out of 10 poached eggs

Out of Africa

Year 3, Day 174 - 6/23/11 - Movie #900

BEFORE: Big film #900, my last milestone before...well, my next milestone. So the choice is one of those "relevant" costumed period pieces and a Best Picture winner - always good to cross one of those off the list (I've now seen 48 of the 83 winners).

THE PLOT: In 20th century colonial Kenya, a Danish baroness/plantation owner has a passionate but ultimately doomed love affair with a free-sprited big-game hunter.

AFTER: Earlier tonight, I watched an episode of "Dirty Jobs" that aired in February (yes, I'm 4 months behind on some shows) - and I hate to say it, but I think the show has run its course. After picking up garbage and unclogging septic tanks and cleaning up almost every species of poop, the show devoted 20 minutes to the host trying to pull a fencepost out of the ground. Not exactly destination TV.

A visit to a coffee plantation (which I'm sure the show has covered) would be much more interesting - and I wish that this film had focused more on the inner workings of the farm/plantation and less on the stormy relationships of its self-obsessed owner. Or even more details about the safari/tourism business, that seemed sort of interesting too.

Instead, I'm left with just the relationships of Karen von Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen) and honestly, I didn't find them as interesting. I counted four failed relationships during the course of the film (hmm...what's the common factor here - it's gotta be her, right?).

Yeah, there are some issues raised about colonialism/imperialism, the industrialization of Kenya and the education of its people, but mostly the focus seems to be on Blixen and how she can't hold on to a man. So then we have the relationship issues - stuff about personal space, unobtainable/unaccessable personality types, faithfulness and betrayal, and how self-absorbed some people tend to be. As evidence of my theory that Blixen was a royal pain in the neck, her husband and then her boyfriend all would rather be on long safaris than spend any time with her. (Best punchline ever: "You don't come here to hunt, do you?")

So, ho hum - I'll probably get some flak for rating an Oscar-winner so low, but I just didn't care about Blixen, her lame poetry, and all her navel-gazing. When the caravan was attacked, I was rooting for the lion... Please remember that my rating does not reflect how relevant or important a movie might be to society as a whole, it's intended as a snapshot of my own personal enjoyment, on this particular viewing - your mileage may vary.

As with the fencepost on "Dirty Jobs", it wasn't interesting enough subject matter to justify the time devoted to it. (2 hours 40 minutes? Seriously?) Plus I couldn't accept Robert Redford (last seen in "Legal Eagles") as a British ex-pat (did he even TRY to talk with a British accent, come on, Bob, even a little one?).

Was this really the BEST Picture of 1985? What films did this beat to win the Oscar - The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Prizzi's Honor and Witness? Seems like it might have been an off-year. I've only seen the last 2 of those 4 though.

Also starring Klaus Maria Brandauer (last seen in "The Russia House"), Michael Gough (last seen in "The Fourth Protocol")

RATING: 3 out of 10 elephant tusks

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Year 3, Day 173 - 6/22/11 - Movie #899

BEFORE: The theme of adultery carries over, as I send Birthday SHOUT-out #48 to Meryl Streep, born June 22, 1949.

THE PLOT: An awkward and fat woman wants revenge on her husband, after he was seduced by an authoress who writes trash fiction.

AFTER: At first this seems miles away from last night's film, and not just because of the years between when they were produced. "It's Complicated" is more of a relationship drama with comic overtones, and this is more of a wild, slapsticky dark comedy. But what they share in common is the feeling that both are female-based fantasy films. Last night Streep played an older woman pursued by both her ex-husband and a new suitor (come on, does that really happen?) and tonight it's a revenge fantasy against an unfaithful husband. Oddly they would seem to have the same target audience - woman who've been cheated on.

In this one Roseanne (ex-Barr, ex-Arnold) reacts with coolness when she first thinks her husband is cheating - like many women might do, she assumes that he's going through a phase and will eventually return. But her demeanor masks some dark thoughts, and a disastrous dinner party is enough to bring everything to a boil.

NITPICK POINT: She blows up their house? How does that constitute a plan? Sure, she's destroyed one of his assets, but now she has no place to live. Wouldn't it be more efficient (though admittedly less cinematic) to see an attorney, maintain possession of the house and get half his money, the legal way? I know, it's not meant to be a realistic movie, because that's not what people want to see.

But she could have sold the house, and then later in the film there wouldn't need to be such a contrived way of her raising the money to start her own business and fund her revenge plan...

My problem here is that the revenge plot is so complicated, and relies on so many elements falling into place a certain way, it doesn't seem like anyone could have possibly predicted the way it shook down. Or was the plan just a rough one, being constantly tweaked along the way?

This touches on another point made by last night's film - when the ex-husband marries his new flame, and she becomes the everyday wife, their romance is less naughty, and therefore less fun, and soon the spark is gone, and the husband is looking for a new romance. With a little help from Roseanne's character, who places an attractive new temp in his office, soon the husband's spending long nights at the office again - and the old girlfriend/new wife gets a taste of karmic justice. That's kind of brilliant, and I can justify that part of the revenge scheme.

