Friday, November 9, 2012

year 4 wrap-up / year 5 preview

The Tour is over, but the list still remains.  When I wrapped things up last year, there were 247 films left, but then when I started up again on January 1, 2012, the number had ballooned back up to 270.  Remember, I started in 2009 with a massive list of 435 films, and I've been constantly adding to it.  So somehow 435 + x - 1300 = 213.  Math tells me I've added 1,078 films along the way, and the total now stands at 213.  Progress has been made, but Movie Year Five is still needed to bring this thing under control.

Out of the 84 Oscar winners for Best Picture, I have now seen 59 (it couldn't be an even 60, now could it?) and from the list of the "1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die", I've seen 299 (it couldn't be an even 300, now could it?).

The good news is, the World Tour took care of some really classic films.  With a couple of notable exceptions, and once you subtract the Hitchcock films and the Woody Allen films, about half of what's left was released in calendar year 2010 and 2011.  It makes sense, once I started concentrating on the classics, I didn't have time for seeing most current releases.

So here's what's on tap for 2013, assuming the Mayans were wrong.  Hitchcock (I think I've really only seen "Psycho" and "The Birds"), Woody Allen (I may have seen only half of his films), and the James Bond series (I've only seen "The Living Daylights" and "Diamonds Are Forever", and that last one was just to appreciate Jill St. John).  There are a few films that were cut from the World Tour, like "The Shipping News" and "Brokeback Mountain", a year's worth of animated cuddly creatures (they do tend to pile up each January), and my annual February nod to romance in all its forms.  My too-late tribute to politics, plus spies and soldiers, cowboys and aliens, addicts and serial killers.  Oh, and there will be monkeys.  Err, apes, whatever.

There might be 3 or 4 films on the list that I think I've seen before, so I'll try to get to those during the break - but first I've seriously got to re-organize my comic book collection, and I've got to start working on my annual Christmas mix CD.  Thanksgiving is just two weeks away, and then comes holiday cards, holiday shopping, and more holiday eating.

We have a four-way tie for highest-rated film this year:  "The Avengers", "X-Men: First Class",  "Captain America: The First Avenger" and "Tron: Legacy" all scored 9's, according to my very non-scientific system.  Damn, but I'm a geek.  Can you spot what demographic I'm apparently in?  It might seem like I'm harsh on movies, but I also handed out a number of 8's this year.  Seen on a graph, my ratings form a near-perfect pyramid, with the highest point over the 6.  That seems about right, plus it seems more than fair.  8's and 9's should be rare, and a perfect score should be nearly unattainable.

Most recently I've had a run of 4's and 5's, and I'm not sure if that's because I've seen all the good films already, or if I'm suffering from burnout.  2 months of downtime might be for the best, and then I'll try to lead off with some stronger films come January.  Let me be (among) the first to wish you a happy, safe and relatively healthy holiday season, and please check back in with me afterwards.

My new Latin catchphrase is "Gutta Cavat Lapidem", which means (I think) "Dripping water hollows out a stone."   Not by force, but by continuously dripping.  Metaphorically each day's film is a drop of water, and after a few years together they're carving out quite a notch.  I promise to keep being a big drip next year as well.

Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)

Year 4, Day 313 + 314 - 11/8 + 11/9/12 - Movie #1,300

WORLD TOUR Day 64 - Victory Lap!

BEFORE: It's always a big day here at Honky's Movie Year when we hit a century mark, but it's also the LAST film of the year before I close up shop for the holiday season, AND it's an Oscar winner to boot.  (Wrap-up on the year's stats to follow)  But was it truly the BEST Picture of 1956, or just the biggest? 

Linking from "The Lady from Shanghai", Orson Welles was also in "Touch of Evil" with Marlene Dietrich, who makes a cameo in this film too.

THE PLOT: Adaptation of Jules Verne's novel about a Victorian Englishman who bets that with the new steamships and railways he can go...well, you figure it out.

AFTER:  This film (and the novel it's based on) take place at a very particular time in history - after the Industrial Revolution, which makes the journey possible, but before faster methods of travel, such as airplanes and high-speed trains, which makes the journey a challenge.  Both elements have to be present - the possibility and the difficulty - for this to be intriguing.  We want our heroes to succeed, but we also want to see them struggle.  The opening narration of the film tries to make this clear, but by pointing out that we now (now in 1956, that is) have the ability to go around the world in 8 days, it kind of muddies the waters, and cheapens the struggle.

