Saturday, February 11, 2012

Desk Set

Year 4, Day 42 - 2/11/12 - Movie #1,042

BEFORE: Just a few days left until Valentine's Day, so it's time to bring out some real classic romances.  And what's more classic than Tracy and Hepburn?  The connection from last night is, Spencer Tracy was in the original "Father of the Bride" film - if you need more tangible linking, Steve Martin was in "The Muppet Movie" with Milton Berle, who was also in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" with Tracy.

Catching another break on the TCM roadtrip - the travelogue has pulled into NYC for the weekend, and I've seen a fair number of those films - like "On the Waterfront", "Three Days of the Condor", and "Kramer vs. Kramer".  Another one, "The Apartment", is already on the list and I'll watch that next week.  I'm taking passes on "42nd Street", "Going My Way", "Wait Until Dark" and "Gloria" - so my list goes down again today, to 263.

THE PLOT: Two extremely strong personalities clash over the computerization of a TV network's research department.

AFTER: According to this film, a network TV station in the 1950's had a kick-ass research department - (as if!) with some real crack info/trivia experts on staff.  Hey, maybe I was born too late and missed my calling!  But it seemed to be all book-based, and the hook here concerns an efficiency expert (Tracy) who wants to come in and streamline things.  Wacky hijinx ensue - so it's kind of like the "30 Rock" of the 1950's.

But what kind of efficiency expert hangs around for 6 months before filing his report?  That in itself doesn't seem very efficient.  Tracy's character also doesn't have his personal life together, symbolized by his non-matching socks.  C'mon, we all know he's going to end up with Hepburn - but her character's been seeing a network executive for seven years, and he hasn't popped the question.  In 1957 years, that was evidently an eternity.

That said, it would have been nice if we could have seen SOME reason why she should choose one man over the other.  Does she fall for the efficiency expert merely because he's THERE, and the executive is traveling around?  Do they bond over their shared love of knowledge/trivia?  His ability to cook fried chicken?  I never felt like the movie got inside their heads or hearts.  There was a filmic shorthand with Tracy and Hepburn, something akin to seeing, say, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in a film today.

Another point - if the women in the research department knew they were being monitored by an efficiency expert, maybe they should have cut down on the personal calls, and started coming in on time.  I'm just sayin'.

Then we've got the issue of this newfangled device called a "computer".  It takes up a whole frickin' room - but that's what computers did back then.  Bill Gates once said that if auto technology had progressed at the same rate as computer technology, a car would cost $25.00 and get a million miles to the gallon.  However, clearly here we've got a screenwriter who has no idea how a computer works.  The interfaces in 1957 were nothing like Google, where you could type a question in English and expect the computer to produce a constructive answer.  Non-math based questions had to be on coded punch cards, and correct answers were dependent on the proper pre-programming - there was certainly no central database that computers could access for more information.

We do see a Christmas party at a network in 1957, though - which pretty much involved alcohol of all sorts being ingested.  Katherine Hepburn could not pretend to be drunk realistically, though - I wasn't buying it.  I often wonder about the Christmas parties at NYC ad agencies during the 1960's and 70's, or even behind the scenes at a magazine like Penthouse or Screw - imagine the debauchery!  Maybe they just got drunk and sang Christmas carols, who knows?

Also starring Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill.

RATING: 4 out of 10 pink slips

Friday, February 10, 2012

Father of the Bride Part II

Year 4, Day 41 - 2/10/12 - Movie #1,041

BEFORE: A simple follow-up, sure - but I promise this will make a little more sense once tomorrow's film is revealed.  I finally gave in on these Steve Martin films when some premium movie channel ran them both in the same week, a couple months ago.  It seems sometimes that there's no rhyme or reason to cable TV scheduling - if I were in charge, running a film and its sequel back-to-back would be a no-brainer.  Wouldn't people who enjoyed a film just stay tuned to see what happens next to those characters?

I'm catching a break from the TCM schedule today - the roadtrip finishes up in Texas with "Giant", which I watched last year, moves on to Nevada for "Meet Me in Las Vegas" and "The Ox-Bow Incident", then hits Wyoming for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (seen it) and "Cat Ballou".  Finally the itinerary comes to New York for the whole weekend, starting with "Portrait of Jennie" and "The Pride of the Yankees".  Yeah, I'm not watching a film about the Yankees.

