Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Sessions

Year 5, Day 68 - 3/9/13 - Movie #1,369

BEFORE: I've hit a good vein of recent films, and eventually that's what my watchlist of films will become - a list of last year's releases, with maybe a couple classics worked in.  Noting some similarities between "50/50" and this one, I'm renting from iTunes again tonight, even though that doesn't help my list get any smaller.  Linking from "50/50", Anna Kendrick ties back to George Clooney, who was also in "The Perfect Storm" with John Hawkes.

THE PLOT:  A man in an iron lung who wishes to lose his virginity contacts a professional sex surrogate with the help of his therapist and priest.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "My Left Foot" (Movie #849)

AFTER: I get to read up on polio tonight - for some reason I thought the disease had been eradicated.  I guess I was thinking of smallpox.  The polio vaccines were developed in the early 1950's, but there were still plenty of people affected in the 1980's, when this film is set.  Anyway, tonight's subject, Mark O'Brien, contracted polio in 1955, spending much of his life in an iron lung.  Despite this, he attended college at UC Berkeley, and wrote several books of poetry and essays about his experiences.

I also get to read up on iron lungs - I never really thought about how they worked or what their exact function was.  Technically a negative pressure ventilator - all human breathing is just muscles causing negative pressure by expanding the rib cage, and then air rushes in more easily to counteract the resulting vacuum.  Then the muscles relax and the cavity gets smaller, and air rushes out.  Unless you're being checked out by a doctor or a state trooper, you don't even have to do anything to breathe, your muscle memory just knows to keep this process going.  For people who don't have the muscle strength, the iron lung creates a space with alternating higher and lower pressure, thus non-invasively causing air to flow in and out of the lungs.

See, I'm hoping to get some kind of educational grant out of this.  If I just talked about Helen Hunt (last seen in "Twister") being super naked in this film, there go my chances.  But OK, let's talk about it, since sex sells and hot girls sell movie tickets.  There's been some flak recently for the Oscar telecast cheekily featuring a musical number named "We Saw Your Boobs" (yet pretending that it was from an alternate timeline, subtly distancing themselves from any possible offense at the same time).  Reaction has been mixed, ranging from men who hastily grabbed a pen and paper to jot down what films to rent to see certain actresses in the buff, to women who may not have been so amused.  (I'm sure there were some women out there who grabbed a pen and paper too - come on, admit it...)

Jamie Leigh Curtis, most notably, didn't find it funny.  A veteran of a few topless scenes herself ("Trading Places", "Love Letters", and "The Tailor of Panama", for those of you playing along at home...), Ms. Curtis pointed out that most often actresses don't have control over topless scenes (right, because they're not usually the director) and most often those in control are men (no, duh) even pointing out that Jodie Foster's topless scene in "The Accused" shouldn't count because her character was getting raped.  (Should've gone with "Nell", Mr. McFarlane - plus, it's easier to rhyme.) 

Thus the "exploitation" of nubile actress is tantamount to rape itself.  Well, I say nay nay.  Any actress is free to turn down any movie role she wants - if she's not comfortable with nudity, she can find another role, or even another line of work.  I don't care if you're a man or a woman, if you're in the acting business, you're a part of the scenery, a moving pound of flesh.  As Vonnegut said, we're all just walking meatbags full of chemicals anyway, what's the big deal?  It's a rough business, but if it's too much for you, there's the door.  There are a dozen other actresses happy to take whatever role you turn down.

So, hats off to Helen Hunt (and shirts and pants and just about everything else), turning 50 this year and looking swell.  I don't know what happened to her face, though - she doesn't look a bit like she did in "As Good As It Gets".  Her face is much more angular now, I don't know if that's age or if she had work done, or she got caught up in the botox craze a few years ago.  But she's clearly very comfortable with her body. 

Where it probably gets weird for actors and actresses is having to be naked and intimate with people on camera, as part of the job, and then going back to their regular lives, their wife or husband, and not letting the two worlds affect each other.  Do they develop ways to just turn their emotions on and off?  I can draw a direct comparison to the sex surrogate seen in the film - after a session with her client, she's got to go back to her life and her husband, and not get attached to her client.