I don't even find the need to fault this film for being excessive, extravagant, or even corny (though it is all of those things...).  Turns out there are plenty of other movie "sins" for me to mention.  One is repeated violations of the "Show, don't tell" mantra - which is odd because the film is already so visually-based, but it's not enough in a way.  There's plenty of scenery, almost too much in fact, so why the need to resort to characters TALKING about what's taken place, rather than showing it?  Any time there's a scene of the London gentlemen in the club, talking about Fogg's exploits, that's one less time we the audience get to SEE that exciting thing happen.

Next violation is something I call the "Hey, look at that!" technique.  This occurs when a film simply can't afford to take the stars of the film to every exotic locale, but we are meant to think that they have.  So they mix either stock footage or 2nd unit footage with a reaction shot of the stars going, "Hey, look at that!"  Many films do this, but few are so blatant about it.  It makes me wonder if the stars of this film did any location shooting at all.  There's a reason we don't see footage of Phileas Fogg standing next to a matador, or a temple in Hong Kong - because he wasn't there!  This also tends to cheapen the struggle.

I also have to call attention to the abysmal soundtrack, which most of the time is just a rehash of the melody of "O Britannia" - I never want to hear this riff again, used here as a sonic crutch again and again.  Yes, we KNOW he's British, thanks.  And when our band of travelers gets to America, it changes to "Yankee Doodle" and "Oh, Susanna" (somebody explain that song to me, please.  I thought it was weird when I was a kid, and I grew up, got over it and never followed up...)  Did they blow the budget on so much location footage that they couldn't hire someone to write an original score?  The one exception is a great little medley of 1800's ditties played on a saloon piano by a very famous singer making a cameo.

I'll have to compare the film with the plot of the original novel - there's a detective here that follows Fogg around, convinced he's a bank robber and not just independently wealthy.  (But apparently dumb, because he probably spends more money on travel expenses than he stands to win on the wager...)  But if he were the thief, why would he be trying so desperately to get back to England?  For that matter, why would he be spending the stolen money so extravagantly - wouldn't that be counter-productive to stealing it?  For a detective, this guy doesn't really think things through - he's like Javert in "Les Miserables" but without a lick of common sense.

I suppose it's not about the money, or about the speed, but in the end it's a test of the ingenuity of the traveler.  I learned this myself in San Francisco this summer, when my travel appointment got cancelled, and I had to devise a one-day tour of the city on the fly.  Still had a great time.  Speaking of which, Fogg and company arrive in San Francisco on election night, apparently.  Damn, I missed it by just 3 days.  Something similar happened last week with "Once Upon a Time in Mexico", which depicted the famous Mexican "Day of the Dead" celebration of Nov. 1, and I was watching it on Nov. 4.  If I had been just a bit more ambitious this year, my movies would have synched up perfectly with the calendar here at the end.  Lesson learned.

NITPICK POINT: In this film, everywhere around the world (with one notable exception) everyone seems to speak fluent English.  This would be more likely now, but in the 1870's?  Doubtful.

NITPICK POINT #2: Fogg + his manservant travel by balloon over the Alps - but wind up on the Iberian Peninsula.  How did this happen?  They were paying attention to what direction they were going, weren't they?  Aren't balloons subject to the wind, and wouldn't the jetstream just naturally take them in the correct direction?  Did the prevailing winds change direction that day?

NITPICK POINT #3: They say that news travels fast, but again, this is the 1870's - the days of the Pony Express, when the fastest way to get news across America was to hand-deliver it.  No telephone or telegraph yet.  SO, how did news of Fogg's exploits while in Hong Kong or San Francisco get to England before he did?  For that matter, how did anyone in the club verify that he had done any traveling at all?  He could have just planted a few news stories and stayed at home for 80 days.

Which is kind of what I did - I travelled around the world without leaving the couch thanks to movies, and I still beat Fogg's itinerary by over two weeks!  I think I beat him with the virtual mileage, too.  So that happened...

Starring David Niven (last seen in "The Guns of Navarone"), Cantinflas, Shirley Maclaine (last seen in "The Apartment"), Robert Newton, Robert Morley, with cameos from Sir John Gielgud (last seen in "Arthur 2: On the Rocks"), Noel Coward, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, Cedric Hardwicke, Peter Lorre (last seen in "Casablanca"), Red Skelton, John Carradine (last seen in "The Grapes of Wrath"), Frank Sinatra (last seen in "The Manchurian Candidate"), Buster Keaton (last seen in "The Navigator"), Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, Glynis Johns, Hermione Gingold (last seen in "Gigi").