THE PLOT: George Banks must accept the reality of what his daughter's ascension from daughter to wife, and now, to mother means when placed into perspective against his own stage of life.

AFTER: I found a lot of insincerity in the acting here, Steve Martin's a fine actor but at times I felt he was dialing it in.  And like in the previous film, they didn't give Diane Keaton a lot to do, except act pregnant.  The worst offenders, however, were the young newlyweds.  Any time that actors reading their lines sound just like actors reading lines, it messes with the suspension of disbelief.

Once again, there's no six-act structure, no major turning points (except, I suppose for the pregnancy announcements), no darkest-before-the-dawn moment, and no last-minute save.  It's merely a peek into the lives of a family as two of its members conceive and carry babies to term.  If that's your thing, great, more power to you - but it doesn't make for a movie, not in the traditional sense.  And if we don't have our traditions, really, where are we?  Movies are supposed to be for showing fantastic things on screen - flying spaceships and fighting robots and zombie hordes - because we just can't see them in real life, you dig?

Other screenwriting sins include sending away characters when they are not relevant (the teen boy goes to camp, the expectant father goes on a business trip to Tokyo) and creating all kinds of plot threads that never connect to anything.  Why remind us of the conflict between George and the in-laws' Dobermans if you're not going to do anything with it?  And who cares that it's the hottest July in years - how does that affect anything?

The only way this is relevant to me, at this point in time, is that my boss got married over the holidays, and recently his wife announced she's pregnant.  So I am witnessing a situation similar to George Banks', that of becoming a father later in life.  Obviously it's a game-changer for anyone, but I get to watch this one play out from a relatively safe distance.  Still not movie-plot worthy, though.

Full disclosure: I was called upon to do a voice for a cartoon a few months back (I've been known to do funny voices during the workday, so the boss knows what I'm capable of) and had to create a voice for a gay French fashion designer.  I have to admit that I watched clips of Martin Short from this film for inspiration, along with Bronson Pinchot from "Beverly Hills Cop".

Starring Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Kimberly Williams, George Newbern, Kieran Culkin, Martin Short, BD Wong, Eugene Levy (all carrying over from last night's film) and Jane Adams (last seen in "Wonder Boys").

RATING: 3 out of 10 contractions

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Father of the Bride

Year 4, Day 40 - 2/9/12 - Movie #1,040

BEFORE: More wedding hijinks tonight - and linking from "Barney's Version", Dustin Hoffman was in "Runaway Jury" with Gene Hackman, who was in "Reds" with Diane Keaton.  Heck, you can probably link to any two actors through Gene Hackman...

The TCM roadtrip hits the Midwest and Texas today - "Meet Me in St. Louis" is already on my list, and I'm going to pass on "The Public Enemy", "Some Came Running", "Red River", "San Antonio" and "Boom Town".  But I will pick up "Abe Lincoln in Illinois", because I want to fill up the DVD containing "1776", and that seems like a good double-feature.

THE PLOT: George and Nina Banks are the parents of young soon-to-be-wed Annie. George is a nervous father unready to face the fact that his little girl is now a woman.

AFTER: This film had two speeds - dead stop, which at times just featured people talking (yawn) about wedding plans, and full speed ahead, with silly accidents and slapstick.  It's like a comic farce Frankensteined together with a wedding show from the Style Network.   And because the planning/decoration scenes weren't very comical, or even entertaining, they had to add additional narration over these scenes, which is a really bad sign.  Often the narration would describe the EXACT same thing as the visuals, without providing additional insight.  That seemed unnecessary - show, don't tell.

Someone didn't trust enough in the visuals, obviously - or maybe there's just not enough comedy gold to be mined here.  Without the benefit of Hollywood 6-act structure, the storyline has to walk a difficult balance - if the planning of the wedding is too much of a disaster, it would be no fun to watch.  And if it goes too well, it won't be interesting, and we're just watching a re-creation or fantasy of someone's perfect day.

