Saturday, January 19, 2013

Piglet's Big Movie

Year 5, Day 19 - 1/19/13 - Movie #1,319

BEFORE: Still literary -  "Winnie the Pooh" counts as children's literature.  If all this is too kiddie-oriented for you, rest assured that for every children's film I cross off the list, I'm finding a film about serial killers to add to the list, since I know that cop films will be taking over the countdown in a couple of months.

Voice actor Jim Cummings, the voice of the plastic flamingo in "Gnomeo & Juliet", carries over and here supplies the voice of both Pooh Bear and Tigger.

THE PLOT:  When Piglet comes up missing his Hundred Acre Wood friends use Piglet's own Book of Memories to find him, discovering along the way just how big a role he's played in their lives.

AFTER:  Yeah, it's a bit of a lesson film, with Piglet feeling down on himself for being small and almost useless, but he ends up saving the day.  But it's a little disjointed because within that framework, there are several flashback stories - I guess someone realized that 6 characters stumbling around the forest looking for each other was a lot like 6 characters searching for a plot.

Ah, the flashbacks are adaptations of original A.A. Milne stories - I guess that makes sense, since the original books were composed of short stories and little poems, so this is something of a shout-out to the source material.  The characters use Piglet's scrapbook to reflect back on the time that Kanga and Roo moved into the forest, the expedition to find the "North Pole", and the building of the house at Pooh Corner.

It's all fairly innocuous, and like last night's film, the songs are all performed by one artist, in this case Carly Simon.

Also starring the voices of John Fiedler (last seen in "12 Angry Men", but better known as Mr. Peterson, if you remember the old "Bob Newhart Show"), Kath Soucie, Peter Cullen, Ken Sansom.

RATING: 4 out of 10 crayons

Friday, January 18, 2013

Gnomeo & Juliet

Year 5, Day 18 - 1/18/13 - Movie #1,318

BEFORE:  I've been extra busy at work this week, spreading the word about a Kickstarter campaign to fund an animated feature at one job, and spreading the word about a client's Oscar nomination for a different animated feature at the other job.  Lots of database work, lots of e-mailing, means longer hours for me.  So it's a relief to be starting a chain of animated films, which tend to be a bit on the shorter side, so I can watch, post and still get a few hours of sleep before I have to head back to promotion-land.

Matt Lucas (his voice, anyway) carries over again for this one, which is based on some Shakespeare play, but I'm not sure which one (JK). 

THE PLOT:  The neighboring gardens of Montague and Capulet are at war, but the gnomes, Gnomeo and Juliet, are in love.

FOLLOW-UP TO:  "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet"  (Movie #421), "Toy Story 3" (Movie #1,066)

AFTER:  I'm thinking of it as a riff on "Toy Story" because both films feature characters that come to life only when no humans are watching.  Jeez, you'd think that the odd person would catch a glimpse of a moving garden gnome once in a while, but apparently not.  They're very crafty.  Here the lovable (?) plump little porcelain figures are allowed to stay alive only if they don't shatter.  So there is death, even in the magical world of gnomes, just as the toys in "Toy Story" also faced possible damage and destruction.

Which seems to fit right in with Shakespeare, who loved a good tragedy, and a good death scene.  (William Schadenfreude is more like it)  And apparently he knew his audience - but here we're dealing with kids, so even though I'm usually dead-set against changing the ending of a classic work (I'm talking to YOU, "Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame"...) here somebody decided to lighten up the ending, and make it more kid-friendly, and it works.  How would a garden gnome commit suicide, anyway - jump off of a birdbath?

Somebody also decided that what a Shakespeare play really needed was more Elton John songs.  I'm guessing that person was executive producer Elton John.  You may catch instrumental versions of "Tiny Dancer" and "Rocket Man" used as background music, and "Your Song" and "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" fit right in with the theme, but the use of "Crocodile Rock" seemed a little forced.  Two new songs, "Hello Hello" and "Love Builds a Garden", were clearly Oscar bait - songs are not eligible for an Academy Award unless they're written specifically for the film (which explains the one new song in the "Les Miserables" film).

