Saturday, March 2, 2013


Year 5, Day 61 - 3/2/13 - Movie #1,362

BEFORE: Linking from "The Campaign", Jason Sudeikis was also in "Horrible Bosses" with Kevin Spacey...

THE PLOT:  A chronicle of the weeks after the 2000 U.S. presidential election and the subsequent recounts in Florida.

AFTER: Depending on your age, you'll probably have one of two reactions to this film.  If you're under 30, you may not believe how much trouble we had as a nation electing a president 13 years ago.  If you're over 30, you may say, "Geez, that was already 13 years ago?  The pain is still fresh..."

Yes, for two months in late 2000, after an election we had NO idea who our president was going to be, Bush or Gore.  The legal challenges over what constituted a paper "vote" went all the way up to the Supreme Court.  The poorly-designed paper ballots meant that senior citizens in Florida, many of them Jewish, might have accidentally cast their votes for Pat Buchanan, who I believe was running as a member of the Nazi party.  (Wait, let me check on that, that doesn't sound right...)

There was also intense discussion over punched ballots that weren't punched all the way, or tiny pieces of paper that refused to cooperate and fall out of a punched hole.  To further confound the problem, putting the ballots in a machine to recount them sometimes pushed the piece of paper BACK into the hole, making the ballot effectively a blank vote.  Why would someone go all the way to the polling place to cast a blank ballot?  Yet, as a result, every time they recounted the votes, the total changed, making for a quantum election - every time they looked at the result, the very act of looking at it changed the totals.

To this day, there are those of us who shudder when we hear about dimpled ballots, or hanging chads.  Just to be safe, I think many people cut anyone named Chad out of their lives. And the U.S. lost all credibility as the standard-bearer for free elections in the world.  I remember that in the following election, the U.N. even offered to send people around the country to ensure that we were able to guarantee free elections, an offer that was probably politely declined.

Following all of the debate over hard-to-read ballots, undervotes, miscounts, dimples, chads, most Americans didn't know which way was up.  And then came the possibility of widespread election fraud, namely the Republicans disenfranchising minority voters by saying their names were too close to those of known felons.  Literally hundreds of people who were turned away at the polls just because their name was similar to someone else's.

Alarmingly, Jeb Bush, the Governor of the state in contention, was the brother of one of the Presidential candidates, and nobody seemed to have a problem with that.  Even more alarmingly, the person who was in charge of the logistics of the recount, Florida's secretary of state, was also George Bush's Florida campaign manager, and nobody envisioned that as a possible conflict of interest, either.  Shouldn't the elections be managed by independent parties, or at least people not actively involved in either campaign?

Well, anyway, it's good to know that this all got straightened out, and now that we're using electronic voting machines in many districts, we'll never have another dispute over election results.  Because I assume those machines are very, very hard to tamper with or hack in any way.  And we now have some kind of unquestionable method of identifying people when they go to the polling places, right?  And every person who wants to vote now gets to vote, and neither party has any interest in pulling anything shady, right?  Good, I'm glad to hear it.

Because really, the American way is not "with liberty and justice for all", it's really procrastination.  You'd think after holding elections 54 times we would have gotten better at it, and that just wasn't the case.  Why?  Because after each election people would say, "I wonder if there's a way to make this process better?" and then do exactly NOTHING about it for 3 years and 11 months.  Surprise, it's time for the next election, and once again we've got an imperfect system.

So if you think about it, the best time to start eliminating voter fraud for the 2016 election is today.  So, somebody, please get on that.  While you're at it, figure out what to do if it snows on Super Bowl Sunday 2014, and build a breakwater outside of New York Harbor before this fall's hurricane season. (Mark my words, neither of those situations will be addressed until the last minute.)

As for tonight's score, I can't question the reality of the events depicted, but I can question whether they were relayed in a way that was entertaining.  Mostly there's a lot of talking - meetings, phone calls, news reports - which is favored over doing, and I feel the need to penalize for that.

Also starring Denis Leary (last heard in "A Bug's Life"), Ed Begley Jr. (last seen in "The Accidental Tourist"), Bob Balaban (last seen in "License to Wed"), Tom Wilkinson (last seen in "Girl With a Pearl Earring"), John Hurt, Laura Dern, Bruce Altman, Bruce McGill, Mitch Pileggi.

