Saturday, February 9, 2013

Cactus Flower

Year 5, Day 40 - 2/9/13 - Movie #1,341

BEFORE: I thought I had a pretty good run there, with each film sharing at least one actor with the films before it and after it, stretching back to Jan. 25's "Hop", and I was sure that would end tonight - but with some luck, Jack Weston carrries over tonight from "The Four Seasons".  Maybe I planned this weeks ago, it's a little tough to say. 

THE PLOT:  A dentist pretends to be married to avoid commitment, but when he falls for his girlfriend and proposes, he must recruit his lovelorn nurse to pose as his wife.

AFTER:  At first glance, this seems to be the same plot as "Just Go With It".  And at second (and third) glance that also appears to be the case, though the makers of that Adam Sandler film failed to mention that they cribbed their plot from this film, just changing the role of a dentist to that of a plastic surgeon (probably to get more boobies in the film), and adding in larger roles for the fake kids and the state of Hawaii.

We've got a bachelor in a well-paying medical profession who pretends to be married because it apparently gets him more girls (there's that weird logic again) and he never needs to commit to them.  But when he finally finds the one he wants to marry, he has to untangle his lie by telling more and more lies, including enlisting his nurse to pretend to be his wife, and then she needs a pretend boyfriend, etc. etc.  Yep, same plot.  But this one came first.

It was also made in the 1960's, so we're treated to the somewhat odd sight of acclaimed actress Ingrid Bergman dancing the boogaloo (or maybe it's the froog) in a Manhattan nightspot, along with one of the decade's more notable "jiggle-jaggle" girls.   And the most sought-after of all gifts is the (now very un-P.C.) mink stole.  If you gave a woman a mink back then, you might as well just give her the diamond ring next.

ASIDE: Goldie Hawn won an Oscar for this?  An OSCAR?  Must have been a slow year for supporting actresses.  Why wasn't Ingrid Bergman nominated instead?  End of ASIDE.

There's even the "weird foreign guy", who's also married and looking for action (must have been a fun decade), and his role in the not-remake was turned into the lead's friend, who was just pretending to be a weird foreign guy.  So I'm calling it - "Cactus Flower" plus kids plus improv equals "Just Go With It", which makes Jennifer Aniston our generation's Ingrid Bergman, somehow.  

There are so many deceptions here, and lies within lies, that at time it seems like the characters themselves believe in the alternate stories over the real ones.  That's a problem.  It's also a problem when telling 100 MORE lies is seen as a better alternative than telling the truth once.  Before you know it, you're telling your girl that you work for the CIA, and that this is all part of a plot to overthrow the government in Chile.

But hey, maybe you like oblique metaphors about cactuses.  Or nightclubs where they play instrumental versions of "I'm a Believer" - if so, then godspeed.

Starring Walter Matthau (last seen in "The Front Page"), Ingrid Bergman (last seen in "Casablanca"), Goldie Hawn (last seen in "Housesitter"), Rick Lenz, Vito Scotti.

RATING: 4 out of 10  vinyl records

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Four Seasons

Year 5, Day 39 - 2/8/13 - Movie #1,340

BEFORE: I've added a few last-minute romance-based films to next week's line-up, which brings this year's total on that topic to 28 - perfect for the month of February.  Alan Alda carries over from "Same Time, Next Year" and keeps the actor linking chain alive. 

THE PLOT:  Three middle-aged wealthy couples take vacations together in Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Along the way we are treated to mid-life, marital, parental and other crises.

AFTER:  Alda's appearance is not the only reason to watch this one next - there's a thematic progression as well.  In last night's film, I watched a cheating couple still keeping their affair going as they reached middle age - and tonight's film is all about three couples keeping their relationships going in middle age as well.

I talked yesterday about how "vacation time" is different from regular time - and this whole film is set in vacation time - the couples go to a cabin in upstate New York in the spring, sail a boat around the Virgin Islands in the summer, visit their kids at college in Connecticut in the fall, and take a ski trip in the wintertime.  One couple does separate after the spring trip, so there's a new girlfriend in the group by the summer, and by fall she's fully integrated into the group, with the ex-wife out in the cold.

