Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Last Samurai

Year 3, Day 183 - 7/2/11 - Movie #909

BEFORE: Fourth of July weekend, which is a time a lot of people go on holiday, but not me. I've got to stay home and keep working on clearing my DVRs, which is partly work and partly fun. But there are advantages to sticking around NYC when most people have cleared out - we can eat at just about any restaurant we want, and now that we have iPhones we have apps that can find new places for us. We tried a new restaurant in Glendale tonight (the location of a 2nd-rate German restaurant that folded) and got 10% off by checking in on a Yelp app, whatever that is.

Tonight I'm sticking with Tom Cruise and the 1800's.

THE PLOT: An American military advisor embraces the Samurai culture he was hired to destroy after he is captured in battle.

AFTER: Tough to stay awake during this one, but I think that had more to do with a busy week at work, combined with some really long movies and late nights.

The concept here struck me as a little odd - a disillusioned American veteran (if you served under Custer, you might be disillusioned too) finds himself hired as a consultant to the Japanese army. Japan is going through a difficult time as it modernizes, and the rebellious Samurai are likened to the Native Americans, thus the hiring of U.S. veterans with Indian-based experience.

Cruise's character is captured in battle, and held hostage by the Samurai village, and eventually he comes to regard them as noble warriors instead of savages. He learns their customs, the way of the Samurai warrior, while getting himself sober and coming to terms with his mental battle scars. I'd say he regains his honor, but that seems like something of an elusive concept - that's sort of open to interpretation, I think.

The film was worth watching for two scenes - one with Samurais battling ninjas, and the final climactic battle. Other than that, it was pretty slow-paced - was that a zen thing?

If they get around to making another Wolverine movie, since part of his past storyline takes place in Japan, they could do a lot worse than using this film as a template.

Also starring Ken Watanabe (last seen in "Letters from Iwo Jima"), Tony Goldwyn (last seen in "The 6th Day"), Timothy Spall (last seen in "Sweeney Todd"), Billy Connolly (last heard in "Open Season"), with a cameo from William Atherton (Walter Peck from "Ghostbusters")

RATING: 5 out of 10 wooden swords

Friday, July 1, 2011

Far and Away

Year 3, Day 182 - 7/1/11 - Movie #908

BEFORE: Switching from Brad Pitt films to Tom Cruise films - I did a Tom Cruise chain back in December, but more films have come into the collection since then. Wrapping up American frontier week with this one - and Tom Skerritt provides the link from "A River Runs Through It", since he was also in "Top Gun" with Tom Cruise (last seen in "All the Right Moves").

THE PLOT: A young man leaves Ireland with his landlord's daughter after some trouble with her father to seek land in America.

AFTER: This is actually three movies in one - you've got your tempestuous relationship film, a boxing film, and then a frontier plotline. That's kind of ambitious.

What it says about America, and this is great timing coming up on July 4 weekend, is that immigration was the ultimate opportunity. If people were in trouble for, say, trying to kill their landlord, or for stealing from their parents, they could just strike out for America, where all men (sorry, ladies) were created equal. Except for black people, of course, that came later. Oh, and the Chinese, since the Chinese slaves were used to build the railroads after the black slaves were freed. And Mexicans, Native Americans, and let's see, who am I forgetting... oh yeah, the Irish.

The point of the film is that the Irish had it tough in America (maybe not as tough as those other groups, but I digress again) but at least if an Irishman was willing to roll up his sleeves and work hard, he could at least succeed enough to be in debt for the rest of his life. Here the main characters are saving up to make it to the frontier, working menial jobs until they realize that they can make money faster by boxing and dancing in a skimpy costume. (That last part refers to Nicole Kidman's character - and her real-life career, if you think about it...)

Cruise's character gets a golden opportunity that sounds a bit like this - "We saw you starting all those fights with your co-workers at the chicken-plucking factory. How'd you like to become a champion boxer?" "Sure, that sounds good - hey, wait a minute! Do I still get to pluck chickens?" And then his boxing career really takes off after he invents ducking (Really? No one thought of that before - don't get hit?). Plus he gets to work off all that tension that's built up from not banging Kidman's character. (Make your own joke here, I'm too tired.)

More tragedies befall the "will they or won't they" couple, but they eventually find themselves on the verge of the great Oklahoma Land Grab in 1893. This is where people backed their wagons up to Kentucky to get a good running start, then all raced across the border at the same time to stake their claims. Even back then, there wasn't a single activity that Americans couldn't turn into a game show somehow. I know, I know, years later people would be fighting each other to get OUT of Oklahoma. Am I right, folks?

