Saturday, May 19, 2012

Disorganized Crime

Year 4, Day 140 - 5/19/12 - Movie #1,139

BEFORE: Since last night's film was about organized crime, here's the rebuttal, I guess.  Linking from "Miller's Crossing", John Turturro was also in "He Got Game" with Denzel Washington, who was also in this year's "Safe House" with Ruben Blades (last seen in "The Devil's Own").

THE PLOT: Top thiefs, looking to steal money from a bank, have many blunders on the way. Meanwhile, a member of their group is missing and two cops chase after him.

AFTER: Jeez, it was hard to tell who was the most inept in this one - the crooks, the city cops, or the rural Montana cops.  No, maybe it was the guy who set up the whole caper, and then got himself arrested, so his gang is forced to go ahead with the robbery without him.  Yeah, I'll go with that.

It would be too easy to just say, "Oh, I hate slapstick" and write this one off, so I'm not going to do that. There is physical humor, but it's not really done with a completely comical tone - it's more like what's seen in a Coen Brothers film.  (Not "Miller's Crossing", I mean a good one, like "Fargo" or "Raising Arizona")  Things do go wrong, people do get hurt, or at least very inconvenienced - but it feels more like Murphy's Law rather than broad farcical comedy.

From a script standpoint, this felt sort of half-written.  As if the screenwriter wrote down the key plot points, and then depended on the actors to ad-lib a lot of the dialogue.  I draw this conclusion after noticing many instances of actors repeat their lines over and over again, with slightly different emphasis.  Ex. "What are we going to do?  Well, what ARE we going to do?"

Mixed in are some of the same elements that you'd see in a classic heist film (like, say, "The Italian Job").  The team is put together, consisting of a safecracker, an explosives expert, a weapons man, and a driver.  Oh, yeah, and the criminal mastermind, but as stated, he's absent for one reason or another for most of the film.  That hardly seems fair, but it forces the other team members to put their differences aside and come up with a new plan.  There's some initial sparring between the different personalities on the team, but they don't try to kill each other, like in some other films I could name.  Perhaps that's unrealistic, but it makes for a more positive film.

Still, I have to remember these are anti-heroes, thieves and ex-cons.  It's so easy to get turned around on some of these things when the criminals are the main characters, and you spend some time with them and learn they're not such bad folk.  Inept, perhaps, but they mean well.  See, I did it again - these guys don't mean well at all.

A plot point here prompts me to ask a question - has any criminal ever tried to pay his bail with stolen money?  It must have happened some time, right?  So if someone is accused of stealing, say, 2 million dollars, why not just set his bail at 2 million and check the cash once he pays it?  If he pays in small bills, that's like an admission of guilt, the money gets paid back, and the state is saved the cost of a trial.  That works, right?  You're welcome.

 Clearly, I've lost all rational detachment, and I'm too close to my subect matter once again.  But I'm out of heist/caper films - and I didn't even get to "Fun with Dick and Jane" or a couple other notables ones.  The reason is - I've got about a 3 or 4 week window once I know for sure I'm going to cover a certain topic, during which I can add extra films on that topic if need be.  However, I now think I may have added a couple too many films on the fly to the last few topics, I may have to cut something to get my schedule in line with upcoming holidays.

Also starring Corbin Bernsen (last seen in "Radioland Murders"), Lou Diamond Philips (last seen in "Hollywood Homicide"), Fred Gwynne (last seen in "The Cotton Club"), Ed O'Neill (last seen in "Lucky Numbers"), Hoyt Axton, William Russ, Daniel Roebuck.

RATING: 5 out of 10 footprints

Friday, May 18, 2012

Miller's Crossing

Year 4, Day 139 - 5/18/12 - Movie #1,138

BEFORE: Playing clean-up on some loose crime films before switching topics.  This is one of the few Coen Brothers films that I have not seen.  Linking from "30:Minutes or Less", Michael Peña was in "Buffalo Soldiers" with Ed Harris, who was also in "Pollock" with Marcia Gay Harden (last seen in "Meet Joe Black").

THE PLOT: An advisor to a Prohibition-era crime boss, tries to keep the peace between warring mobs but gets caught in divided loyalties.