The marriages aren't perfect, nor are the friendships, and that makes this all feel pretty real - what in life is perfect, after all?  Yet Hollywood spends so much time these days on light romantic comedies about finding the perfect match - but very little time detailing how to maintain those relationships after 10 or 15 years.  "It's Complicated" is the only one that springs to mind, I'm sure there must be others, but probably not many.

The film did a good job of capturing the way real people talk, like when friends argue over how to divide a check in a restaurant, or when couples bicker over small nuisances, without it sounding all staged, as it did in "Same Time, Next Year".  This is helped by the fact that the film isn't pushing any kind of message or political agenda, it's just meant to be a portrait of a group of friends.  But it's a double-edged sword - if that's all the film is trying to be, that's all it ends up being.

In an odd way, this film has inspired me, because it sort of resembles my screenplay idea, which is cribbed from my real life, so I can't be accused of plagiarism.  My story would be about a group of two young NY couples, plus two single people, who get together on the weekends in the late 80's and play role-playing games.  But though they learn to function as a team in the fantasy world, when they try to do activities together in the real world, such as camping, the results are disastrous (but funny).  Over the span of a few years, there are secret attractions within the group, couplings and un-couplings, which eventually fracture the group beyond repair.  That's about all that I'm willing to reveal, except to say that there are elements in my head that I've not seen in any film before. 

The trick is finding the time to write it - I've started it 3 or 4 times but can't get any real progress made.

Also starring Carol Burnett (last seen in "The Front Page"), Len Cariou (last seen in "Flags of Our Fathers"), Rita Moreno, Jack Weston, Sandy Dennis (last seen in "Splendor in the Grass"), Bess Armstrong (last seen in "Jaws 3-D").

RATING: 5 out of 10 crutches (the wooden ones, not the emotional ones) 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Same Time, Next Year

Year 5, Day 38 - 2/7/13 - Movie #1,339

BEFORE: And this time Ellen Burstyn carries over from "How to Make an American Quilt" as I start a mini-chain with some of the more classic films, recorded from TCM in the past few months.

THE PLOT:  A man and woman meet by chance at a romantic inn over dinner. Although both are married to others, they find themselves in the same bed the next morning, and they agree to meet on the same weekend each year.

AFTER:  My topic tonight concerns cheating, but not the extra-marital kind.  I'm talking about the kind of cheating a filmmaker can pull off to sway opinion in a certain way.  Since a film tends to reflect the cultural mores of the time period that produced it, you would expect a film made in the swingin' 1970s to have something of a lax attitude toward faithfulness - but this is a whole different animal.

By depicting the one day each year that a cheating couple meets (which happens to be in February, appropriately enough), over the course of 26 years, we get to see the upside of the affair, without any of the potential negatives.  That's more than a bit biased, that's cheating.  Is the physical nature of an affair rewarding?  Yeah, probably.  Is the intimacy achieved between the two a positive?  Possibly - the old "my spouse doesn't understand me" chestnut.  But where is the guilt, the deception, the unfairness to their spouses?  There are some references to going to confession, but any second thoughts or crying jags are kept off-camera.

So the affair lives in the unreality of "vacation time", since their relationship takes place only once a year at a little resort in upstate California.  He's an accountant that flies in from Connecticut to do bookkeeping for a winery, and she drives up for a retreat instead of celebrating her mother-in-law's birthday.  They both learn to do some handy compartmentalizing, turning on their libidos for a day or a weekend, and then putting it back into a box so they can go back to their lives.

At the same time, since we check in on them every five years or so, there's a commentary on the changing social mores of the early 1950's to the mid-1960's and finally 1977.  At times they are miles apart politically, when he represents the establishment but she's a hippie chick, having gone back to school at Berkeley.  This seemed like quite a stretch, for a mother of three to go back to school and suddenly dress like an 18 year old again.  Besides, I thought the hippie motto included "Drop out", not "audit some college courses"?   Again, this is a form of cheating, changing a character so drastically in order to set up the conflict between liberal and conservative - which doesn't seem to get in the way of them having their annual sex, though.  And for the same woman to be a successful business mogul just a few years later - give me a break.

