Saturday, August 13, 2011

Housesitter

Year 3, Day 226 - 8/14/11 - Movie #947

BEFORE: A little bit of a thematic jump tonight, from a heist film to a comedy - but I am going from a film about a thief to one about a con artist. Linking from "Thief", James Caan was in "Honeymoon in Vegas" with Sarah Jessica Parker, who was in L.A. Story with Steve Martin (last seen in "It's Complicated") and we send Birthday SHOUT-out #55 to Mr. Martin as well.


THE PLOT: Con artist Gwen moves into Newton's empty house without his knowledge, and begins setting up house posing as his new wife.

AFTER: It's a cute little comedy, nothing really earth-shaking about it, just a normal guy who's trying to get over being rejected by his girlfriend, who he proposed to and built a house for. In his rebound phase, he sleeps with a waitress, who turns out to be a con artist.

Since he casually mentioned that he has a house upstate with no one living in it, she heads up there and moves in. However, she's not prepared for small town life and the way that rumors and gossip can spread through the town, so her little lie about being the architect's wife is rapidly heard by his ex-girlfriend and his father.

This sets up an elaborate ruse where people start sending wedding gifts and such - and the architect plays along, because it seems that, paradoxically, this is a way to prove that he's husband-type material to his ex. Put on a show for a few months, fake a divorce to go with the fake wedding, and he figures his ex will snatch him up afterwards.

But the lies grow more and more elaborate, and eventually the love triangle becomes real, as the fictional marriage becomes more attractive. The problem with any love triangle movie set up is that one character will eventually be left out in the cold, it just comes down to which way you want to take the story. Both women here seem like decent folk (except for that con-artist thing), and the ex-girlfriend (Dana Delany, last seen in "Moon Over Parador") hasn't really done anything to make the audience hate her (except for that rejection thing) - so it didn't really matter to me which woman he ended up with.

I suppose it would have been too easy to make the ex-girlfriend a real shrew, or make the con artist truly evil, instead of just ditsy. Instead the movie chooses to walk a really fine line. But that also sort of cripples it, the comedy can't really go too far in any one direction.

Also starring Goldie Hawn (last seen in "The First Wives Club"), Peter MacNicol (last seen in "Sophie's Choice"), Donald Moffat (last seen in "Popeye"), and playwright Christopher Durang (I remember working on a video shoot starring him back in 1990 or so).

RATING: 5 out of 10 blueprints

Thief

Year 3, Day 225 - 8/13/11 - Movie #946

BEFORE: Back on track after last night's thematic mis-step - where were the crooks in "Crooklyn"? This will finish off the latest "heist" chain, I've got more cop movies but I'll have to double back again later. Linking from last night, Delroy Lindo had a small role in "The Devil's Advocate" with Al Pacino, who of course links to James Caan (last seen in "New York, I Love You") through "The Godfather".


THE PLOT: Becoming closer to his dream of leading a normal life, a professional safecracker agrees to do a job for the mafia.

AFTER: This is an interesting little character-study film. The focus is not so much on the technical aspects of safe-cracking (though there is a bit about disabling alarm systems), it's more about the life of a thief and what motivates him to continue working in such a risky business.

James Caan plays the thief, who focuses on high-end diamond jobs. He's got a day job as a used-car salesman, but that seems to be just a cover. What car salesman wears such expensive suits, and drives a Cadillac instead of a car off the lot?

His fence dies after a job, but before he can collect his take, and that means he's got to work his way through the lower levels of organize crime in order to get the money he's due. This puts him in touch with higher levels that want to hire him, whereas up until that point he'd worked freelance. Looking for one last score to cash in and get out of the business, he reluctantly agrees.

Of course, a thief looking for his last score is akin to a soldier in a war movie flashing a picture of his girl at home, isn't it? The crew in "The Town" was looking for just one more score, and look how THAT turned out.

