Saturday, October 6, 2012


Year 4, Day 280 - 10/6/12 - Movie #1,270

WORLD TOUR Day 34 - Scotland

BEFORE:  It might seem like a bit of a jump, from a 1950's magician to Roman soldiers in the 2nd century A.D., but the common thread is Scotland, called Caledonia at the time.  This is my sneaky way of connecting to some Gladiator movies.

THE PLOT:  A splinter group of Roman soldiers fight for their lives behind enemy lines after their legion is decimated in a devastating guerrilla attack.

AFTER:  If this movie is to believed, Scotland was populated by ruthless, dirty, smelly barbarians who were armed to the teeth and filled with bloodlust.  And those were the WOMEN.

Seriously, you can almost see the reasoning that the studio executives used to greenlight this film.  People loved "Braveheart", didn't they?  And "Gladiator" was a big hit too, right?  Then "300" came along with its over-the-top violence and rocked the box-office.  So let's put a bunch of Scottish rebels up against a legion of Roman soldiers (the lead character was trained as a gladiator, though), and mix in a bit of the ol' ultra-violence, and it's bound to be a hit.  Something didn't work somewhere though, because this film had a six-figure gross, not seven. 

I'm not quite sure what the audience's problem with the film was - except that film relies on the "man down behind enemy lines" plot not once, but twice.  Aside from repeating itself, the film does manage to pack about three hours worth of action into just 97 minutes.  Plus there's betrayal, revenge, a little romance, swordfights, and some serious goddamn injuries.  What more could people want?

Starring Michael Fassbender (last seen in "X-Men: First Class"), Dominic West (last seen in "Chicago"), Ulrich Thomsen, Olga Kurylenko, Liam Cunningham, Axelle Carolyn.

RATING:  6 out of 10 decapitations

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Illusionist (2010)

Year 4, Day 279 - 10/5/12 - Movie #1,269

WORLD TOUR Day 33 - Scotland

BEFORE: Moving north again, but I'll be headed south again to warmer climes soon enough.  I got really excited last night when I looked up the filmography for Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who played John Lennon in "Nowhere Boy", and it said that he had a small role in "The Illusionist", so I figured he provided a voice for this film.  No such luck - he appeared in the 2006 live-action film with the same title, which I watched back in July 2010.  Given that there are only a few voices in this film, I now don't really see a way to link to it. 

THE PLOT:  A French illusionist finds himself out of work and travels to Scotland, where he meets a young woman. Their ensuing adventure changes both their lives forever.

AFTER:  This is a semi-silent animated film from Sylvain Chomet, who also directed "The Triplettes of Belleville" in a similar style.  A little research told me that it's based on an unproduced script by Jacques Tati, and then a little more research was needed for me to figure out who Jacques Tati was.  Turns out he was a noted French mime, later an actor and film star, famous for films like "Mr Hulot's Holiday" and "Mon Oncle".  It sort of sounds like he was the French "missing link" between the old silent films of Buster Keaton and the modern slapstick of, say, Mr. Bean.

But since his fame peaked around 1959, when this film is set, the question rises as to how autobiographical this is.  It's possible that he felt that his form of comedy was on the way out, and that the future of entertainment belonged to television and rock and roll, and he saw his career being marginalized.  The magician character here is drawn as a stand-in for/tribute to Tati/Hulot - and fortunately for the flow of my movie chain, he's dogged throughout the film by an almost Beatle-esque rock band, named Billy Boy and the Britoons  (sorry, it seems to be more of a poke at Cliff Richards and the Shadows, my bad).

The magician travels from France to London and then Scotland, playing smaller and smaller venues and also being forced to take various odd jobs to make ends meet - which is what reminds me of Mr. Bean, or perhaps Jerry Lewis, since these little asides provide most of the slapstick as he fails at different tasks.  At one venue, while living over a pub, he meets a young woman who believes his tricks are real (so says the synopsis, but I didn't see how that was conveyed without dialogue...) and travels with him to Edinburgh.