RATING: 5 out of 10 strategy sessions

The Campaign

Year 5, Day 60 - 3/1/13 - Movie #1,361

BEFORE: I sort of almost forgot about this one - the way my watchlist is arranged by topic, there are obvious points where I can drop in new (or new-ish) films, once they've premiered on cable - and I've got a separate list of films from last year that I'm waiting to see in the listings.  So I think when I set up this topic, I figured this would have aired on HBO or Showtime by now, and it hasn't.  Watching "Speechless" reminded me that this film existed and wasn't on my watchlist yet - it's the most obvious follow-up, so I guess I have to pay $5 to watch it on PPV, or $4 on iTunes, so I don't have to circle back on this topic later.  And because I care about you, the home viewer.

This will be just the 4th time I've downloaded a film for the project (after "Cashback", "North Dallas Forty" and "Hot Tub Time Machine") but in order to get at the films that don't seem to run on cable often, it's probably something I should be doing more often.  Linking from "Speechless", Michael Keaton was also in "The Other Guys" with Will Ferrell (last heard in "Megamind")

THE PLOT:   In order to gain influence over their North Carolina district, two CEOs seize an opportunity to oust long-term congressman Cam Brady by putting up a rival candidate.

AFTER:  This was a mostly amusing film, but it's hard not to think that Will Ferrell is covering much of the same ground he did in "Talladega Nights", playing a dimwitted Southerner, mixed with his well-known ability to imitate George W. Bush.

But the wild-card here is his opponent, a married man who also acts somewhat effeminate, but not really gay.  He's also a bit of a loser, but not outright - perhaps he's just socially awkward or not as aggressive as he could be in the job market.  So he's a hard one to get a read on, but since he's played by Zach Galifianakis the inevitable comparison would be to the awkward character he took on in the "Hangover" films.

Like "Speechless", this is a political film that doesn't really cover actual political topics, but here that's mined for humor, demonstrating the way that a slick candidate can respond to a debate question without actually answering it.  It could also suggest that a candidate's image, personal life and various campaign stunts have more bearing on the election results than talking about the issues.  Then again, maybe I'm giving the film too much credit, and the lack of political points is just a writing oversight.

It seems that winning is everything, and justifies any personal vendettas, name-calling, or mud-slinging, which kind of sends a strange message, but is probably closer to the truth than most Americans would care to admit.  There are veiled references to real-life campaign lobbyists the Koch brothers, as well as Dick Cheney's hunting accident and the sex scandals and secrets of the Clintons.

It may not get the respect of "Wag the Dog" or "All the President's Men", but it doesn't have to, since it's a lot of fun. 

Also starring Zach Galifianakis (last seen in "The Muppets"), Jason Sudeikis (last seen in "Horrible Bosses"), Dylan McDermott, John Lithgow (last seen in "Memphis Belle"), Dan Aykroyd (last seen in "50 First Dates"), Bryan Cox (last seen in "Running With Scissors"), with cameos from Jack McBrayer (last heard in "Despicable Me"), Wolf Blitzer, Piers Morgan, Dennis Miller, Chris Matthews and John Goodman (last seen in "Always").

RATING: 6 out of 10 opinion polls

Thursday, February 28, 2013


Year 5, Day 59 - 2/28/13 - Movie #1,360

BEFORE:  Geena Davis carries over from "Angie" - and it's the end of Romance Month, and the start of a new political chain.  Perhaps I should have done this chain back in Nov. during the height of election season, but I'm running about 3 months behind.  For me, that's actually a sign I'm catching up. 

It's been a rough month for romance in films, so I'm rewarding myself with a couple of beer dinners, since it happens to be NYC Craft Beer Week, and there are pairing dinners and tap takeovers all over town.

THE PLOT:  Two political speechwriters fall in love before they find out they are working for candidates on opposite sides.

AFTER:  This one sort of hearkens back to the classic screwball romantic comedies, it's not too hard to imagine Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in a similar set-up.  Of course, we know that the two leads are perfect for each other and meant to be together, even if they don't realize it themselves.  Plus we've got an ex-wife and an ex-boyfriend, and I'm reminded of "Desk Set" and "Pat and Mike", both of which featured an alternate love interest.

But the downside is that the politics is given a bit of short shrift here - obviously you might expect rival candidates to take up opposite stances on issues, but that doesn't always happen.  What I mean is that it's not automatic, there could be political points that both parties might agree on, right?  But this film doesn't really get into any issues, or explore what a Democrat or a Republican might stand for.

Instead there's contrivance after contrivance, from a lost day planner to a lost financial file, even the romance hinges on a broken-down car and their shared insomnia - this could easily have been called "Sleepless" instead of "Speechless".  I guess the relationship wouldn't work if only one of them couldn't sleep, while the other one was dozing. 

Still, it's a lot of fun, and where else can you see actors who played Batman and Superman as romantic rivals?

