Saturday, July 9, 2011

Joe Versus the Volcano

Year 3, Day 190 - 7/9/11 - Movie #916

BEFORE: From an inferno to a volcano - I'll take any connection between films at this point, even a tenuous one. I still didn't get to "Cool Hand Luke", but I'll have to table the Paul Newman films in order to send Birthday SHOUT-out #51 to Tom Hanks (last seen in "The Great Buck Howard"), born July 9, 1956. And the movie link between Newman and Hanks, of course, is "Road to Perdition".

THE PLOT: When a hypochondriac learns that he is dying, he accepts an offer to throw himself in a volcano at a tropical island, and along the way there, learns to truly live.

AFTER: Eh, this is a silly little film, but perhaps there are some concepts within that are worth exploring. Sacrifice, karma, fate, destiny, free will - it sort of feels like the film is dancing all around something, without coming out and saying it.

We've got a man in a dead-end job, with no prospects, who thinks he's dying, so when he's offered a chance to do something meaningful for a Polynesian tribe (whose tribal chants sound suspiciously like "Hava Nagila" and "When Johnny Comes Marching Home") he takes the deal. Only to fall for the woman delivering him there - does he follow through on his promise to sacrifice himself, or blow the deal and have a chance at love and happiness, with what little time he has left.

On some level, it represents the conscious choices that we all have to make every day. You have a job, a spouse, kids (or pets), and there are only so many hours in the day. Putting in extra time at the office means time away from family and friends (unless you work with your family, I guess). Taking time off for vacation is a good thing, but take too much time off, and your job's at risk. Decisions, decisions.

At the same time, you've got to worry about your soul, if you believe in that sort of thing. Great, like you don't have enough problems in THIS world, you've got to worry about the next one, too. For some people, religion is a quick and easy decision-maker, if you're given a checklist you know what to do and what not to do. But think about the arrogance of people who tell you what God (or Allah, or the volcano) wants for you. They don't know what God (if he exists other than as a concept) wants, any more than you do.

I used to swallow the Catholic dogma, but once you start poking holes in it, it all starts to unravel. I'm more drawn to the concept of karma - treat people like you want to be treated. Do good things, and good things will come your way. It would be nice, wouldn't it? But I guess that assumes that the universe has a logical structure, and unfortunately I've seen too much evidence to the contrary.

And if you listen to too many platitudes, or get too much chicken soup in your soul, it all starts to sound meaningless too. "Live like you're dying." Well, why can't I live like I'm living? "You've got your whole life ahead of you." Ummm, doesn't everyone? "You're not getting any younger." And where is the person who is - Benjamin Button?

Today's Saturday, and I'm gearing up to put in some extra hours at the office, typing up a manuscript. I don't want to do it, but I've got to believe that if I put in the extra time, good things will happen. In fact I'm making sure of it as part of the deal, but I don't want to talk about things and jinx them. But I'm gearing up for my annual trip to Comic-Con, so I hope that karma gets me some new Star Wars autographs, or at least some interesting celebrity encounters.

"No one ever looks back on their life and wishes they'd spent more time at the office." Agreed, but maybe their boss wishes they had.

Also starring Meg Ryan (last seen in "Top Gun"), Dan Hedaya (last seen in "Commando"), Ossie Davis (last seen in "Jungle Fever"), Amanda Plummer, with cameos from Lloyd Bridges (last seen in "Tucker: The Man and His Dream"), Robert Stack, Abe Vigoda (last seen in "Jury Duty"), Nathan Lane (last seen in "Ironweed") and Carol Kane (last seen in "The World's Greatest Lover").

RATING: 3 out of 10 fluorescent lights

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Towering Inferno

Year 3, Day 189 - 7/8/11 - Movie #915

BEFORE: Another scorcher today in the big city. It was as hot as...well, I don't have a metaphor handy right now but I'm sure I'll think of something. Ending the Paul Newman chain tonight but keeping the heat-related theme going. Last year I watched "Earthquake", "The Poseidon Adventure" and all the "Airport" films, but I didn't have this one available at the time. They don't run this one much on TV, I wonder if that's because of 9/11.