The word "lame" gets overused these days, having come to stand for anything that's not up to par.  But this film is "lame" in the original sense - any entertainment value is crippled by its own parameters.  The parents of the bride can't be too rich, or we'll just hate them, and there will be no conflict with the wedding planners, and they can't be too poor, or they'll have no chance of paying for anything.  This was noted by using the groom's parents as foil characters - they have a giant mansion, give cars as gifts, etc.  By comparison, the Brooks family is upper middle class, so they can swing the wedding, but George also then gets to freak out at how much everything costs.  So they don't go to Europe next year - what a shame.

In his own way, George Banks is just as irascible a character as Barney was last night - but again, they didn't go too far in any one direction.  He overreacts, but only sometimes?  I guess if he overreacted ALL the time, the audience would come to hate him?  Plus, is he a cheapskate, or just frugal?  Because weddings DO cost a lot of money, and there ARE ways of saving.  As a screenwriter, you've got to try and have a point, and then eventually get around to making it.  Pick a horse, and then run with it.

NITPICK POINT: Are we really still going by that old chestnut of making the bride's family pay for everything?  Especially when the groom's family is super-loaded?  This seems like a cultural tradition stuck firmly in the 1950's.  And flying in the groom's family from out of town - in modern times, no one would reasonably expect the bride's family to pay for that.

Starring Steve Martin (last seen in "Mixed Nuts"), Diane Keaton (last seen in "Baby Boom"), Kimberly Williams, Kieran Culkin (last seen in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"), Martin Short (last heard in "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius"), BD Wong, with a cameo from Eugene Levy (last seen in "Going Berserk").

RATING: 4 out of 10 china patterns

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Barney's Version

Year 4, Day 39 - 2/8/12 - Movie #1,039

BEFORE: Another film featuring wedding jitters, it's sort of a loose theme for the week.  Linking from "Forces of Nature", Ben Affleck was in "Paycheck" (never saw it) with Paul Giamatti (last heard in "The Ant Bully"), who stars in this one.

TCM Roadtrip, Day 7 - they're finishing off Germany with "Town Without Pity", "Desperate Journey" and "The Search", then moving on to Scotland today.  I'm not adding "Brigadoon" for the same reason I didn't add "Camelot" - namely, this is my project, and not my mother's.  But this evening's films are set in the Midwest, and though I'm passing on "State Fair", I will add "Bye Bye Birdie" and "The Music Man" to my collection, since I was in community theater productions of both when I was a lad.  And since I've seen both films before, neither increases my list.  But I did notice that the remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" is available on PPV for just $1.99, and I've been looking for that for months, so yet another push today.

THE PLOT: The picaresque and touching story of the politically incorrect life of the impulsive, irascible and fearlessly blunt Barney Panofsky.

AFTER: Judging from the clips I'd seen, and a few reviews, I thought this would be more of a romance.  And I knew the tagline on the poster, which I won't repeat here, but I figured that it told me all that I needed to know about the plot, and I was only partially correct.  I wasn't expecting elements of a mystery, combined with a biopic/character study.  But I suppose the film reflects life, which is part romance, part mystery, and part character study - isn't it?

Barney's story is told mostly in flashback - and in the opening framing scenes, we see him prank-call his ex-wife, and we learn that someone has written a book that accuses him of being involved in a murder.  Intriguing stuff - what happened between him and his wife?  And who is he accused of killing?

As the story plays out, at least Barney's version of it, we learn how a promising film director ended up as a schlocky TV producer, and we eventually learn the identity of Barney's wife.  Er, wives, but that's all part of the twists and turns in his life.  Of course everyone's story is different, but when you meet someone who's been married multiple times, you have to at least consider the possibility that their personality has a lot to do with the break-ups.

For Barney (and, I suspect, for many other people), marriage is like an elaborate staring contest - and when the other person blinks, it's possible to be happy that you won the contest, and also sad that the game is now over.  But like Ben in "Forces of Nature", I'm left wondering if Barney is supposed to be a victim of bad luck, bad timing, or just a bad disposition.