Of course, sometimes that line gets crossed, or at least blurred.  Funny, that also happened in last night's film, with a therapist getting too emotionally involved with her patient.  Makes for a better movie, but probably more complicated in real life.  Also, I can see the need for a sounding board character, but why would anyone go to a priest, even a hip 1970's San Francisco one, for sex advice?  I can't think of anyone less qualified - you might as well go to a witch doctor for your heart surgery or ask an Amish person to tune up your car engine.

They sneak this one in by depicting O'Brien as a religious type, not someone who blames God for his condition, but someone who feels that God has a sick sense of humor.  God created polio (and typhoid, and malaria, plus earthquakes, tornadoes and the Jonas Brothers) and you think he's got a sense of humor?  He's apparently the sickest mofo in the universe - instead of all this "working in mysterious ways" crap, isn't there a much simpler answer?  The earth formed naturally, and it's not perfect.  The ecosystem isn't perfect, humans aren't perfect, viruses and diseases aren't perfect, and why is that the case?  Because nobody is running the show.

My takeaway: if you live your life in shame for your perceived sins, and adherence to an arbitrary code, with the promise of an eternal punishment/reward system, think of all the fantastic pleasures you'll miss out on.

Also starring William H. Macy (last seen in "Seabiscuit"), Adam Arkin, Moon Bloodgood, Robin Weigert, with a cameo from Rhea Perlman.

RATING: 6 out of 10 motel rooms

Friday, March 8, 2013


Year 5, Day 67 - 3/8/13 - Movie #1,368

BEFORE: After those dark political films, the new theme is illnesses, as you can probably tell.  I had these in a chain with films about addiction, but then I watched "The Lost Weekend" and "The Man With the Golden Arm", which left them a bit stranded.  No worries, I found a way to use them as the bridge to another topic.

Linking from "The Descendants", George Clooney was also in "Up in the Air" with Anna Kendrick.

THE PLOT:  Inspired by a true story, a comedy centered on a 27-year-old guy who learns of his cancer diagnosis, and his subsequent struggle to beat the disease.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Funny People" (Movie #743)

AFTER:  This is the lighter side of cancer, to a certain degree.  There are plenty of down-sides, like chemotherapy, reactions to chemotherapy, people's reactions to cancer, over-attentive therapists, under-attentive girlfriends.  But on the upside, you may find out who your friends really are, and you might get to smoke some weed, and you can play the sympathy card to pick up girls in bars.

Oh, yeah, and then there's the part about actually having cancer.  The film follows the lead character through his initial diagnosis, the chemo treatments, and then through more radical treatments.  The stages are about what you'd expect, everything from anger to depression to re-prioritizing.  If there's any new ground covered here, it's the effect on the relationships with his girlfriend, best friend and parents.

One parent has Alzheimer's, and last night's film had an in-law/grandparent with the same condition.  That's an odd coincidence.  It seems rare to have a character in a film who's present but incapable of adding to the conversation - it almost makes me wonder why the character was even included.  In both cases that person's spouse was taking care of them, and it was used as an explanation as to why that spouse couldn't take care of the lead's medical problems also.

Also starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (last seen in "Inception"), Seth Rogen (last heard in "Kung Fu Panda 2"), Bryce Dallas Howard (last seen in "Hereafter"), Anjelica Huston, Matt Frewer, Philip Baker Hall (last seen in "The Contender").

RATING: 6 out of 10 macaroons

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Descendants

Year 5, Day 66 - 3/7/13 - Movie #1,367

BEFORE:  I had a lot of different ways to get here in the chain, and it's tempting to explore some of the other outros I could take - I could have put "The Contender" last and followed the Gary Oldman connection to that last Batman film, or to "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and the rest of the spy chain.  But a more holistic approach means I've got to try to work in all of the films left on the list, many of which were released in 2011 and 2012, and that means following the Clooney thread tonight.  I will get to those other films via other paths.