THE PLOT: During the opening party of a colossal, but poorly constructed, office building, a massive fire breaks out that threatens to destroy the tower and everyone in it.

AFTER: This film makes a giant case against mixed-use zoning laws. Whose bright idea was it to top off an office tower with residential space, up to 135 floors? And renting space on the lower floors to that fireworks factory, plus including a wax museum exhibit up in the penthouse - really short-sighted, guys.

All kidding aside, there probably was a well-intentioned word of warning here, for those who would build skyscrapers and skimp on the wiring, or the fire prevention systems. The builder hired his shifty son-in-law to do the electrical work, while also telling him to cut millions from the budget - where did he THINK the savings would come from? Some bean-counter says, "Look, we can just put a firehose on every OTHER floor, and just like that, we've cut the cost in half."

But this film seems to be all about karma - the fire seems to have a knack for bringing about the deaths of the people who authorized the cuts, or paid the bribes, or took the kickbacks. Oh, sure, there are probably some good people who died in the background, and a couple bad ones who made it, but for the lead players in the foreground, the inferno is their reckoning. It's kind of like how Jason only goes after those sexed-up teens in the "Friday the 13th" films. There's not as much religious claptrap as there was in "The Poseideon Adventure", but a Tower of Babel reference doesn't seem like much of a stretch.

I loved how the builder doesn't want to interrupt his gala party just because there's a fire on the 81st floor - while he's safe on floor 135. That's like chopping down a tree and assuming that the bird's nest in the top branches is going to be just fine.

And it's hard to NOT think about the World Trade Center (in fact, two novels were combined to make this screenplay, and both were inspired by the then-recent construction of the WTC). The film edges close to 3 hours in length, and, assuming events play out in something close to real time, we all unfortunately know that's a gross over-estimate of how long a skyscraper can burn and not collapse. I do wish there had been a few more technical details on fire-fighting techniques, other than showing firefighters with hoses, there are scant details here on how a fire brigade would tackle something of this nature. Maybe nobody knew?

But it's worth sticking with it to see Paul Newman, the architect, and Steve McQueen (last seen in "Bullitt"), the fire chief, teaming up. Put these two together, and there's no limit to what their combined manliness can accomplish - it's like watching Superman and Batman team up.

NITPICK POINT: The film is set on the opening night of the tower - but some of those residents look pretty settled in already. What exactly constitutes opening night?

NITPICK POINT #2: Newman's character calls the builder to tell him that a man's been burned on the 81st floor. Shouldn't your first sentence be "The 81st floor is ON FIRE!" ?? Damn, way to bury the lead!

NITPICK POINT #3: An elevator is hanging on the outside of the building, held only by a thin cable. Steve McQueen's character attempts a rescue from a helicopter with a cable and winch, but in order to do so, he jumps ONTO the car, adding his weight to an already fragile situation. Seriously, is he really willing to gamble that the cable can take another 200+ pounds?

NITPICK POINT #4: When said elevator is lowering the elevator car, it takes it all the way to the ground. Wouldn't the roof of the nearby building be a quicker, and therefore safer, destination?

NITPICK POINT #5: Weren't the 1970's the decade of equal rights? Women demanding equal pay and such? So how come when there was a rescue it was still "women and children first"? Where's your E.R.A. then? Shouldn't the senator and the mayor get rescued first?

NITPICK POINT #6: The choppers are on the way - so the first group to be rescued needs to get out to the helipad on the roof, fast. Is there really time to line up 100 people single-file and draw numbers out of a big glass bowl? Can't you just go alphabetically or by height or something?

NITPICK POINT #7: Man, that zoning thing is really bugging me. Anyone who's played "Sim City" knows that any plot of land is zoned for residential OR commercial use, but not both. Does San Francisco have some kind of exemption for that? It just doesn't make financial sense - you'd need twice the staff for a building like that, since an office building would need certain workers that a residential building wouldn't.