This film also plays the same little tricks that "The Town" did - if your central character is a no-good thief, how do you make him more sympathetic? You can give him a romantic interest, to point out that he's got the same hopes and dreams as regular folk. And, you can also make the people that he works for much more evil than him, and this puts him in a vulnerable position, where he's not in control of his situation.

We are thus meant to feel somewhat sorry for a thief who's being manipulated or financially screwed, as an anti-hero. Caan ends up being something of a bad-ass as he tries to take down the people who've got his balls in a vise. And yes, he's willing to sacrifice his shot at romance, and fatherhood in this case, to get his freedom back.

Also starring Tuesday Weld, Robert Prosky (last seen in "Far and Away"), James Belushi (last seen in "Red Heat"), with cameos from Willie Nelson (last seen in "The Dukes of Hazzard") Dennis Farina (last seen in "Stealing Harvard") and William Petersen (last seen in "Manhunter").

RATING: 4 out of 10 fire extinguishers

Friday, August 12, 2011

Crooklyn

Year 3, Day 224 - 8/12/11 - Movie #945

BEFORE: Sad news today, I learned that my aunt passed away. My mother's sister, her only sibling - I've got a number of aunts and uncles on my father's side, but on my mother's side, just the one. The news wasn't unexpected, she'd been in the hospital for a couple of weeks, but it still came as a shock.

It's only natural to watch films (or read a book, or see a painting) and try to relate one's own experience to it. So having seen a number of films this week with characters ailing in hospitals ("Inception", "Edge of Darkness", "Family Business"), in a way my thoughts were with her - though the results were unfortunately the same.

Linking tonight is simple - Laurence Fishburne from "Armored" was in "School Daze", in which Spike Lee appeared, and of course he also makes a cameo in tonight's film.


THE PLOT: Semi-autobiographical portrait of a school-teacher, her stubborn jazz-musician husband and their five kids living in '70s Brooklyn.

AFTER: Given the name, I sort of thought this film would be more about crime - I'm betting Spike Lee is now wishing he saved this title for a crime film, rather than a slice-of-life family drama. But, as I've proven many times, there's no such thing as a scheduling mistake for me, I'll work with what I have.

Though I can't specifically relate to growing up in a black family in Brooklyn (I grew up in an almost-all white suburb of Boston), I related to the later part of the film, when the daughter, Troy, is sent down South to live with relatives for a few months. I wasn't quite sure of the reasons for this - was it because the family was struggling financially? Seems like reducing the family by one wouldn't have too much effect on the food budget...

As a kid, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' house, since my parents both worked. Fortunately my grandparents lived in the same town. After my grandfather died, my grandmother moved in with my parents. Occasionally I would spend time at my aunt and uncle's house, I remember house-sitting for them in the summer of 1980. Then they moved to New York state, and when I was attending NYU film school, I'd take a bus upstate to visit them on non-major holidays like Columbus Day, and meet my parents there for Thanksgiving and Easter. It was a good way to get out of the city for a day or two without traveling all the way back to Massachusetts.

When you stay over with relatives, that's a chance to see that not every family is the same - things may work differently at your aunt's house. And if you're used to just one way of life, it can be a chance to realize there are other ways, and then you're on the road to questioning your parents and becoming a grown-up.

Like those other films I watched earlier this week, this film also features the death of a major character - so the topic is quite timely. Some families choose to discuss health matters openly, while some just aren't set up that way. My mother's family tends to sweep this sort of thing under the rug, while my father will describe his kidney stones in intimate detail. I guess I'm a product of both schools of thought - when I'm sick my tendency is to try and hide it, but I know that's probably not the best course of action, and this impels me to talk about it.

While I was at NYU in the late 80's, Spike Lee was treated as the second coming - all of us film students were required to watch his thesis film, "Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads". And then when "Do the Right Thing" came out, forget about it... I've never been a big fan, his early stuff has always seemed WAY too self-indulgent for me, but I did finally like his film "Inside Man", which IS a solid heist film.

