Saturday, March 3, 2012

Permanent Midnight

Year 4, Day 63 - 3/3/12 - Movie #1,063

BEFORE: Ben Stiller again, this time playing a screenwriter and junkie.  The trend of self-absorbed people continues, apparently...

THE PLOT: The story of comedy writer Jerry Stahl, whose $6000-a-week heroin habit had him taking his infant daughter along on his drug runs and doing smack during TV script conferences.

AFTER: Don't have a lot to say tonight, but my planned Ben Stiller theme is turning into something else, and it feels like a downward spiral.  In the land of Hollywood, where everyone is self-obsessed, what could be more self-obsessed than a drug addict?  Someone who's always looking for the next fix, the next good feeling, the next personal or professional high, while his life is actually crumbling around him.

We've seen this before, on "Celebrity Rehab", and in the tabloids, and that book by James Frey.  Some people just love taking their dirty past and airing it out, to show what personal demons they've overcome, and how they pulled out of their freefall and salvaged their life.  The subsequent book deal is just icing on the cake, right?  What a load of crap.

Am I supposed to feel sorry for this guy because he was forced to write comedy for a crappy show like "Alf"?  Because he was in a green-card marriage and rejected attempts to turn it into a real one?  Because he ruined friendships and relationships and was forced to work as a telemarketer and a fast-food cashier?  Seems to me a much simpler solution was to never touch the smack to begin with, I'm just sayin'.

Ben Stiller just pulled off the asshole trifecta.  Congratulations?  While Jerry Stahl is now writing for shows like CSI.  I guess that's more commendable.

The question, once again is - does this set of occurences deserve to be turned into a narrative film?  Well, no, unless there is some value as a cautionary tale.  But if a guy is making $5000 a week writing scripts and has a $6000 per week drug habit, I can't feel sorry for someone who doesn't see the problem with that math.

Also starring Maria Bello (last seen in "Grown Ups"), Owen Wilson (last seen in "Marley & Me"), Elizabeth Hurley (last seen in "Passenger 57"), with cameos from Fred Willard (last seen in "Youth in Revolt"), Janeane Garofalo (last seen in "Reality Bites"), Andy Dick (ditto), Connie Nielsen (last seen in "One Hour Photo"), Charles Fleischer and Cheryl Ladd.

RATING: 2 out of 10 typewriters

Friday, March 2, 2012


Year 4, Day 62 - 3/2/12 - Movie #1,062

BEFORE: Ben Stiller carries over from "Reality Bites", he'll be around for a few days.  I put this on a DVD with "Reality Bites" a few months ago - I liked the way the two titles went together to almost form a sentence.

The TCM 31-day Oscar road-trip comes to a close today, visiting the location known as "all over" (because the trip is all over, get it?) with "The Great Race" and "Around the World in 80 Days" (already on the list), then the metaphysical location of heaven, with "Cabin in the Sky" and "The Bishop's Wife", then ends in outer space with "The Right Stuff", "2001: A Space Odyssey", "2010" and "Forbidden Planet".

THE PLOT: A New Yorker moves to Los Angeles in order to figure out his life while he housesits for his brother, and he soon sparks with his brother's assistant.

It's only natural that when we watch a movie, we look for common ground - things we might have in common with the characters, or ways in which their situations are like ours.  Which is why I don't consider this a straight movie-review blog.  A movie reviewer has to consider the whole audience, and describe a film in a way so that everyone can decide if they want to see it.  I only have to describe the way a film affects me, or what I can get out of it.  Much easier.

But about the only thing I have in common with Ben Stiller's character here is the fact that I also used to write letters to newspaper editorial columns, and letters of complaint to various companies.  Thanks to me, the meatloaf at Boston Market is no longer improperly called "double-sauced", but that's a long story.

These days I don't have much energy for letters of complaint or railing against the corporate machine - now I just watch TV and cringe when I hear younger folks butcher the English language by misusing the pronoun "myself" or overusing the word "actually".

Oh, and I'm also in my early 40's.  And I haven't driven a car in a few years, plus I'm more comfortable in New York city than in California.  And I sometimes feel out of place at parties, and would often rather spend time alone.  And I function better when my tasks are routine and in order.