Did stuff like this happen?  I guess it's possible, you do sometimes hear about people who have long-term affairs and entire second families, but it just seems very, very unlikely.  It's clearly based off a stage-play - the entirety of the film is set in this one-room cabin, and a bit in the resort's dining room.  Drop a few new props into the room between scenes to denote the passage of time, and then you can concentrate instead on your socially relevant dialogue...  But since we never see their spouses or children, our attention is always on the couple before us, and that's meant to garner our sympathies.  That's more filmic cheating, it's manipulation by editing.

I wonder if people who work at resorts and hotels have just about seen it all.  Do they look at the couples having wonderful times and think, "Sure, they're married - just not to each other!"  And do they keep seeing the same customers over and over, with different partners? 

Also starring Alan Alda (last seen in "Wanderlust")

RATING: 4 out of 10 bedsheets

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

How to Make an American Quilt

Year 5, Day 37 - 2/6/13 - Movie #1,338

BEFORE: Was out at trivia last night - after some disputes with the management of the venue over what constitutes a cover charge, there's now another Manhattan club I'm no longer allowed in.  Seems to me that any beers I buy at the bar should be applied to my minimum, but the management disagreed and wanted me to spend another $15 at the table, and I refused. So I'd rather get my beer from a bartender, why should I be penalized for that?  I met the cover charge, I just didn't order from the waitress, and she got all hacked off.  The manager eventually conceded, but others who ordered from the bar weren't so lucky.  Don't you just love arbitrary rules?

Keeping the chain alive - this time Winona Ryder carries over from "The Dilemma".  I taped this off cable to put on the DVD with "Little Women". 

THE PLOT:  A bride-to-be hears tales of romance and sorrow from her elders as they construct a quilt.

AFTER:  There's tragedy in every life, so you don't necessarily have to treat these as tales of tragedy, merely tales of life.  Since this is a gyno-centric film many of the tales focus on the infidelity of men, which seems only fair since last night's film focused on the infidelity of a woman.  Oh wait, the framing tale here concerns female infidelity, but since they imply that her fiancĂ© also might be cheating I guess it's OK.  Hmm, no, still not OK.

I can see the obvious metaphor they were going for here - we're all just squares in the grand quilt of life, or something about how all of the different experiences of women come together in the big design.  How ironic that the pieces of the story didn't really come together for me to form a coherent whole.

I'm more drawn to the other, less obvious metaphor - Winona Ryder plays a wannabe writer (thankfully not writing the tale that will become this very film) who can't seem to complete her thesis, since she keeps changing her idea.  A freak wind gust disperses her pages (because she's some kind of retro technophobe who prefers not to use a computer - this is EXACTLY why computers are better) and she has to decide whether to gather up her old pages and patch together the old thesis, or start a new idea.  At the same time, she's trying to decide whether to fix the old relationship, or concentrate on the new one she's started with a hunky farmhand.  Newsflash - it's work either way.

The flashback stories all represent some form of surrender - not giving up, exactly, but conceding that some men are cheaters, or are looking for a way out, or in one case, are all too mortal.  If there's any proper take-away here, it's that all relationships require work, at least the ones worth fighting for. 

Also starring Ellen Burstyn (last seen in "W."), Anne Bancroft (last seen in "Honeymoon in Vegas"), Dermot Mulroney (last seen in "About Schmidt"), Alfre Woodard (last seen in "Blue Chips"), Kate Nelligan, Maya Angelou, Rip Torn (last seen in "Marie Antoinette"), with cameos from Kate Capshaw, Esther Rolle, Jared Leto, Samantha Mathis (last seen in "Little Women"), Claire Danes (ditto), Holland Taylor, Mykelti Williamson.

RATING: 3 out of 10 strawberries

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Dilemma

Year 5, Day 36 - 2/5/13 - Movie #1,337

BEFORE: The next obvious choice might be "I Now Pronouce You Chuck & Larry", but I don't have a copy of that, nor is it currently on my list.  I was planning to watch this one next anyway, and Kevin James' cameo in "50 First Dates" really justifies my choice.

