Friday, September 2, 2011

All That Jazz

Year 3, Day 246 - 9/3/11 - Movie #967

BEFORE: I still have a few movie sins that I have to atone for - and one of them involves this film. I sort of half-watched it when I was 13 or 14, it aired unedited on a local Boston UHF station (believe it or not, they also showed "My Tutor" uncut) and I tuned in just to see some boobies. So I need to watch it again, as an adult (sort of) this time - it fits nicely here, going from a film about the discos of the 1970's to the Broadway musicals of the same era. And linking from "54", Mike Myers was in "View From the Top" with Gwyneth Paltrow, who was in "Hush" with Jessica Lange (last seen in "Rob Roy"), playing the mysterious Angelique.

THE PLOT: Director/choreographer Bob Fosse tells his own life story as he details the sordid life of Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), a womanizing, drug-using dancer.

AFTER: Well, it seems like Mr. Fosse had some sins of his own to confess to - his stand-in, played by Roy Scheider (last seen in "The Russia House") is a drinker, pill-popper, and skirt chaser - juggling a wife, an ex-wife, and several girlfriends, most of whom are dancers in his productions. On the side, he's also editing a film about a stand-up comedian, in the vein of Lenny Bruce or George Carlin.

It's a peek inside the creative process, but without the nuts and bolts of it - it would have been nice to see WHAT inspired the dance routines, rather than just seeing a flash of insight, and the end result. But what the film gets right is what it takes to be a director - you need big ideas, the confidence to pitch them, and the ego to believe that they're good ones. I was just explaining to someone the other day why I'm not a director, as I learned in film school that I didn't have big ideas, or the necessary confidence. I'm told I have an ego, but that still means I'm only 1 for 3.

Even when he's given a really crappy musical number about flight attendants to work into his show, Gideon comes up with a way to "Fosse" it up, lending new sexual meanings to lines like "come on board", "grab a seat" and "sit back and relax". This is then followed by an often-imitated (Paula Abdul's "Cold Hearted Snake" video) but never-duplicated nearly-nude dance number that fell one step shy of an on-camera orgy, shockingly pairing men with men, women with women - closing the blinds and blowing people's minds.

I see the scene in context now, and it's got a completely different meaning from when I was 14. It's there to show how this man wants to push the boundaries, challenge the audience, plus put some asses in the seats with a little (OK, a lot of) tittilation.

But that's the play-within-the-play, what about the movie itself? It breaks nearly all of my rules, since it's got an unsympathetic main character, jumps around in time quite liberally, and has a lot of showy dance numbers. The entire last quarter of the film is one big musical sequence that takes place inside Gideon's mind as he lies in the hospital - it shouldn't all work, but somehow it does. The ending is sad, but you have to admit it's a truthful one. Somehow dying becomes the most honest, sympathetic and, oddly, glamorous thing this man has ever done.

NITPICK POINT: Being a film editor is a singular skill, and so is being a Broadway choreographer. I doubt that anyone would have the ability to do both well, since they occupy different worlds. Being a stage director is vastly different from being a film director, for example. Plus we've got a time issue - how does Gideon find the time to have so many relationships, when he's got so many projects, film and theater, in different stages of production? It seems like the film about the comedian is there just for the explanatory audio-track when it's replayed late in the film. Which brings me to...

NITPICK POINT #2: It's the 5 stages of GRIEF, not the 5 stages of death. Anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance - this is the process that mourners go through, not the deceased themselves. Death often has just one stage, unless perhaps someone's been ill for a long while and has to come to terms with their own mortality, but still, get the name right.

Also starring Ann Reinking, Ben Vereen, Leland Palmer, John Lithgow (last seen in "The World According to Garp"), with cameos from CCH Pounder (last seen in "Avatar") and Wallace Shawn (last seen in "The Meteor Man").

RATING: 4 out of 10 hospital gowns

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Year 3, Day 245 - 9/2/11 - Movie #966

BEFORE: Moving from jazz clubs to a film about a very famous NYC nightclub. Linking from "Mo' Better Blues", Samuel L. Jackson was also in "Changing Lanes" with Ben Affleck, who was in "Dogma" with Salma Hayek (last seen in "Grown Ups"), who also gets a Birthday SHOUT-out tonight.

THE PLOT: Famous 70's NYC nightclub seen through the eyes of a young employee.