Giamatti won a Golden Globe for this film, and I think it was well deserved - but it was for Best Actor in a Comedy, and I question whether this film deserves to be regarded as a comedy.  There are comic elements, sure, but overall I think it's more about life's ups and downs, the fragile nature of relationships and the ability people have to bounce back and move on.  Extra point for poking fun at vegans.

NITPICK POINT: Jewish people watching hockey?  I guess they're Canadian, so maybe...

Also starring Dustin Hoffman (last seen in "Midnight Cowboy"), Scott Speedman (last seen in "Underworld: Evolution"), Minnie Driver (last seen in "The Phantom of the Opera"), Rosamund Pike, Bruce Greenwood (last seen in "Dinner for Schmucks"), Saul Rubinek and Mark Addy, with cameos from directors Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, and Jake Hoffman (Dustin's son, playing his grandson)

RATING: 6 out of 10 Montecristo cigars

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Forces of Nature

Year 4, Day 38 - 2/7/12 - Movie #1,038

BEFORE: Tonight, more struggles on the rocky road to love.  (mmm...Rocky Road...)  Linking comes courtesy of Clifton Collins, a character actor who's come to my attention lately - he had a small uncredited role as one of the Vegan Police in "Scott Pilgrim", and he was also in "Extract" with Ben Affleck (last seen in "The Town"), who stars tonight.

TCM is spending another day in the Atlantic Ocean, with "Action in the North Atlantic", "The Cruel Sea" and "The Spirit of St. Louis" (that last one is on the list) before moving to Germany for "Judgment at Nuremberg", "Grand Hotel" and "All Quiet on the Western Front" (which is also on the list).  So, no takers today, but HBO just added "Rio" to the On Demand, so I'll probably pick that one up this morning.

THE PLOT: A soon-to-be-married man encounters an exciting stranger after his plane suffers an accident on takeoff.

AFTER: Ugh, this one couldn't have been more obvious and contrived.  The screenplay probably started with the beginning and the ending, and then all the stuff in the middle was added just to delay, delay, delay.  If you enjoy airport closures, car accidents and train re-routings, this is the film for you.  Yes, all that worked to great comic effect in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles", but there's nothing remotely humorous here.

The premise is that a man (Affleck) is traveling from NYC to his wedding in Savannah, Georgia - but after some terrible traveling luck, and the presence of a wild female traveling companion, he starts to question whether he should go through with the wedding.  His insecurity and doubt is reflected in his seeming inability to overcome various travel obstacles.  (most of which should be easily solved by saying "Here's my credit card, get me to Savannah", but nothing is that easy)

OK, if you're thrown together with a free-spirited member of the opposite sex, you've got some choices to make.  But try and separate the marriage choice from the choice of momentary temptation - or else things are bound to get muddled.  At least here, unlike with "Scott Pilgrim", we can understand WHY the central character is attracted to one woman over the other.  The free spirit may have relationship troubles of her own, and seems to be a magnet for disaster, but at least she's FUN.  All the fiancee does is sit around in her wedding dress, drinking, and wondering when the groom's going to show up.  She seems like a real downer.

Unfortunately, the film seems to have just as much trouble as Ben does, deciding what constitutes the perfect mate.  And none of the foil characters are much help - all of the married ones aren't happy, and all of the happy ones aren't married.

It's tempting to attach meanings to disasters such as hurricanes, especially when they're used in films as cheap, lazy metaphors for turmoil and conflict.  Sure, you can show two people standing in the middle of a storm, and we can get that their lives are unbalanced - but as a screenwriter, isn't that taking the easy way out?  Wouldn't actually getting inside their heads take a little more heavy lifting?

We have to remember that in the real world, the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.  Earthquakes don't seek out evil people to destroy, despite what some ignorant preachers are fond of suggesting.  I mean, really, Pat Robertson, that's just low.

Overall, this is some high Hollywood crap, but at least it fits in with my themes.

Also starring Sandra Bullock (last seen in "A Time to Kill"), Maura Tierney (last seen in "Baby Mama"), Steve Zahn (last heard in "Stuart Little 2"), Blythe Danner (last seen in "Futureworld"), Ronny Cox and Richard Schiff.