But then there are parts of the scheme that seem to go too far - innocent people (and dogs!) get hit with some collateral damage. So the movie never really states outright how far someone should go before the scales are balanced - this is coming sort of close to "War of the Roses" territory. Also, either the ex-wife's revenge is either justifiable, or she's a "devil". Which is it? You can't have it both ways.

So, the message was a little muddled for me. I mean, she got her revenge, but she also had to abandon her children to do so. Is that OK? Plus, watching Roseanne and Linda Hunt repair and decorate an old building, in sped-up "Laurel & Hardy" style seemed like an odd digression.

And what did the characters learn? Roseanne's character seemed to learn that revenge is the best revenge, the ex-husband learned what prison is like, and Streep's character just started writing non-fiction instead of romance novels, so I don't think that constitutes real growth.

Also starring Ed Begley, Jr. (last seen in "Pineapple Express"), Sylvia Miles (last seen in "Midnight Cowboy"), Linda Hunt (last seen in "Stranger Than Fiction"), A Martinez, with cameos from Robin Leach and Sally Jessy Raphael.

RATING: 4 out of 10 aerosol cans

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

It's Complicated

Year 3, Day 172 - 6/20/11 - Movie #898

BEFORE: Last night's film showed a complicated family situation (3 "Dads" + 1 Mom!) so here's another one. And I'm kicking off Meryl Streep week - I know she's been in a bunch of films (11?) in the countdown already (including "Deer Hunter", "Falling in Love", "Doubt", "Kramer vs. Kramer" and most recently "Silkwood"), but here's my chance to play clean-up and watch another 6 Streep films. Linking from last night's film, Nancy Travis was in "Married to the Mob" with Alec Baldwin (last seen in "The Aviator").

I realize I'm missing out on Nicole Kidman's birthday - the film "The Hours" could have led nicely into Streep Week, but that film is not on my list. Because I'm a dude.

THE PLOT: When attending their son's college graduation, a couple reignite the spark in their relationship...but the complicated fact is they're divorced and he's remarried.

AFTER: Complicated is an understatement - this seems like it was written as a challenge, to feature a love triangle that would keep the audience guessing, right up until the end, about which man Streep's character would ultimately choose - her married ex-husband (Baldwin) or the divorced architect she's recently met (Steve Martin, last seen in "Baby Mama").

The problem is confounding - because she has so much history with her ex-husband, they can cut through most of the chatter and just enjoy the illicit sex (friends with social security benefits?) - whereas in the other relationship, since it's just starting it's nearly all pre-sex banter and flirting. So she's getting the best of both worlds, but putting herself in a precarious spot.

That's right, I said "putting herself" in the spot - because she is culpable in the situation, even though the movie tries to re-arrange the universe to make nothing her fault. Sleeping with her ex-husband is described as mere closure - an attempt to figure out if there's still something of merit there. But here's a test - reverse the genders and see if the situation still rings the same. If a man slept with his ex-wife, just to gain closure or to see if a spark was still there, would his current wife or girlfriend excuse that? Somehow I doubt it.

The relationship is clearly damaging to her (adult) children as well - though the relationship is secret for the first 3/4 of the movie, eventually the truth is revealed, and their children are hurt. It took them years to deal with the divorce, and the rekindling of the relationship brings up all of the old pain again. So, really, how selfish is it of Streep's character to think only of herself, without considering the damage done to others (including her ex's wife).

I understand the mental trap that many people fall into - by nature sex is a little fun and a lot naughty (if you're doing it right, that is) but once two people get married, and the sex is legit, it loses some of its naughty nature, and therefore by extension, some of the fun. Which is one reason people have affairs - they're improper, forbidden, and naughty, meaning the fun is back!

But there's an accountability issue, one that isn't really addressed here. For every person enjoying (or re-enjoying) sex, the universe dictates that someone else, somewhere else, isn't happy. You can quote karmic retribution or try and justify the affair somehow - the woman who was cheated on is now the "other woman" - but it didn't wash for me. You can't have it both ways, even a strong character who's finding herself needs to be aware of the consequences her actions have on others.

It's worth noting that had this movie been made 10 or 15 years ago, the male leads might have been reversed - with Steve Martin playing the loopy, free-spirited ex-husband and Alec Baldwin playing the more straight-laced shyish architect. But this way works fine too.

However, there are a few too many coincidences - people who happen to be at the same party, staying in the same hotel, bumping into each other. One could argue that two divorced people might have the same friends, or prefer the same hotel, but still... I've bumped into my ex-wife on the streets of NY exactly twice in 15 years - not at a party of mutual friends or at the dentist's office.

And everyone says the word "actually" too much in this film. Ex. "I'm actually busy that night." or "I actually own a cafe." Here's a tip for budding screenwriters - if you can take the word "actually" out of the sentence, and it then means the same thing, you don't need it! Same goes for: literally, basically, technically and essentially. Most of the time they bring no additional meaning to the table.