Still, this turned out to be the most uplifting film of the week - a little corny at the end, but I'll take a glimmer of happiness and hope after the last few downers.

Also starring Nicole Kidman (last seen in "The Golden Compass"), Robert Prosky (last seen in "Mrs. Doubtfire"), Thomas Gibson, Colm Meaney (last seen in "The Last of the Mohicans"), with cameos from Brendan Gleeson (last seen in "Michael Collins"), Jared Harris and Clint Howard.

RATING: 5 out of 10 kidney punches

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A River Runs Through It

Year 3, Day 181 - 6/30/11 - Movie #907

BEFORE: Again, a slight feeling like I might have seen this one at some point - but I honestly don't remember a thing about it, so I'd best take care of that. I can't resist the connections to last night's film - another family living on the frontier, in Montana no less, plus Brad Pitt carries over as well.

THE PLOT: Two fly-fishing sons of a Presbyterian minister--one reserved, one rebellious--grow up in rural Montana.

AFTER: Well, this was slightly more uplifting than last night's film - at least no one died in the war. There was still rivalry between brothers, but at least tonight they weren't fighting over the same woman. The problem is, without a great deal of conflict, this films seems quite boring in comparison. Oh, sure, there's an exciting trip down the river's rapids, and a couple of fistfights, but nothing that adds up to a major setback, or even counts as a character's story arc.

Instead, the movie features all the excitement (?) of fly-fishing. And for extra measure, people studying! WOW! And going to church! Awesome!

Even the central romance seemed quite lackluster. Norman, the brother played by the actor who wasn't Brad Pitt, falls in love with Jessie Burns, but I wasn't really sure why. Was she just conveniently at the dance? I didn't see anything special about her at all, or anything they had in common, or any spark following the initial attraction. So she drove him home through a railroad tunnel and over a bridge - umm, so what?

And what was the deal with her brother, the California douchebag, coming to town and pretended to want to fish - but ending up drunk with a hooker? That whole sequence just played as really weird - I don't really get what the film was trying to say with this.

In fact, I'm not quite sure what the whole film was trying to say - and don't give me any metaphor about life being a river, that's a cop out. What's the takeaway, as an audience member what have I learned? Not a whole heck of a lot. And another downer ending - this week has become downright Shakespearean with the tragic body counts.

And that wraps up June, just like that the year is half over. But I've only got 93 films before I take a break - even giving myself a week off for Comic-Con, it's more than do-able. I could continue on the Brad Pitt track with "Babel" and "Meet Joe Black" but those seem ultra-depressing - anyway I've got July blocked out already, and it mostly belongs to Tom Cruise, Paul Newman and Robin Williams. But I've worked in some big summer action/fantasy blockbusters of years past to lift my spirits.

Also starring Tom Skerritt (last seen in "Top Gun"), Craig Sheffer, Brenda Blethyn (last seen in "Beyond the Sea"), Emily Lloyd, with cameos from Edie McClurg, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (last seen in "(500) Days of Summer"), and narrated/directed by Robert Redford (last seen in "Out of Africa").

RATING: 3 out of 10 castings

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Legends of the Fall

Year 3, Day 180 - 6/29/11 - Movie #906

BEFORE: Aidan Quinn carries over from "Avalon", and it's his fourth appearance in the countdown this June - before this month I bet I would have had a hard time just naming four films starring Aidan Quinn. The arty Americana theme holds as I head out to the frontier for a few days.

THE PLOT: Epic tale of three brothers and their father living in the remote wilderness of 1900s USA and how their lives are affected by nature, history, war, and love.

AFTER: The film presents us with three brothers, Alfred (the oldest), Tristan (the wild middle child) and Samuel (the young, smart one) - raised by their father, Col. Ludlow, on a Montana Ranch in the early 1900's. The unique worldview of their father, a disillusioned veteran suspicious of the government, influnces their upbringing.

Then the family gets fractured, first by World War I - the Colonel doesn't want his sons to serve - and then by Susannah, initially Samuel's fiancée, but she manages to work her way through all of the brothers. Apparently there are so few women out in Montana that they have to take turns. Col. Ludlow's wife is absent for most of the picture, it seems she never took a liking to frontier living. Can't say as I blame her, they still seem to favor horses over cars and have to hunt for their food - no thanks. I think the mother might be the smartest one in the family.

But of course, her absence also symbolizes trouble in the marriage - and the sons have varying degrees of success in their relationships as well. Tristan romances Susannah, then promptly loses interest and heads out to see the world - one of those sailing/hunting expeditions that takes years while he "finds himself" (psst - you're RIGHT THERE).