They seem to fall quite quickly and naturally into a sort of father-daughter relationship, which leads to some speculation as to whether she may actually BE his daughter (again, no dialogue to confirm this non-fact).  Here's where knowing that Jacques Tati abandoned his first daughter and felt guilty about never having time for his second daughter comes in handy - but why should I have to do so much background research to fully understand the events on the screen?

Sylvain Chomet has expressed some similar regret over his lack of relationship with his own teenage daughter, since separating from her mother.  I did get very lucky, though, as the theme of absent parents did carry over from "Nowhere Boy". 

The general consensus seems to be that Edinburgh is well represented here, in the scenery and the color pallette and the drunken nature of some of its citizens.  I'll take the reviewers at their word - 

DISTANCE TRAVELED TODAY:  175 miles / 282 km  (Liverpool to Edinburgh)

DISTANCE TRAVELED SO FAR:   9,610 miles / 15,469 km

RATING:  4 out of 10 sausage links

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Nowhere Boy

Year 4, Day 278 - 10/4/12 - Movie #1,268

WORLD TOUR Day 32 - Liverpool, England

BEFORE: I'm on the move again, heading north out of London for this film about John Lennon as a teenager.  Last night's film featured a theater troupe that performed Shakespeare plays in and around Liverpool, so that was an unexpectedly neat little lead-in for this. 

Linking from "Nicholas Nickleby", Jim Broadbent was also in a 1995 adaptation of "Richard III" along with Kristin Scott Thomas (last seen in "The Other Boleyn Girl").

THE PLOT:  A look at John Lennon's relationship with his stern aunt Mimi, who raised him, and his absentee mother Julia, who re-entered his life at a crucial moment in his young life.

AFTER:  Some nights I don't quite know what to write, but tonight I may have trouble stopping...big fan of the Beatles, but who isn't?  At first it might seem odd to make a film about Lennon as a rebellious teen - kind of like making a film about Albert Einstein's job as a patent clerk.  (Or, as Patton Oswalt suggested, about that time he had really bad stomach flu...) 

But stand back, I'm going to tie this into a theme - don't try this at home unless you've had the proper training.  Lennon's childhood was in many ways very Dickensian - not that he grew up in a workhouse, but his father was absent, and a mysterious benefactor lived just a few blocks away.  He was raised by his aunt and uncle, and didn't know his mother until the age of 11 or so, then getting to know her over the next few years.  Their almost secret relationship was unorthodox, going on day trips and seeing movies together, at times here it almost looks like they were dating.  But eventually some of the hard questions are asked, like "Where's Dad?" and then all the family secrets come to light. 

Also seen here are the watershed moments, like Lennon learning to play the harmonica and banjo, then getting his first guitar, and having his various troubles with school authorities, some of which is typical "coming of age" material, and some not.  But man, I got chills when John and Paul met, and Paul played "Twenty Flight Rock".  I liked the parts where Lennon was seen struggling to learn chords, and he wasn't just portrayed as an instant guitar wunderkind.  You're no guitar player unless you've got callouses.

NITPICK POINT: I'm not completely sold on the casting here.  The kid who played McCartney looked more to me like a young George Harrison, or what I imagine a young George looked like, and the kid cast as George seemed even more out of place.  The actor playing Lennon himself looked a bit too much like Jay Mohr in some parts, but what can you do?  Casting will never be perfect enough for Beatles fans.  (Still, were the Beatles' actual children even considered?  That Dhani Harrison would be a lock to play his dad.)  I've also read that there are a number of illegitimate kids who grew up in Liverpool and Hamburg that bear striking resemblances to the Beatles - go figure.

The irony of it all to me is that the Beatles (or the band's predecessor, The Quarrymen) wasn't originally designed to be "the greatest rock and roll band" ever.  They were a skiffle group, with 2 banjos, a washboard and a bass, and they wanted to cover songs like "That'll Be the Day" and "Shake, Rattle & Roll".  (You can see the Beatles' propensity for cover songs since all their early albums had at least one cover, of songs made famous by Carl Perkins or Buck Owens.)  During the period portrayed here, they weren't writing or performing original material, just playing at school and local events to impress girls.  For what happened next, go watch "Backbeat", which pretty much starts right after this one ends.