Also starring Michael Keaton (last heard in "Toy Story 3"), Ernie Hudson, Bonnie Bedelia (last seen in "Needful Things"), Christopher Reeve (last seen in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace"), Charles Martin Smith, with cameos from Harry Shearer (last heard in "Almost Heroes") and Steven Wright (last seen in "Mixed Nuts"). 

RATING: 5 out of 10 sound bites

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Year 5, Day 58 - 2/27/13 - Movie #1,359

BEFORE:  Another film centered on an Italian family, but this time in Brooklyn, not Boston.  Linking from "Once Around", Danny Aiello was also in "Pret-a-Porter" with Stephen Rea (last seen in "The Musketeer").

THE PLOT:  Angie lives in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, N.Y. and dreams of a better life than everyone she knows. When she finds that she is pregnant by her boyfriend Vinnie, she decides that she will have the baby, but not Vinnie as a husband. This turns the entire neighborhood upside down and starts her on a journey of self-discovery.

AFTER: Really, there are cat people and then there are dog people.  I assume there are also baby people and non-baby people.  I'm one of the latter, but lately I've been around babies much more than ever before, since my boss at one job had a baby, and my co-worker at the other job is expecting one.

But here's the problem, how do you know for sure if you've got a knack for parenting, until it happens?  What if you turn out to not be good with babies, and you've already got one?  This is sort of the situation that tonight's main character finds herself in.  Because of her experiences, with an absent mother and a father who re-married, she's got abandonment issues and a defiant attitude.

The implication is that her life experiences color her decision-making, which is questionable at best.  Instead of marrying her boyfriend, she goes in the opposite direction and seeks out a new relationship.  She uses this casual relationship as an escape from all of the pressure and responsibility that's headed her way, and yet is surprised when the casual lover turns out to have no interest in being responsible when the time comes.

This leads to more decisions that aren't well thought through, perhaps post-partum depression is a factor, but her first reactions to her baby are not what you might expect.  Instead of taking on maternal duties, her impulse is to run away to try and figure things out.  I suppose it does happen, but let's not reward such behavior by calling it a "journey of self-discovery".

At least three members of this film's cast later appeared on "The Sopranos", but there were so many character actors on that show over the years that I'm prepared to write that off as a coincidence, or perhaps the use of the same casting director. 

Also starring Geena Davis (last heard in "Stuart Little 3: Call of the Wild"), James Gandolfini (last seen in "All the King's Men"), Aida Turturro (last seen in "Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles"), Philip Bosco (last seen in "3 Men and a Baby"), Jenny O'Hara, Michael Rispoli.

RATING: 4 out of 10 saltine crackers

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Once Around

Year 5, Day 57 - 2/26/13 - Movie #1,358

BEFORE: The obvious next choice, since both Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter carry over from "Always".  Just a couple of romances left on the list at this point.

THE PLOT: Renata Bella feels like a failure at life and career, but when she attends a seminar on selling real estate, she finally finds true love with Sam Sharpe, a successful but older salesman.

AFTER: This is sort of slice-of-life film, about a close Boston-area Italian family, and what happens to it when the oldest daughter finally finds love with an "outsider" - a New Yorker of Lithuanian descent.  His well-meaning but abrasive forwardness often clashes with the way the family is used to operating, but since he's in love and means well, he eventually finds a way to fit in.

This is a situation I'm somewhat familiar with, since I'm on my second set of in-laws.  The first time around I spent a fair amount of time visiting family in Cleveland, and I admit the first few trips had their share of bumps, but eventually we bonded, and having a similar ethnic background (Irish/German) went a long way.  When I got divorced, I consoled myself that at least I never had to drive to Cleveland again, or attend another Irish folk music festival.

The second time around, I had to reconcile with an Italian-American family, who were also Yankees fans, and being originally from the Boston area probably didn't help me.  But eventually it all worked out. 

This is a fairly simple film, it doesn't really aspire to great heights, but then maybe it doesn't really need to.  It tells the stories of these individuals in a way that endears them, and that should be noble enough.

The Boston accent is a tough one to pull off - less is usually more, if you go over the top with it, it can sound cartoonish.  Some actors here do OK with it by just altering their normal accents slightly, but Holly Hunter goes way too far to over-compensate, and it just doesn't work.

Also, I was led to believe at some point that the only traffic rotaries in the U.S. are found in Massachusetts, but something tells me this is not necessarily the case.  Perhaps they're just called traffic circles or roundabouts in other states?

Also starring Danny Aiello, Laura San Giacomo, with cameos from Greg Germann (last seen in "Friends With Money"), Griffin Dunne (last seen in "The Great Buck Howard").