AFTER: I'm sort of reminded of the beer-pairing dinner I had a couple nights ago - I was seated at a table with a guy who wasn't very talkative, which happens.  Most times the conversation opens up after a few samples of beer, but I made a couple attempts to talk, and then left it alone.  But I did overhear most of the conversation at the next table, which appeared to involve four chefs.  I rarely get to hear one chef's opinion of another chef's meal - one in particular kept saying that the meal was too ambitious to be made in such a small kitchen, that the chef was "overreaching".  I found the meal quite delicious and elegant, and tried to understand how someone could describe food in such a manner.  He was probably taking things into account that I, as a non-chef, couldn't understand - perhaps food cost, time between courses, and the perceived pretentiousness of ingredients like celery root, steak tartare, and smoked eel aioli.

Something similar went on with this film - to some people, it may just be a tasty meal.  But looking at the elements, and the way they're put together, it feels to me like someone was overreaching.  Now, a man's reach should exceed his grasp, yada yada yada, but I have to judge a film on how enjoyable I found it on this particular day.  Sure, other factors may be at work, this is always the case - but a good film should keep me interested and awake regardless, and I dozed off several times during this one.

There are some OK action sequences, particularly the attempted assassination of a crime-boss, but so much of this is cerebral (aka talky-talky) and concerned with criminals all trying to outwit each other, that I have to determine that there wasn't enough action.  Too much tell, not enough show.  Instead of talking about a fixed boxing match, why not film one?  I'm just sayin'.

If anything, it reminds me of "The Usual Suspects", which I had to watch two or three times just to get a handle on it, and even then I wasn't exactly sure what I'd seen.  I don't like it when I have to do most of the heavy lifting in piecing a plot together.  Of course, I don't want to be spoon-fed all the plot elements either, so in-between there should be a healthy balance.

I guess this is supposed to be about the ethics of criminals, a variation on honor among thieves - but it takes place among a city's underworld where the loyalties are always shifting like quicksand.  So how can anyone remain ethical when the alliances are always changing?  Doesn't betrayal become part of the moral code, if it ends up happening so often?  If you lie down with dogs, don't you wake up with fleas?  Is it enough to out-think your competition when they've got bigger guns? 

Also starring Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro, Jon Polito, with cameos from Steve Buscemi, Mike Starr, Michael Jeter.

RATING: 5 out of 10 speakeasys

Thursday, May 17, 2012

30:Minutes or Less

Year 4, Day 138 - 5/17/12 - Movie #1,137

BEFORE: Went to another beer dinner last night, it's been a good year for them so far.   Of the four restaurants I know in NYC that host them, 3 of them have been doing so on a near-monthly basis, so that's kept me rather busy, as well as torpedoed any plans to lose weight.  So, a shorter film tonight.

From robbing safes to robbing a bank - and with some luck, Mark Wahlberg from "The Italian Job" was in a film called "Shooter" that co-starred Michael Peña (last seen in "Babel"), who appears in this film.  Damn, he was also in "Tower Heist", which would have fit neatly in this chain, but I don't have a copy of that one yet.

THE PLOT: Two fledgling criminals kidnap a pizza delivery guy, strap a bomb to his chest, and inform him that he has mere hours to rob a bank or else...

AFTER: This film rode a delicate balance between action film and comedy film.  You don't see a lot of action comedies, and I think I know why - it's very hard to ride that line and strike just the right tone.  "The Other Guys", "Pineapple Express" - I can't think of too many other examples that didn't veer off into nutso parody like "Starsky & Hutch" did.  But this one mostly managed it, though perhaps it could have been a little funnier, more in line with "Pineapple Express".

Movie heists are a bit like real-life weddings - something is bound to go wrong somewhere.  Hopefully it's something little and they can shrug it off.  Here we see what may be cinema's most awkward bank robbery, except maybe the one in "Dog Day Afternoon".  But it's a little expected, with two non-career criminals/regular guys forced to steal, and their only reference for how to act probably would come from other bank robbery movies.

Again, we are presented with two sets of characters, and prompted to root for one group over the other.  Here the choice is made more justifiably by showing that one group is roped into the heist against their will.  That goes a long way, especially when the other group toggles between ruthless and clueless.  But it's what happens after the wheels are set in motion that counts, and I think I'd have more respect for our everyman group if someone had made rational decisions, like going to the police, or finding a way to return what was stolen.  Nope, once you engage in some criminal behavior, you might as well go all the way (apparently) and then try to outsmart the people with guns and bombs.  This is America, and we let our weapons speak for us.