I was reading in the newspaper about the construction of the Freedom Tower, being built on the old WTC site. Maybe the Daily News phrased it poorly, but the article said something about how the construction was plagued by missed deadlines and cost overruns, so they decided to scrap the unrealistic timeline, and since that point the work's been coming in on time and under budget. Yeah, it's funny how eliminating deadlines makes them a lot easier to meet. I call shenanigans, since everyone knows that time is money - so extending the time-frame should automatically result in higher costs, any time construction labor is involved.

Also starring William Holden (last seen in "The Bridge on the River Kwai"), Faye Dunaway (last seen in "The Chamber"), Richard Chamberlain (taking over the "sullen alcoholic who might be secretly gay" role also seen in last night's film), Robert Vaughn (also last seen in "Bullitt"), Robert Wagner (last seen in "The Concorde - Airport '79"), Fred Astaire, O.J. Simpson, with cameos from Dabney Coleman (last seen in "Modern Problems") and Mike "Bobby Brady" Lookinland.

RATING: 4 out of 10 oxygen masks

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Year 3, Day 188 - 7/7/11 - Movie #914

BEFORE: Continuing with the Paul Newman chain, TCM ran this one a couple months ago, right after Liz Taylor died. This also starts a chain of heat-related films (I think), good timing because it's been hot as balls this week in NY. It's not so bad outside if I wait until the sun goes down before heading home, but the subway platforms get hot this time of year and just never cool off.

THE PLOT: Brick, an alcoholic ex-football player, drinks his days away and resists the affections of his wife, Maggie. His reunion with his father, Big Daddy, jogs a host of memories and revelations for both father and son.

AFTER: And we have the third movie in a row in which Paul Newman drinks a lot - was that a constant theme in his films, or just coincidence? I guess I bagged a (Wild) turkey.

Last night he played a Bostonian alcoholic lawyer, and tonight he's a classic Southern drunk. For added effect he breaks his leg early in the film going over (life's) hurdles and walks with a crutch (a blatant visual metaphor in case you miss the more subtle ones). He and his wife are visiting his parents, Big Daddy and Big Mamma (where do they get these clever nicknames?), and his brother's kids, who might be the most annoying kids ever seen on film, are constantly running around. I'd drink too if there were 5 obnoxious kids learning to play "Dixie" on the kazoo.

There's a reason why he drinks, of course, but the film takes the better part of the second half drawing it out of him. The first half is spent learning one simple piece of information about Big Daddy's health - does everything just work slower in the South?

I just couldn't get behind this one. If I wanted to watch a family argue in circles for a couple hours, I'd go to my aunt's house for Thanksgiving. Everyone's annoying (except maybe Paul Newman) and they're all yelling at each other to shut up, but no one ever does.

Jeez, I've got movies on my list with superheroes and dazzling special effects - big summer blockbusters. Sort of feel like I wasted my time with this one. I don't get the metaphor in the title either - she feels like a cat on a hot tin roof? What, she's jumpy? Her paws hurt? I don't see how it's a sexual (or even remotely sexy) metaphor.

Who wrote this drivel? What's that? Tennessee Williams? Oh...but a little research shows that he wasn't happy with this film version of his play. Seems a little censorship removed some key points from the play - which explains why Brick and Maggie didn't have any children, and his relationship with the mysterious Skipper. Hmm...

Also starring Liz Taylor (last seen in "Giant"), Burl Ives, Jack Carson, Madeleine Sherwood.

RATING: 2 out of 10 birthday cards

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Verdict

Year 3, Day 187 - 7/6/11 - Movie #913

BEFORE: Paul Newman carries over - I meant to watch this one in my chain of legal/courtroom films in January, but I confused it with "Absence of Malice" and watched that one instead. Hey, accidents happen.

THE PLOT: A lawyer sees the chance to salvage his career and self-respect by taking a medical malpractice case to trial rather than settling.