Which means that Albert finally gets a chance to romance Susannah - though by this time she's had her heart broken by two other brothers, so how romantic can she still be? Albert decides to enter politics, a career choice that his father couldn't hate more.

It's an epic film with complicated relationships, but honestly it's still a downer on many levels. Death, guilt, betrayal, more death, abandonment - name your poison, it's all there. And though the family patriarch lives to a ripe old age, after he suffers a stroke while waiting for his sons to return home, seeing him frail is just sad. (And I thought times were tough in Baltimore...Montana sucks!)

It is a neat trick getting me interested in this family, and almost making me overlook their disregard for society's rules. Montana was subject to U.S. laws, including prohibition, and owning a ranch doesn't give you the right to disregard them, and take out any revenuers that come along. You almost got me to root against my country for a minute there - nice try.

I didn't really buy into all of the mystical Native American stuff, like the "heart of the bear". It seemed a little too mumbo-jumbo. Now, what the heck does the title mean?

Starring Brad Pitt (last seen in "Thelma & Louise"), Anthony Hopkins (last seen in "Bad Company"), Julia Ormond (last seen in "First Knight"), Henry Thomas (last seen in "Niagara, Niagara"), Gordon Tootoosis (last heard in "Open Season"), with a cameo from Christina Pickles (last seen in "Romeo + Juliet").

RATING: 5 out of 10 foxholes

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Year 3, Day 179 - 6/28/11 - Movie #905

BEFORE: Also riffing off of "Sophie's Choice", this is another film with Polish Jews in post-war America. I think I tried to watch this once before and failed for some reason - may have lost interest. Linking from "Cider House Rules", Tobey Maguire was in "The Ice Storm" with Elijah Wood - proving once and for all that they are not the same person.

THE PLOT: A Polish-Jewish family comes to the USA at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. There, the family and their children try to make themselves a better future in the so-called promised land.

AFTER: Most of this film's story seemed unfamiliar, so I think I made the right call.

I was partially raised by Polish and German grandparents (outside Boston, not Baltimore) who never got the memo that the Great Depression had ended, so this feels like old home week in some ways - the way that old-timers have the same circular conversations again and again, and the same arguments year after year on holidays. And the way that they're so stubborn in their thinking that you just want to shoot them - but you can't, because then you won't get a birthday card next year with a 5-dollar bill inside.

OK, maybe I'm a little too close to this one. The film follows three generations of a family that immigrated to Baltimore in the 19-teens, but the early scenes are mainly shown in flashback, and out of sequence (just like an old-timer's rambling stories). Most of the linear storyline takes place in the late 1940's and early 1950's, when people bought televisions and then waited for someone to invent programming. Kind of like how the tin can was invented decades before the can opener (it's true!).

The 2nd generation in the family has some success with selling appliances, once the cousins change their name to remove any ethnicity - so it's kind of like the story of the P.C. Richard family, if they were Jewish. And living the American Dream means barely breaking even, putting any profit back into the business so it can expand, and then being in debt up to their eyeballs. (sounds about right)

And the 3rd generation here is just happy to be kids, in the days of Howdy Doody and Hopalong Cassidy, and trading baseball cards (do people still trade them, or just collect them?) and model airplanes. Beaucoup nostalgia tonight, whether you grew up in a big city or out in suburbia/disturbia.

But unfortunately, the film is just a collection of little scenes, probably one person's (Barry Levinson's) family stories, and though they ring true, collectively they don't seem to form a cohesive narrative arc. Plus they highlight the downside of the American Dream, which seems to be - work hard, live well, get married, raise kids, retire to the suburbs, and end up in a nursing home telling incoherent stories. And that's if you're lucky, you should live so long!

Still, good to watch this in the week before July 4, the annual fireworks display is seen several times during the film. (Thanksgiving would have worked too.)

Starring Aidan Quinn (last seen in "Jonah Hex"), Kevin Pollak (last seen in "Cop Out"), Armin Mueller-Stahl (last seen in "Angels & Demons"), Joan Plowright (last seen in "Last Action Hero"), Elijah Wood (last heard in "9"), Lou Jacobi.

RATING: 4 out of 10 family meetings

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Cider House Rules

Year 3, Day 178 - 6/27/11 - Movie #904

BEFORE: Riffing off of "Sophie's Choice", this week's theme, for lack of a better term, will be "longish, arty movies about the American experience". Newish classics, if you will, based on growing up in America, or immigrating to the U.S. And this enables me to send Birthday SHOUT-out #49 to Tobey Maguire, last seen in "The Ice Storm", born June 27, 1975. And "The Ice Storm" also handily provides the link from "Sophie's Choice", through Kevin Kline.

