Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Tourist

Year 3, Day 239 - 8/27/11 - Movie #960

BEFORE: Sticking with foreign intrigue, this time Angelina Jolie carries over...

THE PLOT: Revolves around Frank, an American tourist visiting Italy to mend a broken heart. Elise is an extraordinary woman who deliberately crosses his path.

AFTER: Again we've got some confusion - is everyone who they say they are? Is someone pretending to be someone else?

Slightly more believable than last night's film, but still capable of pulling a "gotcha" to the audience, which could leave a viewer feeling manipulated. Also a little less action, mostly scenes of Jolie's character evading the police, or rescuing the American math teacher (Johnny Depp, last seen in "Finding Neverland") who she used as a decoy on the train.

There's a missing billionaire, a brutal man that he stole money from, and the British tax inspectors that would like to track him down. It's entertaining enough, but it's sort of a shame that the most interesting character is the one that never appears on camera (or does he?)

Just 40 films to go until I reach 1,000 reviews, and my ending point for the year. And last night I blocked out September, so thanks to a few prominent celebrity birthdays, I now have a schedule for those 40 films. And I'll only have to buy 1 film at the $5 DVD store and one off of pay-per-view to maintain a thematic chain. The remainder of the films on the list will have to wait until next year.

Also starring Paul Bettany (last seen in "Firewall"), with cameos from Timothy Dalton (last seen in "Hot Fuzz"), Rufus Sewell (last seen in "The Illusionist").

RATING: 5 out of 10 speedboats

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Year 3, Day 238 - 8/26/11 - Movie #959

BEFORE: I'm sort of lumping spies and terrorists together here, but for me there's no real movie distinction to be made - the wording only tells you if they're on your side or not, right? Linking from "The Devil's Own", I'm sure there some connection to be made between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (last seen in "Hackers"), if only I could think of it. Don't worry, it'll come to me...

THE PLOT: A CIA agent goes on the run after a defector accuses her of being a Russian spy.

AFTER: The other morning, I made a special sandwich for breakfast, recreating one I'd seen sold out of a food truck in San Diego. It was a grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwich, with bacon, cream cheese and a fried egg added to it. My first reaction was, "Yes, please!", but I'd already bought a breakfast burrito, so I passed - yet I continued to wonder what that would taste like. After some more thinking about it, it started to sound disgusting - what if the grape jelly clashed with the fried egg? What are the chances of putting all those things together and having it taste good. And upon even further reflection, it started to make sense again - I like peanut butter and bacon as a combo, and eggs and bacon is a classic, and even jelly and cream cheese go well together - so how could it fail? (And it didn't, though some more experimentation with the jelly-to-egg ratio may be required)

This film is like the opposite of that sandwich - the premise sounds ludicrous, then it starts to make some kind of sense based on its own internal logic, then it just throws all sense out the window and heads straight into ridiculousness. Like some combination of "The Manchurian Candidate" and "The Boys from Brazil", it strains belief with regards to what a person can be programmed to do, and how buried a sleeper agent can be.

So, who is Evelyn Salt working for? Is she a programmed Soviet agent, masquerading as a CIA agent? Or is she a CIA agent pretending to be a programmed Soviet agent that's masquerading as a CIA agent? If that sounds maddening, it kinda is. But the film can't have it both ways, though it sure seems to want to.

Look, all film is manipulative, I get that. But too much manipulation becomes disrepectful to the audience - too many "gotchas" and I get pissed off. Twists are fine, but fake-outs are not. It's probably best to turn off parts of your brain if you want to enjoy this film, or you may find yourself shouting, "Oh come ON!" at the screen a lot.

NITPICK POINT: Why would a Soviet sleeper agent, planted in the U.S., be programmed to attack the Russian president? This programming would have been done years ago, before Glasnost, before Perestroika, so there would have been no way to predict that man would come to visit the U.S. So, shenanigans.