It all came together in a mostly entertaining way - with plenty of little bard-related in-jokes (someone yells, "Out, out, damn Spot!" while letting out their dog named Spot, for example)  Other gags reference everything from "Flashdance" to "Braveheart" to "American Beauty", to keep any adults made to watch this amused.

NITPICK POINT: The only thing that seemed out of place, when the movie got a little off-track and decided not to follow the original play any more, was the side bit about ordering the new, giant, fancy lawnmower.  You have to first believe that the gnomes take an active role in doing garden work (I wish...), and then that they also understand the internet, that items can be ordered without a credit card and delivered the same day, that a mower will be delivered already gassed up and ready to go, etc. etc.  It's a bit of a stretch, and using this fantastical device to advance the plot is relying on the same crutch as that "Three Musketeers" remake a couple of weeks ago - it's a case of "Machinus Ex Machina".  There must a have been a better way to go.

Also starring the voices of James McAvoy (last seen in "X-Men: First Class"), Emily Blunt (last seen in "The Adjustment Bureau"), Michael Caine (last seen in "The Quiet American"), Maggie Smith (last seen in "A Room With a View"), Jason Statham (last seen in "The Italian Job"), Ozzy Osbourne, Jim Cummings (last heard in "Anastasia"), with cameos from Patrick Stewart (last heard in "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius"), Julie Walters and Hulk Hogan.

RATING: 5 out of 10 flower pots

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Wind in the Willows (2006)

Year 5, Day 17 - 1/17/13 - Movie #1,317

BEFORE: Matt Lucas carries over from "Bridesmaids", and provides me with a link back to animated films and/or children's films (this one's not animated).  This topic will take me nearly to the end of the month, and a fair number of these are based on children's books, so that ties in well with this very literary month that kicked off with "Les Miserables", "The Three Musketeers" and "Mutiny on the Bounty", et. al.

THE PLOT:  One spring, Mole decides that he can ignore the spring cleaning for a little longer, and begins a series of adventures with his new friend Rat.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Once Upon a Forest" (Movie #1,018)

AFTER: Well, this was a weird one.  I guess I was expecting something a bit more like the old cel-animated Disney film I saw as a kid, which was combined with "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and screened under the title "The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad".  But as I said, tonight's film was NOT animated - it just had actors playing the parts of the animals, with minimal make-up and costumes.

They did cast people with facial features that sort of resembled the animals they were playing - a rat-faced guy, and Matt Lucas is very roundish, sort of toad-like I guess.  But they still relied heavily on the power of suggestion - British kids know this story very well, so they'd be more likely to "see" the people as animals.  But I might not have known that guy was supposed to be a mole if he didn't introduce himself, and thankfully his name happens to be Mole.

This story ended up following the book very closely, because the British kids would probably scream if it deviated greatly.  But I think that also ended up hurting it somewhat, because the book doesn't seem to have one clear narrative - instead it consists of four separate yet interconnected stories.  It's kind of like the "Pulp Fiction" of kiddie lit.

I kind of wish I'd started a section in my reviews long ago, based on "What I learned" from each film, like Craig Ferguson does at the end of each show.  All along I should have been relating what specific knowledge was gleaned from each movie, either straight or sarcastically.  For example, tonight I learned that you should never let a toad drive your motorcar, you can escape from jail just by disguising yourself as a washerwoman, and that badgers growl a lot.

I'm left not knowing how seriously to take this story.  The nitpicky side of me wants to point out that Toads can't drive cars - is it a giant toad, or a really small car?  And that rats don't use rowboats, etc.  Plus, you might be able to tell this story better if you have a bigger budget for make-up and costumes.  Or ANY budget for make-up, for that matter.

This really needs to be re-made in full animation, similar to "Fantastic Mr. Fox".  Which apparently has been done a time or two, but not by a big Hollywood stop-motion studio.  There has also been another animated version with the voices of Michael Palin and Rik Mayall, and another live-action version directed by Terry Jones and starring Palin, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Steve Coogan and Stephen Fry.  Why couldn't I have watched one of those versions instead of this one? 