Holy crap, I might actually be Greenberg.  (note proper usage, kids)

But here's where I set myself apart from him - I know how to have FUN.  Or, at least I think I do.  People would tell me if I wasn't a fun guy, right?  I go out with friends and have drinks, or dinner, and I talk about other things besides my interests, right?  I haven't been on vacation in a while, but I've been on a few good ones over the years.  And I go out to Comic-con and have fun - OK, so first I work a 12-hour shift in a booth, but after that I go have fun.  That counts.

Stiller's character doesn't look like he knows how to have fun.  We know he had some kind of breakdown, and spent time in a mental hospital, (warning sign - so did the guy in "Sling Blade") but we never actually find out what's wrong with him.  I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he's got Asperger's or high-functioning autism or something, because if not, then he's just an asshole.

Which is an interesting acting challenge, I guess.  And I'd love to hear the pitch meeting for this - "So, this guy acts mean to all his friends, and yells at the woman that he can't commit to, and has no motivation to work, or accomplish anything but ranting in letters."  "And then, what happens?  He gets redeemed, right?"  "Umm, no, that was it.  He just acts like a dick for the whole film."

Even when he's at a party and trying to fit in, he can't control himself.  He has to put on the music that no one else wants to hear, or help himself to other people's drugs, or tell stories from the old days that no one can relate to.  He over-analyzes everything, and seems to be stuck in the past in many ways, focusing on the relationship that fell apart, or the band that never got famous, etc.

So, the debate becomes - does all of that constitute proper entertainment?  Can you take a bunch of awkward situations and just string them together to make an enjoyable narrative, with no real story arc?  Do people want to see someone acting up and acting odd for 2 hours?  For me, the answer was a disappointing "No".  Generally, if the people on screen aren't having fun, then I'm not either.  But as always, your mileage may vary.  And that's MY rant for the day.

Also starring Greta Gerwig, Rhys Ifans (last heard in "Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties"), Jennifer Jason Leigh (last seen in "Road to Perdition"), with cameos from Dave Franco (brother of James), Max Hoffman (son of Dustin), Jake Paltrow (brother of Gwyneth)

RATING: 3 out of 10 voice-mails

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Reality Bites

Year 4, Day 61 - 3/1/12 - Movie #1,061

BEFORE: Winona Ryder carries over from "Autumn in New York".  I didn't have much luck with "The Big Chill", so let's try another relationship ensemble film from about a decade later.  Will I identify with these people more, or will I hate them too?

It's the next-to-last day of TCM's "31 Days of Oscar" marathon - and the focus is on China ("The Good Earth"), Japan ("Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo") and Hawaii ("From Here to Eternity", "Tora! Tora! Tora!").  I've seen those last two, so I'm good.  Gotta get my numbers down.

THE PLOT: Generation X Graduates face life after college with a filmmaker looking for work and love in Houston.

AFTER: I suppose this should resonate more with me, since I got out of college in 1989 and found work in the NY independent film "scene".  I was reminded of the early days last weekend when I was on the way to the beer festival, and passed a building that used to house a sound stage, where I frequently worked as a P.A. on music videos and short film projects.  There were days in the early 90's when I would arrive there before the sun came up, do odd jobs until wrap, and leave after sunset - and it would feel like I missed a whole day.  Eventually I got steadier work and got on a more consistent schedule.

But you rarely see films that focus on people with crappy film jobs - case in point, "Reality Bites", where Winona Ryder plays a wanna-be documentary filmmaker.  Of course, she thinks that the banal things and cool little quips that her slacker friends say just NEED to be captured on camera.  How freakin' arrogant, to think that your petty problems would be of any interest to the world at large.  It's that sense of entitlement that really sticks in my craw.

The film attempts to capture a moment in time, one that it hopes will resonate with the audience - unfortunately, the moment it's chosen to capture seems to coincide with the start of the hipster movement (or is it non-movement?) as well as the birth of reality TV.  So how sad is it when her engaging oh-so-meaningful documentary footage gets cut to pieces by a cable network, who only wants to show the insights in fragments?  Yeah, my heart really bleeds.  Why are you so surprised that a big corporate network doesn't "get" the ideas of youth, or cut a piece of "art" into shreds?  Isn't that why you slackers are so anti-establishment in the first place?