AFTER: This was the film I had to buy at the $5 DVD store, to make my chain work. I think I might have paid too much.

You'd think that a film about a NYC club in the disco era, with all the sex, drugs and music of that era would be exciting, or at least tittilating, but nope - they found a way to make it boring.

I don't think it's a coincidence that this film was released a year after "Boogie Nights", at the height (?) of 70's nostalgia - these things tend to run about 25 or years back, as adults fondly (?) remember their youth. But the film really seemed afraid to be shocking. What do we learn, that people did drugs in the 70's? That actresses and singers sometimes slept with the right people to become famous? None of this is really groundbreaking.

Now, Rubell seems like an interesting character, a nightclub owner who's making a ton of money, catering to the top celebrities, and treating the (mostly male) staff like his own personal playthings. But the movie chickens out and only allows the sexual harassment to go so far. I guess audiences in 1998 still weren't ready for "Brokeback Mountain"-type plots.

And in 1998, movies were STILL using those spinning newspaper headlines to set the scenes? God, that film cliché goes back how far - to the 1930's? Is this really the best way to tell a story? Or is it just the easiest way to reveal information that they weren't able to film?

NITPICK POINT: The film claims that Steve Rubell had the registers at Studio 54 emptied halfway through the night, and that money was secreted out of the club in a garbage bag, and therefore was off the books. The whole point was that the money wasn't counted - so how did he know it was short?

Also starring Ryan Philippe (last seen in "Flags of Our Fathers"), Mike Myers (last seen in "Inglourious Basterds"), Breckin Meyer, Neve Campbell, Sela Ward (last seen in "My Fellow Americans"), Heather Matarazzo, with cameos from Thelma Houston, Mark Ruffalo (last seen in "Date Night"), Lauren Hutton, Michael York, Cindy Crawford, Art Garfunkel, Valerie Perrine (last seen in "The Electric Horseman"), Donald Trump.

RATING: 2 out of 10 capuccinos

Mo' Better Blues

Year 3, Day 244 - 9/1/11 - Movie #965

BEFORE: As I've said before, I'm not a huge fan of Spike Lee, but I can't resist the urge to schedule two movies about jazz trumpeters back-to-back. This film came into my collection after last year's chain starring Denzel Washington (last seen in "Crimson Tide"), but that's fine since those were mainly action movies. Linking from "The Cotton Club", Laurence Fishburne was in "School Daze" with Spike Lee (last seen in "Crooklyn"), who acts in and directs tonight's film - I think I've used that link before.

THE PLOT: Jazz trumpeter Bleek Gilliam makes questionable decisions in his professional and romantic life.

AFTER: Hmm, same problem as "The Cotton Club" with regards to dialogue - characters over-explaining things, or saying the same thing two or three times in a row. It makes it seem like the script was only half-finished, or that the film is talking down to the audience, repeating lines to make sure we understand them. Sample dialogue: "Why do you come by at 1 o'clock, you know I practice at 1! Why can't you come by at 2 pm, which is one hour later?" Yeah, thanks for the excess info, I'd forgotten how to tell time.

In "The Cotton Club", Diane Lane's character was juggling two men, and tonight Denzel's character is juggling two women. Logic dictates that there must be musicians and singers somewhere who are well-adjusted and monogamous, but I guess Hollywood doesn't find their stories as interesting.

I don't have much sympathy for a character that dates two women - but "dates" is maybe too strong a word. He sleeps with two women - what did he think would happen when they find out about each other? He deserves what happens next. But if he's so self-absorbed an preoccupied with his music, how does he have time for one woman, let alone two?

I also don't have any sympathy for a character who says the word "irregardless", as if it's a real word. (It's not.)

Last night's film also had a racial element, and that's of course present in any Spike Lee film as well - 50 years later, and black men are still playing in clubs that are owned by white (Jewish) men - so it seems that little has changed. The jazz quartet here is stuck in a contract that doesn't pay them enough, and they're unable to re-negotiate. Typical Spike Lee film - decrying racism while relying heavily on racial stereotypes, very hypocritical. How is it OK to fall back on outdated Shylock-like depictions of Jewish people?

Also starring Wesley Snipes (last seen in "Rising Sun"), Giancarlo Esposito (last seen in "Maximum Overdrive"), Joie Lee (last seen in "Crooklyn"), Cynda Williams, John Turturro (last seen in "The Color of Money"), Nicolas Turturro, Bill Nunn, Robin Harris, with cameos from Samuel L. Jackson (last seen in "Jumper") and Charles Murphy.