But there's a problem with making an autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical) film, and that's sticking too close to reality. Sure, you can always say, "Well, that's the way it happened." But is reality really the best screenwriter? Life doesn't always conform to Hollywood six-act structure, and if you're living a good life or a pretty lucky person, your life probably doesn't have as much conflict, or enough interesting characters, to make a good script. I think that's what happened here - Lee might have been raised in a large family, but can a film really tell the story of six kids in a Brooklyn apartment, and give each one the screen time he or she needs? Doubtful, so the film has to make a choice and concentrate on one or two of the kids, so several don't stand out from the pack. Therefore, they're not needed - so lose them. You can tell a tighter story with a family of three kids, and each will be more important in the long run.

I've toyed with the idea of making a script based on my first marriage, since we played a very prominent role-playing game with friends, and in a way that led to the end of the relationship. I'd employ a story-telling technique that I haven't seen used very often (which I won't reveal here), but I understand that to fit into a proper screenplay, some characters might need to be combined, or altered in some way, and other details would need to be exaggerated. Although life is often interesting, it rarely can compete with a Hollywood script, since movies are by nature an augmented reality.

And that's where "Crooklyn" falls short - it doesn't have the exaggerated tension or timeline seen in "Do the Right Thing". Little moments like a girl getting caught shoplifting a bag of potato chips, or the apartment's electricity being shut off - while they ring true, they just don't seem exciting enough to count as plot points in a film. It's not only arrogant to think that little moments of your life deserve to be preserved in film, it's also an all-too-easy screenwriting trap.

Starring Delroy Lindo (last seen in "The Cider House Rules"), Alfre Woodard (last seen in "Grand Canyon"), David Patrick Kelly (last seen in "Commando"), with cameos from Jose Zuniga, Isaiah Washington (last seen in "Hollywood Homicide"), Vondie Curtis-Hall (last seen in "Clear and Present Danger"), Bokeem Woodbine and RuPaul.

RATING: 3 out of 10 bounced checks

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Armored

Year 3, Day 223 - 8/11/11 - Movie #944

BEFORE: Went out with my friend Amy last night, to a new German beer garden in Manhattan - OK, so it's not really a garden, because it's indoor, so I guess it's more of a beer hall. I had this internet coupon for 2 hours of sausages and 2 liters of beer, for a reduced price. Now that's the kind of heist I can get behind!

Another armored car heist tonight - I noticed that the pay channels were running this 2009 film concurrently with "The Town", so I put them on a DVD together. Linking was particularly tough tonight - the best I could manage was to go from Ben Affleck, who was in "Pearl Harbor" with Cuba Gooding Jr., who was in "As Good As It Gets" with Skeet Ulrich, who appears here.


THE PLOT: A newbie guard for an armored truck company is coerced by his veteran coworkers to steal a truck containing $42 million. But a wrinkle in their supposedly foolproof plan divides the group.

AFTER: Short and sweet tonight, this one clocks in at under 90 minutes - whereas the first cut of "The Town" was rumored to be four hours long. (See, it's called "editing" for a reason...)

At least this film makes it easy to root for someone - there's one security guard, an Iraq war veteran, who reluctantly goes along with the heist, because he's in desperate need for cash, taking care of his brother. He then changes his mind when he sees what the other guards are capable of to get the money, and squares off against them.

There are a number of, well, not plotholes, let's call them conveniences, as the security guards fight over the money - it's awful convenient that they're in an abandoned factory that just happens to be in a cell phone/walkie-talkie dead zone - so no one can alert the authorities or call for back-up. It's awfully convenient that the lead villain guard knows where the hero lives, so he can swing by and pick up his brother to use as a hostage. And so on, and so on...

For that matter, it's awfully convenient that 6 security guards all feel underpaid, and are all willing to violate their duties to fake a robbery, and they all just happen to work on the same shift, on the same two armored cars. That seems just a little to tidy, which suggests a few shortcuts in the script.