Also starring Lee Ingleby, Mark Gatiss, Bob Hoskins (last seen in "Vanity Fair"), with cameos from Imelda Staunton, Tom "Dr. Who" Baker.

RATING: 3 out of 10 sardines

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Year 5, Day 16 - 1/16/13 - Movie #1,316

BEFORE: I think the reasoning for putting this film here was that it was marketed as sort of a female version of "The Hangover", and what makes more sense after a film about a 4-day bender?  Maybe there will be some drinking in this film, and I can tie it in thematically with "The Lost Weekend".  This was originally going to be the film I started 2013 with, but the plans changed, as plans are wont to do.

So far this year I've been adding a new film to the list every day, so I haven't moved the needle - but, on the upside, the list hasn't grown bigger since Jan. 1 either, it's still 260 films.  I'm considering removing the 14 Woody Allen films that I'm fairly sure I've seen, just to get a jump on the numbers and feel like I'm making some progress.

THE PLOT:  Competition between the maid of honor and a bridesmaid, over who is the bride's best friend, threatens to upend the life of an out-of-work pastry chef.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Hangover" (Movie #731) and "The Hangover Part II (Movie #1,285)

AFTER: Well, I shouldn't have worried, since there was plenty of drinking in this film, and a few references to A.A., so that keeps my chain unbroken.  Plus there were prescription drugs, mixed with drinking (don't try this at home, kids - no beer for me while I'm on the pain meds...)

And I completely forgot about the Oracle of Bacon, which really makes my life so much easier.  Ray Milland from "The Lost Weekend" was also in "The Last Tycoon" with Tony Curtis, who was also in "Naked in New York" with Jill Clayburgh (last seen in "Running With Scissors"), who appears in "Bridesmaids".  Ah, I feel so much better now.

Another common theme between last night's film and this one - sort of a broken dream thing.  Don Birnam was a failed writer, and the main character here also feels like a failure, having lost her bake shop, and pretty much her motivation with it.  All she's got going for her is her unfulfilling relationshp, her annoying roommates, overbearing mother, dead-end job - OK, so she doesn't have a lot going for her.  But she's got her best friend - who gets engaged, leaving her to feel more like a failure.

But the worst indignation comes when her best friend's NEW friend starts helping with the wedding plans, and jealousy rears its ugly head.  Which brings me to the difference between men and women, as I see it.  Men are simple creatures - we are either friends, or enemies, or work friends, or drinking friends, or teammates - and that's it.  We like our relationships with other men to be simple - if there is ever any confusion, then it's settled with a couple beers, or a hug, or a punch to the face, and then everybody knows just where they stand again.

Women (and I say this having known a few, worked with several, and even married a couple) are complex creatures.  They have these things called "emotions", and those often get in the way.  They can secretly resent one of their friends, or act friendly towards someone they despise.  And they hold grudges - when was the last time you heard a woman say, "I forgot why I was mad at you"?  And they seem to refuse to confront each other, and tell each other WHY they're mad at each other.  Something about not giving the other woman the satisfaction, but I don't really get it.  Hey, the day someone writes a book about women that explains everything, I'll be first in line to buy it.

It's not all bad - some women (the good ones) put up with men, and also think that farts are funny.  But because women have only had the same rights as men for the last century or so (sorry about that), there are still some leftover feelings of inadequacy, as this film details.  If a women doesn't have "it all", if she's not the best career-oriented, child-rearing, married socialite on the upper East Side, she could perceive herself as falling short.  For the vast majority of people, I think it's not possible to have it all, at least not all at the same time, and people spend far too much time worrying about it.  Aim low, I say, just be the best you that you can, and that goes for both genders.

It's a terrible trick that men played on women, making them think they can have it all - men can't either, but have more practice at faking it - and keeping them down for so long that then they had to be twice as good as men to advance in a man's world.  Society tells women that they need to empower themselves, then acts threatened when they do.  Society tells women that they should strive to get ahead, but then pays them less.  Speak up, but be ladylike.  Get out and have experiences, but don't dare be a dirty slut. 