I spent some time last week ruining Led Zeppelin for my office-mates.  By that, I mean that I played them two segments from the Howard Stern show in which a musicologist cued up Zep songs back-to-back with other 1960's rock and folk songs that sound amazingly similar.  Like a Joan Baez song also titled "Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You", or the intro to "Your Time Is Gonna Come" followed by the intro to Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy".  And if you find an instrumental called "Taurus" by the band Spirit (who played some gigs with the Yardbirds in the early days), the resemblance to the opening of "Stairway to Heaven" is unmistakeable.  On top of that, though largely uncredited, most people are aware of their heavy borrowing from the folk songs of Howlin' Wolf and Willie Dixon.  SO, the truth is that Led Zeppelin really is the most successful cover band in the world, which is what The Beatles might have become if they hadn't learned the craft of songwriting. 

(Which should be great news for the Rolling Stones, who would be eager to jump into the #2 best band position - they've certainly got the award for longevity.  Except that if you break down the income of the Stones over the years, you've got album sales, touring sales, acting gigs, and the biggest slice of the pie, merchandising such as t-shirts.  As Penn Gillette once said, "History will regard the Rolling Stones as t-shirt salesmen.")

I'm a big fan of "Backbeat", the definitive film about the Beatles' early days performing in Hamburg, where they played as a house band in strip clubs, jacked up on "pep" pills, learning how to speed up American rock songs to get them in before the next performer took the stage, and shagging like rabbits after.  Take a listen at some of those early Lennon/McCartney hits, like "Please Please Me" or "From Me to You".  They're all verse, chorus, verse, chorus, guitar solo and then wrap-up, all in under three minutes.  That's how you DO it, man.  The lads were so tight in 1963 and '64 that when they came to the U.S. they were booked into something like 300 gigs across the U.S. in just 10 days.  Hope they brought the pep pills.   Run in, do a tight 6-song set in 15 minutes, run out to the limo, and it's off to the next gig.

This is a reminder that I need to watch that documentary about George Harrison - it's on the list, but I cut it from the world tour chain because I figured it didn't represent just Liverpool, but George's life after that in other cities.  I will get to it next year, I swear.

This is also a reminder that the best film about the Beatles may not have been made yet.  If you look at this film as the first in a trilogy, with "Backbeat" as the second film, then the real deal biopic about the Fab Four's most famous years could still exist someday.  But the music licenses could be a deal-breaker - putting just three or four Beatles songs would double, if not triple, the budget of a film like this one.  So making that film would take three things: a big budget, bigger balls and the blessing of Lennon's estate.  I don't think it's going to happen any time soon, but for anyone who thinks there are no worlds left to conquer in filmmaking, I beg to differ.

I suppose there's a theoretical fourth film waiting in the wings, depicting Lennon's life after the break-up of the Beatles, making solo albums, living with Yoko Ono (I don't know how that's even possible, I'd set the house on fire...) and the year he took off with May Pang, the failed attempts at getting the band back together (including the rumored "Saturday Night Live" close call), and... come to think of it, it doesn't end well.  Scrap that whole idea. 

Also starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson (last seen in "Shanghai Knights"), Anne-Marie Duff, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Sam Bell, David Threlfall (last seen in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"), Josh Bolt.

DISTANCE TRAVELED TODAY:  177 miles / 285 km  (London to Liverpool)

DISTANCE TRAVELED SO FAR:   9,435 miles / 15,187 km

RATING: 7 out of 10 leather jackets

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

NIcholas Nickleby (2002)

Year 4, Day 277 - 10/3/12 - Movie #1,267

WORLD TOUR Day 31 - London, England

BEFORE:  This is a Dickens story I'm unfamiliar with, so at least the plot could surprise me tonight.  But I'm guessing I know some of the elements, like a poor English boy coming of age - aren't all Dickens stories about that sort of thing?  Linking from "Oliver Twist", Jamie Foreman was also in the film "Inkheart" with Jim Broadbent (last seen in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace")

THE PLOT: A young compassionate man struggles to save his family and friends from the abusive exploitation of his coldheartedly grasping uncle.