As in last night's film, even a well-planned heist can encounter unexpected snags, and things can go perfectly right, up until the point where something goes wrong, forcing things to spiral out of control. No crime is perfect, no play is foolproof - so both films end up being a primer on why you shouldn't commit armed robbery.

Also starring Matt Dillon, Laurence Fishburne (last seen in "Predators"), Jean Reno (last seen in "Couples Retreat"), Fred Ward (last seen in "Silkwood"), and Milo Ventimiglia.

RATING: 4 out of 10 hot dogs (at least, I think that's what they were eating at that diner place)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Town

Year 3, Day 222 - 8/10/11 - Movie #943

BEFORE: I was all set to watch "Carlito's Way", connecting back through Luis Guzman, but then I remembered it's the middle of the week, and I have to show up (relatively) on time for work. Anyway, that's a drug kingpin film, and doesn't fit in so well if I'm working on a heist/caper chain. So this one moves up in the line-up, and I go from a diamond-store heist to armored car robberies. Works for me. I could easily link from P.S. Hoffman through Matt Damon, but it's much more elegant to point out that Amy Ryan from "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" was also in "Gone Baby Gone" with Titus Welliver, who appears here.


THE PLOT: As he plans his next job, a longtime thief tries to balance his feelings for a bank manager connected to one of his earlier heists, while an FBI agent looks to bring him and his crew down.

AFTER: This is a tight, gripping little heist film, and another film from just last year that I've been looking forward to seeing. It just started running on premium cable last week (I can afford PPV once in a while, but not on a regular basis) so it's a bit of great timing that I can work it in here.

The same old buggaboo crops up - how am I supposed to feel sympathetic for a career criminal? Do I respect the fact that the heist is extremely well-organized, and that the gang members take pride in their work? Elaborate disguises, well-prepared "switch" getaway vehicles, pre-paid off alibis? Way to go, guys! Wait, am I rooting for the right people? Should I be hoping that the FBI and cops succeed instead?

This film gets around this by showing us that the bank robbers are real people, with real feelings, full-time jobs (OK, some are no-show jobs, but still...) and real relationships, plus hopes and dreams (dreams to get out of "the life", good luck with that...) There's also an implication that they're the by-products of society, by pointing out that the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown somehow produces more bank robbers per capita than anywhere else. So there must be something in the water, or else society's to blame.

Which sounds like an odd enough fact to be true (what am I supposed to do, look it up?) but if it is, and Charlestown is filled with bank robbers, wouldn't that be the FIRST place that the Boston police go after a bank robbery, to start asking around? And if so, wouldn't it behoove some of these career criminals to move to another part of town? There are banks all over the place, right?

Another neat trick to make the main character sympathetic (besides showing that he tries to pull off the heists without shooting anyone - again, good luck with that) is to have him blackmailed into pulling off that one last job, the big score. If he WANTED to do another job, he'd appear greedy, and we'd lose our sympathy for him. But if he's FORCED to do another job, by a much more "evil" man, then we're still invested in him.

It's also telling that the main character, Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck, last seen in "Chasing Amy") correctly surmises that the heat is on, and that pulling another heist so soon would be a really, really bad idea. You never see that much in movies - criminals making a score and then saying, "I've made a good amount of cash, I think I'll quit robbing banks for a while..." Why is that? Do we just assume that it's a form of addiction? Or for the right, talented criminal, the payoff is so good that there's never a reason to stop?

Like Doug's character, many of us watch "CSI" and films about heists, so we all know that the bills might be marked, they can't spend any of that money openly anyway, not for years, and the FBI will keep working until they get a lead. So what's the appeal, is it the thrill of the score?

This film is to bank heists what "The Departed" was for undercover cops - using all the clich├ęs but in a (semi-)new fashion, to become the ultimate example of that genre.

And of course, the uncredited star of the film is the city of Boston itself, from the Charlestown Bridge to Yawkey Way to those narrow still-cobblestoned streets. And they got the accents damn near spot on!

