Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Book of Eli

Year 4, Day 175 - 6/23/12 - Movie #1,172

BEFORE: The work on my screenplay has begun, I'm determined to finish it this time, even if it turns out to not be good, at least I can say I accomplished it.  I made a servicable outline the other night, which cleared my head and allowed me to concentrate on other things again for a while.  Now I think of little story bits or dialogue bits during the day and I write them down, when I get home I type up the bits, clearing out my brain again.  Hopefully if I get enough good bits all I'll have to do is put them in the right order, and putting things in the right order is something that I'm quite good at.

Variations on a theme tonight, with another post-apocalyptic film that was released just 2 months after "The Road".  This is also the start of my second Denzel Washington chain - the first was in 2010.  Of all the other actors I built theme chains around - DeNiro, Streep, Nicholson, Schwarzenegger, Travolta - I think this will be the first time an actor gets a second theme week.  I'll have to double-check that...

Linking tonight is easy, since Robert Duvall from "The Road" co-starred in "John Q." with Denzel Washington (last seen in "Mo' Better Blues", I think).

THE PLOT: A lone man fights his way across post-apocalyptic America in order to protect a sacred book that holds the secrets to saving humankind.

AFTER: Yes, this is still similar to "The Road", but with better fight scenes.  There's a good bit of "Mad Max" in here too, with bands of marauders and warlords fighting over the last bits of food and fuel left.  Denzel's character gives as good as he gets, being armed with an old-school machete, as well as some killer moves.

Many of the concepts are the same - the world is perpetually getting grayer, the vegetation is mostly gone, and food and water are in short supply.  As a result, the population is drastically reduced,  and people are encouraged to go green, as in Soylent Green. 

But the other advantage this film has over last night's competition is that it has a Thing.  Not a plot twist, since I'm trying to maintain a mostly spoiler-free zone - if there WERE a plot twist, I would hesitate to even mention it. (See, now you don't know if there's a twist or not...)  A Thing is more like a gimmick, something of an "Ah-HAH!" moment.  For comparitive purposes: "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" had a plot twist, and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" had a Thing.  It's more like what you saw in "The Sixth Sense" or "Fight Club" - something that's inherently woven into the fabric of the film, and once you realize it, you may want to go back to the beginning of the film and re-watch what went before, so you can wonder how you missed it.  (Psst - it's because you weren't looking for it.)

It's not the identity of the book - that was pretty easy to figure out.   What book can bring hope to the masses, but can also be corrupted for purposes of controlling those masses?  This concept also evoked Ray Bradbury in a way - so if you've never read "Fahrenheit 451", please do so.  You can watch that film, but reading the book is way better.  And more ironic, if you think about it.

Also starring Gary Oldman (last heard in "Planet 51"), Mila Kunis (last seen in "Date Night"), Jennifer Beals (last seen in "Devil With a Blue Dress"), Ray Stevenson (last seen in "Thor") with cameos from Tom Waits (last seen in "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus"), Michael Gambon (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1").

RATING: 8 out of 10 canteens  (would have been a 7 without the Thing)

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Road

Year 4, Day 174 - 6/22/12 - Movie #1,171

BEFORE: OK, I didn't get to "Slap Shot" or "The Fighter" or (ick) "The Blind Side" - so there are sports films yet unwatched.  Seeing as I don't have copies of those films on hand, I'm moving on.  Follow-ups are just SO 2013.   The idea here was that "Rollerball" (the first one, anyway) portrayed sort of a dystopian future, so it's my link to other films of that nature that I wasn't able to get to in my end-of-the-world chain late last year.  For linking tonight, we turn to Rebecca Romijn from "Rollerball", who was also in "X-Men" with Ian McKellen, who was also in the "Lord of the Rings" films with Viggo Mortensen (last seen in "Carlito's Way").

THE PLOT: A post-apocalyptic tale of a man and his son trying to survive by any means possible.

AFTER: Gah, I'm split down the middle on this one.  First thought is, how depressing!  The future portrayed here is one just a few years after some kind of cataclysmic event, either man-made or natural (the movie doesn't explain) and without plant growth or animal life, the few remaining humans are forced to wander the world with their possessions, seeking out what little food and fuel remains.