RATING:  5 out of 10 sandbags

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Lady From Shanghai

Year 4, Day 312 - 11/7/12 - Movie #1,299

WORLD TOUR Day 63 - San Francisco, California

BEFORE: Turns out the title is misleading, and this film is NOT set in China - it starts in New York, then heads to the Caribbean, but after a quick jaunt through the Panama Canal goes up the Mexican coast and ends in San Francisco, which is perfect for the purposes of my last leg.  Plus it's another noir film AND it also stars Orson Welles.  But you knew I had something like this up my sleeve, right?  So tonight a long journey that's taken me all over the map comes to an end.  Perhaps there are a few other people in this country tonight who know what that feels like.

That's right, the election.  I voted yesterday for the first time in - well, I want to say 8 years, but seeing as in November of 2004 I was in the middle of moving, it's probably been 12.  I think I re-registered right after I moved, but in 2008 I think I was just busy and couldn't find the time.  I got kind of soured on politics after the 2000 election, because the whole thing just seemed so divisive - you're either red or blue, liberal or conservative, for this or against that.  Where is the middle ground?  When will people be allowed to think differently on any issue?  Why do people have to be ALL one thing or another?

Seems to me I recall there's something that a house divided against itself can't do.  Don't tell me, it'll come to me.  But I suppose that's what you get when you limit the race to just two parties - how can it be anything but divisive?  But what do I know, I live in New York City, which now counts as a small dictatorship.  When a person in power rejects the term limits (that he himself put in place, ooh, irony!) and refuses to relinquish power, that's a dictatorship.  We've got a Mayor-For-Life, apparently.

You see, without voting, I sacrificed my right to complain.  But I love complaining, and now that I'm part of the democratic process again, look out.  Perhaps I should have planned movies to coincide with the election, like "Speechless" or "The Ides of March", or even "Red State", but it is what it is.

THE PLOT:  Fascinated by gorgeous Mrs. Bannister, seaman Michael O'Hara joins a bizarre yachting cruise, and ends up mired in a complex murder plot.

AFTER: This is a quite serviceable noir plot - but it got a little too twisted up in itself.  It's hard to separate the INTENDED murder plot from the one that ends up happening.  You kind of have to fill in the gaps and think about who might have really been sleeping with who (facts not made readily available to viewers) in order to assign proper motive and ultimately get to the bottom of things.

Back in the day, thanks to the censorship codes, you had to look for really subtle signs that two characters might be connected.  They couldn't show them in bed together, or have one leaving the other's cabin with their clothes all rumpled.  But if you pay attention, you may notice two characters sharing a cigarette, without being skeeved out by that - which implies a certain level of intimacy, and you kind of go from there. 

The irony here is that Orson Welles and co-star Rita Hayworth had been married for three years when this was filmed, though they were separated at the time and working through some stuff, and divorced 6 months after the film's release.  Not enough room in the marriage for Welles' ego, apparently. 

This is also the third film in a row that represents a dispute between director and studio over running length - Welles' original cut ran 155 minutes, and the release time was down to 87.  That's nearly half the film on the cutting room floor!  They did leave in the famous "Funhouse mirror" final scene, though - set in an abandoned amusement park on the San Francisco waterfront.  Hmm, last night's film was famous for its fantastic opening scene, and this one for its closing scene. 

I've got one last slot before I close up shop for the year, so it's time for a victory lap.  This next film is rather long, so it might take me a couple days to watch it.  Back in "two and two". 

Also starring Rita Hayworth, Everett Sloane (last seen in "The Patsy"), Glenn Anders.

DISTANCE TRAVELED TODAY:  523 miles / 842 km  (Mexicali, Mexico to San Francisco, CA)

DISTANCE TRAVELED SO FAR:   48,101 miles / 77,411 km  (with a final adjustment - curse you, kilometers!)

RATING: 5 out of 10 subpoenas

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Touch of Evil

Year 4, Day 311 - 11/6/12 - Movie #1,298

WORLD TOUR Day 62 - Mexico/California border ?

BEFORE:  Apparently there are three versions of this film - including the 1958 release version, which included reshoots authorized by the studio and NOT director Orson Welles (last seen in "The Long Hot Summer"), and a 1976 longer version which was billed as "complete and restored", yet was not.  I'll be watching the 1998 version, edited by Walter Murch according to suggestions made by Welles in a 58-page memo (!) to Universal's head of production regarding what changes needed to be made for the film to work.

Besides the Mexican connection, both this film and last night's film underwent forced recuts by their studios, forcing disagreements with their directors.  Perhaps this is more commonplace than we all realize, but I think it's worth mentioning.  Linking actors from "All the Pretty Horses", Bruce Dern was also in a film titled "Number One" with Charlton Heston (last heard in "Cats & Dogs") - I barely skated by with that one.

THE PLOT:  Stark, perverse story of murder, kidnapping, and police corruption in Mexican border town.