I suggest keeping an eye out for this talented young director, this Ben Affleck kid - I have a feeling he's going places.

Also starring Jeremy Renner (last seen in "The Hurt Locker"), Jon Hamm (last seen in "The Day the Earth Stood Still"), Rebecca Hall (last seen in "Everything Must Go"), Blake Lively (last seen in "New York, I Love You"), Pete Postlethwaite (last seen in "Inception") and Chris Cooper (also last seen in "New York, I Love You").

RATING: 8 out of 10 duffel bags

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Year 3, Day 221 - 8/9/11 - Movie #942

BEFORE: A rare director crossover, since I don't tend to organize these films by director. But this is another film directed by Sydney Lumet - I meant to watch this shortly after he died earlier this year, then I tried again to watch it on Philip Seymour Hoffman's birthday, but that fell during Comic-Con and the Robin Williams chain. The theme of crimes committed by family members carries over also - and linking tonight is done through Luis Guzman from "Family Business", who was also in "Magnolia" with Philip Seymour Hoffman (last seen in "Scent of a Woman"). I couldn't easily link Dustin Hoffman with Philip Seymour Hoffman, though I tried...


THE PLOT: When two brothers organize the robbery of their parents' jewelry store the job goes horribly wrong.

AFTER: Another theme developing this week - the downward spiral. Also seen in "Edge of Darkness", and to a lesser extent in last night's film. In this case, two brothers look to rob a mom-and-pop store - literally, their parents own a jewelry store - and they figure no one will get hurt, the insurance will cover their losses, and they'll fence the stolen goods and get the money to help with their other problems.

And everyone's got problems in this film - and they all seem to take steps to improve their situations, but end up making things much worse. One brother's behind on child support, and the other's about to be caught in some kind of payroll/audit scandal. So it's hard to back a winning horse here, and it's hard to feel sympathetic for characters who turn to robbing their own parents. Maybe the unemployed brother could, I don't know, get a job instead, and the other one could straighten up and fly right?

Meanwhile, the rest of the Lumet-iverse is populated by shady characters like robbers, drug dealers, cheating wives, and screeching ex-wives. Hmm, who to root for - how about none of the above?

We know the robbery goes south, since it's the first scene in the film - then the narrative backs up a few days to show us one brother's experiences in the last few days, then backs up AGAIN to show us what the other brother was up to. This continues throughout the film, constantly showing us the same action from different perspectives. I'll admit that we do learn more each time the plot rewinds and starts again, but from a narrative standpoint, it's just as confusing as it is enlightening - what day is it? Is this action taking place before the robbery, or during, or after?

Which leads me to suspect that this is a half-hour of story, tops, and the constant re-winding and re-telling is covering up this fact, and extending everything out to almost two hours of film. If you've got a powerful and story, it should be able to play out in linear fashion, without losing the impact. Any monkeying with the timeline is perceived by me to either stretch out the story, or intentionally deceive the viewer. If we learn an important new fact the second time a scene plays out from another perspective, then that's trickery.

NITPICK POINT: For criminals who seem overly concerned with not leaving evidence behind, you'd think they'd wear gloves. I'm just sayin'.

At least last night's criminals were considerate enough to at least think about turning themselves in - that never seems to be an option for the criminal brothers here. And with that being the case, they have to go to greater and greater lengths to cover up the crime, which leads to more crimes, then more things to cover up - it's a vicious cycle.

So we get another film that doesn't have a shiny, happy ending - quite the opposite.

Also starring Ethan Hawke (last seen in "Dead Poets Society"), Albert Finney (last seen in "Erin Brockovich"), Marisa Tomei (last seen in "Anger Management"), Amy Ryan (last seen in "Changeling"), Brian O'Byrne (last seen in "Million Dollar Baby"), Rosemary Harris.