Personally, I wouldn't mind if women took over completely, since they probably couldn't do any worse screwing up the world than men have.   Go ahead, ladies, rise up and take control - oh, wait, you don't need my permission.  As you were, or do what you want.

But perhaps since this is a film aimed at women, I found parts of it to be a little hit-or-miss.  Some of the humor reminded me of scenarios from "Fawlty Towers", the TV series where John Cleese played a proper British innkeeper who tried to not be offended by the indignities of his guests, but then bottling up his frustration would force it to boil over, manifesting itself in the most comic physical situations.  Like the British, some women have trouble with confrontation, as seen in this film, and then explode with rage - here, for comic effect.

I also feel the need to defend Brazilian food.  I've been to several churrascarias in the New York area, and never had a problem with the meat.  If anything, I've found those restaurants to have excellent service when it comes to the preparation and serving of a wide variety of proteins - there's one in Queens that we frequent, with a full buffet of sides and an all-you-can-eat meat selection.  The only reason I felt uncomfortable after our last visit was my own over-indulging.  But I guess showing people getting sick from Mexican or Indian food, or even sushi, is too much of a cliché.

NITPICK POINT: While I'm at it, Brazilian churrascarias are usually all-you-can-eat affairs, at least that's my experience, and that's the selling point - lots of meat, plus a buffet.  Would a group of gals really go out and stuff themselves, just a few hours prior to their dress fitting?  Given the competitive nature of some of these women, wouldn't they be more likely to starve themselves, to fit in smaller dress sizes?  Sure, you might think that people would plan on eating at a wedding, so they'd want to make sure the clothes would have some room - but that's not how women think.

Starring Kristen Wiig (last seen in "Paul"), Maya Rudolph (last seen in "MacGruber"), Rose Byrne (last seen in "Marie Antoinette"), Chris O'Dowd (last seen in "Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel"), Jon Hamm (last seen in a cameo in "The A-Team"), Melissa McCarthy, Ellie Kemper (last seen in a cameo in "Get Him to the Greek"), Wendi McLendon-Covey, with cameos from Rebel Wilson, Matt Lucas (last seen in "Alice in Wonderland"), Tim Heidecker, Terry Crews (last seen in "The Longest Yard"), Nancy Carell, Melanie Hutsell, the group Wilson Phillips, and character actor Richard Riehle.

RATING: 6 out of 10 tennis balls

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Lost Weekend

Year 5, Day 15 - 1/15/13 - Movie #1,315

BEFORE:  It's been brought to my attention that I watched "The Man With the Golden Arm", a film about drug addiction, while on prescription painkillers.  I was aware of this coincidence, but chose not to point it out because I'm taking them for a valid medical reason, and I'm not addicted to them.  If anything I'm hyper-aware of my current reliance on them to walk comfortably, and I intend to stop taking them as soon as possible.  I've still got painkillers left from the last time I had a kidney stone, and I'm afraid to travel without them, should that condition strike again while I'm away from home.  Anyway, I've had much more experience with (over-)indulging in alcohol than any drugs.

Linking from "The Man With the Golden Arm", Frank Sinatra was also in "High Society" with Grace Kelly, who was also in "Dial M For Murder" with Ray Milland.

THE PLOT: The desperate life of Don Birnam, a chronic alcoholic, is followed through a four-day drinking bout.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Days of Wine and Roses" (Movie #1,048)

AFTER:  This was another film that portrayed the consequences of addiction, without really getting into the reasons for the condition.  Does it matter?  (Well, yeah, kinda.)  The guy's a drunk, that's that, and we see how it affects the relationship with his brother, his girlfriend, his, umm, other sort-of girlfriend, and his would-be writing career.  Oh, he's started plenty of novels, plus short stories, a one-act play - he just has trouble finishing them.  Something about staring at that blank page sends him looking for a drink, you know, just to get the creative juices flowing.  Then one drink turns into two, which turns into the whole bottle, and there goes any notion of getting a chapter finished today.