NITPICK POINT #2: Why remove a disguise, especially a good one, in the MIDDLE of a mission? The goal might be accomplished, but doesn't the disguise continue to, you know, work?

NITPICK POINT #3: I don't claim to know much about the U.S. defense system, but I'm pretty sure that computer authorization is binary - either you have it, or you don't. It's not like a loading complicated web-page - 50% authorization? What the heck is that, but a cheap way to heighten suspense?

Also starring Liev Schreiber (last seen rocking a dress in "Mixed Nuts"), Chiwetel Ejiofor (last seen in "American Gangster"), cameos from Andre Braugher (last seen in "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer"), Corey Stoll (last seen in "Push").

RATING: 3 out of 10 handcuffs

The Devil's Own

Year 3, Day 237 - 8/25/11 - Movie #958

BEFORE: Enough films about death - I'm transitioning back to the topic of spies and terrorists, there's simply no way anyone will die in that sort of film... Brad Pitt carries over again, and it's not even his birthday. (December 18, btw, but I plan on being on hiatus then)

THE PLOT: A police officer uncovers the real identity of his houseguest, an IRA terrorist in hiding.

AFTER: This is a good time to review what I learned so far this week - don't let a creepy older guy show you his underground playroom, don't go on vacation in Morocco, don't stand in the middle of the street, and don't let a terrorist live in your basement. These seem a bit like no-brainers, I suppose.

Brad Pitt plays Frankie McGuire, a member of the IRA, and I can sort of see this one hinging on whether or not you buy his Belfast accent - I didn't really have a problem with it. He's sent to hide out in the U.S., but also brings a bag of cash which he intends to use to buy some stinger missiles, to help the IRA take down British helicopters. Because that's what they need... And he intends to deliver them by boat, fortunately he's got enough cash and know-how to refit an old tub - they're teaching some valuable skills in Ireland! When he's not working his bogus no-show construction job, he's working on the boat.

Problem is, he gets instructions from Ireland to hold off on the deal, which upsets the arms dealer, who then tries to steal the money. Imagine that, a shady illegal arms dealer - the fact that he only holds meetings in dark bars and abandoned warehouses should have been a tip-off. So he goes after the family Pitt's character is staying with, which includes a NYC cop (Harrison Ford, last seen in "The Frisco Kid").

Love those Irish stereotypes - an Irish man is either a cop, or a terrorist. It's not like Irish people can be bakers, or bankers, or car salesmen - nope, it's pretty much cop or terrorist. And they all drink Guinness and love Irish music, even though, and let's be honest here, it sucks.

NITPICK POINT: Frankie is placed in the home of a police officer because it's "safe" - umm, for whom, exactly? Certainly not him, and not the cop's family, either.

NITPICK POINT #2: Ford's character is involved in a cover-up for a fellow officer, and he feels so bad about it, he decides to retire from the force. But apparently he doesn't feel bad enough about it to tell the truth - why isn't that an option?

NITPICK POINT #3: I realize that the situation in Northern Ireland was complicated, but if a young boy saw his father shot by the IRA, I would imagine he might grow up to hate the IRA, not join them.

This felt like something of a one-trick pony, there's one major deception in the film, which the audience is in on, so it's just a waiting game until the truth is revealed. Everything with the cop's career just feels like window-dressing until he learns the identity of his houseguest.

I'll get back to the IRA in a couple of days -

Also starring Treat Williams (last seen way back in "1941"), Margaret Colin (last seen in "3 Men and a Baby"), Ruben Blades (last seen in "The Two Jakes"), Natascha McElhone (last seen in "Ronin"), Julia Stiles (last seen in "The Bourne Ultimatum").

RATING: 5 out of 10 car stereos

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Year 3, Day 236 - 8/24/11 - Movie #957

BEFORE: Brad Pitt carries over, as does the theme of personal tragedies. One more night of death and loss, then I've got to pull out of this subject matter. Tonight's film clocks in at just under two and a half hours, which is still long but not as long as last night's snore-fest. I went to another beer dinner last night, one which was very liberal with refills, so the challenge here will be one of concentration and staying awake.