AFTER:  This is a bit of a strange film - it's almost like a B-Movie with A-list talent.  Perhaps it's the successor to those noir films of the 1930's and 40's, where we're presented with our hero, his woman, and a town full of shady characters and suspects.  The film is almost TOO complicated, to the point where the solution of the opening murder is almost an afterthought to all of the other proceedings.

Welles was 43 when this film was released - and like he did at the end of "Citizen Kane", he's playing an older, fatter character.  The irony in both cases is that if he'd just waited a few years, he would have fit the bill perfectly.  Before I went to film school and watched "Kane", I only knew Welles as the spokesman in commercials for Paul Masson wines, which played upon his reputation as a gourmand.  The line "We will sell no wine before its time" became legendary in the ad business, but if you want some laughs, listen to the outtakes on YouTube of Welles reading copy (and complaining about it!) in commercials for frozen peas and fish filets.

I just obtained a biography of Welles, and I look forward to reading it during my upcoming down time.  I think I like the IDEA of Orson Welles, the independent director who also was able to eat 18 hot dogs in one sitting at Pink's in L.A.  From the radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" to "Citizen Kane" - but did his career peak too soon?  Did he spend decades chasing some kind of impossible storytelling ideal, when he might have already achieved it?  Perhaps I'll gain some insight from that book.

Anyway, the film.  The opposing forces are a Mexican attorney who's so dedicated that he leaves his wife alone during their honeymoon to investigate the murder, and on the other side of the border is a corrupt policeman who's got one of the highest conviction rates in the country, which could have something to do with a history of planting evidence.  But does this make him a corrupt cop, or just a lazy cop?  It's mentioned that he's also a brilliant detective - so if he's usually right about who's guilty, why the need to plant evidence?  Laziness seems to be the only explanation.

NITPICK POINT: Vargas' wife is brought to a hotel, which consists of a bunch of separate cabins, and informed she is the only guest staying there.  Doesn't she find it weird when a loud party seems to be taking place in the room next door?  First of all, there wouldn't BE a room next door if the cabins were separated, and secondly, if she's the only guest, who's throwing the party? 

While the film does not disclose its exact setting, the original novel "Badge of Evil" was set in a small California town.  This film could take place anywhere along the Mexican border, but I'm placing it in California, in someplace that would be large enough to have an official border crossing, but is quiet enough to not be Tijuana.  (Welles reportedly wanted to shoot in Tijuana, but settled for locations in Venice, CA.)  This helps me make the final leg of the journey tomorrow, up to San Francisco where this crazy chain began.

Also starring Janet Leigh (last seen in "The Manchurian Candidate"), Joseph Calleia, Dennis Weaver, with cameos from Zsa Zsa Gabor and Marlene Dietrich.

DISTANCE TRAVELED TODAY:  932 miles / 1,500 km  (Cuatro Cienagas, Mexico to Mexicali, Mexico)

DISTANCE TRAVELED SO FAR:   47,578 miles / 76,571 km

RATING:  6 out of 10 leather jackets

Monday, November 5, 2012

All the Pretty Horses

Year 4, Day 310 - 11/5/12 - Movie #1,297

WORLD TOUR Day 61 - Mexico/Texas border

BEFORE:  Finally made it back to the U.S., only to dip down into Mexico again.  Last night's film was something of a Western, though an exaggerated action-based one, I think tonight's film will be a little more sedate.  And Ruben Blades carries over from "Once Upon a Time In Mexico", for good measure.

THE PLOT:  Two Texas cowboys head to Mexico in search of work, but soon find themselves in trouble with the law after one of them falls in love with a wealthy rancher's daughter.

AFTER:  This film seems to have flown under the radar for a long time - it wasn't a big hit in theaters, maybe because the plot is somewhat depressing and doesn't really conform to Hollywood conventions.  But I say, neither does life, so this felt very possible, almost realistic - but that's often not what people want to see in theaters, as opposed to escapism.

It was also hard to get a handle on when the film is set - I determined later that the novel is set in 1949, and that's certainly possible.  But there's a timeless element to it as well - there aren't a lot of cars or other modern conveniences seen in the film, but that could easily be attributed to the setting of rural Mexico.  I can see both sides of the issue - not stating the year makes the film both elusive and all-encompassing at the same time.

Supposedly a cut of this film exists which is between three and four hours long, and the director (Billy Bob Thornton) was forced to cut an hour in order to achieve a releasable film.  Perhaps that affected people's view of the film, and perhaps the characters would have been developed better with more time - then again, maybe not.  Common sense dictates that the best stuff wouldn't have been cut, so the scenes edited out must have been sacrificed for a reason, one might think.