RATING: 5 out of 10 ice skates

Monday, February 25, 2013


Year 5, Day 56 - 2/25/13 - Movie #1,357

BEFORE:  I went and played Oscar trivia last night, not with my whole regular team - just me and one other movie/TV guy, and together we came in third.  Not bad, considering how many people showed up. 

Linking from "The Horse Whisperer", Sam Neill was also in  "The Piano" with Holly Hunter - worth pointing out on Oscar weekend.

THE PLOT:  A romantic adventure about a legendary pilot's passion for dare-devil firefighting and his girl.

AFTER:  I'm really split on this one, I see what they were trying to do to create a romance that sort of transcends time and death, but I don't really agree with the way they went about it.  The movie "Ghost" came out around the same time, and sort of did a lot more with a lot less.  To buy into this one, you've got to take a couple of things about life after death for granted, and I'm not really mentally into doing that.

I believe that humans have a higher form of consciousness than, say, insects or chickens, but I don't think that affords us some type of everlasting paradise.  I believe in our ability to conceptualize heaven, but that in itself does not mean that it does in fact exist.  I've never seen any indication that it does, though I was raised to believe in the typical Christian afterlife, so I'm still a bit in conflict, leaning toward rejecting the entire concept.  If there is no heaven, wouldn't that make life more precious, more fragile?  But people seem to think that would also make life meaningless, if you work and struggle and enact change in the world, and your reward is then non-existence.

But times change, and technology changes, and as a result our stories change, too.  Look at the Christmas specials nowadays that depict Santa Claus using smartphones and web-cams to keep track of who's naughty and who's nice.  But where's the update on the afterlife?  You never see God depicted using a computer or looking at a bank of video monitors - it's all still some form of "magic" that doesn't need to be explained.  The Supreme Being, if he exists, is omniscient, all-powerful, and can't be depicted in petty human terms.

But then we get films intent on subverting the Judeo-Christian version of heaven, as seen in "Heaven Can Wait" and "What Dreams May Come".  Angels wear white business suits, or heaven looks like a field full of flowers that stretches out to an infinite horizon.  Because that's so much better than seeing people walk on clouds wearing white robes, sandals and halos, having each been issued a standard harp and set of wings upon arrival.  Come on, if part of this is ridiculous, isn't it by extension ALL ridiculous?

It takes a certain amount of arrogance to be an author or screenwriter, to say THIS is how the universe works. THESE are the five people you meet in heaven.  It's just as arrogant as religious figures saying you need to go to confession, you need to say THIS many prayers to get into heaven.  You don't know that.  Nobody knows that, or has the right to define what God's rules are, or if there are any rules at all.  The arrogance of the people who wrote or (mis-)translated the Bible, to attempt to convince everyone how the system works, as they see it.  I'm calling B.S. on the whole deal.

Just for fun, talk to your local religious or spiritual leader - ask him or her what happens if you lose your leg during the course of your life.  Do you get it back when you arrive in heaven?  What about your appendix or your tonsils?  And what about your favorite pet - will he be waiting for you when you arrive, or is heaven for humans only?  With all these complications, isn't the simplest answer usually the best - namely that none of what people "know" about heaven is really true?

According to this film, no matter what you do, even if you save a ton of lives fighting fires, risking your life and making the ultimate sacrifice, even then you don't get to go on to your eternal rest.  Instead you have to stick around and train someone else to do your job, looking over his shoulder to give advice that he can't quite hear, but somehow listens to anyway.  This can also be quite painful if said trainee follows your life too closely and you have to watch him dating your girlfriend, or give him advice on how to seal the deal. 

What's the takeaway here - make sure your affairs are in order before you die, or you'll have to tie up all your loose ends as a ghost?  Is this some attempt to reconcile the concepts of ghosts with the concept of heaven, to demonstrate somehow how those two possibly non-existent things are not in conflict with each other?  

As with "The Horse Whisperer", I would have liked to learn more about the mechanics of the featured task, fighting fires with airplanes.  There wasn't much technical info outside of people saying "Pull up!" a lot.  Pulling up is apparently very important when your plane gets in trouble - which sounds like really basic stuff.  Why is it so important for planes to fly so low to dump water and/or red goop on forest fires?  Why don't these pilots keep better track of how much fuel they've got left?  Why cut everything so close all the time?  Explanations, please.