Second thought is, well, maybe this is what people today NEED to see - to prompt further efforts to recycle and conserve our resources, so that we don't use up what the planet offers and choke out the sun with our greenhouse gases.  On the first day of summer where the temperature hit 93 in NYC today (and after a mild winter and an extremely warm spring), it gets easier to believe in the global warming.   Furthermore, take good care of yourself, get lots of sleep, and cherish whatever time you have left on this planet with your loved ones.

Then I kind of swing back the other way and have a bad reaction to the preachiness of it all.  Plus, I'm forced to analyze whether the events presented to me tonight form a coherent and enjoyable film, because after all, that's why I'm doing this.  For the most part, the answer is "No".  It's certainly not enjoyable, though it is edgy and dark and suspenseful, it's not generally the kind of entertainment that I seek out to umm, be entertained by.

Beyond that, let's examine the coherency, or lack thereof.  Is there a coherent beginning, middle and end to it all?  Again, I'm not sure.  The beginning gets a little caught up in the flashbacks of "the event", without cluing us in on what the event is.  It might be fire-related - solar flares?  Urban riots?  And it's something that blocked out the sun and turned the world gray - a meteorite? Nuclear winter?  Where one person might appreciate the air of mystery, I choose to see a screenwriting shortcut.  No, don't give us the facts, because they'll only confuse us.

Then we come to the logistics of it all.  Could people survive in a gray world with no plant life, and just the stores of canned food that were already on the shelves?  How long before people resort to looting and cannibalism?  Based on current news reports of cannibal-related crimes, I'd guess about three minutes.

On top of the preachiness, there's the use of very obvious metaphor.  The road is not just the path to the coast, it's the road of life, which we all travel.  And who we meet on the road and how we treat them determines our fate, and whether or not we reach our destination.  I worked on a short film back in the day that took place in an elevator, and the symbolism was just as simplistic - we're all traveling up, up in to eternity, and some people are already on the elevator when we enter, and some get off before us when they reach their floor, but our journey continues.  Umm, until it doesn't.  You get the idea.

I suppose you can get into the boy representing the best aspects of humanity, like having a positive outlook and trusting others, whereas the father represents some of the worst aspects, since he's paranoid all the time and generally mistrustful.  But who's to say which is the more appropriate reaction to the collapse of civilization?  I don't feel comfortable making that call.

Also starring Charlize Theron (last seen in "The Italian Job"), Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall (last seen in "Days of Thunder"), with cameos from Guy Pearce (last seen in "The Hard Word"), Molly Parker (last seen in "The Good Shepherd").

RATING: 4 out of 10 shopping carts

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rollerball (2002)

Year 4, Day 173 - 6/21/12 - Movie #1,170

BEFORE: Time to see if the remake lives up (?) to the original film.  Does it ever?

Linking's a little tough tonight, I can get there a few different ways, but let's go this way - James Caan was also in a film called "Kiss Me Goodbye" with Sally Field, who was also in "Say It Isn't So" with Chris Klein.

THE PLOT: The big thing in 2005 is Rollerball, a violent sport which can have some pretty serious consequences... like dying.

AFTER: Wow, I didn't think too much of the original "Rollerball", but this version makes that one look like "Citizen Kane" by comparison.  They made a big mistake with this, and assumed that the best part of the Rollerball concept was the game itself, so they made a film that is 99% game.  But the most interesting part of the original film was James Caan trying to figure out who was controlling the game.  So they ditched the thing that made the game interesting.

They also changed the game itself - the future-sport depicted in the original film had a scoreboard, points were awarded for goals scored.  But in the remake they took the scoring away, so we're left with just people skating around, occasionally propelled by motorcycles.  Oh, there are stunts, but what's the point of the game without a score?  It's now just a bloodsport - so why do the main characters act surprised when people start getting killed?  What else IS there to the game?

The only semi-smart thing they did was remove the dystopian future setting - the film was made in 2002 but set in 2005, which was not a large leap.  This way they didn't have to make a lot of predictions about what technology would look like 20 years down the road - instead by setting the film in central Asia in the near-future, there was more of a feeling that this sport could take place, and soon.  They probably watch some freaky TV in Mongolia and Kazakhstan anyway, right?

I had trouble staying awake for this one, but I don't think it was my fault.