THE PLOT: Tragedy strikes a married couple on vacation in the Moroccan desert, touching off an interlocking story involving four different families.

AFTER: A Mexican wedding, a couple vacationing in Morocco, a family of goat-herders, and a shy deaf Japanese girl looking for intimacy. At first it seems like these four plotlines couldn't be more different, but as the film progresses, we learn the ways that the characters are all connected to each other, and the way that one tragic mistake snowballs and eventually affects them all.

The four situations occur at different times - each moves forward at its own speed (the speed appropriate to tell each story in detail), and an exact timeline of all the events is defiantly NOT maintained, so as a result the audience is flung backwards and forwards in time - this is a personal bugaboo of mine when it comes to the language of film.

Surprisingly, I'm going to allow it tonight. Not excuse it, just allow it. Looking back on the film, there's really no other way to tell THESE particular stories, and still maintain an air of suspense. I can imagine a string of editors who quit this film out of frustration, and the director's careless disregard for the laws of time - but the alternative would be to tell 1/4 of the story in sequence, then move on to another set of characters and their story arc, and so on. I think the film would have ended in the same place, but by cross-cutting the audience is kept hanging on the fates of four storylines simultaneously, which is a neat trick. "Traffic" and "Pulp Fiction" are the only other films I'm aware of to try this, and even "Pulp Fiction" worked in sections rather than cross-cutting between the storylines. A very high degree of difficulty here. (Oh, wait, I forgot "21 Grams" from the same director as "Babel". My bad.)

As one might imagine, the cultures of the four countries (U.S., Mexico, Japan, and Morocco) are quite different, shockingly so in direct contrast. There's some material about the language barriers (hence the title reference to the biblical Tower of Babel) which we encounter when we travel, but also seen in the story of the deaf Japanese girl who can only communicate by signing or writing something down. The American kids who are taken to the Mexican wedding seem to understand Spanish, but are unprepared for watching a man behead a chicken, or for the guns fired in celebration. And really, aren't we all just innocent kids at Mexican weddings, or shy deaf horny Japanese schoolgirls at heart? No, wait, that can't be right...

There are parts here that are shocking and even difficult to watch - all four situations seem to spiral out of control, each in a different way and at a different speed, to the point where you might wonder how, or even if, the characters will get out of their terrible situations. As the blurb on the DVD cover reminded me, tragedy is universal. But, so is hope.

That being said, a lot of people turn to movies to escape, to forget their problems and cares. A movie filled with other people's problems seems to be counter-productive in that regard, except perhaps to remind us that our petty problems could in fact be much, much worse. Is that the take-away?

NITPICK POINT: It's great to see a couple that wants to reconcile, for the sake of their kids. But, did they have to travel halfway around the world to do that? As a result, the kids were left with a nanny, which led to another chain of bad events. If you want to take care of your kids, start by being THERE. You know, with them.

Also starring Cate Blanchett (last seen in "The Aviator"), Adriana Barraza, Gael Garcia Bernal, Elle Fanning (last heard in "Astro Boy"), Rinko Kikuchi, with cameos from Michael Peña (last seen in "Everything Must Go"), Clifton Collins Jr. (last seen in "Sunshine Cleaning", a new character actor for me to track) and Dermot Crowley (General Madine from "Return of the Jedi").

RATING: 6 out of 10 border guards

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Meet Joe Black

Year 3, Day 235 - 8/23/11 - Movie #956

BEFORE: Yes, I followed up a chain of comedies with a string of rather dark films - there's been something of a pall cast over the project for the last few days, largely due to the subject matter. And after a couple films with dead characters, how about won where Death IS a character? Linking from "Volver", Penelope Cruz was in "All the Pretty Horses" with Matt Damon, who was in "Ocean's Eleven" with Brad Pitt (last seen in "Legends of the Fall").