AFTER: Some similarities to "The Color of Money" here, with Paul Newman playing an older character, one who likes to drink a bit too much, and one who's looking for redemption. Also, he gets hustled - in this case by a larger law firm representing the Catholic Church. The church runs the hospital in Boston where a woman was given the wrong anesthetic - and he's given the run of the case to get money for her family. This was made back in 1982, before those other charges got filed against grabby priests, so they still had some money to settle cases like this.

The problem is, Frank Galvin (Newman) decides to roll the dice in a trial, against his client's family's wishes - which goes against everything I learned on "Law & Order", or from sitting on a jury where the case was settled (turned out they were talking about settlement figures every time we jurors were out of the room). So no spoiler here, given the title of the film, he has to form the case of a lifetime and wait for...the verdict!

MY verdict is that except for a couple of heated motions and a few courtroom shockers, this one's pretty boring. I'm surprised I stayed awake.

Also starring Jack Warden (last seen in "Being There"), James Mason (last seen in "Lolita"), Charlotte Rampling (last seen in "Spy Game"), Milo O'Shea (last seen in "The Dream Team"), and a cameo from Lindsay Crouse (last seen in "Impostor").

RATING: 3 out of 10 motions to supress

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Color of Money

Year 3, Day 186 - 7/5/11 - Movie #912

BEFORE: I watched "The Hustler" way back in Year 1 of the project - Movie #312, exactly 600 movies ago. I was sure that premium cable would run the sequel within a few months, and I'd grab it - but I waited and waited. And I refused to watch it on AMC or any other channel with commercials, or download it. Finally one of the premium channels ran it a month or so ago, and I was able to work it into my line-up. Not my preferred way of scheduling things, but since the sequel picks up years after the original, it's OK.

This ends the Tom Cruise chain, but starts up a chain of Paul Newman (last seen in "Absence of Malice"). I suppose I could have easily gone from "Minority Report" to "Inception", but that film will have to wait.

THE PLOT: Fast Eddie Felson teaches a cocky but immensely talented protégé the ropes of pool hustling, which in turn inspires him to make an unlikely comeback.

AFTER: This is an entertaining enough pool-based drama, maybe not as cerebral as "The Hustler" was, but a little flashier instead, and with higher production values. As fine a movie as "The Hustler" may be, it still looks like it was shot on a backlot, in a fake pool hall. This one looks much more real, shot in real pool halls, real hotel rooms, it feels like the world has opened up by comparison.

The sports clichés are all there - the fading veteran, the hotshot youngster who doesn't know how good he really is, the tournament where everything is on the line - you can see similarities to "Major League", "The Karate Kid", the sport doesn't really matter but the archetypes do.

"Fast Eddie" Felson sees something of himself in the young upstart, Vincent - so he gets himself out of the liquor business and takes him on the road, to teach him the basics of hustling. Not pool, because Vincent's already a great pool player - but if he walks into a pool hall looking like a great player, and acting like a great player, no one's going to want to play him and lose money. Hence the hustle - looking like a dope and dumping a few games in order to raise the stakes.

However, Eddie has trouble getting through to the kid, teaching him that sometimes you win when you lose, and vice versa - it's a tough concept for someone who doesn't see the big picture, and just wants to win.

I wish the film had explored the mechanics of 9-ball a little more, and also the mechanics for hustling. We only learn the name of one scheme, I'm sure there must be dozens more. I'm also fairly sure there's a difference between tournament play and pool-hall hustling play, I wish more of a distinction could have been made between the two. What if Vincent were a great tournament player, but a lousy hustler, isn't that possible? And in a tournament you just play to win, right? So there's no need to hide the fact that you're a good player or dump a game to raise the stakes?

At the start of the film, Fast Eddie was only concerned about winning money, and Vincent was obsessed with winning. It's interesting to me that their roles were reversed at the end.

Also starring Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (last seen in "Class Action"), Helen Shaver, John Turturro (last seen in "Anger Management"), Bill Cobbs (last seen in "Suspect"), with cameos from Forest Whitaker (last seen in "Repo Men") and Iggy Pop.