Behind the retro-based slacker jargon, there is a basic love triangle set up here - Ryder's character has to choose between the slick, yet sincere TV producer and the slacker deadbeat roommate, who always needs to act like he's above it all.  Oh, and he's in a band, and he can't seem to hold down a job or a steady relationship, and she fights with him all the time - so, what were his good points, again?  I get that it's a love-hate relationship, but the film didn't do much to explain how love wins over hate.

Working at the GAP, getting tested for AIDS, coming out to one's parents.  Were we all this self-absorbed in the early 90's?  The storylines just seemed like they were pandering - and trying to hit cultural touchstones that would appeal to the Gen X crowd.  I guess every movie has to try and grab the audience with familiar stuff, but it's just so much more obvious here.

The baby-boomers grew up in the free-love 60's, and had no problem with bed-hopping, as seen in "The Big Chill" - but to these Gen-Xers, sex became serious again due to AIDS - I can't tell if that's depicted here as a step forward or a step backward.  Also, the previous generation was the first to grow up in a world with television - and when their lives and marriages turned out to be not as perfect as the ones seen on TV, it led to dissatisfaction, divorce, etc.  But when MY generation got upset when our lives didn't look like TV shows, we made the TV shows look more like our lives.  That's my theory behind reality TV, anyway.

The name of the phony band seen in this film - it was hard for me to understand what they were saying, but the name is "Hey, That's My Bike".  Which is OK, I guess, it's sure miles above "Sex Bob-omb".  But we play a game at work where we call "dibs" on great band names that come up in casual conversations, or (even better) unusual ones.  Not that any of us will ever start a real band, but maybe someday one of us will write a screenplay that features a fictional one.  I currently have claims on two band names: "Endless Taco Party" and "Back-Alley Eye Exams".  They're killer, right?

NITPICK POINT: If a character is the valedictorian of her college class, I expect that person to be a hard worker, someone with tenacity and drive.  So how come she's not motivated to get a job or earn money?  After just three interviews, she's basically on to scamming money from her dad.

NITPICK POINT #2: If a producer is planning to air documentary footage on a TV show, he'd know that he has to get a signed release from everyone seen in the footage - so why does he go out of his way to pick a fight with someone in the show?  I realize that they're really fighting over the girl, but I still think a producer would have found a way to be more diplomatic about it, at least until the release got signed.

Also starring Ethan Hawke (last seen in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"), Ben Stiller (last seen in "Zoolander"), Janeane Garofalo (last seen in "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle"), Steve Zahn (last seen in "Forces of Nature"), with cameos from Swoosie Kurtz, Joe Don Baker, John Mahoney (last seen in "Dan in Real Life"), Andy Dick, Keith David (last heard in "The Princess and the Frog"), Anne Meara, David Spade (last seen in "Grown Ups").

RATING: 4 out of 10 folded sweaters

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Autumn in New York

Year 4, Day 60 - 2/29/12 - Movie #1,060

BEFORE: I started this process in 2009, so this is the first February 29 falling under the scope of the project.  I supposed I could have watched "Leap Year" to finish off the month of romance, but I have a feeling that movie sucks.  Instead I'll close it out with this romantic drama, despite it being seasonally inappropriate.

Linking from "The Big Chill", Tom Berenger was also in "Betrayed" with Debra Winger, who of course was also in "An Officer and a Gentleman" with Richard Gere (last seen in "The Cotton Club").

And yeah, I'm back in New York, while the TCM schedule heads to Belgium for "The Singing Nun" and "The Nun's Story" (what's with all the nuns?) and then to China for "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing", "55 Days at Peking", and "Flying Tigers".  Who knows, maybe next year TCM will put all the films that rhyme with each other on the same days...

THE PLOT: Romantic drama about an aging playboy who falls for a sweet, but terminally ill, young woman.