THE PLOT:  A land baron tries to re-connect with his two daughters after his wife is seriously injured in a boating accident.

AFTER:  It took a while for me to connect with this film for some reason - at times it almost felt like half of a film, maybe because the wife is in a coma, and we don't really get to see her as a full character.  It seems like an odd way to tell a story, and the film continually makes odd choices.  But it's about imperfect people, so I shouldn't expect it to be perfect itself.  And by no means should I expect car chases or explosion effects, because it's just not that kind of film.

It's just about a man trying to keep his family together at a difficult time, in the same way "Rachel Getting Married" was just about a wedding, or "Brokeback Mountain" was just about herding sheep.  (That's all it was about, right?  That's all I choose to remember...)  Eventually it becomes about more, and I started to realize it's about being at a crossroads.

Sometimes it's easy to tell when we're at a crossroads, or perhaps a fork in the road is a better metaphor.  Something momentous happens, someone is born or someone dies, or someone loses their job or ends a relationship.  Here Clooney's character is forced to confront the difficult truth about his wife's health, and additionally he is on the cusp of signing a big business deal on behalf of his family (the "descendants" of the title, inheritors to a large parcel of Hawaiian land).

And then along comes another revelation about his wife, at the worst possible time, and this puts him at another crossroads.  He can take one path and track down someone who's wronged him, or choose to put this aside.  It's these choices that define us - do we speak up or remain silent?  Punch someone out or offer them forgiveness? 

But this film also underscores one of the points I made during Romance Month - you can get married, live happily with your partner for years, but even at its best, there's a non-permanence that needs to be addressed, or at least considered.  You've still got a 50% chance of being the one left behind, the one cleaning out someone's possessions, and that will make you the lucky one, though it sure won't feel like it at the time.  On top of that, there's also the chance of being hurt by infidelity, so really there's no way to love someone deeply without putting yourself at risk.  I don't mean to sound cynical, I'm just trying to face the parameters of the situation.

So some movies have trouble seeming "real", this one is all too real.  And it somehow made it to the list of "Top 1,000 Movies to See Before You Die", and I can't tell if that's ironic or not.  But cross another film off that list, though I'm left wondering if it deserves to be there.

Also starring Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Nick Krause, Matthew Lillard (last seen in "Looney Tunes: Back in Action"), Robert Forster, Beau Bridges (last seen in "The Fabulous Baker Boys"), with cameos from Rob Huebel, Michael Ontkean.

RATING: 5 out of 10 Aloha shirts

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Ides of March

Year 5, Day 65 - 3/6/13 - Movie #1,366

BEFORE:  This started out as a week-long look at politics, and has really come to focus on the underhanded nature of political campaigns - smear tactics, wiretapping, secret files and backroom deals.  Well, at least that keeps it interesting.

I was originally planning to watch this in late February (another possible outro to Romance Month was to end with "Intolerable Cruelty" and then segue via Clooney) but since I kept adding more films about relationships, that pushed this film into the "correct" month.  Yes, I realize that the true Ides of March occur on March 15, but this was as close as I could get it.

I'm hesitant to add too many films to the list, which stands at just over 240 films right now.  I've only got 234 viewing slots left for 2013, so I've now made it impossible to finish this year, and any additions just push the end further into 2014.

Linking from "J. Edgar" - turns out Leonardo DiCaprio is an executive producer of this film, but that doesn't really count.  He was supposed to star at one point but had a conflict.  DiCaprio was also in the Woody Allen film "Celebrity" with Jeffrey Wright, who plays a politician tonight.

THE PLOT:   An idealistic staffer for a new presidential candidate gets a crash course on dirty politics during his stint on the campaign trail.

AFTER: Well, they say that the two things you don't want to see made are laws and sausages - I suppose we can add presidential campaigns to that list.  This is also a crash course in job theory - you want to do your job well and succeed, of course.  But if you're TOO successful at your job, then you become the top dog, and a target for others to take down.  Keep your friends close, but keep your co-workers where you can keep an eye on them.