Agreed, the police in Grand Rapids were shown to be relatively ineffectual.  And few people might make rational decisions when strapped to a bomb.   But there are times when the presence of the bomb DOES focus our hero - it makes him realize what's important in life, and it also forces/frees him to think of some very innovative techniques for outsmarting the bad(der) guys.  But it's too bad it didn't focus him enough to do the (most) right thing.

NITPICK POINT: Does any pizza place still offer the pies for free if not delivered within 30 minutes?  I'm pretty sure Domino's, which popularized it, gave that guarantee up years ago.  And a pizza restaurant that's not part of a larger chain probably couldn't afford to make such an offer.  As seen here, too many smart-ass teens would call from a longer distance to increase their chances of getting free food.

Starring Jesse Eisenberg (last seen in "Adventureland"), Danny McBride (last heard in "Despicable Me"), Aziz Ansari (last seen in "I Love You, Man"), Nick Swardson (last heard in "Bolt"), Fred Ward.

RATING: 5 out of 10 ski masks

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Italian Job (2003)

Year 4, Day 137 - 5/16/12 - Movie #1,136

BEFORE: I'm deep into the heist chain now - this one's become pretty well regarded as the ultimate heist film, so I'd better watch it before I learn any more about the plot than I already do.  A quick stop in Italy, then I'm headed back to the States.  Linking tonight comes from the film "The Road", which starred both Guy Pearce from "The Hard Word" and Charlize Theron (last seen in "The Cider House Rules").  "The Road" is on my list, I just haven't gotten to it yet.

THE PLOT: After being betrayed and left for dead in Italy, Charlie Croker and his team plan an elaborate gold heist against their former ally.

AFTER: That's three heists (at least) in three days - and of course a pattern has emerged.  First you need a team of different experts, but at some point the team members are going to turn on each other, and fight over the money.  Geez, I see it coming now - why don't they?  I suppose it's human nature, but if so, why aren't the other humans ready for it?

Also, like the previous two films, we've got another case here where there are bad guys and badder guys.  Again, it's evil by degrees.  Here the not-so-bad bad guys are more charming, and the badder bad guy is a big jerk - is that enough to separate them?  Or is it the fact that the not-so-bad bad guys are at least loyal to each other, plus more clever, and willing and able to work as a team, does that make them more noble somehow?  I mean, it's still about the money, right?  You know when someone says "It's not about the money" that means it's about the money.

I think what really sets this one apart is the elaborate nature of the heists.  Stuff that's probably not possible in the real world, but plays very well in a film, and looks great to boot.  The combination of technology, explosives and just sheer craftiness helps this team pull off the impossible.  The fact that they seem to have an infinite amount of time to plan, plus unlimited financial resources (apparently) when it comes to computers and explosives.  Which kind of makes me wonder why they need to boost safes anyway - if they didn't spend so much money on equipment, maybe they wouldn't need to steal gold bullion!

It also makes me wonder what these people could accomplish to make an honest living, if they were so inclined to turn their talents away from thievery.  Look, the safecracker probably made a good living helping the police and court system break into safes to get subpoenaed documents.  The rest of them could have worked in the security field, or computers, or disabling explosives rather than setting them.

But I suppose these are minor quibbles.  For whatever reasons, these men have settled upon a life of crime, and I'm supposed to root for them to succeed, because they're the best option presented to me.  Revenge is a powerful motivator as well, but the senior member of the group did advise them to get out of the game and settle down, before it became too late to do so.

I do think a case can be made for this as the "ultimate" heist film - the action sequences are very exciting (though, again, quite improbable) and the twists are good and unexpected.  Even if it's not the most original, it somehow felt very original, and isn't that what's important?

A few NITPICK POINTS but nothing I can discuss without divulging plot details.  Suffice it to say, I saw some of the same problems as "Live Free or Die Hard", where a guy with a computer is able to "hack" just about anything with a laptop.

Also starring Mark Wahlberg (last seen in "The Lovely Bones"), Donald Sutherland (last seen in "Kelly's Heroes"), Jason Statham (last seen in "The Bank Job", nice...), Edward Norton (last seen in "The Illusionist"), Seth Green (last seen in "America's Sweethearts"), Mos Def (last seen in "Cadillac Records"), with cameos from Scott Adsit, Oscar Nunez.

