Friday, September 9, 2011

Phone Booth

Year 3, Day 253 - 9/10/11 - Movie #974

BEFORE: Tonight, a film about a terrorist act in Times Square, for no particular reason. Linking from "Law Abiding Citizen" is almost too easy, since Jamie Foxx was in "Miami Vice" with Colin Farrell (last seen in "Minority Report").

THE PLOT: A publicist finds himself trapped in a phone booth, pinned down by an extortionist's sniper rifle.

AFTER: Well, someone (Joel Schumacher?) sure doesn't like publicists, or realizes them as the phonies they can be.

Like last night's film, this is about a man using violence to impose his sense of right and wrong on the world. He watches people, figures out their sins, and uses that knowledge to make them confess at gunpoint. Again, the level of planning and foresight needed to carry something like this out stretches the boundaries of what's believable - but isn't that what movies are supposed to do?

It's interesting to note that this film idea was pitched to Alfred Hitchcock in the 1960's, but the writer couldn't find enough motivation to keep the character inside the phone booth. It's also interesting to note that the film's running time is just 80 minutes - I'm guessing that's as long as the suspense of the situation could be maintained. Kudos for realizing that, and keeping the film's length relatively short.
More than 90 minutes without a change of scene, and audiences would be squirming in their seats.

I'm usually pretty good about picking out voices, I can listen to car commercials and identify actors like Laurence Fishburne (Cadillac), Robert Downey Jr. (Nissan) and Jeff Bridges (Hyundai). It can be a helpful talent in my line of work - but I failed to identify the actor playing the mystery caller here. My best guess was Willem Dafoe - close perhaps, but wrong.

Also starring Kiefer Sutherland (Ah! makes sense...last seen in "A Time to Kill")), Forest Whitaker (last seen in "The Color of Money"), Radha Mitchell (last seen in "Surrogates"), Katie Holmes (last seen in "The Ice Storm"), with a cameo from Ben Foster (last seen in "The Messenger").

RATING: 3 out of 10 magazine covers

Law Abiding Citizen

Year 3, Day 252 - 9/9/11 - Movie #973

BEFORE: Sticking with the crime theme, which should see me through the weekend and right up to the next celebrity birthday. Linking from "Carlito's Way", Al Pacino was in "Frankie and Johnny" with Hector Elizondo, who was in "Valentine's Day" with Jamie Foxx.

THE PLOT: A frustrated man decides to take justice into his own hands after a plea bargain sets one of his family's killers free.

AFTER: There's some really interesting stuff here - after the most brutal opening scenes (possibly ever), the film cross-cuts between a prison execution and a child's cello recital. This is done much more brilliantly than you might think, which made me sit up and take notice of the skill involved.

Like "Cool Hand Luke", this is a film about a man screwing with the prison warden and the justice system, but Luke had no particular plan, and this time, it's all about the plan. The wronged man 10 years to concoct the most elaborate revenge scheme I've seen on film, more elaborate than the ones in films like "FX" and even "The Shawshank Redemption".

You feel for the man who had his family torn away from him, but the question becomes, to what extent do you root for him? Whereas most people would go through the typical five stages of grief, this character's stages involve things like buying a bunch of soundproof abandoned warehouses, and acquainting himself with CIA killing techniques. Fans of films like "Saw" and "Hostel" might find some stuff here that they enjoy, but I'm not one of those people.

If a character is willing to put his freedom, and his life, on the line, you might realize how far he's willing to go to make a point. But when the bodies start piling up, you might wonder just how far a revenge scheme should go. Do his convictions make him more right, or less right? As the film progresses, there's no question that this guy has gone off the rails - but exactly WHEN he goes too far is perhaps left up to the individual viewer.

This guy not only worked out the revenge plot, he also took into account the follow-up, and the legality of the aftermath. I'd wager most people couldn't see that far ahead, and that strains the boundaries of credulity. Plus, at some point it seems like he's just digging his hole deeper and deeper, to the point where he manages to cripple an entire city (Philadelphia) with his particular form of domestic terrorism (let's call it what it is).

How very ironic, that last night NYC reacted to a vague security threat and decided to ramp up random bag checks and put extra patrols on the bridges and tunnels. Personal note to Mayor Bloomberg - you just asked me to remain vigilant, but also to go about my normal routine. Well, which is it? Because my normal routine is to put my headphones on and ignore everything between my front door and the office.