RATING: 4 out of 10 baseball games

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Cotton Club

Year 3, Day 243 - 8/31/11 - Movie #964

BEFORE: This will wrap up the Richard Gere chain, just in time for his Birthday SHOUT-out, as well as the month of August - it's been a very strange month for movies, an odd mix of psychics, thieves, oddballs, cowboys, killers, spies, and a Mothman. September may end up just as disjointed, however.

This is a film made in 1984 about the Jazz Age of the 1930's - jazz was retro in the 80's, just as 80's music is retro now. I was reminded of this after tuning in to the MTV Video Music Awards this weekend - now, back in the day the VMA's were a big deal. We'd gather around the television box (no DVRs to make it easy for us) and anxiously await news of which video masterpiece from Dire Straits, Peter Gabriel or Def Leppard would take home the top prize. And perhaps some young upstart like Herbie Hancock or Howard Jones would pull an upset. That's how I remember it, anyway.

But perhaps it was a mistake for me to tune in the VMA's now, since I'm turning 39 this year (for the 5th time, but who's counting?). I barely knew a quarter of the nominated acts - yeah, I'm aware of Lady Gaga and this Bieber kid, but what the heck is a Nicki Minaj? And then they gave some kind of Lifetime Achievement Award to Britney Spears - that sound you heard was my bones creaking. I've never felt so old, but that's OK, since if you think about it, I've never been as old as I am right now.

THE PLOT: The story follows the people that visited the Cotton Club, those that ran it, and is peppered with the Jazz music that made it so famous.

AFTER: The movie follows a number of musicians, dancers and mobsters associated with the famous Harlem club, but their storylines seemed very disjointed to me, like they didn't all come together to form a coherent whole. Mostly it focuses on Gere's character, Dixie Dwyer, who starts out as an unassuming cornet player (nice attempt to ugly him up at the start, he looks like Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove) but gets caught up in the rackets, and eventually makes his way into the movie business.

(Most people don't realize that this was how the mob recruited back in the 1930's, by picking people from the orchestra pit. I think Al Capone started out on the flugelhorn.)

Along the way he romances a nightclub singer, played by Diane Lane (last seen in "Jack"), but she's also involved with gangster Dutch Schultz - so I can't see how that could possibly go south at all, by all means, proceed with the relationship.

As in "Amelia", there's an over-reliance on those spinning newspaper headlines whenever something big happens, or the timeline needs to advance a few months. But they also seem to represent story gaps, for scenes that maybe didn't get filmed? Remember, a movie should Show, not Tell. Newspaper headlines are a narrative crutch.

This wants to be a big, all-encompassing story about every character they can find - but for all of its complicated storylines and relationships, it tends to OVER-explain everything. Is this for the benefit for the audience, to help us keep track of everyone's troubles?

Sample dialogue: "Come on, we've got to practice for our dance audition at the Cotton Club, so we can get jobs as dancers at the Cotton Club! Then everyone will know us as those dancers from the Cotton Club!" Jeez, enough already, we get it. Or how about, "We know some people in Hollywood, you know, where they make movies?" Yeah, I think we've heard of it. Do you think we're stupid? Nobody talks like that!

The movie just seems like a vehicle for the elaborate production numbers, but I'm not really a jazz fan, so although impressive, they weren't really up my alley.

There's an attempt to highlight racial inequality, by pointing out that black people were allowed to perform at the Cotton Club, but not allowed to attend the shows as paying customers. But this message gets muddled somewhat, because the performers would get in for free, right? They'd have to, in order to perform - so what's the complaint? Who would rather pay admission than get in for free?

Also bothering me was the bizarre ending, which seemed to merge scenes at a train station with a musical number on stage at the club that featured train conductors and porters. It just proved to me that someone really didn't know how to wrap up the narrative - and it messed with the dramatic reality of the film. Was this a metaphor akin to "All the world's a stage"? Or just an attempt to be "arty"?

Also starring Bob Hoskins as the world's only Jewish gangster with a British accent (?) (last seen in "Michael"), Gregory Hines (last seen in "Deal of the Century"), Laurence Fishburne (last seen in "Armored"), Nicolas Cage (last seen in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"), Tom Waits (last seen in "Ironweed"), Fred Gwynne (ditto), with cameos from Gwen Verdon (last seen in "Cocoon: The Return"), Diane Venora (last seen in "The Jackal") and Jennifer Grey (last seen in "Dirty Dancing").