RATING: 3 out of 10 giant teacups

Monday, February 6, 2012

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Year 4, Day 37 - 2/6/12 - Movie #1,037

BEFORE: Still reeling from the outcome of the Super Bowl - I'm a Patriots fan living in enemy territory, though the team's glory years didn't begin until after I moved to New York.  So I'm not really in the best frame of mind to watch a film, but the countdown rolls on regardless.  This one should be right up my alley, since it's based on an indie comic (which I've never read, though) and was heavily promoted at Comic-Con 2 years ago.

The TCM Roadtrip is moving on without me today - hitting Eastern Europe with 6 films I've never heard of, plus "To Be or Not To Be", which I've seen.  Then it's on to the Netherlands for "The Diary of Anne Frank" and "Lust for Life", and finishing up in the Atlantic Ocean with "Captains Courageous".  I'm taking a mulligan on this, but I'm picking up the film "Venus" on another channel, so the count remains unchanged.  Hoping to make some small progress later in the week.

THE PLOT: Scott Pilgrim must defeat his new girlfriend's seven evil exes in order to win her heart.

AFTER: Watching this film was kind of like watching a film where everyone has a thick foreign accent - sometimes it takes a half-hour or so for your ear to adjust.  But in this case it was my mind that needed to make an adjustment - since the film doesn't much respect the language of film as I'm familiar with it, and by that I mean the film contains time jumps, space jumps and possibly even reality jumps, it took a while for me to understand what angle it was coming at me from.

If "Youth in Revolt" was like "Superbad" mixed with "Fight Club", this film is more like "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist" mixed with "Mortal Kombat".  Using video-game stylish graphics, on-screen text, and fantasy-based fight sequences, it's wildly unconventional.  (I forgot to mention the animated sequences in last night's film, but it's a nice tie-in anyway)  But it almost feels forced, like an adult's version of what teens might find cool - video-games, skateboarding, playing in bands, and making out.  Did they hold some kind of focus group to see what teens like, and then just throw those things together?

What am I supposed to make of impossible fights and stunts, and a character who appears to be in a video-game?  Sure, I understand it's all a metaphor for dealing with your partner's dating history - but am I supposed to take it all seriously like's it's really happening?  If everything is a metaphor, what, if anything, am I supposed to take literally?  Is any of this actually happening, or is it all a dream?  And, by asking these questions, am I proving that I'm too old to understand it all?

For a film that tried so hard to be unconventional, it did fall back on two standard Hollywood-style conventions.  One is the part of the traditional six-act structure that declares that "things must always be darkest before the dawn" - there must be a point in the plot where the situation seems completely hopeless, like there's no way for the hero to succeed.  Then, of course, in the final turning point there comes, improbably, a way to triumph.  The second is the moment of realization in the hero's journey, a teachable moment that perhaps gives the hero insight and helps him succeed.  Here both take place in very obvious ways, but at least they do take place.

Here's my take-away - as a friend once told me, it sucks to be dumped, and it sucks to be the dumper.  Which is why most people try to avoid those situations.  But you have to treat people, even your exes and impending exes, with respect, or their spectres will continue to haunt you.  In my case I asked my first wife to move out, which was incredibly painful, but she had already moved on emotionally, so continuing to live with her had become painful, as well as pointless.  I did so with a heavy heart, knowing the only way my situation could improve was to go through the pain.

It's sometimes tough to say what attracts you to one person over another - but I understand that when someone regards you as their "safe" relationship, someday they may feel like you're the thing holding them back from new experiences.  I was someone's safety zone, and then got regarded as a lead weight to her balloon, which wanted to soar.  But in the context of this film, they didn't do a great job of explaining what qualities Ramona had that made her more appealing than Scott's other potential relationship.  She was kind of a blank, plus she had all that emotional baggage - so what was it?  The purple hair?  That seems kind of arbitrary.

Love is a battlefield, I get that - but here's what relationships have in common with warfare (video-game or otherwise), and for that matter, big sporting events.  If one person is happy, it often means that somewhere, someone else is upset, or at least disappointed.

God, it would have been great to watch this directly before "Tron: Legacy", or even "Captain America" - I could have used this to connect to another topic so easily!  Damn, what a wasted opportunity. 