RATING: 7 out of 10 traffic lights

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Hard Word

Year 4, Day 136 - 5/15/12 - Movie #1,135

BEFORE: My co-worker had an exciting weekend, sky-diving for the first time.  It was one of those things on her bucket list.  (By contrast, on my bucket list is "make sure you NEVER jump out of a plane".  If I make it to the end of my life without doing that, success!)  But I'm jumping on a metaphorical plane to fly to Australia for this next heist film.  From a casino heist to a racetrack heist, this seems to follow quite naturally.  And linking is easy since David Arquette co-starred with Guy Pearce (last seen in "The King's Speech) in "Ravenous", one of my fave films.

THE PLOT: Centers around three brothers, sophisticated armed robbers who work with their long-time lawyer and corrupt police to pull off the biggest heist in Australian history.

AFTER: This film took a while to make sense at first, and not just because the Australian accents were so thick, and a couple characters seem to talk in a language all their own (thankfully, there were subtitles) but also because the set-up includes a lot to take in.  Three brothers start out in jail, and apparently can get out on furlough if they agree to help plan another of their signature heists.  For this to work, the warden, the lawyer and the police all need to be in on the plan - so the take gets split up many ways, and as we've seen before, that always leads to trouble.

I guess the rules are different down in Australia - what do you expect from a country that was founded as a prison colony?  Here in America we try to keep our criminals in jail, but what do I know?

As I've seen before in films like "The Town", "Snatch" and umm, last night's film, it's a hard road toward making characters like this sympathetic, but it can be accomplished in a number of different ways.  You can make the characters weak or naive in some way, as in a film like Woody Allen's "Small Time Crooks".  This technique is used here with one dumber, childlike brother and another who is suffering from food poisoning - these things humanize the characters and give the audience a way in.  The third brother is having a strained relationship with his wife, and romantic troubles also have a sympathetic effect.

Without these things, it comes down to a matter of degrees - how evil are they?  If they commit these complex robberies, "Ocean's Eleven"-style, without anyone getting hurt, then I suppose it could be a lot worse.  Which brings up another trick for making these characters sympathetic - the use of foil characters that are much more evil, who kill without remorse, makes them look better by comparison.  And since there are no real "hero" characters, like honest policemen, the audience is forced to gravitate to the lesser of the evils, and support the main characters.

It's a neat little trick, but it still feels like a trick.  I enjoy a good double-cross (or triple-cross) film as much as the next guy, and there's plenty of maneuvering before, during and after the heist, so this may keep you guessing about who's going to come out on top, and how they're going to do it.

Also starring Rachel Griffiths (last seen in "Blow"), Joel Edgerton (last heard in "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole"), Robert Taylor, Damien Richardson. 

RATING: 5 out of 10 duffel bags

Monday, May 14, 2012

3000 Miles to Graceland

Year 4, Day 135 - 5/14/12 - Movie #1,134

BEFORE: From Miami/Dallas I'm heading up to Las Vegas for this caper/heist film.  Linking from "Smokey and the Bandit II", Sally Field was in "Forrest Gump" with Kurt Russell (last seen in "Stargate"), who (allegedly) provided the voice of Elvis for that film.  If that's not good enough, Burt Reynolds was in the remake of "The Longest Yard", which also had Courteney Cox (last seen in "Cocoon: The Return")  in an uncredited role, but to me that counts.

THE PLOT: A gang of ex-cons rob a casino during Elvis convention week.

AFTER: I've covered heist films before, and I also did a whole week of films about Vegas back in Year 1, I think.  Jeez, I even watched a string of heist films set in Vegas, so forgive me if this feels a bit like a retread for me.  But some backtracking is to be expected, I suppose, since I didn't add this film to the list until just a couple months ago.

The film opens with an animated sequence, two CGI metallic scorpions fighting in the desert.  It seems like an odd choice, until the latter part of the film becomes a showdown between the two main characters, so the symbolism of the two scorpions becomes clear.  But scorpions are not evil, they are just built a certain way by nature that includes a stinger, whereas robbers and killers do what they do by choice, so the metaphor doesn't really work for me.

It's perhaps a Hollywood convention to show a group of thieves turn on each other during the heist.  It's somewhat logical, since any eliminated members would mean that the others would get bigger shares, plus the fewer people that can get caught or rat out the others seems like a positive.  But, whether this takes place in the real world, I can't confirm or deny.  Here it also seems like a way to eliminate extraneous characters that the screenwriter got tired of, or a way to get the audience to focus on the film's two main characters, Michael and Murphy, not-so-coincidentally played by the film's biggest stars.