RATING: 6 out of 10 bank shots

Monday, July 4, 2011

Knight and Day

Year 3, Day 185 - 7/4/11 - Movie #911

BEFORE: I kind of shot myself in the foot by watching "Born on the Fourth of July" last December. I was doing a chain of war films, and I didn't realize I'd be doing a second Tom Cruise chain, or even that I'd be doing birthday shouts. So that tie-in is off-limits today, the next best option is to watch a film where Cruise plays a secret agent - I hope he's on our side.

And STILL the Captain America movie hasn't been released? That means someone passed on 3 possible tie-ins: Memorial Day, Flag Day and the Fourth of July weekend, two of which are traditional blockbuster 3-day events. It makes me wonder if anyone in the scheduling department at Marvel/Disney knows what they're doing.

THE PLOT: A story of a girl who gets mixed up with a spy trying to clear his name.

AFTER: Well, at least this shares some elements with "Minority Report", in that Cruise's character is being set up, or is made to appear that he's gone rogue. It always seems to be Tom Cruise's character against the world, doesn't it? From "Mission: Impossible" to "Eyes Wide Shut" to "The Firm" and even "War of the Worlds", what's the common factor? Cruise taking on some kind of massive conspiracy, battling incredible odds. I wonder if that's a coincidence or a series of conscious choices.

For tonight's film, he plays a spy who appears to be working alone, against some unspecified opponents and possibly even his own agency - or maybe he's crazy, the film hints at the possibility that he might be a regular guy who's insane and just thinks he's a spy. But the skills he displays in one of the three or four astoundingly impossible action sequences are shorthand for spy, aka movie superhero.

Cameron Diaz (last seen in "The Last Supper") plays the regular woman (an auto mechanic, an atypical female role) who gets caught up in his spy business, which involves protecting the inventor of one of those technical MacGuffins that everyone wants to get their hands on. In that sense the film is sort of by-the-numbers, but the car chases and fights really set this film apart from your typical spy flick. It seems over the years they've gotten better and better, or at least there's a feeling that they have to top the action sequences we've seen before.

Unfortunately there's an air of mystery that's created by Diaz's character blacking out or being drugged, and waking up in a car, or a speedboat, or a new location, without knowledge of how she got there. That counts as cheating in the language of film, like a character saying "I escaped somehow!" without providing any details. This means that the best action sequences and escapes happen off-camera, or are left to the viewer's imagination.

And there's a shift in P.O.V. - Diaz's character is our regular-person's viewpoint into the spy world, and the air of mystery and magic is maintained through her. But near the end of the film we start to see things from Cruise's character's P.O.V. Why couldn't the original tone have been maintained until the end? It's a neat trick, but it still counts as a trick.

Other than that, no quibbles tonight.

Also starring Paul Dano (last seen in "There Will Be Blood"), Peter Sarsgaard (last seen in "Kinsey"), Viola Davis (last seen in "Doubt"), with a cameo from Celia Weston (last seen in "The Talented Mr. Ripley").

RATING: 6 out of 10 pistons

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Minority Report

Year 3, Day 184 - 7/3/11 - Movie #910

BEFORE: For the last week, I've been inadvertently skipping back in time - or, I should say that the movies I've been watching have been doing that. From "Sophie's Choice" (post WWII) to "Cider House Rules" (pre-WWII) to "Legends of the Fall" and "A River Runs Through It" (set about 1920's/1930's) and then "Far and Away" (1893) and "The Last Samurai" (1876 or so). But tonight I rocket ahead to 2054. Tom Cruise carries over, and it's time for another Birthday SHOUT-out (#50!). Yes, the star of "Born on the Fourth of July" was himself born on the THIRD of July. Go figure.

THE PLOT: In the future, criminals are caught before the crimes they commit, but one of the officers in the special unit is accused of murder and sets out to prove his innocence.