Furthermore, how do you outsmart a criminal mastermind (or terrorists) when all you can do is play catch-up? We're still taking our shoes off at the airport, and there hasn't been a shoe bomber in years. Remember, after the shoe bomber, the next guy to attack a plane had explosives in his underwear. The tactics are constantly changing, and they're not going to try the same thing twice in a row (or...are they?). You've got to try and think THREE moves ahead if you're going to take somebody down - are we doing that?

This was an extremely clever film - almost, but not quite, obnoxiously so. It surprised me and gave me more than I expected, and that hasn't happened in months.

Also starring Gerard Butler (last heard in "How to Train Your Dragon"), Colm Meaney (last seen in "Far and Away"), Regina Hall (last seen in "Superhero Movie"), Leslie Bibb (last seen in "Iron Man"), Bruce McGill (last seen in "Silkwood"), with cameos from Viola Davis (last seen in "Knight and Day"), Michael Kelly (last seen in "Changeling"), Roger Bart (last seen in "American Gangster").

RATING: 7 out of 10 squad cars (less 1 for the torture-porn, but plus 1 for using a kick-ass song from Grand Funk Railroad over the closing credits)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Carlito's Way

Year 3, Day 251 - 9/8/11 - Movie #972

BEFORE: From the convict Cool Hand Luke to the ex-con Carlito Brigante - I've got time for one more crime/cops chain before I go on break. Linking from "Cool Hand Luke", Harry Dean Stanton had a small role in "The Godfather Part 2" with Al Pacino (last seen in "Scent of a Woman").

THE PLOT: A Puerto-Rican ex-con, just released from prison, pledges to stay away from drugs and violence despite the pressure around him.

AFTER: Speaking of influential movies, this one played a large role in determining the look and feel of the "Grand Theft Auto" video games, particularly "GTA: Vice City". The lawyer character here, played by Sean Penn (last seen in "I Am Sam") was a direct influence on the Ken Rosenberg character in that game.

In terms of plot, though, there's not much that happens here - a man gets out of prison, runs a nightclub and tries to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend. But every time he tries to get out of the gangster lifestyle, they pull him back in. This film somehow found a way to make drug-dealing and loansharking boring (so the kids at home won't find that lifestyle appealing?).

That is, until Penn's character has a big idea, and a job that also looks and feels like a mission out of a video-game. The fallout from that at least makes the second half of the film exciting and filled with tension.

Nice appearance of the Waverly Theater on 6th Ave. and West 4th St. in Manhattan, back before it was the IFC Center. And I'd swear that subway stop is the 4th Ave./9th St. station on the Brooklyn F line, even though the sign reads 125th St. and an A train pulls up.

NITPICK POINT: Any New Yorker knows you don't catch an Amtrak to Miami from Grand Central Station, you get the Amtrak trains from Penn Station.

Also starring Penelope Ann Miller (last seen in "The Freshman"), Luis Guzman (last seen in "Family Business"), John Leguizamo (last seen in "Repo Men"), with cameos from James Rebhorn (last seen in "Baby Mama"), Viggo Mortensen (last seen in "Crimson Tide"), Adrian Pasdar (last seen in "Top Gun"), Paul Mazursky (last seen in "Man Trouble") and Marc Anthony (last seen in "Hackers").

RATING: 5 out of 10 bottles of champagne

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Cool Hand Luke

Year 3, Day 250 - 9/7/11 - Movie #971

BEFORE: The last of the prison dramas on my list, and it was supposed to be the last film starring Paul Newman (last seen in "The Towering Inferno"), too - but I just added "The Long, Hot Summer" to the list, so so much for that. Still, tonight's film is probably one of the most glaring omissions from my film knowledge, so it's good to cross it off. (Still to be seen: "Touch of Evil", "Rebel Without a Cause", "Patton", "Gandhi" and "Gone With the Wind") Linking from last night, Burt Lancaster was in "Airport" with George Kennedy (last seen in "The Dirty Dozen").

THE PLOT: A man refuses to conform to life in a rural prison.

AFTER: Man, it doesn't get any more influential than this. Every movie where a sexy woman washes a car? That goes back to "Cool Hand Luke". Plus this movie inspired a Mythbusters episode on whether escaped convicts can evade bloodhounds, and a whole host of eating contests.

Like "Birdman of Alcatraz", it's all about passing the time while in prison. Some men sing and play the banjo, some read, some tell stories. Newman's character tries boxing, ramping up the speed on the work crew, and then trying to eat 50 eggs in an hour. I can totally relate, working at two offices, where my office-mates and I have had falafel-eating contests, gross sandwich challenges, and even bet the over/under on what my cholesterol level was.