RATING: 6 out of 10 ski masks

Monday, August 8, 2011

Family Business

Year 3, Day 220 - 8/8/11 - Movie #941

BEFORE: I caught up on a lot of TV this weekend, even though I had to work a few hours on Saturday. Fortunately it looks like the airwaves will be pretty dead this month, so I can buckle down and catch up, plus watch movies. Keeping the crime theme going, this one's directed by the great Sidney Lumet ("12 Angry Men", "The Verdict"), and enables me to send Birthday SHOUT-out #54 to Dustin Hoffman (last seen in "Midnight Cowboy"). Linking from last night, I lucked out again - Jay O. Sanders was in "Glory" with Matthew Broderick (last heard in "The Tale of Despereaux"), who plays Hoffman's son here.


THE PLOT: A robbery brings a family of criminals together.

AFTER: And it's a very multi-cultural family at that. The patriarch, a career criminal, is Irish (or is it Scottish?) and his son (Hoffman) is half-Sicilian, and the son is married to a Jewish woman, making his son (Broderick)...well, American, I guess.

As another in a long list of happy accidents, both last night's film and tonight's film feature break-ins at research facilities as a plot point.

Again, it's hard to have the central characters in a film appear sympathetic, but this film comes pretty darn close. It's good to see three generations of a family put aside their differences and bond, even if they're bonding over a heist. There does appear to be some honor among thieves, and with the colorful stories that the father and grandfather tell about the old days, it's no wonder that the third generation wants to get in on the action.

A dilemma arises when one of the characters gets caught during the robbery - leading the other two to decide whether to proceed with the delivery of the stolen goods, or turn them in to lessen the charges. I wouldn't dream of spoiling the result - but it plays out in a way that feels very real with regards to the family relationships.

Also starring Sean Connery (last seen in "Rising Sun"), with cameos from Deborah Rush (last seen in "Julie & Julia"), Victoria Jackson (last seen in "Baby Boom"), B.D. Wong and Luis Guzman (last seen in "Anger Management").

RATING: 5 out of 10 security codes

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Edge of Darkness

Year 3, Day 219 - 8/7//11 - Movie #940

BEFORE: Another film from 2010 tonight, I've been watching quite a few films lately from 2009 and 2010, which I'm taking as a positive sign. I still have 265 films on the list, representing a mix of older and newer films, but this makes me feel like I might be catching up. Once again, linking is a snap since Pete Postlethwaite from "Inception" had a small role in "Hamlet" with Mel Gibson (last seen in "Conspiracy Theory").


THE PLOT: As homicide detective Thomas Craven investigates the death of his activist daughter, he uncovers not only her secret life, but a corporate cover-up and government collusion.

AFTER: This made a good lead-out from "Inception", since the main characters in both films are in a state of mourning/denial from the loss of a loved one. This seems to be right in Gibson's wheelhouse, since his character seemed to be a combination of the roles he played in "Lethal Weapon" - a cop on the edge, with nothing to lose - and "Conspiracy Theory". Note: it's not considered paranoia if they really ARE out to get you.

As he digs deeper into the circumstances of his daughter's death, he finds a lot of shady characters connected to a Massachusetts research facility - called Northmoor, but correctly pronounced here in thick Boston accents as "Naathmaa".

This isn't exactly a shiny, happy film - as one character points out an absolute truth, "We live for a while, and we die sooner than we would like." And Gibson's character is more than happy to bring that about once he finds the responsible parties.

There's a couple of great "don't blink or you'll miss it" action scenes - and I've got no nitpick points tonight, so that's a good thing, right?

60 films left until I take a break - which I'm really looking forward to at this point. This film starts off another week of crime-based films, and I'll be returning to films set in Boston in a few days.

Also starring Ray Winstone (last seen in "Percy Jackson & The Olympians"), Danny Huston (last seen in "Clash of the Titans"), Bojana Novakovic, Denis O'Hare (last seen in "Baby Mama"), and friend of the blog Jay O. Sanders (last seen in "I Hate Valentine's Day").

RATING: 6 out of 10 unlicensed handguns