THE PLOT:  A man discovers that his best friend's wife is having an affair.

AFTER: My sojourn in Hawaii is apparently over, as this film is firmly set in Chicago (and perhaps Detroit as well, since the main characters run an auto design firm.  I'm not sure if Chrysler has an office in Chicago, or they traveled up to Michigan for the presentations.)

The tone here is darkly comic, the subject matter more serious.  In conjunction with that, the physical humor causes real injury, which is more realistic but perhaps less entertaining as well.  The title dilemma is whether to tell one's best friend about their cheating spouse, or let him live in (relatively) blissful ignorance.  Complicating matters is the work being done on the electric muscle car engine, which is at a critical stage every time the lead character decides he needs to break the bad news.

I'm not a car guy, so I'm going to recuse myself from most analysis of plot points concerning car design and construction, but are we so shallow as Americans that we need our electric cars to rev and vibrate like sports cars?  Apparently.  I realize that some electric cars may be too quiet, which is itself a safety hazard, but this solution goes a bit too far.

As a friend once said to me, it sucks to be cheated on, but it also sucks to be the one cheating.  Meaning that there are two sides (at least) to every story.  This film seems to stack the deck against the cheating wife at first, then it pulls back and says, wait a minute, the situation is more complicated than it first seemed.  But throw in as many complications as you want, they don't negate the wrongness of the original infidelity. 

Further complications ensue when, unable to have an adult conversation with his best friend, our hero sets out to obtain tangible evidence of the affair (Why? He can't seem to break the news, will it be any easier with pictures?)  All of his plans go awry (in a style similar to "Horrible Bosses"), and his shady actions and bruises lead his family and friends to think his gambling addiction has resurfaced.  Again, it's more humor that's based on assuming the worst about people, and not giving them the benefit of the doubt.

But, maybe you find humor in seeing people in uncomfortable positions, and if so, there are some doozies here.  Still, a great deal of pain and suffering could have been avoided if someone had been willing to have an honest but admittedly difficult conversation early in the film. 

NITPICK POINT: The film's trailer got a lot of flack for the line "Electric cars are gay."  With "gay" being used as shorthand for something the speaker doesn't like.  After protests from gay groups, the line was removed from the trailer, but not the film - because the director felt that would be censorship.  Maybe so, but if a line is likely to offend more than 10% of the audience, why keep it?  Find another way.

Also starring Vince Vaughn (last seen in "The Cell"), Winona Ryder (last seen in "Little Women"), Jennifer Connelly (last seen in "Creation"), Channing Tatum (last seen in "The Eagle"), Queen Latifah (last seen in "Valentine's Day"), with a cameo from Clint Howard (last seen in "The Cat in the Hat").

RATING: 4 out of 10 hockey sticks

Monday, February 4, 2013

50 First Dates

Year 5, Day 35 - 2/4/13 - Movie #1,336

BEFORE:  The Aniston chain is over, so Adam Sandler carries over from "Just Go With It".  Once again the state of Hawaii is the scene (yes, my secret sponsor is the Hawaii tourism board...) and 80's music is on the soundtrack, in remixed form.  I know this in advance because I've had this film's soundtrack in my iTunes for quite a while, even though I'd never seen the film that goes with it.

THE PLOT:  Henry Roth is a man afraid of commitment up until he meets the beautiful Lucy. They hit it off and Henry think he's finally found the girl of his dreams, until he discovers she has short-term memory loss and forgets him the very next day.

AFTER:  And, once again Adam Sandler plays a man afraid of commitment.  (Who hurt you, Adam?)  I'm pretty sure he's happily married in real-life, so I'll just chalk this up to screenwriters who tend to work in broad strokes and easily definable characters.

When he's finally ready for a long-term relationship, he falls rather ironically for a woman whose memory resets every morning.  At first this seems ideal, because he can have a one-night stand with her and she won't remember it, but he's no longer looking for that, and apparently he's intrigued by the challenge.  So he sets out to win her heart, day after day, without stopping to consider how pointless this exercise seems.