And I had my "Cool Hand Luke" moment when I ate a giant deli sandwich, bigger than my head. Took me four hours to do it (with a one-hour break, fortunately there was no time limit on the challenge). But still there's a 12-egg omelette challenge in San Diego that I haven't conquered - if Luke can go for 50 eggs, I should be able to handle 12.

When all that fails to pass the time, Luke sets his sights on escaping. But getting out of a Southern work camp isn't that easy - which makes me wonder how close he was to finishing his 2-year stretch, before his escape attempts undoubtedly extended his sentence.

Taken as a character study, Luke is the one who's unable to conform - this is seen in the crazy offense that gets him locked up in the first place, and the conversation he has when his mother visits, about a normal life, with wife and kids not in the cards for him. He lives by his own rules, but unfortunately those people who don't bend in tough situations have a tendency to break.

I'll tell you who needs to spend some time on a Southern chain gang - the cameramen (and directors) from most TV reality/performance shows, especially "America's Got Talent". If I had my way - for any close-up that's too close, you'd spend the night in the box. For any long shot that's too long, you'd spend the night in the box. Excessive "shaky-cam"? Spend the night in the box. More than three cuts in 10 seconds? Well, you get the idea...

Also starring Strother Martin, Dennis Hopper (last seen in "Giant"), Ralph Waite (last seen in "Five Easy Pieces"), Harry Dean Stanton (last seen in "Kelly's Heroes"), Wayne Rogers, with cameos from Clifton James, Joe Don Baker (last seen in "The Dukes of Hazzard"), James Gammon.

RATING: 6 out of 10 ditches

Monday, September 5, 2011

Birdman of Alcatraz

Year 3, Day 249 - 9/6/11 - Movie #970

BEFORE: Sticking with the prison theme - and linking from "In the Name of the Father", Pete Postelthwaite was in "The Usual Suspects" with Kevin Spacey, who was in "Rocket Gibraltar" with Burt Lancaster (last seen in "Airport").

THE PLOT: A surly convicted murderer held in permanent isolation redeems himself when he becomes a renowned bird expert.

AFTER: Based on the true story of Robert Stroud, who became an expert on bird care and bird diseases while a prisoner at Leavenworth - why wasn't he called the Birdman of Leavenworth?

It's pretty easy to make the connection between a canary in a cage, and a prisoner in a cell. A childishly obvious metaphor, aren't they even called "jailbirds"?

Stroud seemed to get along with birds a lot better than he did with humans, and I can appreciate that. I'm not sure I agree with the points made against the penal system, and the causes of recidivism, though. Living in a prison cell does not necessarily make a person an expert on the causes of all crime.

This gives me the opportunity to look up information on the real Robert Stroud, and it seems the movie comes pretty close to the facts of his case, except that Burt Lancaster plays him as a mild-mannered sort, when the real inmate was described as a total jerk, and in fact diagnosed as a psychopath, but one with a high I.Q.

I've got 30 days left on my self-imposed sentence - and a nice round 250 films left on the list.

Also starring Karl Malden (last seen in "A Streetcar Named Desire"), Telly Savalas (last seen in "Kelly's Heroes"), Thelma Ritter (last seen in "The Misfits"), Edmond O'Brien (last seen in "The Wild Bunch") with a cameo from Len Lesser (Uncle Leo from "Seinfeld", also last seen in "Kelly's Heroes").

RATING: 4 out of 10 metal food trays

In the Name of the Father

Year 3, Day 248 - 9/5/11 - Movie #969

BEFORE: It's Labor Day, but I watched all of my big business films last year, except for "Wall Street 2", and I'm saving that for the Michael Douglas chain at the end of September. So instead I'll do a small chain of prison films (as in "hard labor"?). I did a prison-movie chain 2 years ago, which included "Papillon", "Brubaker", "The Hurricane", "Dead Man Walking", and "Escape From Alcatraz", so these films must have come into the collection after that. And Daniel Day-Lewis carries over from "Nine" as a bonus.

THE PLOT: Man's coerced confession to an IRA bombing he didn't do imprisons his father as well; a British lawyer helps fight for their freedom.

AFTER: Based on the true story of the Guilford Four, innocent people who were railroaded into prison after the British government was under pressure to convict someone for a 1974 pub bombing. The police coerced confessions from Gerry Conlon and his mates, and then went after Conlon's family as co-conspirators.

So we find Conlon's father, Giuseppe, sharing a cell with him, and the two men are forced to bond together in a way that perhaps they never did before. Prison gives them a chance to work out their personal issues with each other, and they watch out for each other while serving out their sentences.