I can't help but be cynical, especially when the film seems to meander through what passes for a chase, and relies on incredible coincidences to get the characters back together (and in conflict with each other).  What I did find interesting was the mental game played between the two main characters, who had to get inside each other's heads to gain any advantage.  Just the hint that Michael's girlfriend might be in league with Murphy was enough to cause Michael to doubt everything about her.  He didn't even debate whether Murphy himself might be lying.  I mean, sure there's supposedly honor among thieves, but not this bunch of thieves.

Once the chase for the money (and the run for the border) was on, the film stayed good and twisty.  At no point was I sure of who was going to come out on top, and maintaining that uncertainty is no small feat.  But what was a little weird was the film getting me to root for one criminal over another - as if there are degrees of evilness, or something.  Right is right, and wrong is wrong, right?  Sure, one's a complete psycho and the other seems more reasonable, but aren't they both complicit in the heist?  Plus, remember, they're both scorpions!

Why is Michael "less evil" than Murphy?  Because he doesn't kill?  I'd have to review the footage from the heist to confirm that... Because a woman cares for him?  That seems arbitrary.  Because he cares about the woman's kid?  I don't know if teaching him to boost cars counts as fatherly advice.  Any way I slice it, it feels like the film is forcing a villain into the hero role.  Which is awkward at best, and morally questionable at worst.  You can't make a sow's ear into a silk purse...

Also starring Kevin Costner (last seen in "A Perfect World"), Christian Slater (last heard in "Igor"), David Arquette (last seen in "The Darwin Awards"), Kevin Pollak (last seen in "Avalon"), Thomas Haden Church, Howie Long, with cameos from Jon Lovitz, Ice-T, Paul Anka.

RATING: 5 out of 10 slot machines

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Smokey and the Bandit II

Year 4, Day 134 - 5/13/12 - Movie #1,133

BEFORE: Most of the cast members of last night's film carries over - not expecting much of a plot, though...

THE PLOT: The Bandit goes on another cross-country run, transporting an elephant from Florida to Texas. And, once again, Sheriff Buford T. Justice is on his tail.

AFTER: Franchise films are funny - we Star Wars fans argue over the finer points of what makes one film better than the other, and Trekkies and Potterheads probably do the same.  But when a franchise can't take itself seriously during its first sequel, it's not a good sign.

The 2nd "Smokey and the Bandit" film devolved into farce and slapstick, plus a few knowing nods at the audience - Burt Reynolds talks directly to the camera, practically apologizing for plot devices that he knows are no good.  And if the actors can't take things seriously, how the heck am I expected to?

The presence of Dom Deluise trying (and failing) to maintain the demeanor of an Italian pseudo-doctor ("I'm not a gynecologist, but I'll take a look...") is another warning sign, as is Jackie Gleason doing triple-duty as Sheriff Justice but his two non-identical cousins from Canada, and, um, someplace else where cops are apparently gay.

They didn't know what to do with Sally Field's character either, so after breaking up with the Bandit, she went to New York and danced on Broadway, then somehow ended up back where she started, ready to marry Sheriff Justice's clueless son, because the writers couldn't think of any other way to get the characters back together.  Yeah, it works as a story point, but otherwise makes zero sense.

The timeline doesn't work either, since the elephant has to get from Miami to Dallas right away, about 4 weeks from now.  So there's time for the Bandit to quit drinking and go on a 3-week training regimen, thanks to a montage.  He needs to train to drive a TransAm?  Why not cut the training program short and give himself an extra week for the journey - why does everything have to happen at the last possible minute?

The plot (and I use the term loosely) culminates in an orgy of set-up police car stunts taking place in a desert canyon (despite the fact that there is no desert located between Miami and Dallas) as a bunch of tractor-trailers plays round-em-up with the police cars from Canada and um, that gay place.  This movie was filmed around the same time as "Cannonball Run", and I have to say, it makes the other film look like "King Lear" by comparison.

The highlight of my weekend?  A trip to the Cheesecake Factory.  The low point - "Smokey and the Bandit II".  There, I said it.

Starring the cast of last night's film, plus cameos from David Huddleston, Mel Tillis, Terry Bradshaw, "Mean" Joe Greene, and the Statler Brothers.

RATING: 2 out of 10 hidden beer cans