THE PLOT: A media mogul acts as a guide to Death, who takes the form of a young man to learn about life on Earth.

AFTER: Technically Brad Pitt plays two characters here, a free-wheeling hunk who meets a terrible fate, and the Angel of Death, who chooses to inhabit his recently deceased body to experience life's pleasures. Well, wouldn't you? And when he plays Death, he acts much more deadpan (oh, I get it!) and also very naive. It seems Death doesn't know very much about what it means to be alive. The little things, like sex and sandwiches.

He chooses the head of a communications company to show him around - I'd say he might learn more about life by hanging out on a beach, maybe studying under a surfer or a bartender or something. But no, it's the world of big business for Mr. Death! Afternoon teas, and flirting with the boss's daughter. Visiting sick people in a hospital, and eating peanut butter right out of the jar. Come on, Death, you haven't taken a vacation in, well - forever. At least go on a cruise or something, or drive along the coast.

The main drawback here is the film's length. Three hours? Geez, some of us have to go to work in the morning! I'll accept "Titanic", "Saving Private Ryan" and the "Lord of the Rings" movies at that length, but that's it. Since the majority of this movie moves at a snail's pace, you can't tell me that an experienced editor couldn't have trimmed at least a half an hour out of the middle. Is the intent to bore me to death to prove a point - is that supposed to make me feel more alive somehow?

Yeah, there's a love story, and some corporate intrigue - but come on, they did more with the Grim Reaper character in "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey" in about one tenth of the screen time.

There is a dichotomy here - obviously no one wants to die (except people in pain, I suppose) but the presence of Death as a character affirms that there is something that comes after, some order to the universe, and some kind of cosmic plan. But again, that's Hollywood, and in the real world, the jury's still out on that one.

Also starring Anthony Hopkins (also last seen in "Legends of the Fall"), Claire Forlani (last seen in "The Rock", but I remember her from "CSI:NY"), Jeffrey Tambor (last seen in "The Hangover"), Marcia Gay Harden (last seen in "The First Wives Club"), Jake Weber (last seen in "Born on the Fourth of July").

RATING: 4 out of 10 fireworks

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Year 3, Day 234 - 8/22/11 - Movie #955

BEFORE: A last-minute substitution tonight - I remembered something about one of the characters in this film being deceased, and thought it might tie in with last night's film. Linking from "The Lovely Bones", Stanley Tucci was in "It Could Happen to You" with Nicolas Cage, who was in "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" with Penelope Cruz (last seen in "Blow").

THE PLOT: After her death, a mother returns to her home town in order to fix the situations she couldn't resolve during her life.

AFTER: I don't speak much Spanish, but the title means "Coming back", as far as I can tell. No need to look it up - that translation works for me, so let's run with it.

Well, I got sort of faked out here, but then I imagine that's the point. Still, this film shares a lot of common elements with last night's film, but I can't divulge them all without giving away the entire plot - and I try to maintain a spoiler-free zone.

Like in "Sunshine Cleaning", we're presented with a family that's still recovering from their mother's death. Two sisters, one married (Cruz) and one separated, plus the married woman's daughter and an elderly aunt. They live in Madrid, except for the aunt, who lives back in their old village. When the elderly aunt dies, there are rumors in the village that she'd been cared for the ghost of her sister, the dead matriarch of the family.

Things get more complicated when the separated sister sees the ghost too, and brings her home to live with her, and help out in her illegal hair salon - while the married sister takes over the for-sale restaurant owned by a friend, and opens her own restaurant. Apparently in Spain, you don't need any paperwork to start a business, you just invoke squatter's rights.

Eventually a complex family history is revealed, and there are plenty of buried secrets (and bodies!). And a family friend, who has a terminal illness, sort of forces it all to the surface. When the truths are revealed, it came to my mind that if the mother HAD found a way to come back from the dead, that almost seems like it would be less complicated.