Her condition here is called Goldfield Syndrome, but is a variation on anterograde amnesia, a.k.a. "movie amnesia".  True amnesia can last days or weeks, but usually sleep is a helpful part of the process, not a catalyst for a daily "reset".  What happens if she doesn't go to sleep at her regular time, or stays up all night?  If she takes a nap, does she forget only some things, like phone numbers?

Her father and brother have taken great pains to re-create the last day that she remembers, so in effect she is living this day over and over.  At first this calls to mind "Groundhog Day", when Bill Murray's character was stuck on the same day, and had infinite chances to win a woman's heart, so he was (eventually) able to plan the perfect date.  But then the situation here starts to resemble "Memento", as Henry starts to break down the pattern and try to get Lucy to remember him.  And it turns out that video-messages and scrapbooks are a lot cheaper than full-body tattoos.

ASIDE: Can I express how much I love the film "Memento"?  (Note to self: watch "Memento" again during the next break.)  But every synopsis, every examination of the film is incomplete.  Because the main character has no short-term memory, and because he has to leave himself messages scrawled on photos and his own body, he is an unreliable source of information.  There is a very real possibility that he could write down something to investigate further, and then the next day he would take that bit of evidence as a fact, rather than a theory.

And because the film scenes are edited (mostly) in reverse order, we, the audience members, are put in the same position as the hero - we don't know what came before, because it hasn't appeared on screen yet.  So every conclusion made at the end (which is really the beginning, if you think about it) is open to interpretation.  And a key flashback scene isn't necessarily any more true than any other scene, because it could be a faulty memory in the guy's head.  So every single synopsis or analysis needs to end with "of course, other interpretations are possible", or "your mileage may vary".  And if you think you've got it figured out, watch it again.  Pure brilliance. End of ASIDE.

Back to "50 First Dates" - eventually Lucy comes to terms with the relationship, and feels like her condition is holding Henry back from following his dream.  This is what I call the "lead weight/helium balloon" theory of relationships, where one person feels that they (or their lover) needs to be free to explore a new career, or a new life, or more partners, and their partner is holding them back.  I can't say I recall seeing this examined in too many movies, but I'm going to be looking for it now.  If someone asks me why my first marriage ended, I should just refer them to the weight and the balloon (yes, I was told I was the lead weight).   

So the question then becomes - does one character love another enough to let them go, and how is that not itself a conundrum?  If you love them and want to be with them, but something is making it impossible, then it's not.  You have to care about them so much that you put their needs, including their need to be apart from you, ahead of your own.

I think you can also take this film as a symbolic representation of anyone whose spouses suffers from Alzheimer's, or is in a coma, or suffers from real amnesia after an accident.  You'd see a similar situation, where one person is aware of the relationship and the other isn't, and they have to find a way to continue the relationship, or decide not to.  Apparently there's another film on a similar topic, "The Vow", but I don't have that film on my list. 

It's tempting to just regard this film as junk science and frivolous fluff, but it ended rather strongly and sweetly, like a romantic comedy should. 

Also starring Drew Barrymore (last seen in "He's Just Not That Into You"), Rob Schneider (last seen in "The Longest Yard"), Sean Astin (last seen in "Memphis Belle"), Amy Hill, Blake Clark, with cameos from Dan Aykroyd (last seen in "Yogi Bear"), Maya Rudolph (last seen in "Bridesmaids"), Missy Pyle (last seen in "Along Came Polly"), Kevin James (last seen in "Grown Ups").

RATING:  5 out of 10 cans of spam  (again, it's a 4 boosted up one by the soundtrack)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Just Go WIth It

Year 5, Day 34 - 2/3/13 - Movie #1,335

BEFORE: Wrapping up the Aniston 5-play tonight - and an unexpected theme has developed during the first few days of Romance Month, that of deception.  In "Picture Perfect", Aniston's character created a fake boyfriend in order to get a promotion, and last night Ben Stiller's character pretended to like spicy food and salsa dancing in order to get with Aniston.  This film looks like it will fit right into that same pocket.