Everything seems all right at first with the campaign of Gov. Mike Morris - he's one of two Democratic candidates left, heading into the Ohio primary, which takes place in March, get it?  The film's title also alludes to Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar", so that gives a clue to the type of figurative backstabbing that one might expect to come in this narrative. 

So it does get dark, and a bit twisty, but hey, that's politics.  I don't want to give too much away on this one - but it really is a battle of wits between the candidates, and then between former comrades on the campaign.  It's interesting to think how many political alliances are formed just based on the math of the electoral college.  Also the type of experiences that can turn a young idealistic staffer into a jaded, cynical one.

Also starring George Clooney (last seen in "Intolerable Cruelty"), Ryan Gosling (last seen in "Blue Valentine"), Philip Seymour Hoffman (last seen in "Along Came Polly"), Marisa Tomei (last seen in "Crazy, Stupid, Love."), Evan Rachel Wood (last seen in "Running With Scissors"), Max Minghella, with cameos from Charlie Rose, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow.   We've kept the pundits busy this week.

RATING: 6 out of 10 endorsements

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

J. Edgar

Year 5, Day 64 - 3/5/13 - Movie #1,365

BEFORE: I suppose with all this talk of Presidents and vice-Presidents, you might wonder why I'm not running out to see "Lincoln" at this point.  It's a fair question - but though that film's part of the long-term plan, it just doesn't interest me much, plus I haven't got much time to go to the theater - I'm still watching TV from November.  Characters on "The Simpsons" and "The Cleveland Show" are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving - and some of those Black Friday deals in the ads look really great.

I think I'll wait a few months for "Lincoln" - just the possibility of watching it after "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is enough to get me excited.  That's what I love, the juxtapositioning.  Speaking of which, the theme of the frustrations of a political figure is seen again tonight, along with the hidden sexual secrets.  Linking actors from "The Contender", Jeff Bridges was also in "The Fisher King" with Christian Clemenson, who appears tonight.  Alternately, Bridges was also in "The Men Who Stare at Goats" with Stephen Root, also making an appearance.

THE PLOT:  J. Edgar Hoover, powerful head of the FBI for nearly 50 years, looks back on his professional and personal life.

AFTER:  I can probably best describe this film as "The Aviator" meets "Slaughterhouse Five".  The first was another biopic featuring Leonardo DiCaprio (last seen in "The Quick and the Dead") as an eccentric public figure, and the latter is one of my favorite films and one of the best uses of a fractured timeline.  However, the non-linear editing in that film is justified since the main character has become "unstuck" in time (or perhaps given control over time by aliens) and flips through the scenes of his own life in random order.  For a non-fiction film to use a similar editing style, I question whether this is justified or merely a contrivance to cover for a tale that would be too boring or disjointed to tell in order.

As far as flashbacks go, there are a few films that use them perfectly - "Amadeus" and "Little Big Man" are two that come to mind.  "Amadeus" had two timelines, one with the old Salieri telling his story, and the other was the extended flashback, but here's the key - all of the scenes told in the flashback were in the correct order.  Once you start skipping around in time, the audience is liable to get confused.  Hoover is seen here telling his stories to no less than THREE biographers (or perhaps they were FBI agents, that was a little unclear...) and those scenes with the biographers are actually part of the fractured timeline!  Confusing, confusing, confusing.

I understand WHY they edited the film this way, I suppose - the intent was to slowly reveal the inner secrets of Hoover's past, like peeling the layers off an onion.  But there are negative effects that result from all the cross-cutting.  At one point, an older Hoover and Tolson get onto an elevator, and in the next scene, a younger Hoover and Tolson are seen getting off of an elevator.  Anyone unclear with the language of film editing might think that they got younger during an elevator ride, like a couple of Benjamin Buttons.

This also made it nearly impossible to connect the film to the timeline of U.S. history - I was never sure what would come next (if the word "next" can be said to have any meaning in this context) - would it be the Lindbergh kidnapping or the JFK assassination?  Hoover worked at the FBI under 8 presidents, and was so close to many historical events - but by trying to cover them all, the film reduces him to something akin to the Forrest Gump of the FBI.  ("Forrest Gump" - another film that made proper use of extended flashback sequences, in the right order...)