THE PLOT: A compassionate young man, raised in an orphanage and trained to be a doctor there, decides to leave to see the world.

AFTER: Well, it's impossible to discuss this film without taking on the thorny issue of abortion, since the film goes out of its way several times to legitimize the issue. The doctor at the orphanage (which doubles as a clinic for pregnant women) performs them, despite their illegal-ness in Maine at the time, constantly justifying the practice with logic and mental arguments for their necessity. To back the doctor up, the movie presents us with a woman who dies from a back-alley abortion, and another character whose pregnancy is the result of incest/rape, in case any pro-life conservatives in the audience haven't been swayed yet.

So it's essentially a one-topic movie. Oh, sure, things happen and characters develop and some orphans get adopted and some don't, but the plot keeps coming back to the necessity of abortions. And the debate causes a riff between Tobey Maguire's character and Dr. Larch, played by Michael Caine (last seen in "The Fourth Protocol")

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, there's some nice symbolism here, as seen in the rules mentioned in the title. (And here I thought that someone just really liked living in the cider house, by saying "The cider house RULES!") Within the cider house, there is a list of rules posted on the wall, prompting a collective "Ahh, I get it now!" from the audience. And some of the rules are "Don't go up on the roof to sleep", and "Don't go up on the roof to eat lunch". One character wonders, why doesn't it just say, "Don't go on the roof"?

Because that would be as simplistic as saying "Don't have an abortion", that's why. The binary pro-life/pro-choice argument is complicated by things like incest, rape, genetic disorders, and just plain personal freedom. And so we have people making rules in this country who want to add amendments for every little thing, until the law no longer makes any logical sense. But you know what? The people who make the rules don't live in the Cider House. And the people who live in the Cider House are going to do what they want anyway, even if it's not safe to do so.

So I see symbolism in the farm workers, representing the U.S. citizens, and the rule-writing orchard-owners, representing the government. Was that intentional?

Unfortunately it was all a little one-note and ho-hum for me. This could turn out to be a very long week...

Also starring Charlize Theron (last seen in "Hancock"), Delroy Lindo (last seen in "Clockers"), Kathy Baker (last seen in "The Right Stuff"), Jane Alexander (last seen in "City Heat"), Paul Rudd (last seen in "Knocked Up"), Erykah Badu, with cameos from Kieran Culkin, Heavy D. and J.K. Simmons (last seen in "Up in the Air" - weird to see the future J. Jonah Jameson eating dinner with the future Peter Parker).

RATING: 3 out of 10 lobster traps

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sophie's Choice

Year 3, Day 177 - 6/26/11 - Movie #903

BEFORE: And this will wrap up Streep-a-Thon. No, I didn't get to every Streep movie (I don't have copies of "The Devil Wears Prada" or "The River Wild" or "A Cry in the Dark"), but I think she's been represented well on the blog to date.

THE PLOT: Sophie, the survivor of Nazi concentration camps, has found a reason to live in Nathan, an American Jew obsessed with the Holocaust. They befriend Stingo, the movie's narrator, a young American writer new to New York City - but the happiness of Sophie and Nathan is endangered by her ghosts and his obsessions.

AFTER: Well, that was something of a downer. I don't have much criticism of the plot tonight, once a movie evokes the Holocaust it's hard to find nitpick points.

I find no fault with Streep's accent, either - I've had co-workers from Eastern Europe (Latvia and Serbia) and her cadence here is exactly what I've heard in their voices. So to represent someone from Poland who now speaks English, to me she got it exactly right.

My problem with a film like this comes from reading reviews in advance, and knowing too much about the plot. The choice that Sophie has to make, as revealed late in the film, was almost anti-climactic to me. Knowing so much movie trivia often results in plot spoilers of the highest order, which can affect my rating system.

But there's another choice made in the film, one not usually mentioned in reviews. Sophie has an option to run away with Stingo, during one of Nathan's bouts of madness - which should come as no surprise, in one of the first scenes in the film he's a raving lunatic, but since we want to like the character we try to believe it's an isolated incident. Sophie makes the choice to return to Nathan, representing love, weakness and co-dependency, and the consequences of that choice determine her fate.

Or maybe it's the choice she was forced to make in the concentration camp, which is still haunting her. Good discussion topics, I suppose. But entertaining? Not sure.

Also starring Kevin Kline (last heard in "The Tale of Despereaux"), Peter MacNicol (last heard in a different mouse-based film, "The Secret of NIMH 2").

RATING: 3 out of 10 cans of spam.