AFTER: Predicting the future is always tricky - and so is making a film that's set in the future. Directors have to try to be pre-cognizant about what life will be like in, say, 50 years - what will cities, cars, computers look like? This has been going on at least since H.G. Wells first wrote about trips to the moon - of course, some writers/directors get it right, but also benefit from the influence of their own fiction. Sometimes life imitates art, and comes out just like the sci-fi writers predicted. Which is why some of today's cell phones look a lot like Star Trek communicators.

This film is filled with future-tech - policemen using jet-packs, cars that seem to be computer-controlled, essentially driving themselves (reducing car accidents, nice) and most prominently, the power to turn pre-cognitive visions into searchable images. But the future isn't all perfect - there are still illegal drugs, but can we assume they're more powerful, with fewer side effects? Probably still addictive though. Sadly, it seems like in the future no one ever invented a better type of umbrella, they're still using the same old fabric ones that tend to poke other people in the eye, turn inside out in a stiff breeze and drip water down the back of your shirt. (That would be the first thing I'd like to improve, obviously) Shouldn't people in the future have individual force-fields to keep the rain from hitting them?

And you'd better believe that people in the advertising industry would LOVE to develop that technology that scans you and pitches holographic ads to you, inserting your name into the pitch...

What's nice about this film is that it shows that as police tech improves, so does criminal technology. After police invented fingerprint recognition, criminals started wiping things down or wearing gloves. (I'm sure criminals watch "CSI" to pick up tips)
So here an accused cop on the run has to think of creative ways to beat retinal scans, and facial recognition software - and his methods sure aren't pretty.

One quibble I have here, and this annoys me about a lot of movies and TV shows, is what happens when we see a portrayal of a person's dreams. Here they just happen to also be a peek into the future, but essentially they're dreams, or visions. How do they look? Exactly like little movies, with three-camera coverage and professional editing. Now, human dreams have been around quite a bit longer than movies - I think it's a fallacy to say that our dreams look like little movies. If anything, it should be the other way around. But my dreams (the ones I remember, anyway) tend to be more P.O.V., of course they have a tendency to shift, and not make coherent sense...

But let's assume that the pre-cogs in this film have a unique gift, and they have dreams which can accurately predict the future, and they just happen to look like they were shot by an award-winning cinematographer, who used three-camera coverage, and met with his editor about when to cut to a close-up, etc. etc. A dream is just a set of electrical impulses and random eye movements, right? How the heck do you convert that into a playable, screenable format - what is that, an MP8? I call shenanigans.

There's a paradox at the end that tries to wrap things up - balancing destiny and free will and precognition into an either/or. It kind of made my head hurt, and I'm not sure they got it 100% right. It seems to be based on evidence that the characters didn't have at that point in time (they were making an assumption that the precogs had already predicted the situation they were in).

Also, someone in the film questions stopping crimes before they happen - since the crime is prevented, how can you prosecute it - and it's likened to a ball rolling off of a table. You catch the ball because it was about to fall - but in doing so, you prevented it from falling. Nice try, but murder is not gravity. Gravity is a certainty, while murder is a choice. But since the movie (eventually) makes this same point, I'm prepared to let this one slide.

A neat little thriller, based on a short story by visionary Phillip K. Dick, whose stories also provided source material for "Blade Runner", "Next", "Total Recall" and "The Adjustment Bureau". Still want to see those last two before I'm done.

Also starring Colin Farrell (last seen in "Crazy Heart"), Max Von Sydow (last seen in "Three Days of the Condor"), Samantha Morton (last seen in "The Messenger"), Tim Blake Nelson (last seen in "The Darwin Awards"), Kathryn Morris, Neal McDonough (last seen in "Flags of Our Fathers"), with cameos from Arye Gross (last seen in "Mother Night"), Mike Binder, Peter Stormare (last seen in "Happy Campers"), and William Mapother (Tom Cruise's cousin, he turns up in a few of his films, like "Born on the Fourth of July")

RATING: 7 out of 10 billboards