Then we finally get to the main question - was he or wasn't he?  How "special" was Special Agent Tolson to Hoover?  History may still be unsure of J. Edgar's sexuality, but the movie is not - hey, maybe they just liked holding hands and going to nightclubs together, nothing wrong with that.  And there's nothing wrong with being gay, either, unless it's the 1940's and you've got a prominent position in the government...

It's ironic that the man who had secret files on the private lives of the Kennedys and the Roosevelts, among others, may have led a secretive life himself.  Perhaps that's the genesis of the speculation, or the rumors were started by any one of his many enemies.  Or maybe he was just queer as a three-dollar bill.  The only thing we know for sure is that nobody knows for sure.

Also starring Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts (last seen in "Babel"), Judi Dench (last seen in "Jane Eyre"), Josh Lucas, with cameos from Ken Howard, Jeffrey Donovan, Dermot Mulroney (last seen in "How to Make an American Quilt"), Lea Thompson, David Clennon.

RATING: 3 out of 10 fingerprints

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Contender

Year 5, Day 63 - 3/4/13 - Movie #1,364

BEFORE:  I finally got to watch the Oscars over the weekend.  I knew the results already, of course, but I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  I didn't mind Seth McFarlane, I had more of a problem with the producers who vowed to "keep it short" and then refused to cut a musical tribute to "Chicago", a film they also produced.  I realize it's the film's 10th Anniversary of winning Best Picture, but so what?  It's also the 20th anniversary of "Unforgiven" winning, and the 25th anniversary of "The Last Emperor".  Sorry, but we've got to move this baby along.

Also, I wondered why some of the best actors and actresses can be so great in front of a movie camera, and so wooden and nervous in front of the Oscar audience.  What gives?  Perhaps it was the writing, much of the banter just seemed ill-advised.  If you do bad impressions, you might think it would be funny to acknowledge them as bad impressions, but it's not - they're still bad.

Tonight it's another film about a woman Vice Presidential nominee.  Linking from "Game Change", Julianne Moore was of course also in "The Big Lebowski" with Jeff Bridges (last seen in "Seabiscuit"), who plays the President.

THE PLOT:  Sexy secrets from a woman's past come to light after she is nominated for Vice President.

AFTER:  The IMDB got it wrong.  The plot summary there says she is running for VP, however there is no campaign involved - she's been nominated to replace a vice president who apparently died, leaving a vacancy that the President is allowed to fill. 

The stumbling block is the series of confirmation hearings, comprised of senators from both parties.  This is where the film ties in with current events, as Obama's 2nd-term appointees are currently being considered and quite frequently rejected, by the Senate. 

What doesn't quite make sense here is the extent of the background checks that are done here - you would think that investigators would make one pass to dig up dirt on a candidate, and they would find out everything they could, then report their findings to their superiors.  Information here comes in bits and pieces, and of course it's all timed to arrive at the most dramatic points possible.

Let's suppose someone's trying to slander you, and they come to you with a picture of you punching Mother Teresa, or kicking a puppy.  Your first reaction, regardless of your guilt or innocence, should be "That's impossible.  I've never done that, so the picture must be phony."  That's either a valid defense, or an admission of the possibilities of Photoshop.  Under no circumstance should your defense be "What I did in the past is none of your business!" because then you're practically admitting that you did do that thing.

As the audience, we get to know all of the undercurrents here, we know who's got the dirt on whom, even if they don't bring it up in a televised hearing.  They COULD have, and that's almost (but not quite) enough.  Similarly, we know when the candidate has the perfect comeback to her opposition, even if she chooses at the last second to not use it. 

It sort of strains the bounds of credulity that anyone would go through such lengths to become Vice President, while admitting at the same time that it's mostly a thankless, useless job.  But then again, you never know what's going to happen to the man in charge, and from everything we see in this film, it's a pretty sweet job.  Apparently all you have to do is attend a few staff meetings, and the rest of your day can be devoted to bowling and ordering whatever you want from the White House chef.