Also starring Jean Reno (last seen in "Armored"), LL Cool J (last seen in "S.W.A.T.", Rebecca Romijn, Naveen Andrews (last seen in "The English Patient"), with a cameo from Pink.

RATING: 2 out of 10 translators

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Rollerball (1975)

Year 4, Day 172 - 6/20/12 - Movie #1,169

BEFORE: Just one sport left on the list, but it may be the most brutal of them all - it's a future-sports film, like "The Running Man" was, because we all know that sports are just going to get more and more violent, right?  Burt Young from "Win Win" links through the movie "Mickey Blue Eyes" to James Caan (last heard in "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs").

Something odd is happening as a result of the movie project - my brain has revived a screenplay that I gave up writing five years ago.  I don't know why, maybe it's all the talk of three-act structure, but it's broken down the story I want to tell into three parts, and I'm starting to think of ways that the story can really work.  It's getting hard to think of anything else, so I'm thinking I should get at least an outline down so I can concentrate on other matters.  It sort of feels like the idea is a big chunk of marble, and with each film I watch, I find a bit of something I don't want to duplicate, so it's like carving something out of the marble bit by bit.  With luck, an original statue is inside - but I don't really have time to write a screenplay, so hopefully an outline or synopsis will do for now.  More on this as it develops.

THE PLOT: In a corporate controlled future, an ultra-violent sport known as Rollerball represents the world, and one of it's powerful athletes is out to defy those who want him out of the game.

AFTER: Though this film is set in the future, it's a past version of the future.  I love films about the future, since it's where most of us will be spending our time.  But just like "Logan's Run" or "The Andromeda Strain", this is a vision of the future that's deeply rooted in the time it was made, and that has to be taken into account.

It looks like women don't fare very well in this future - they extended the concept of sports groupies, and all the women we see here are high-class prostitutes, sent to the athletes for 6 months or a year at a time to make them happy, or at least content, until the women are needed elsewhere.  Rough gig, can't really see an upside for them, and it seems like maybe this movie got made just after the Equal Rights Amendment got vetoed.

For the uninitiated, Rollerball works like a combination of roller derby, lacrosse/jai alai, and basketball, with the roughness of soccer or hockey, played with a ball that looks like a snitch without wings, or that thing from "Phantasm" without the spikey bits that gets shot around the arena like a roulette ball.  Oh, and some guys ride motorcycles for some reason.  And the rules change in the middle of the playoffs, to weed out the older players or just to piss off the fans, depending on your point of view.

In other news, all music in the future will be played on cheezy Hammond keyboards, but you will get your choice between Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor", or the works of Booker T. and the MG's.  Oh, and feathered hair will be making a comeback - so at least people will look stylish when they're getting pummeled to death in the Rollerball arena.

There's a list on the web now that details 10 things that "Back to the Future II" correctly predicted, and no, it's not the Cubs winning the World Series.  It's technology like Facebook, video-games where you don't need to use your hands, and video-phones (aka Skype).  By contrast, this film doesn't fare so well - there is a computer that contains all of the world's books and information, but it doesn't look much more advanced than Eniac from "Desk Set".  Plus, the main character has to go to Geneva to access it, since someone forgot to invent the internet.  And in-line skates.

I noticed that James Caan's voice in this film reminded me a lot of Adam Sandler's - which is fresh in my mind after watching "The Longest Yard" last week.  I wonder if they've ever been cast as father and son - I know Caan is in the latest Sandler crap-tacular, but I don't think he plays his dad.  (YOU go see it and let me know. Thx.)

I'm giving a somewhat neutral rating tonight, because I want to see how it compares to the remake. 

Also starring John Houseman (last seen in "Three Days of the Condor"), Maud Adams, Pamela Hensley, John Beck, Moses Gunn, Robert Ito (last seen in "Black Sunday") and Burt Kwouk (Cato from the original "Pink Panther" films) with cameos from Ralph Richardson and Richard LeParmentier (General Motti from "Star Wars: Episode IV")

RATING: 5 out of 10 aphrodisiac pills

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Win Win

Year 4, Day 171 - 6/19/12 - Movie #1,168

BEFORE: What started out as a sports chain has sort of developed a theme of surrogate fathers and troubled teens, which was slightly expected.  That all wraps up tonight.  I didn't plan my linking for this one, but my luck is holding out - Hilary Swank from "The Next Karate Kid" was also in "Million Dollar Baby" with Margo Martindale (last seen in "Secretariat), who has a small role tonight.