AFTER: This Dickens adaptation was made in 2002, but it couldn't be more timely considering the recession we've been living through these last three years.  Remember when we learned that the whole U.S. economy collapsed because some bank lumped a bunch of shaky mortgages together, and then got other banks to invest in them?  Well, it was something like that, I'm not an economist.  I think someone maybe just put a decimal point in the wrong place, and it was just some horrible misunderstanding that screwed up...well, everyone.  The point is, it made people feel like they weren't in control of their own finances, and that the deck was being stacked against us by bankers, of all people.  

Turns out this sort of thing has been going on for a long time - market speculation of some unnamed sort causes the ruin of Nicholas Nickleby's father, and that's the start of a long, hard economic road for his family.  They pack up and head to London to seek help from his uncle Ralph, who's only interested in helping Nicholas find work if there's something in it for him.  He also doesn't mind hooking up his niece with his investors with grabby hands, if that's also profitable.

In a lot of these Dickens stories, like "Great Expectations" or "Oliver Twist", there's a mystery benefactor who offers financial help or life advice, but remains anonymous.  The uncle functions here as sort of the opposite - the more he "helps" Nicholas, the deeper in debt the young man becomes.  In another sense he's sort of reminiscent of Ebenezer Scrooge from "A Christmas Carol", who also placed wealth before family relationships.  

Nicholas strives to be a man of honor, to do the right thing, to speak out against the abuses and ills of the world as he sees it, but unfortunately these actions are also in conflict with his financial well-being.  Dickens' socio-economic tour of his world takes Nicholas to teach at a horrible boarding school for boys (reminiscent of the workhouse in "Oliver Twist"), and then to perform with a theater company before returning to London and getting a job in the world of finance.  

The rest is a chess game of sorts, always trying to stay one step ahead of his uncle and the boarding school's headmaster, who have teamed up to bring Nicholas down, striking at him and his family whenever they can.  Fortunately there is a benefactor as well, in the form of the uncle's clerk, who secretly relays information to Nicholas about the uncle's plans.

There are a few contrivances here, Nicholas always seems to find just the right person to help him at just the right time, and one incredible coincidence that strains credulity, but that's just how Dickens works.  (I think most of Dickens' stories were published as serialized chapters, so there needed to be a lot of surprise reveals and cliffhanger moments.)  The main message of the film might be "Get a job!", but the secondary message is that life is sometimes short and cruel, fortunes fail and death is inevitable, so you have to form a family and make your own happiness, whatever your economic situation may be.

Also starring Charlie Hunnam (last seen in "Children of Men"), Christopher Plummer (last seen in "Inside Daisy Clover"), Jamie Bell (last seen in "Jumper"), Anne Hathaway (last seen in "Alice in Wonderland"), Juliet Stevenson, Timothy Spall (last seen in "Death Defying Acts"), Kevin McKidd, with cameos from Nathan Lane (last heard in "The Lion King 2"), Alan Cumming (last heard in "Garfield"), and Barry "Dame Edna" Humphries (last seen in "Bedazzled").

RATING:  5 out of 10 spoonfuls of treacle

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Oliver Twist (2005)

Year 4, Day 276 - 10/2/12 - Movie #1,266

WORLD TOUR Day 30 - London, England

BEFORE: I've got a three-day layover in London, and what says London more than Charles Dickens?  A bunch of scrappy orphans running around dirty Victorian streets, aren't they adorable?  My U.S.-based films tended to be either set in modern times or in the 1930's-1940's, but now that I'm in Europe, there's going to be a lot more time-traveling going on.  I'll go wherever, and whenever, the stories take me.

Linking from "The Great Muppet Caper", both John Cleese AND Diana Rigg were in a film called "Parting Shots" with Ben Kingsley, who's the only big-name actor in tonight's cast.

THE PLOT: An adaptation of the classic Dickens tale, where an orphan meets a pickpocket on the streets of London. From there, he joins a household of boys who are trained to steal for their master.