THE PLOT:  On a trip to Hawaii, a plastic surgeon convinces his loyal assistant to pose as his soon-to-be-divorced wife in order to cover up a careless lie he told to his much-younger girlfriend.

AFTER:  Another unexpected theme this week - appearances from people I knew in college.  There was most of the cast of "The State" in "Wanderlust", and my ex-roomie Judah Friedlander turned up in "Along Came Polly".  Plus my 8mm film class nemesis Brett Ratner, who produced "Horrible Bosses" - I think he still owes me about a dozen hours of crew time, since he never showed up to work camera for me when he was supposed to.  I also lived in the same NYU dorm as Adam Sandler, I think he was a senior when I was a sophomore, and he lived in the penthouse, which was the most coveted room in the building, and graduated in 1988, a year before I did.  It makes me wonder where I'd be now in my career if I'd had better people skills back then.

Here Sandler (last seen in "The Longest Yard") plays Danny, a guy who wears a wedding ring even though he's not married, because of that old chestnut about single women being more attracted to married men.  Those kind of women are not really the type interested in commitment, but he's OK with that.  I don't know if the old saying is true, but it seems like faulty logic to me.  Perhaps women feel safer with a married man, and that leads to a certain comfort level which can lead to other things, but it still seems like a faulty plan.

So when the new girl that he falls for finds his wedding ring, and it's too late to give her the usual lie, he comes up with a new lie, which leads to another lie to explain that one, and so on.  Before long he's enlisted his nurse and her children to pose as his family, and they take a trip together, because that's not likely to be awkward at all.

NITPICK POINT: There are many more workable lies to explain why a man has a wedding ring in his possession.  How about "It's my grandmother's ring, I carry it as a good luck charm, I'm saving it until I meet the right girl?"  See?  Much easier.  You're welcome.

Also appearing, for the 2nd night in a row - the island of Hawaii.  I'm beginning to suspect that people are setting films there so they can have something of a free vacation while shooting a film. 

As more people get caught up in the web of lies, and Danny pays for the most expensive vacation ever just to cover up (even though it seems paying for sex directly would be much, much cheaper) the plan is forced to follow the rules of improv - the main one being that whatever anyone suggests, you can't deny it, you must accept it (or "go with it").  It also means that if a character starts doing a weird accent, they have to keep it going for the rest of the film, which is unfortunate.

When the fake wife meets an old college rival (hmmm...) she enlists her fake husband to keep a different charade going, and before long no one is really who they say they are, and no one can keep all of their lies straight.

Another thing these romantic comedies love to do is pull the old switcheroo, a long-standing tradition that dates back at least to "The Philadelphia Story" (probably way back to Shakespeare, but that would require research...), so you can kind of count on plans going awry and someone ending up with a different person than they originally intended to.  In this case people who spend time together, pretending to be a former couple, have so much fun together that it leads them to think they might belong together in the long run.

Which kind of is a metaphor for acting in general - how many times have you heard about actors falling in love while playing a couple in a movie?  And for every situation like that the public finds out about, there's probably a dozen hookups on the DL.  It's not that actors can't tell fantasy from reality, it must be that they feel a spark of something while spending time together acting like a couple, and get the idea to replicate it in the real world.   Speaking of college, I met my first wife in comedy writing class, where there were a lot of improv exercises.  Once you break down the barriers and act silly with someone, it leads to a certain familiarity, and that can be a starting point for a real relationship. 

I'm awarding an extra point tonight just for the soundtrack - lots of Police or Sting songs mashed-up with more modern pop songs, and I love a good mash-up.  This put a new spin on using old, tired classic rock songs.  No worn-out anthems like "Back in Black" that have been used in literally hundreds of movies.

Also starring Brooklyn Decker, Nicole Kidman (last seen in "Days of Thunder"), Nick Swardson (last seen in "30:Minutes or Less"), Dave Matthews, with cameos from Kevin Nealon (last seen in "Anger Management"), Rachel Dratch (last seen in "I Hate Valentine's Day"), Dan Patrick, Keegan Michael Key (last seen in "Wanderlust"), Andy Roddick,

RATING: 5 out of 10 grass skirts