THE PLOT: A struggling lawyer and volunteer wrestling coach's chicanery comes back to haunt him when the teenage grandson of his client comes into his life.

AFTER: I admit I didn't know much about this film going in, I just thought it was about wrestling, so I worked it into the sports chain.  But there is a whole lot more here.  It's kind of like how they can call Cocoa Puffs "part of a balanced breakfast" when it's combined with milk, toast, orange juice and half of a grapefruit.  The sport here is surrounded by a relationship drama and a bit of a legal drama as well.

The main character is a lawyer, who decides to become an older man's legal guardian when his next of kin can't be located.  He tells the judge that the man is capable of living at home, despite the onset of dementia, and then makes other arrangements.  There must be countless people who struggle with these issues, taking care of parents or other older people, all trying to do "the right thing".  But what is the right thing?  Who determines what the right thing is?  And does that change over time, or with a different point of view?

The film suggests that raising children and teenagers puts forward some of the same dilemmas.  Everyone wants children to be raised the right way, but one person's values may not be the same as another's.  So what is "right"?  Perhaps most people just wing it, or conduct trial and error on a daily basis.  In this film we see a teen whose mother clearly couldn't handle the job, at least not while dealing with addiction and the other problems in her life.

Last night, karate was the answer, and tonight it turns out to be wrestling.  It is a bit of an odd coincidence that a wrestling coach ends up mentoring a kid who already has great skills - he wrestled before becoming a troubled teen - but once you get past this, the rest of the film sort of falls into place.  Just call it karma or fate and go from there.

Wrestling (the greco-roman kind, not the WWE kind) is a good fit here, because it represents discipline and determination, those who don't give up are able to turn things around and improve their situations to come out on top.  Perhaps it's a bit of an obvious metaphor, but it's effective, and the movie doesn't overstate it, so it kind of develops naturally.

It's also a mostly-sensitive film about family, and how mutable the concept is - when you think about it, your family can change over time, as does your definition of who qualifies.  And you don't always get to choose who is in your family, and how they get there.  Sometimes the best you can do is just remain open to who the universe brings in to your family, and treat them well when they arrive.

Also starring Paul Giamatti (last seen in "Barney's Version"), Amy Ryan (last seen in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"), Alex Shaffer, Jeffrey Tambor (last heard in "Tangled"), Bobby Cannavale (last seen in "The Other Guys"), Burt Young (last seen in "Rocky V"), and Melanie Lynskey (last seen in "Flags of Our Fathers").

RATING: 7 out of 10 clipboards

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Next Karate Kid

Year 4, Day 170 - 6/18/12 - Movie #1,167

BEFORE: I hate to be predictable, but I also hate leaving a movie series unfiinished.  Pat Morita carries over from last night's film, but Ralph Macchio does not.

THE PLOT: Mr. Miyagi is back and he takes a new pupil under his wing - a troubled teenage girl.

AFTER: Well, this was slightly more intelligent than "Karate Kid III", but there were still quite a few problems.  The dialogue was still quite clunky (it's not exactly Chekhov, I know) and the character motivations were still a bit unclear.  The worst offender was the lead "evil" teen, who somehow thinks he can get a girl to make out with him if he threatens her.  So...does he like her, or hate her?  He seems quite confused about how this romance thing is supposed to happen.  Maybe some people have their wires crossed this way, but it doesn't make sense for a movie character.

Once again, karate is portrayed as the answer to everything (take that, Stephen Hawking...) - it's how you stop sexual predators and bullies, it's how you give discipline to a rebellious teen, and once again it gets a nice shine on Mr. Miyagi's sweet ride.

A couple things just don't seem to fit - like an older man living with a teen girl when he's not her parent or legal guardian.  Taking her across state lines, even if it's to seek inner peace at a monastery, still might be considered a felony in some states.  Then we've got karate lessons that turn into dance lessons at one point - yeah, it's ballroom dancing, but it still might be a bit over that line.