There are also a lot of in-jokes between the characters, which we the audience may not really understand.  Those end up being hokey, and generally a good editor should advise getting rid of those.  An actor's bad John Wayne impression might have killed on the set, but it just doesn't play as funny on film, it's just kind of odd.  Similarly, I know it's hard to come up with original names for characters, but Dorinda?  That's too far outside of the box, I've never heard the name before.

NITPICK POINT:  Some characters also act in odd, unexplainable ways.  Why stand on a runway where you know a plane is ultimately going to land, and then all of a sudden, when the plane gets close, realize that you're standing in a dangerous spot?  Wouldn't people who are experts on airplane things know not to stand there in the first place?  

NITPICK POINT #2: Dorinda offers to dance with all of the male pilots and personnel present in the bar.  Which seems a little odd, since she supposedly has feelings for just one of them.  She demands that they all wash their hands before they can dance with her, to keep her dress clean.  But aren't their shirts dirty, too?  They're pretty much all covered head to toe in either oil, gas or smoke. 

I just wonder if Steven Spielberg ever looks back on some of his earlier films, like this one, and thinks, "God, that was hokey.  And why did I make those characters act in such weird ways?"

Also starring Richard Dreyfuss (last seen in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills"), John Goodman (last heard in "Happy Feet Two"), Brad Johnson, Audrey Hepburn (last seen in "Robin and Marian"), Marg Helgenberger, Keith David (last seen in "The Quick and the Dead").

RATING: 4 out of 10 helium balloons  (NOTE: After the end credits, there was a warning about the danger of using helium balloons to raise the tone of one's voice, as a few characters do in the film.  I found it strange that in a film depicting pilots taking enormous risks to extinguish forest fires, that's the thing that they have to warn people about.) 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Horse Whisperer

Year 5, Day 55 - 2/24/13 - Movie #1,356

BEFORE:  From elephant training to horse training.  Linking from "Water for Elephants", Robert Pattinson was also in a film called "Remember Me" with Chris Cooper (last seen in "The Muppets").

It's time for the Academy Awards tonight, and I didn't see nearly as many of the films as I thought I should - I've only seen two of the nominees for Best Picture, plus one of the nominees for Best Animated Feature.  Which means I've got more work to do - but still, it's more of the nominees than I'd seen before last year's Oscars.

THE PLOT:  The mother of a severely traumatized daughter enlists the aid of a unique horse trainer to help the girl's equally injured horse.

AFTER:  I can't believe there are still Robert Redford films I haven't seen - my ex made me watch most of them, she had a thing for Redford, which turned out to be quite ironic.  But this one came out in 1998 and we parted ways in 1996, so that explains that.  At this point, the only major Redford films I haven't seen are probably "Havana", "The Great Gatsby", and "The Clearing" (that last one is on my list, though).

While I'm feeling nostalgic, it occurs to me that I owe part of my career to Redford - in the early 90's I was working at a little production company in downtown Manhattan, but looking for other work, and an intern I worked with took a job working for Robert Redford.  I subbed in for her on a freelance gig stuffing envelopes, and that led to a job I've been working at for 20 years.  

Lots of love triangles this week, it's almost a running theme.  Here we've got an uptight controlling NYC magazine editor who falls for the opposite - a laid-back rancher and horse trainer.  While the romance isn't the focus of the picture, it takes a back seat to the rehab of the horse and the daughter, it fits in as sort of an unintended part of the process.  It's the whole family that's been fractured by an accident, and the mother needs to repair her relationship with her daughter.

Or maybe she has to form one, a real one, for the first time.  She comes across as one of those rich, snobby types who demand that everything be perfect, including their children, because a perfect child would reflect back on her as a perfect mother.  But she needs to realize that perfection is impossible, and perhaps she's not perfect, nor is her marriage.

It's a long drive from NYC to Montana, and the film makes sure that we feel it.  It's an hour into the film before the main characters all meet.  Similarly, the rehabilitation of an inured horse is a long, slow process, and that really comes through.  With a running time of nearly three hours, I'm thinking there must have been some more editing that could have been done.

I also wish the horse-training methods could have been explained a little better - most of it was sort of left as a mystery, and without some explanation there feels like there's a fine line between training and animal abuse.  "Water for Elephants" drew a more distinct line between the two.

Still, it's a solid story, with an awareness that a love triangle needs to be resolved somehow, even though it may not go the way you think or the way you prefer. 

Also starring Kristin Scott Thomas (last seen in "Nowhere Boy"), Scarlett Johansson (last seen in "Girl With a Pearl Earring"), Sam Neill (last heard in "Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole"), Dianne Wiest (last seen in "Dan in Real Life"), Cherry Jones, with a cameo from Kate Bosworth.

RATING: 6 out of 10 branding irons