Near, the end there are a number of contrivances that I just viewed as impossible.  Again, it just boggles the mind as to why a screenwriter would think that anyone would DO that.  And I'm not referring to the title character jogging through Arlington Cemetery - which is neither allowed, nor anyone's idea of an appropriate activity.

NITPICK POINT: Plus, she's seen jogging by herself, and as a potential Vice President, where the heck is the Secret Service?

Also starring Joan Allen (last seen in "The Crucible"), Gary Oldman (last seen in "The Scarlet Letter"), Sam Elliott (last heard in "Marmaduke"), Christian Slater (last seen in "Windtalkers")  William Petersen, Saul Rubinek (last seen in "Nixon"), Mike Binder, with cameos from Philip Baker Hall, Mariel Hemingway (last seen in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace").

RATING: 4 out of 10 limousines

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Game Change

Year 5, Day 62 - 3/3/13 - Movie #1,363

BEFORE:  Leaping ahead 8 years or 2 campaigns to the 2008 election - apparently the 2004 election didn't warrant an HBO movie.  I figured with these big ensemble pieces there had to be a way to link them, and in fact it was simple - Bruce Altman carries over from "Recount".

THE PLOT:  Follows John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, from his selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate to their ultimate defeat in the general election.

AFTER:  Again, this hemmed pretty close to the way I remember the campaign going down, which sort of brings up the question over why it was made.  If you're merely re-creating events instead of commenting on them, what's the point?

But there is value added here, and it's the ability to see the Republican campaign from within - where "Recount" needed to focus on the machinations of both campaigns, this film focuses on just one, and leaves us to wonder about what's going on over on the Democratic side.  Barack Obama and Joe Biden even play themselves, via the use of stock footage.

We also get to see what went down when the cameras weren't on (which these days seems like it rarely happens), including the almost-selection of Joe Lieberman as McCain's running mate, and then Palin's preparation for the V.P. debate.  The reasoning that led to Palin's selection seemed sound, but the lack of research done about her knowledge and unpredictability, not so much.  According to this film, the most basic foreign policy question was enough to put her on the defensive, to cover up her lack of experience, and that would cause an overreaction, such as the famous gaffe "You can actually see Russia from Alaska!"  (You can't.)

Still, there's no question that her selection tapped into something, whether it was the Tea Party or the soccer/hockey moms, but then came the flood of parodies, from Tina Fey on SNL to a series of pornos featuring a look-alike actress.  Perhaps this sort of thing is just inevitable - if a candidate isn't parodied on SNL, then the show isn't doing its job, or perhaps the candidate isn't worth making fun of.  But Palin's reaction to all of this wasn't positive, as you might expect.

According to this film, that's what led to her seemingly bi-polar responses, from blaming the "Liberal lame-stream media" to shutting down in a near-catatonic state.  I found the reactions of the campaign team to be very insightful - these were the people who recommended Palin, then couldn't change the choice of Palin, and had to find a way to get her through the debate somehow.  Instead of impossibly making her an expert, they just gave her 25 easy-to-memorize bullet points and pivoting tactics.

Palin's family is given short shrift here, but this probably has much to do with the fact that she mostly succeded in keeping them away from the media, or vice versa.  In her defense, how many families would survive intact under such intense media scrutiny?  But as a result we barely learn anything about them in this film beyond the simple facts.  Whether you were for or against Palin, it's amazing that this individual was so close to being a heartbeat away from the Presidency.

Also starring Julianne Moore (last seen in "Crazy, Stupid, Love."), Woody Harrelson (last seen in "Friends With Benefits"), Ed Harris (last seen in "Under Fire"), Jamey Sheridan, Peter MacNicol (last heard in "Stuart Little 3: Call of the Wild"), Ron Livingston, with cameos from the usual media commentators in file footage: Wolf Blitzer, Katie Couric, Brian Williams, etc.

RATING: 4 out of 10 "gotcha" questions