The weird thing is, when he's drinking at the bar, he's full of great ideas (or maybe they just sound better after a few belts) and he's full of energy, holding court and quoting great writers.  Maybe what he needed to do was bring a tape recorder or dictation machine with him, get drunk and have some cool ideas, then get them down on paper in the morning.

(I wasn't sure if the events in the flashback sequence really happened, or formed the basis of Birnam's eventual novel.  Perhaps both?  But I really hate when a character is a writer, and decides to write about his life, and then maybe that book will become the film that you're watching RIGHT NOW!  It's a narrative cop-out, a non-ending.)

But I suppose that plan wouldn't work, if he keeps waking up with hangovers, or in the alcoholic ward at the hospital.  Was that ever really a thing?  They seemed to imply that the hospitals were full of drunk people during prohibition, but shouldn't that be AFTER prohibition?  I can see there being a rise in alcoholism among soldiers returning from World War II, but not before that.

Anyway, in addition to destructive behavior, writer's block, and general mean-temperedness, for extra measure Birnam's also an unemployed failure, a surly bastard, a liar and a thief - he'll resort to whatever gets him his next drink fastest.  But there are some humorous moments here - like when he goes to the opera, and is forced to watch everyone on stage at "La Traviata" drinking wine, when he's got to go without.  All he can think about is the bottle he's got stashed in his raincoat, and he imagines the entire chorus turning into raincoats.  That was a little weird and cartoon-like - remember all those old cartoons where a starving person on a deserted island imagined their friend turning into a giant pork chop or chicken leg? 

Speaking of which, I thought the description of alcohol withdrawal here might have been exaggerated, but apparently not.  Some people do get the "Delirium Tremens" and are subject to disorientation, nightmares and hallucinations.  Visions of insects, snakes, rats are possible, as is the sensation of having something crawling on one's body.  But the term "seeing pink elephants" is probably just a euphemism, which is traced back to a Jack London story, "John Barleycorn", and then was given a life of its own in the animated film "Dumbo". 

The film does raise some questions about bars and liquor stores, and whether they have a responsibility to cut intoxicated people off, or a right to keep making money from them.  Here the bartenders have all been visited by Birnam's brother and instructed not to serve him, but they do anyway, provided he has cash.   While I can't justify this as a sound choice, it's the downside of living in a free-market society.  I live in New York City, and our mayor has decided arbitrarily that trans-fats must be banned, smoking must be done in private seclusion, and sodas can be no larger than 12 oz., for our own protection.  While well-intentioned, I think these regulations have gone too far - plus, that soda thing is ineffective, since most places offer free refills - and two 12 oz. sodas is less healthy than one 18 oz. soda.

I've sort of reached the end of a chain here - nothing really follows this, unless I want to watch "Naked Lunch", and I don't think that I do just yet.  So there will be a bit of a thematic break here, and I'll start a new chain tomorrow.  But in the first two weeks of 2013, I covered four Best Picture Oscar winners, including this film, so that's not too shabby.

Also starring Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, Doris Dowling.

RATING:  4 out of 10 shots of rye

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Man With the Golden Arm

Year 5, Day 14 - 1/14/13 - Movie #1,314

BEFORE: From sex addiction to drug addiction - this film was originally scheduled to be part of the World Tour last year, representing Chicago, but I had to cut some films to make room for some last-minute additions.  Anyway, I felt the setting of this film was less important than its theme.

THE PLOT:  Strung-out junkie deals with daily demoralizing drug addiction while crippled wife and card sharks continue to pull him down.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Hustler" (Movie #312)

AFTER: This film centers on Frankie, a heroin addict who's just back from prison/rehab, and as he returns back to his hometown of Chicago, he tries to re-invent himself as a musician, having spent time learning to play the drums while getting clean.  Which is a smart plan, because as we all know, professional musicians never have problems with drugs.