AFTER: Still trying to maintain that spoiler-free zone, which is not easy.  But I will say that there was an unintentional extra theme among this and the previous three films (can you spot it?).  If the IMDB wants to give away key plot points in their synopses, that's out of my control.

I don't have a problem with a character played by Richard Gere dating a character played by Winona Ryder (last seen in "The Darwin Awards") - despite the 30-year (or so) age difference.  Ryder was 29 the year this film was released, but her character was only supposed to be 22.  To each his own, I say - who am I to tell an older man to stop dating women in their twenties?  My boss is 65 and has been dating younger women as long as I've known him.

I had more of a problem with Richard Gere playing a chef/restaurateur - in an industry where people are usually judged more by their food techniques, and not their appearances.  Yet this chef manages to make it to the age of 49 (or so) while still looking like Richard Gere.  Shenanigans of the highest order - have you seen the people who host food shows on TV?  Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Guy Fieri, Beau Macmillan, Adam Richman - they're all big, doughy guys, or at least pleasingly plump (but jolly).  And it's not just the men - Paula Deen, Rachael Ray, The Barefoot Contessa, Anne Burrell, I can go on and on.  Oh, there are the rare exceptions, like Anthony Bourdain, or Padma Lakshmi, but for the most part, it's an industry dominated by hefty people.  And these are the most photogenic ones - Food Network even has a show called "Fat Chef" which is a bit like "The Biggest Loser" for restaurant chefs, where 2 big (and I mean, BIG) chefs are put through a program for 8 weeks to maximize their weight loss and improve their health, and overall stamina in the kitchen.

But how did they get that way?  It's no mystery, since the show features clips of the chefs tasting (and re-tasting) pretty much every dish they cook.  But once the recipe is established, do they really need to taste EVERY order?  I go to a restaurant and pay for a full order of food, not one where the chef took a big bite out of my entree.  Here's an idea - instead of checking every order, maybe check every third or fourth one, and not mine.  I love it when the chefs then say to the cameras "It's tough for me because I don't have time to eat - so I eat really late when I get home, which is why I gain weight."  But there's footage of them eating bite after bite while they're cooking and "testing" the food!  When I mass-produce a bunch of DVDs, I don't have to do a quality check on them all, I just have to watch one!

I suppose someone else would watch the film and complain about something else, like Ryder's character wearing white after Labor Day, but that's what bothered me.  Gere's character should really have been at least 100 pounds heavier to be realistic.

Also starring Anthony LaPaglia (last heard in "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole"), Elaine Stritch (last seen in "Cocoon: the Return"), Vera Farmiga (last seen in "Up in the Air"), Sherry Stringfield, Jill Hennessey, Mary Beth Hurt (last seen in "The World According to Garp") and J.K. Simmons (last heard in "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore")

RATING: 4 out of 10 Chilean sea bass

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Big Chill

Year 4, Day 59 - 2/28/12 - Movie #1,059

BEFORE: William Hurt carries over from "The Accidental Tourist", as does the director, Lawrence Kasdan.  This seems like another one of those movies that everyone in my generation has seen, yet I haven't.  Exactly the type of film I like to cross off the list.

I guess I'm in South Carolina tonight - while TCM is lolling in Spain ("The Adventures of Don Juan") and the French Riviera ("The Red Shoes", "To Catch a Thief") before moving on to the Middle East ("Arabian Nights", "Topkapi").  I've seen "The Man Who Would Be King" and "Lawrence of Arabia", of course, so I'm abstaining again.

THE PLOT: A group of seven former college friends gather for a weekend reunion at a posh South Carolina winter house after the funeral of one of their friends.

AFTER: Pardon the pun, but this one just sort of left me cold.  It does count as a "relationship" picture because the seven friends spent more time bed-hopping than grieving over their friend, though.  Hey, maybe that's their way of grieving, celebrating life by getting busy.  Oh, sure, let me "comfort" you in your time of sorrow...