Also starring John Krasinski (last seen in "Kinsey"), Lake Bell, with cameos from Rita Wilson (last seen in "That Thing You Do!", Mary Kay Place (last seen in "Modern Problems"), Nora Dunn (last seen in "The Last Supper"), Bruce Altman.

RATING: 5 out of 10 chocolate croissants (love those!)

Monday, June 20, 2011

3 Men and a Little Lady

Year 3, Day 171 - 6/19/11 - Movie #897

BEFORE: Continuing the adventures of a little girl raised by 3 men: an actor, an architect, and an artist. Clearly the screenwriter never got beyond the letter "A" when he was thinking up professions.

THE PLOT: Sylvia's work causes her to move to England with her daughter, Mary. It's not just her work, though, it's also her new boyfriend and fiance. Peter, Michael and Jack don't like this new arrangement as they feel like Mary is just as much their daughter as she is Sylvia's. The three travel to England to stop the wedding.

AFTER: God, are they serious with this drivel? This really failed to make me nostalgic for the 80's. I don't know what's worse - portraying an idealized home life with four adults in a Manhattan townhouse all getting along raising one kid, like it's the most normal situation, or over-simplifying relationships (well, I can't marry THIS one, so I'll just marry THIS one.)

Then there's the portrayal of England, which is all riding lessons and society tea parties, and everyone is SO very proper. I'll wager that while some of that remains, England's not as stuck in the 19th century as a screenwriter would have you believe. I'm betting that their parties look a lot more like ours.

Plus, there's a criminal underuse of Guttenberg - they really didn't give him anything to do in this film, a literal fifth wheel. They really didn't develop Nancy Travis' character either, beyond that horrible fake accent, except to show that she can't cook - which isn't really funny, it's just sad.

It would have been a better plot idea to have the drug dealers from the first film get out of jail and come looking for revenge. Instead, it's almost 100% nonsensical. Everyone in the film always seems to be looking out for their own best interests, no one really ever thinks of anyone else's needs, when you get right down to it. Thank God they never made "3 Men and a Teenager" or "3 Men and a Young Adult".

Starring all of last night's leads, plus Fiona Shaw (last seen in "My Left Foot").

RATING: 2 out of 10 tuxedos

Sunday, June 19, 2011

3 Men and a Baby

Year 3, Day 170 - 6/19/11 - Movie #896

BEFORE: Yes, I skipped a day, but it's all part of the plan. My chain sort of came to an end with "MacGruber", I suppose I could have watched "Salt" but I want to hit a big movie for number #900 this week. Anyway, it worked out since my wife and I bought new iPhones, and I've been spending time setting up my phone, updating my contacts, and playing Sudoku on it. I can still link from "MacGruber", since Val Kilmer was in "Heat" with Tom Sizemore, who was in "Saving Private Ryan" with Ted Danson (an small cameo, but it counts).

THE PLOT: Three bachelors find themselves forced to take care of a baby left by one of the guy's girlfriends.

AFTER: Truthfully, I was thinking I might have seen this one before - rented it sometime during the late 80's or so. But since I didn't recognize the sub-plots at all, it's a fair bet that I haven't seen it, or its sequel.

Ted Danson's character is actually M.I.A. for the first half of the film - he plays an actor (wonder if that was a stretch) away on location when an ex-girlfriend drops by with his infant child, and wouldn't you know, he'd told his roommates to expect a "package" to arrive, and they confused it with the baby!

The real package turns out to be something illicit - I recall back in the 80's this sort of thing happened all the time, your friend would ask you to hold a package for them, and then it turned out your friend was a major player on the drug scene. And hilarity ensued! Geez, it's great that we can all laugh about it now, those of us who didn't end up behind bars at least.

The gimmick here is that three professional horndogs share an only-in-a-movie giant New York apartment, and there's a constant stream of women hopping in and out of their bedrooms (again, it was the 80's, and people were just starting to be extra careful about this sort of thing - and portraying safe sex in a movie was pretty much unheard of). Eventually one of the Romeo's actions were going to catch up with him, it's just too bad that his friends ended up holding the bag. Er, baby. And the bag.

The two friends learn the ins and outs of baby care - babies need to eat, babies need to be bathed, and babies need to be changed, and these things are portrayed in all their disgusting-ness. What's my motivation to have a child again?

Also starring Tom Selleck (last seen WAY back in "Mr. Baseball"), Steve Guttenberg (last seen in "Cocoon"), Nancy Travis, Margaret Colin, with cameos from character actors Philip Bosco, Paul Guilfoyle (last seen in "Mrs. Doubtfire"), Dave Foley (last seen in "Sky High") and Colin Quinn (last seen in "Grown Ups"). And an actress named Cynthia Harris, who you might recognize (if you grew up in the Boston area, as I did) as "Mrs. B." from a long-running commercial campaign for Bradlee's department stores.

RATING: 3 out of 10 sterilized nipples