Also starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead (last seen in "Live Free or Die Hard"), Anna Kendrick (last seen in "Up in the Air"), Kieran Culkin (last seen in "The Cider House Rules"), Ellen Wong, Chris Evans (last seen in "Push"), Brandon Routh (last seen in "Zack and Miri Make a Porno"), Mae Whitman (last heard in "The Wild Thornberrys Movie"), Jason Schwartzman (last heard in "Fantastic Mr. Fox"), Aubrey Plaza, and the voice of Bill Hader.

RATING: 6 out of 10 record stores

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Youth in Revolt

Year 4, Day 36 - 2/5/12 - Movie #1,036

BEFORE: It's Super Bowl Sunday, and it's tempting to switch gears and watch a film like "Black Sunday" or even "Semi-Tough".  But I spent so much time drawing up the February schedule, I'd hate to undo it.  I will have a sports wrap-up sometime this year, lumping a couple baseball, football, and basketball films together,  plus "Invictus" and "Bend It Like Beckham".  There's got to be some commonality between them, I figure.

Linking from "Lars and the Real Girl", Emily Mortimer was in last year's film "Our Idiot Brother" with Paul Rudd, who had an uncredited role in "Year One", along with Michael Cera (last seen in "Year One"), who headlines tonight.

TCM Roadtrip, Day 5: Another day of England-themed films - I'm going to pick up two Errol Flynn films today, "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and "The Sea Hawk".  Since I've got a few pirate-themed films on the list, and a couple versions of "Robin Hood" already, I figure I might as well go for it.  This means I'm going to pass on "Camelot", "The Entertainer", "Far From the Madding Crowd" and "The Lavender Hill Mob".  Also screening today is "The Ladykillers", which I watched last April.  The list stands at 265 films, which is where it's been for the past few weeks.

THE PLOT: While his trailer trash parents teeter on the edge of divorce, Nick Twisp sets his sights on dream girl Sheeni Saunders, hoping that she'll be the one to take away his virginity.

AFTER: Speaking of commonality, sometimes I'll program a week of films on a particular theme (romance, in this case) and find that they all have something else unexpected in common.  In this case, it's characters with psychological problems.  We had an egotistical entitled prince in "The Princess and the Frog", a sheltered princess in "Rapunzel", Lars and his mannequin girlfriend last night, and tonight the main character creates an alter ego.  OK, so it's not really a split personality - just a split screen - but it's another case where a young man clearly has some issues to work out, and he chooses to do that through his dark side persona, Francois.

While at first it seems outrageous, when I think back on the trouble I had dating women in college, it makes a crazy kind of sense.  I talked up girls who said they wanted to date nice guys, and I figured, well, I'm a nice guy, so here's my chance.  Only to find they already had a boyfriend, or were about to start dating some jerk the next day.  So what they really meant was, they just didn't want to date ME.

I wondered what was wrong with me - what made the girls choose the bad boys over the quiet ones?  Did they just want guys with more experience?  And if they wouldn't date me, how was I ever going to gain this experience and become dateable?  Logic seemed to dictate that one must act like a jerk in order to get laid - however, I had a feeling that this logic may have been faulty.  But that's the path that Nick follows in this film to gain a girl's attention.  Here it leads to a lot of awkward situations where Cera ends up in his underwear.

It's clearly meant to show the lengths that a horny teen boy will go to for the love of a girl, or at least some action - but when running from the police and living your life as an outlaw seems to be your best option, it means that something has gone very wrong with your plan.

This came across as a spin on "Superbad", mixed with a sort of low-rent version of "Fight Club".  I feel sorry for Michael Cera, who's now 22 but still probably getting offered roles as a high-schooler.  About a decade ago Justin Long was the go-to for this sort of thing, but I think he kind of aged out of the program, and Cera picked up the torch. 

Also starring Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Steve Buscemi (last seen in "The Messenger"), Zach Galifianakis (last heard in "Puss in Boots"), Ray Liotta (last heard in "Bee Movie"), Fred Willard (last heard in "WALL-E"), Justin Long (last seen in "Happy Campers"), M. Emmet Walsh (last seen in "A Time To Kill") and Mary Kay Place.

RATING: 4 out of 10 Sinatra records