AFTER: I could have watched many different versions of this tale, but I've GOT a copy of the 2005 Roman Polanski version handy.  My history with the story, beyond reading the book, is that my mother showed me the 1968 musical "Oliver!", and I watched (and filmed) a community theater version.  So the story's not new to me, and I've got to judge mostly on the adaptation.  (Plus I watched that film "August Rush" last year, which is essentially the same story...)

There are no musical numbers here, which could be seen as both a positive and a negative.  The story flows better without the songs slowing it down, and in a sense is more faithful to the novel, which had no songs either.  But the songs in the 1968 version also created pockets of introspection, in some cases humanizing characters like Fagin when we see that he sings a peppy number to his thieving orphans.

I think it takes balls to remake a film, particularly one that won the Best Picture Oscar.  Still, that was 44 years ago, so the story probably could use some freshening up.  Geez, they only waited a few years to re-boot Batman and Spider-Man, why not Oliver Twist?  The real classics should never go out of style, and can stand up to many interpretations.

This one's fairly dark, highlighting the use of Oliver Twist as a bargaining chip - everyone from Fagin to Bill Sikes uses him to further their own endeavors.  In a sense, he reminded me of Forrest Gump, bouncing from place to place and job to job, essentially failing upwards.  And in a similar way that Gump's adventures showed us America of the 1960's to 1980's, Oliver's adventures give us that portrait of nineteenth-century London - especially the dark places, working for the mortician, the pickpockets, the thieves. 

Reading the novel's plot summary on Wikipedia, it appears they condensed the story somewhat here, leaving out some extraneous characters, but also ultimately ignoring the question of Oliver's true identity.  Your English teacher would probably have a fit, but when adapting a screenplay from a long novel, some sacrifices no doubt need to be made. 

Also starring Barney Clark, Jeremy Swift, Harry Eden, Edward Hardwicke, Jamie Foreman, Leanne Rowe.

RATING: 5 out of 10 snuff boxes

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Great Muppet Caper

Year 4, Day 275 - 10/1/12 - Movie #1,265

WORLD TOUR Day 29 - London, England

BEFORE:  I'm finally taking this thing global, moving from NYC to London, with Jim Henson, Frank Oz & company carrying over.  This was the second film in the Muppet franchise, and last night I watched the third, so I had to sacrifice chronology to make the geography work.  Either way, these are still the films made before the franchise ran out of ideas and started co-opting things like "A Christmas Carol" and "The Wizard of Oz", which led to Disney buying the franchise to try and kill it, or at least remove some of the box-office competition.  (Yes, I know the party line was that they bought the franchise to keep it alive, but I have my own theories.)

THE PLOT:  Kermit, Gonzo and Fozzie are reporters who travel to Britain to interview a rich victim of jewel thieves and help her along with her secretary, Miss Piggy.

AFTER:  This film just seemed really disjointed to me, there were a lot of elements that seemed to be in there for show that added nothing to the plot.  For example, the opening sequence with three Muppets in a hot-air balloon.  Why?  It was just done to kill time during the opening credits, it had nothing to do with the story.  Similarly, they upped the ante from "The Muppet Movie", which featured Kermit on a bicycle, by putting the whole Muppet cast on bicycles - so it seemed like the puppeteering technology was really driving the story, rather than the other way around.

Another thing about the credits - the characters were aware of the credit sequence, and at other times during the film, they seemed to be aware of concepts like plot exposition and voice dubbing.  Breaking the fourth wall and having characters aware of being in a film is an OK technique when used sparingly, but this was overdoing it.  It seemed like it was used as a substitute for actual plot points or genuine responses.

Obviously meant to riff off of classic heist films, the film couldn't even decide whether the jewel robbery should take place before the start of the film, or during the film, so it happened twice.  Why would jewel thieves hit the same target twice, knowing that security would be tightened?  Oh, because the villain is a villain, and that's what they do.  Rubbish - professional jewel thieves are smart, and they only tackle jobs that are possible.

I know, it's a movie for kids, and kids don't care about continuity or logic, they just want to be entertained by the shouty puppets.  But sometimes adults have to watch these films with their kids, so is it too much to ask for them to make some kind of sense?

I didn't really care for the songs in this one, most were too simplistic or self-referential, with titles such as, "Hey a Movie!"  The sole exception could be the "Happiness Hotel" sequence, describing the finer points of the cheap London flophouse that was the only place the characters could afford to stay in. 