I try to always read about a movie's plotholes and technical mistakes on IMDB after each night's viewing, but tonight I think I caught one they missed.  In a scene set in Boston, some characters go bowling, and it's the standard U.S. big-ball bowling.  Having grown up in New England, I know firsthand that Boston is a candlepin bowling town - at least it was when I lived there, but maybe they've added a few new bowling alleys since I moved to NY.  For the uninitiated, candlepin bowling has the smaller balls, three balls bowled per frame, and the pins don't get reset between throws (the downed pins don't get cleared away).  For the first two decades of my life, that was the only bowling I knew - I did see big-ball bowling in movies and on TV, but I just associated it with "The Flintstones", since it was about as real to me as cartoons were.

I'm sort of regretting that when I started this blog, I didn't make a habit of declaring what, exactly, I've learned from watching each film.  For example, tonight I learned that girls are more difficult to raise than boys, you should always knock before entering a teen girl's bedroom (duh...), and that karate teachers don't mind being paid in homework.  Oh, there was plenty of that Mr. Miyagi dime-store philosophy as well, but I think those points are much more salient, don't you?

Besides, all that stuff with the injured bird was just way too obvious a metaphor.   They never really said what happened to Daniel-san, though.  I hope he finally made it to college, and he just didn't have some kind of falling out with his sensei.

Also starring Hilary Swank (last seen in "Amelia"), Chris Conrad, Michael Ironside (last seen in "X-Men: First Class"), with a cameo from Walton Goggins.

RATING: 4 out of 10 subway cars

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Karate Kid, Part III

Year 4, Day 169 - 6/17/12 - Movie #1,166

BEFORE: Wrapping up the last few sports films this week - I've seen the first two "Karate Kid" films, but then I bailed on the franchise.  Did I make the right call?  I programmed this one for Father's Day, since Mr. Miyagi is a surrogate father figure for Daniel-san.  Linking from "Bend It Like Beckham", Keira Knightley was also in "Domino" with Tom Waits, who was also in "The Outsiders" with Ralph Macchio (last heard in "The Secret of NIMH 2").

THE PLOT: John Kreese attempts to gain revenge on Daniel and Miyagi, with the aid of an old army buddy.

AFTER: Yeah, I think I was right to avoid this one back in the day.  1989 was a busy year for me, I was just out of college and scrambling for work in the film business, putting in long hours on whatever was shooting in New York (mostly music videos).

It seems like there was a push to get back to a storyline similar to the first "Karate Kid" film - perhaps the 2nd film, being set in Japan, didn't connect well with American audiences?  So they brought the characters back to the U.S., revived the old rivalry with the Cobra Kai dojo, and also the All-Valley Karate tournament.  Obviously this was the top prize in the sport back then, right?

But they brought in extra characters, to help their old rival pull off a long con - they hoped to defeat Daniel in the tournament, and use that extra publicity to rebuild their dojo's reputation.  But since Miyagi didn't recommend that he defend his title, the villains needed to harass him into entering the tournament.  And we all know, that's a binding contract - once you enter a karate tournament, you're honor bound to compete (plus, the fine print clearly states: "no refunds").

Not only does this feel like a manufactured conflict, the plan doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  All the Cobra Kai dojo has to do to win the tournament is just NOT get Daniel to enter - they're bringing in a ringer anyway, so why not just let that ringer win, and get good publicity for the dojo that way?  Ah, but they want Daniel and Mr. Miyagi to suffer.  True, but there are much easier ways to achieve that - burning down their store would be one way.  Dishonorable, yes, but so is the plan they go with.

As part of this plan, Kreese's friend has to pretend to train Daniel - which also makes no sense.  Why show your best finishing moves to someone you're trying to humiliate?  Do they want him to lose the tournament or not?  And if so, why give him the chance to win it?  Same problem with the rock-climbing scene - the villains are put in a position where they have to help the main character, so it all feels like some screenwriter just didn't think things through.  The constant repetition of plot points in the dialogue seems to support this.

Essentially, the whole storyline is a succession of questionable choices - right from the start, when Daniel decides to not go to college, and go into business with Mr. Miyagi.  Really, it just shows the filmmakers didn't know what to do with the character, and it's all downhill from there.

Also starring Pat Morita (last seen in "Honeymoon in Vegas"), Robin Lively, Martin Kove, Thomas Ian Griffith, with a cameo from Frances Bay.

RATING:  3 out of 10 leg sweeps