But it's a tough town full of tough characters, and once he makes contact with his old pusher, it's too easy for him to fall into his old habits.  And once he makes contact with the guy who runs the illegal card game, it's easy for him to work as a card dealer again.  And once he sees his old girlfriend, well, you get the idea.  It does seem a bit too coincidental that his pusher's so friendly with the gambling operation, for that matter everyone seems to know everyone, but maybe that's because they've all been in the same neighborhood for so long.

The real problem here is that movies are an audio/visual medium, and it's hard to use the language of film to depict a feeling, the craving that addicts have for their addiction.  This film tries valiantly to describe it verbally, but it's just not feasible - whereas last night's film just didn't even try at all.  The one film that I'm aware of that really captured the essence of addiction is "Requiem for a Dream", with its close-ups of dilating pupils, swelling blood vessels, inhaled breaths - the audience could feel the rush when the craving got satisfied, even if it was in oblique terms.

Another contrivance here is the main character's wife, who appears to be crippled, but may be using her disability to keep Frankie tied to her - I guess making her too sympathetic of a character would have muddied the waters somewhat.  But if she's a lying so-and-so, then our sympathies go back on to the main character, for all of the ways in which he's being manipulated.   The pusher, the gamblers, the wife, this guy is really a pawn in everyone else's game, not to mention his reliance on the drugs.

But even that's a little unclear - was he using drugs to temporarily escape the no-win situations he found himself in?  Or was his addiction the reason that he could never get ahead of the game?  And since we only see him shooting up once or twice, and never see him blissfully zoned out, it was a little hard to tell when he was using.  Were his hands trembling because he needed a fix, or because he'd just had one?  Was he drumming poorly because he was high, or because of withdrawal?

The film's major turning point and the climax were also contrivances, one created a terrible situation and the other resolved it, but that was all just a little too neat.  Contrivances are a poor substitute for actual character development.  I listed this as a follow-up to "The Hustler" because of the way that the gambling played out - as a marathon game where the advantage changed, but it seemed much more organic and less forced in "The Hustler" than here.

There was also something kind of cartoon-like about this film, with the minimalist sets, and the overly dramatic music (everything was punctuated with orchestral stings, like a Bugs Bunny or Road Runner cartoon), and the way that the colorful Chicago underworld characters were such blatant stereotypes.

Starring Frank Sinatra (last seen making a cameo in "Around the World in Eighty Days"), Eleanor Parker, Kim Novak, Arnold Stang, Darren McGavin (last seen in "Airport '77").

RATING:  4 out of 10 lost dogs

Sunday, January 13, 2013


Year 5, Day 13 - 1/13/13 - Movie #1,313

BEFORE: Wrapping up a triple-play of Michael Fassbender films - the guy got a lot of work right after "Inglourious Basterds" hit.  The theme of sexual psychosis carries over as well.

THE PLOT: In New York City, Brandon's carefully cultivated private life -- which allows him to indulge his sexual addiction -- is disrupted when his sister Sissy arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.

AFTER: This is the portrait of a sex addict, but unfortunately it feels like that's ALL it is, just a portrait, with no plot points or character development.  I get that it's about a man who's learned to separate the sex act from any emotional involvement, but there's got to be a way to portray that without removing the audience's emotional involvement in the character as well.  If he doesn't seem to care about his own life, what chance is there of me caring?

Unless that was the point, to make the audience feel the pointlessness and hopelessness of this man's life, due to his addiction.  But there's got to be a way to portray emptiness and despair without it carrying over.  I was left feeling like the movie itself was quite pointless.  There was not even a mention about WHY Brandon was the way he was - he and his sister alluded to some incidents in their past, but neither felt the need to elaborate on them.

This felt like what I call a "Sundance" film - a little dark, more than a little oblique, and not necessarily following the strict rules of a narrative.  I bet this film did well on the festival circuit.  But for once, I don't mean that as a compliment.  Next up, I've got some more films that explore addiction, but let's hope that they're better movies.

Also starring Carey Mulligan (last seen in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps"), James Badge Dale.

RATING: 2 out of 10 phone messages