But it's really a bunch of self-centered yuppies (and this was the 80's, so that term does apply) moaning about their mid-life troubles.  All the while playing the soft soul hits of their 60's youth (on record players, one assumes, or maybe they just have that piped in...).  Can you believe how much money we make in a year?  Can you believe we're friendly with cops?  Give me a break.  I was wishing the cops would raid the house and find their pot, coke and quaaludes, putting the whole lot of them out of my misery.

I guess if you put 7 forty-somethings together in a house, they're all going to seize the opportunity to switch partners and get busy?  Yeah, right.  This constant un-coupling and re-coupling was just exhausting.  That's what's holding these people back, besides the recreational drug use - they're too tired from sleeping around and their emotional soul-searching to get out and accomplish things.  "Nah, I guess I won't open up that nightclub after all."  "No, I'm not ready to make an investment."  Come ON, this was the go-go 80's!  Insider trading, coke-fueled thrown-together business plans, gotta move, gotta drive real fast!

The people who practiced "Love the one you're with" in the 60's grew up to be wracked with doubt and regret in the 80's, apparently.  Pining over lost loves, worrying about their ticking biological clocks, and trying to wring one last roll in the hay from their circle of friends before their sex-drive completely vanishes.  It all seemed rather desperate, and quite pointless.

They're all confused by their friend's suicide, and wonder why he wandered around for years, from job to job.  Well, none of them are happy, so if bouncing around isn't the answer, and staying put's not the answer, and getting married's not the answer, and having kids is not the answer, what the hell is the answer?  Doesn't anyone here know how to play this game?

Who knew the Rolling Stones sounded so good when played on a church organ?  That was probably my favorite part...

Also starring Kevin Kline (last seen in "Sophie's Choice"), Tom Berenger (last seen in "Inception"), Glenn Close (last seen in "The World According to Garp"), Jeff Goldblum (last seen in "Cats & Dogs"), Jobeth Williams (last seen in "Kramer vs. Kramer"), Mary Kay Place (last heard in "Shrek Forever After"), Meg Tilly (last seen in "The Two Jakes").

RATING: 4 out of 10 college sweatshirts

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Accidental Tourist

Year 4, Day 58 - 2/27/12 - Movie #1,058

BEFORE: So, I didn't watch much of the Oscars last night - I didn't really feel it was urgent, since I'd only seen one nominated film ("Puss in Boots").  I used to have a much better track record with seeing the nominees, either on the big screen or "over the shoulder" of someone watching an Academy screener, but now it's just a way for me to learn about which movies I'll be watching a year from now.

I could have easily followed up "The English Patient" with "The King's Speech", due to the Colin Firth connection.  Or transitioned into other movies about war - but that seemed too easy.  I'm still in February mode and that means romance stories - and this one earned an Oscar for Geena Davis (last seen in "Stuart Little 2") back in 1989.  I can link from Willem Dafoe anyway, who was in "Auto Focus" with Ed Begley Jr. (last seen in "She-Devil"), who appears in this one.

THE PLOT: An emotionally distant writer of travel guides must carry on with his life after his son is killed and his marriage crumbles.

AFTER: I'm honestly not quite sure what to make of this film - it's a quirky little number about a bunch of quirky people.  The central character is a travel writer who hates to travel (but loves to correct people's grammar, which I admire).  And he's caught in a dilemma - should he reconcile with his ex-wife, or pursue a relationship with the cute + quirky dog trainer?  And, by extension, should he remain in a comfortable rut, or strike out and accomplish new things?

What, if anything, from this film can I latch on to?  I also enjoy my routines, and sometimes find it difficult to maintain contact with friends, or perform the expected social graces.  That's where being in a relationship can be beneficial - someone who's the right degree of crazy can shake you up when you are in a rut, and getting used to another person's way of doing things can keep you from getting locked into your own patterns.  Plus, people who have OCD (like Macon's sister) can function well if you put them to work organizing things - make them all file clerks or librarians and everyone will be happy.  Trust me on this one.

The symbolism is quite blatant, though - someone who travels a lot doesn't want to be tied down.  And people have baggage, both literal and figurative.  Yeah, we get it.  But I didn't really understand the ending scenes at all, what were they trying to say with the emphasis on that French boy?   No clue.