Also starring Charles Grodin (last seen in "The Incredible Shrinking Woman"), Diana Rigg (last seen in "Evil Under the Sun"), with cameos from Jack Warden (last seen in "The Verdict"), John Cleese (last heard in "Igor"), Peter Ustinov (also last seen in "Evil Under the Sun"), Robert Morely and Peter Falk (last seen in "Next").

DISTANCE TRAVELED TODAY:  3,462 miles / 5,572 km  (New York, NY to London, England)

DISTANCE TRAVELED SO FAR:   9,258 miles / 14,902 km

RATING: 3 out of 10 flashbulbs

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Muppets Take Manhattan

Year 4, Day 274 - 9/30/12 - Movie #1,264

WORLD TOUR Day 28 - New York, NY

BEFORE: Liza Minnelli makes a cameo appearance in this film, completing a trifecta, so I don't even need to exploit the Sesame Street connection to link to this film.  All part of the plan.  This is my last film set in New York for now.  I saw "The Muppet Movie" back when it first came out, then I kind of never followed up with their other movies until I watched "Muppet Treasure Island" earlier this year.  I guess I felt I sort of outgrew them, but if I had a kid right now, I'd probably be re-discovering them right about now. 

THE PLOT: Kermit and his friends go to New York to get their musical on Broadway only to find it's a more difficult task than they anticipated.

AFTER:  In 1984, the Muppet performers came to Manhattan to make a movie about the Muppets coming to Manhattan to make a Broadway show about coming to Manhattan to make a Broadway show about Manhattan.  Wait....yep, that's right.  It's like Muppet "Inception".  Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

A lot of New York scenery in this one, from Central Park to Madison Ave., the Empire State Building, Sardi's restaurant, and the NY Public Library.  The Muppet gang even sleeps in lockers in the Port Authority, because they don't seem to know any better - about the only things they don't do are turn tricks on 42nd St. and shoot up in the bathrooms at CBGB's.  A lot of the action takes place in a fictitious diner called Pete's, which has rats for waiters and cooks.  Probably not too far off for some NYC eateries - but rats cooking in a movie?  That's a terrible concept.

I'm not sure I follow the logic of this film - the gang has trouble getting their play produced, so once they run out of money, they all have to go to different cities to find work.  How did they know they'd find jobs in those other cities?  Aren't jobs plentiful in New York?   I would have loved to see them explore New York City a little more by working as cab drivers, tour guides, hotel bellhops, etc.   It kind of feels like a missed opportunity.

This film got a lot of press at the time for the "wedding" of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy - rumors abounded that the wedding was "real", as real as it could be for characters made of cloth with ping-pong ball eyes, anyway.  The wedding takes place on stage as part of the play-within-a-movie, and the actor was a real minister - hmm, still not a real wedding, since Mayor Giuliani later outlawed all interspecies marriages in New York, so this would have been annulled ipso facto. 

Points off for introducing the dreadful concept of the "Muppet Babies", which lived on in a Saturday morning cartoon a few years later.  I don't see the need to cutesify everything further, Marvel Comics does this with the X-Babies, an infant version of the X-Men, and it's just craptacular. 

That's going to wrap up September, and films about NYC since I'm off to a new city tomorrow.  I've been mostly programming in pairs, so it shouldn't be too hard to guess what (and where) tomorrow's film will be.

Also starring the voices of Jim Henson and the Muppeteers (Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Richard Hunt) most last heard in "Muppet Treasure Island", plus Juliana Donald, Lonny Price, Louis Zorich (last seen in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels"), with cameos from Art Carney (last seen in "Firestarter"), James Coco, Dabney Coleman (last seen in "North Dallas Forty"), Gregory Hines (last seen in "The Cotton Club"), Linda Lavin, Joan Rivers, Elliott Gould (last seen in "The Devil and Max Devlin"), Brooke Shields (last seen in "Furry Vengeance"), John Landis, Gates McFadden, and Mayor Ed Koch.

RATING: 6 out of 10 slammed doors