A prison movie often seems like it's made with a higher degree of difficulty - it's probably hard to convey the monotony and despair of prison without the whole movie getting bogged down in monotony and despair. In this case, we the audience KNOW that the Conlons are innocent, so we're rooting for their survival and eventual release. And we know that forces on the outside are working to have their convictions overturned, so that gives us a sense of hope.

But they did a relatively good job here of keeping it interesting.

Also starring Pete Postelthwaite (last seen in "The Town"), Emma Thompson (last seen in "Pirate Radio"), John Lynch (last seen in "The Bridge of San Luis Rey") with a cameo from Tom Wilkinson (last seen in "Michael Clayton").

RATING: 5 out of 10 powdered wigs

Sunday, September 4, 2011


Year 3, Day 247 - 9/4/11 - Movie #968

BEFORE: Variations on a theme - I'm expecting something similar to "All That Jazz", I even put the two films back-to-back on a DVD. Both films feature a professional looking back on his life, the women involved in it, and the creative process. It's OK for two films to work off the same playbook - sometimes you hear two songs in the same day and realize how similar they are, like I did the other day while listening to the 80's channel. Listen to Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" and then Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" and you'll realize how similar they sound. Oh, the words are different, but they're in the same key, with the same tempo and very similar background music. Sure enough, there's a mash-up on YouTube that proves how alike they are, you can sing one's lyrics to the other's music.

Linking from "All That Jazz", Jessica Lange was in the little-seen film "Masked and Anonymous" with Penelope Cruz (last seen in "Volver"), who's featured here.

THE PLOT: Famous film director Guido Contini struggles to find harmony in his professional and personal lives, as he engages in dramatic relationships with his wife, his mistress, his muse, his agent, and his mother.

AFTER: I thought that maybe the title referred to the nine women in the main character's life, but no, there appear to be only 7 (what, you couldn't add two more girlfriends?). Then I thought that maybe it referred to the 9 Muses of Greek myth, since the women seem to be his source of inspiration. Nope, it refers to the number of films he's made - which in its own way harkens back to the Fellini film this is based on, which is "8 1/2" - so named because he'd made that many films (sort of...).

I admit Fellini is a blind spot for me - I haven't seen "8 1/2", or any of his work. But at least this means I get to judge this film on its own merits, and not hold it up to the work of an Italian master.

Unfortunately, the main character here is stuck creatively, which to me never makes for an interesting subject. Making a film about NOT having an idea for your film is a lame cop-out, it's the opposite of being creative, and it's not the part of the creative process anyone wants to see. I can't tell you how many times I saw someone in film school making a film about NOT having a good idea for a film. It shouldn't be allowed.

Plus, if a professional filmmaker - Woody Allen, Scorcese, Spielberg - had no idea for his next film, do you think he'd assemble a crew and have hundreds of people ready to start shooting? No way! The script is everything, especially when you're trying to get the money and approval to make a film. Would you assemble a team to climb Mount Everest if you didn't have a map? I doubt it.

NITPICK POINT: If Guido took half the time that he spent complaining about not being able to write a script, plus half the time he spent avoiding writing a script, plus half the time hooking up with his girlfriend - and used it to sit down in front of a typewriter, I bet he'd have something close to a script, or at least an outline.

Plus we learn, for the third time this week, that men can't stay faithful. Especially not creative types like musicians or filmmakers, they all have to have several women as some mystical part of the creative process. It's an old song, and I'm tired of hearing it. I suppose a story about a creative person who stays monogamous doesn't create enough drama.

I suppose the Europeans also have a different view on this sort of thing - supposedly every French or Italian man has both a wife and a girlfriend, or is that just another stereotype? We Americans tend to think that's more accepted over there, or are we just secretly envious of their lifestyle?

Anyway, there's some nice eye-candy here as each of the women in Guido's life has a fantasy musical number, but it just didn't add up to a full story to me. And the only thing worse than a film about not being able to write a film is when that film they couldn't write turns into the film you're watching RIGHT NOW. Another cop-out. The only film that was ever able to do that successfully was "Adaptation".

Also starring Daniel Day-Lewis (last seen in "Last of the Mohicans"), Marion Cotillard (last seen in "Inception"), Nicole Kidman (last seen in "Far and Away"), Kate Hudson, Judi Dench (last seen in "Mrs. Henderson Presents"), Sophia Loren, and Fergie.

RATING: 2 out of 10 hotel rooms