Tonight I learned that Spanish women are tough - don't let all the air-kissing fool you. Also, I learned that all men are pigs, women are probably better off without their cheating ways. Oh, and that most important matters are best resolved without involving the police. And personal family histories shouldn't be revealed on a talk show. (Got that, Maury?)

I don't watch a lot of foreign films, this might be the first (and last?) Spanish-language film in the project. But at least the subtitles forced me to pay attention, perhaps more than usual. Why wasn't this ever re-made by Hollywood for the U.S. market? Is it because this is too much like a Spanish soap opera?

RATING: 4 out of 10 boxes of cookies

The Lovely Bones

Year 3, Day 233 - 8/21/11 - Movie #954

BEFORE: Last night's film was about post-mortem crime scenes, and I think that also figures prominently here. Linking from "Sunshine Cleaning" is easy since Amy Adams was in "Julie & Julia" with Stanley Tucci, appearing in tonight's film.

THE PLOT: Centers on a young girl who has been murdered and watches over her family - and her killer - from heaven.

AFTER: I guess I was expecting sort of a cross between "The Sixth Sense" and "What Dreams May Come" - since I wasn't familiar with the novel this is based on, that was as close as I could predict. Of course I'd rather watch a film knowing as little as possible about the plot, but when this movie was released, some very key elements were mentioned very prominently in reviews. Namely, that a girl gets killed - OK, that's the premise, the hook - but did the reviews also have to mention WHO killed her?

I suppose the who doesn't matter - but shouldn't it? The viewing audience gets to know the killer's identity quite early in the film, though it takes the other characters considerably longer to figure it out. But this isn't really a murder mystery, it's more about the fractured family and relationships left behind. This isn't "Law & Order", especially since those cops can solve any crime in under an hour.

And of course it's about the girl - her story doesn't stop just because she gets killed. We see her in the afterlife, one that's not yet heaven, but isn't earth either. Some would say it's a limbo, or an in-between stage since her spirit is restless, what with being murdered and all.

But from a story standpoint, this depiction of heaven (and the one seen in "What Dreams May Come") is all too convenient. A heaven that conforms to each person's state of mind, representing elements from their time on earth, plus additional fantastical perfection? Come on... It's a story crutch, right? I mean, even if you believe in the Judeo-Christian white-fluffy-cloud heaven, the place has got to have rules, right? Do you think heaven will conform to your needs, with 5 billion souls in the world? I'd think it would be the other way around. Here's your halo, here's your harp, now get to work.

That guy on "Inside the Actor's Studio" always asks his guests what they'd like to hear, upon arriving in heaven. For me, it's probably "Thank God you're here - the universe is a mess and we need your help organizing it." But arriving to find that heaven's going to cater to your needs and fantasies? That's more than a little arrogant. It would be an astronaut like flying in a spacecraft across the galaxy to another planet, which just happens to have the right mix of components forming an atmosphere that's breathable by humans. Which I've seen in plenty of films, and it's statistically unrealistic.

Anyway, back to this film. The first part of the film is very important, and the ending of course, but it feels like a lot of the stuff in the middle is window dressing. If nothing advances the plot in the middle hour, then you've got serious story problems. As for the ending, it didn't really resolve the way I expected, or would like to have seen. Of course, we all want to believe that evil people will get what they deserve - it's figuring out what that is that gets tricky. Fate, karma, cosmic justice - are these real, or just our brains adding meaning to the things that just happen?

Plus, we all know how many missing kids there are each year (whatever the number is, it's disturbingly too high) so just how often are evil people found and properly prosecuted?

Also starring Mark Wahlberg (last seen in "The Other Guys"), Rachel Weisz (last seen in "Fred Claus"), Saoirse Ronan, Susan Sarandon (last seen in "Thelma & Louise"), Michael Imperioli (last seen in "Clockers"), with a cameo by director Peter Jackson (last seen in "King Kong")

RATING: 4 out of 10 flashes of light