So I'm split down the middle on this one.  Is the film slow-paced, or not?  Depressing, or just realistic? I do applaud a non-traditional depiction of a romance - so many times Hollywood tends to over-simplify relationships.  People are together, that's good - they split up, that's bad.  But when is that not the case?  Not every couple is cut out to stay together, after all.

Roy Orbison sang, "In the real world, we must say real goodbyes."  And this was from a guy who knew a thing or two about it.  Show me the couple, anywhere, who lived "happily EVER after".  That "ever" is a real sticking point, isn't it?  When circumstances, internal or external, prevent a couple from functioning further as a unit, the true test of love is often: do you love this person enough to let them go?  And if not, do you want them to remain for the right reasons, or for purely selfish ones?

Also starring Matt Damon (last seen in "Hereafter"), Henry Thomas (last seen in "Legends of the Fall"), Penelope Cruz (last seen in "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"), Lucas Black (last seen in "Legion"), Julio Oscar Mechuso (also carrying over from "Once Upon a Time in Mexico"), with cameos from Sam Shepard (last seen in "Thunderheart"), Robert Patrick (last seen in "Flags of Our Fathers"), Bruce Dern (last seen in "Black Sunday").

DISTANCE TRAVELED TODAY:  1,181 miles / 1,902 km  (Mexico City, Mexico to San Angelo, Texas, then to Cuatro Cienagas, Mexico)

DISTANCE TRAVELED SO FAR:   46,646 miles / 75,071 km

RATING: 5 out of 10 broncos

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

Year 4, Day 309 - 11/4/12 - Movie #1,296

WORLD TOUR Day 60 - Mexico

BEFORE: I taped this one off of cable solely for the Mexican setting, without realizing I set myself up to watch the third film in a trilogy, without having seen the first two films.  I take full responsibility for the consequences.  I hope the plot of this one doesn't rely on what has taken place before.  Linking from "Under Fire", Gene Hackman was also in "Mississippi Burning" with Willem Dafoe (last seen in "Speed 2: Cruise Control")

THE PLOT:  Hitman "El Mariachi" becomes involved in international espionage involving a psychotic CIA agent and a corrupt Mexican general.

AFTER:  This isn't really my scene, because the action and violence are so over-the-top that it's almost like a live-action cartoon.  I get hung up on things like the physics of stunts gunshots, and this has enough impossible and implausible occurences to keep the Mythbusters busy for a whole season.

(Come to think of it, get the Mythbusters guys on the phone - can you make a guitar function like a gun, or a flamethrower for that matter, and still be playable as a guitar?  I'm guessing the answer is no, but I'd like to know for sure.)

Once again there's a military coup in a Latin American nation - that's the third one this week, but who's counting? - and once again the CIA is involved.  But so is a (retired) FBI agent, a current AFN agent (sort of a Mexican ATF?), a druglord, a get the idea.  To say that it's hard to keep track of all the players here is an understatement, plus all the loyalties keep shifting, pitting characters who were once allies up against each other.

The famed "Mexican standoff" so common in Tarantino films is well represented here, but so are magic bullets that always seem to find their targets - when fired by the heroes, of course.  The villains can shoot hundreds of bullets and miss every time.  But this is all in the name of storytelling, of course, and I do make allowances for that.  But hero bullets here also have the power to propel bodies across the room, and that's just not how ballistics work.

My DVD was a little glitchy, or maybe my brain missed something, but I never saw the scene in which a major character got blinded.  I rewound and looked for it, still couldn't find it.  So this plot twist seemed to come out of nowhere for me.  It's interesting, sure, but I was left wondering who blinded him and why.  Another odd choice was to have a character spend the whole last act with his face in bandages.  I understand why he wanted facial surgery, but it's still an odd choice - unless the actor himself wasn't available for the whole shoot, and a stand-in was used.

Also starring Antonio Banderas (last seen in "The Mask of Zorro"), Johnny Depp (last seen in "Alice in Wonderland"), Salma Hayek (last heard in "Puss in Boots"), Mickey Rourke (last seen in "Man on Fire"), Eva Mendes (last seen in "The Other Guys"), Ruben Blades (last seen in "Disorganized Crime"), Danny Trejo (last seen in "Predators"), Enrique Iglesias, Cheech Marin (last heard in "Cars 2").

DISTANCE TRAVELED TODAY:  991 miles / 1,595 km  (Managua, Nicaragua to Mexico City, Mexico)

DISTANCE TRAVELED SO FAR:   45,465 miles / 73,169 km (kms again adjusted for rounding errors)

RATING:  4 out of 10 packs of gum