RATING: 3 out of 10 tap shoes

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Year 3, Day 242 - 8/30/11 - Movie #963

BEFORE: Another film with Richard Gere in a prominent role, though not the lead role. And from the urban legend of the Mothman, we go to the mystery of Amelia Earhart. I remember watching a TV show called "In Search Of..." when I was a kid, hosted by Leonard Nimoy (that may have been the moment I realized that TV characters weren't real, that Mr. Spock from Star Trek ACTOR!). Each week the show would examine a different mystery from around the world, Noah's Ark or Bigfoot or UFOs. They never really made any definite conclusions, though - that would have spoiled the sense of mystery.

THE PLOT: A look at the life of legendary American pilot Amelia Earhart, who disappeared while flying over the Pacific Ocean in 1937 in an attempt to make a flight around the world.

AFTER: Whoops, spoiler alert! Earhart disappears. But you knew that, right? It was in all the papers...

Earhart is played by Hilary Swank (last seen in "Million Dollar Baby"), and I wonder if she got most of her character inspiration from newsreels, since she delivers all of her lines through a forced smile, and Earhart would probably have been smiling while posing for pictures or moviolas. Also, those old newsreels never play back at the right speed, so the action usually seems sped up and manic.

The film can't seem to decide whether to portray Earhart as a naive, honest farmgirl, or a trend-setter in the field of open relationships. She seems to move between men with a modern sensibility, her navigator even thinks she dates like a man does (your typical man, who's probably getting action on the side, that is).

Obviously, Earhart was a pioneer, and one assumes that she would have had to overcome blatant sexism as a female aviator, but where was it? The film is so one-sided in touting her accomplishments, it might have been a good idea to show us someone who thought that women couldn't fly a plane, or predicting that she'd fail. If her accomplishments were so great, let's see the struggle.

Instead the film resorts to cheezy newsreel-style voiceovers, to remind us what she's setting out to do at each stage of her career. (First rule of filmmaking - show, don't tell.) The film also features flash-forwards showing her final around-the-world attempt, since early in the film we see her in Africa - we all know her itinerary, but couldn't they wait to show it to us at the proper time?

Of course, we all want to know what happened to her on her final trip, and why. The film suggests a number of reasons for her disappearance - faulty radio equipment, a hung-over navigator, etc. But nothing could possibly be conclusive, and so we see the plane flying off into the clouds - as if it could disappear, or stay aloft forever. Quite blatantly, that's not what happened - but I suppose it would be distasteful to let reality encroach at that point.

Also starring Ewan Macgregor (last seen in "Angels & Demons"), Christopher Eccleston, Mia Wasikowska, with a cameo from Cherry Jones (as Eleanor Roosevelt)

RATING: 3 out of 10 call signs

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Mothman Prophecies

Year 3, Day 241 - 8/29/11 - Movie #962

BEFORE: Richard Gere carries over from "The Jackal" - my choice tonight seems a little odd, since October is still a month away, and it's sort of a horror film. Anyway, why choose THIS film tonight, with just 39 films before break, leaving classics like "Touch of Evil" and "Rebel Without a Cause" unwatched? Well, I set up a plan for the month, and I'm trying to stick to it - why does any film get chosen, why watch one TV show over another? Why listen to THIS song over THAT song? I have no answers...

THE PLOT: A reporter is drawn to a small West Virginia town to investigate a series of strange events, including psychic visions and the appearance of bizarre entities.

AFTER: Well, this film proved to be timely since it dealt with disasters, and people's abilities to predict them, and/or fail to prevent them. This concept goes back to ancient legend, with the Greek oracles, who were probably just women getting high over volcanic fumes and speaking nonsense, which was interpreted as prophecy by onlookers - and Cassandra, the seeress whose predictions were true, but her curse was also that no one would believe her. (Don't get me started on that hack Nostradamus...)

This movie tries to deal in a certain kind of creepy - that odd feeling that something disastrous is about to happen. Maybe the wind picks up, or a dog keeps barking, or you feel the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. But you don't know exactly what's going to happen or when, but you feel that it will be bad. But does that feeling come across in a film?