Also starring William Hurt (last seen in "Michael"), Kathleen Turner (last seen in "Marley & Me"), Bill Pullman (last seen in "Lucky Numbers"), David Ogden Stiers (last heard in "Teacher's Pet").

RATING: 3 out of 10 boarding passes

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The English Patient

Year 4, Day 57 - 2/26/12 - Movie #1,057

BEFORE: Well, I survived the A-pork-alypse Now festival, came home and slept for 5 hours, so this works out pretty well.  I can't usually sleep once the beer wears off,  so it's a fine time to stay up watching a nearly 3-hour movie.  I can cross off the Best Picture winner from 1996, which I mark as the 50th Best Picture winner I've seen, leaving 33 unseen - though after tonight, I guess that will be 34.  By way of comparison, I've seen 73 of the AFI's top 100 American films, and 270 of the "1000 Films to See Before You Die".  Which suggests the question - how many films should I see AFTER I die?

I can imagine TCM is staying away from this film, because - well, when would they screen it?  Half of the film takes place in Italy and half in Northern Africa.  It just doesn't work with their schedule this year.  Anyway, they're still in California, and for Oscar night the films seem to have a definite Hollywood vibe - like "Singin' in the Rain", "The Bad and the Beautiful", and "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"  Plus "The Graduate" and "L.A. Confidential", which I've seen.  I'm going to pick up "Inside Daisy Clover" and the 1954 "A Star Is Born".  After that, I think I'm done with the 31 Days of Oscar.  I'll still keep track of the line-up, but the month is winding down and nothing else on the list really interests me.  Anyway, I can't wait to get back to watching the number of films on my list go down.

THE PLOT: At the close of WWII, a young nurse tends to a badly-burned plane crash victim. His past is shown in flashbacks, revealing an involvement in a fateful love affair.

AFTER: Ralph ("RAFE") Fiennes carries over from last night's film, of course, as does the theme of a love affair set during World War 2, so good programming (or good luck) again on my part.  Last night's affair took place during the bombing of London, and this one plays out during the early days of the war as it sweeps through Cairo.

The whole flashback structure carries over, too - and this film is slightly guilty of some of the same sins, jumping around a bit in time, showing us little flash-forwards of incidents to come.  But here it's done with better intentions - as bits and pieces of the past are revealed, we learn exactly who this "English Patient" is, and how he came to be disfigured.   And I think the past story pretty much plays out in order, so it's less jarring that way - but it still feels like someone couldn't completely decide which storyline was more important, the present or the past.

I'm treading lightly here, in case I'm not actually the last person who hadn't seen this film.  And this is a mystery of sorts, since we're not sure at first who the patient is, if he's a spy, if he truly has amnesia, what connection he has to the mysterious stranger who shows up, and is also oddly disfigured.  Seems everyone in the film is damaged somehow, even if you can't see it - well, I suppose that's wartime for you.

It's a big, grand, sweeping epic, with love and betrayal and war and death - if it's guilty of anything, it's of trying to be everywhere at once and cover so much territory that at the end I was left slightly wondering what it actually was about.  I guess different people will take it in different ways, as a war story or a romance or an action film or a mystery, and I suppose that's fine.

I do feel it telegraphed a lot of its moves, and there was some notably corny dialogue and imagery - for example, "He spends his days looking for bombs - but at night he just wants to be found..." Seriously?  Why not just have someone say, "You've wandered into a my heart!"

NITPICK POINT: A woman notices that everyone she's close to tends to die - but not the one man with a serious medical condition.  No, he sticks around for weeks (months?) - just long enough to tell his story.  (What a coincidence!)

NITPICK POINT #2: I get that the Nazis planted a lot of bombs - so it's not safe to play a piano, which might be rigged.  But it's OK to dig a vegetable garden?

Also starring Juliette Binoche (last seen in "Dan in Real Life"), Kristin Scott Thomas (last seen way back in "Mission: Impossible"), Willem Dafoe (last seen in "Cirque du Freak"), Colin Firth, Jurgen Prochnow (last seen in "Air Force One") and Naveen Andrews.

RATING: 7 out of 10 canteens