Richard Gere plays a reporter touched by tragedy (one he didn't see coming), and maybe that affects him, drawing him to a small town where people seem to have premonitions, or hear voices with details of upcoming events. Then he starts getting mysterious phone calls, from a stranger with a very creepy voice. I won't divulge more details - but I had my own theory about who was making the calls, and the movie never confirmed or denied it.

Assuming that the calls are real, and that someone is intent on warning about impending disasters, what does that person or entity gain in doing so? The movie is unclear on this point - and also very unclear on what this all has to do with the Mothman, the subject of many urban legends. You can look up the Mothman on Wikipedia, numerous people claim to have seen him/it in the West Virginia area back in the 1960's, and it's been tied to cryptozoology, UFOs, all that X-Files stuff.

But unfortunately we're left to draw our own conclusions about the Mothman and what actually was going on in this town - the movie chooses not to fill in any of the gaps, or explain hardly anything, really. I know a movie doesn't have to pander to the audience, but jeez, give me something I can work with here.

Here's the conundrum in a movie such as this: A disaster is said to be coming. If you don't show the disaster taking place on film, the audience might feel disappointed. But if the disaster does happen, then what was the point of a character knowing about it in advance?

Here in NYC, we heard nothing but ominous predictions over the last few days - "If the hurricane does what we think it will do, expect 12-15 inches of rain. But if it moves a mile to the west, expect Manhattan to be under water." Who does this serve? Now it seems like the city survived with minimal loss of life, which is great. But today we'll hear the Monday-morning quarterbacking - did those 8 hospitals need to be evacuated? What about those nursing homes? And while the city's response may have been appropriate or even overly thorough, I still haven't forgotten about that blizzard last December, after which only streets with names beginning with "Q" got plowed. I bet our mayor runs for a (very illegal) fourth term after this, and he's already old enough to remember the original flood - the one with Noah.

Also starring Laura Linney (last seen in "Kinsey"), David Eigenberg, Will Patton (last seen in "Silkwood"), Debra Messing (last heard in "Open Season").

RATING: 3 out of 10 voiceprints

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Jackal

Year 3, Day 240 - 8/28/11 - Movie #961

BEFORE: I didn't mention last week's earthquake, because for me it was a non-event. Just another thing (blackout, terrorist attack) for me to keep working through. But this Hurricane Irene is another matter. So far we've been high and dry, but if our power goes out, I won't be able to watch films or post reviews - fortunately I want to end this year's chain in mid-October, not early October, so right now there's an extra week built into the schedule. If the hurricane passes and I maintain my schedule, though, I can take a week off in Sept. for NYC Craft Beer Week - it will be hard to keep both a movie-a-day and a beer dinner-a-day chain going at the same time.

Anyway, I got this movie in before the worst of the storm - this will end the spy/terrorist chain, start up a Richard Gere chain, and send a Birthday SHOUT-out to Jack Black (last seen in "King Kong"), who has a small role here. Linking from last night's film, both Angelina Jolie and Jack Black did voice roles in "Shark's Tale" AND "Kung Fu Panda".

THE PLOT: An imprisoned IRA sniper is freed to help stop a brutal, seemingly "faceless" assassin from completing his next job.

AFTER: This apparently is something of a remake, based loosely on the 1973 film "The Day of the Jackal", which is not on my list.

This is one of those "free a criminal to catch a criminal" plots - an IRA terrorist (I told you I'd get back to the IRA) is released from jail to help the FBI track down an international assassin targeting a government official in the U.S. It's notable that in the scene where the assassin is hired, the target's name is never mentioned, nor does the camera show the target's picture. That seemed a little contrived, a bit of a tip that a "gotcha" moment might be coming later on.

But that was my only complaint, I didn't catch a lot of the plotholes that were mentioned on the IMDB page, so I can't hold the film accountable for them. A good amount of action, plus an interesting look inside the mind of an assassin as he makes his plans.

I wonder, if you're a name actor, whether it's better to play the bad guy, or the not-so-bad guy helping to catch the bad guy.

This film had the best ending of the week - and is just crying out for a sequel.

Also starring Richard Gere (last seen in "Chicago"), Bruce Willis (last seen in "Cop Out"), Sidney Poitier, Diane Venora (last seen in "Ironweed"), J.K. Simmons (last seen in "The Cider House Rules"), Tess Harper (last seen in "Silkwood").

RATING: 6 out of 10 sailboats