Saturday, April 27, 2013

China Moon

Year 5, Day 117 - 4/27/13 - Movie #1,408

BEFORE: Boy, "Double Indemnity" really set the tone for the month, with so many instances of spouse killing, from "All Good Things" to "Reversal of Fortune", and now I'm back to it. Linking from "U Turn", Sean Penn was also in "21 Grams" with Benicio Del Toro (last seen in "The Fan").

THE PLOT:  Detective Kyle Bodine falls for Rachel Munro who is trapped in a violent marriage. After she shoots her husband, Kyle relucantly agrees to help hide the body.

AFTER: There's a sort of Goldilocks effect here, after watching "Stone", with too few reversals, and "U Turn", which had too many, it sort of feels like this one had just the right number.  Which is to say, one major one and a couple of minor ones.

Unfortunately, it covers much of the same ground as "Body Heat", (with about half of the body heat) which itself was a throwback to a lot of the classic film noir scenarios.  We're introduced to a cop with a great deal of experience and integrity, and that integrity goes right out the window when he falls for a dame.  Instead it's his experience that allows him to clean up the crime scene.

Still, it's short and to the point, and it'll keep you guessing. 

Also starring Ed Harris (last seen in "Game Change"), Madeline Stowe (last seen in "The Last of the Mohicans"), Charles Dance (last seen in "Your Highness").

RATING: 5 out of 10 bullet holes

Friday, April 26, 2013

U Turn

Year 5, Day 116 - 4/26/13 - Movie #1,407

BEFORE:  After being cooped up in prison the last two nights, let's take this killing spree out on the road.  Linking from "Stone", Robert De Niro was also in "We're No Angels" with Sean Penn (last seen in "All the King's Men").  And after "Stone" comes a film directed by Oliver Stone...

THE PLOT:  A young punk drifter heading to Vegas to pay off his gambling debt to the Russian mafia is forced to stop in a Arizona town where everything that can go wrong, does.

AFTER:  Honestly, this makes even less sense than "Stone" does, but it's got the opposite problem.  Where "Stone" had not enough action, this film might have a bit too much.  The end result is the same, it's tough to follow who's outsmarting who.

This one just has way too many reversals - times where a character appears to be working with another character, then it's revealed they're working against that person, or in league with someone else.  These characters can spin on a dime, and do so frequently.  At one point Sean Penn's working for the husband to kill the wife, and then later he's working with the wife to kill the husband.  I won't reveal if he's successful either time, or who eventually comes out on top, because that represents what little enjoyment can be drawn from this film - who ends up walking away, and who ends up in the pile.

But very little here makes sense - even after all of the relationship secrets are revealed.  Hey, at least the flashback scenes were minimal, so everything got told in (more or less) linear order.  See, it's not that difficult to do so!

The highlight of the film for me was the interplay between Sean Penn's character and a backwoods mechanic played by Billy Bob Thornton, who keeps finding more work to do on the car, and keeps raising his rates every time his client tries to pick up the car.  This part does make sense, at least to anyone who's ever had to get a car repaired - prices and time estimates become completely arbitrary.

But it adds to the ridiculousness, the impossibility of getting out of this Arizona desert town, where even the most casual conversations with strangers leads to accusations of infidelity and ensuing violence.  Now, why would I want to visit Arizona? 

Also starring Nick Nolte (last seen in "Mulholland Falls"), Jennifer Lopez (last seen in "The Cell"), Billy Bob Thornton (last seen in "Intolerable Cruelty"), Powers Boothe (last seen in "The Avengers"), Joaquin Phoenix (last seen in "Signs"), Jon Voight (last seen in "The Manchurian Candidate"), with cameos from Bo Hopkins, Claire Danes (last seen in "How to Make an American Quilt"), Julie Hagerty (last seen in "Reversal of Fortune"), Laurie Metcalf (last seen in "Fun With Dick and Jane"), Liv Tyler.

RATING: 3 out of 10 vultures

Thursday, April 25, 2013


Year 5, Day 115 - 4/25/13 - Movie #1,406

BEFORE:  Edward Norton carries over from "American History X", playing a prison inmate again.

THE PLOT:  A convicted arsonist looks to manipulate a parole officer into a plan to secure his parole by placing his beautiful wife in the lawman's path.

AFTER: I find myself without a lot to say today, and I don't think it's my fault, I think it's because the movie gave me so little to think about.  It's one of those "who's manipulating who?" kind of stories, and unfortunately it's not very clear about who knew what, and when, which would have gone a long way toward making sense of things.

I understand that the process of obtaining parole from prison may be long and complicated, but that doesn't mean it has to be in a movie.  Movies are all about editing out the tedious parts of life, and showing us the more action-oriented moments.  So there's a mental game going on between a convict and his parole officer - it's an interesting idea, but the standoff doesn't need to occupy 75-80% of the film.

It's especially galling when the parole officer's marriage is one of those quiet ones - where the couple has been together so long that they don't really talk any more, at least not about the important stuff, at most they're just making conversation.  So the scenes with both of them aren't very enthralling either.  Sure, there are probably a lot of couples who don't have heavy or heated discussion, so this may be true-to-life, but it also makes for a less than exciting film.

Things get heated between the parole officer and the convict's wife, but even then we are forced to question whether she has real feelings for him, or is just trying to secure her husband's release from jail.  Since she barely is able to speak up for herself, and rarely broaches the topic, it's hard to determine her exact motive.  Like she forgot to mention it, or meant to try and blackmail him, but never really got around to it.

As in last night's film, Norton's character undergoes one of those jailhouse epiphanies, some kind of spiritual awakening.  But again, how are we the audience supposed to know whether the change in his personality is sincere, or just something to help his chances of parole?  There's no way.  It is funny how many convicts manage to find Jesus - but if God is everywhere, why couldn't they have found him before becoming incarcerated?

Tense?  Sure.  Exciting?  Not at all.

Also starring Robert De Niro (last seen in "The Fan"), Frances Conroy (last seen in "Billy Bathgate"), Milla Jovovich (last seen in "The Three Musketeers (2011)").

RATING: 4 out of 10 cornrows

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

American History X

Year 5, Day 114 - 4/24/13 - Movie #1,405

BEFORE:  Linking from "The Brave One", character actor Lenny Venito, perhaps most famous for being in "The Sopranos", was also in "Rounders" with Edward Norton (last seen in "The Italian Job"). 

THE PLOT:  A former neo-nazi skinhead tries to prevent his younger brother from going down the same wrong path that he did.

AFTER: I'm still trying to come off of vacation time and re-integrate myself into society - but I'm viewing everything through the lens of vacation sensibilities.  There's something very selfish about being on vacation, of course, when all you want to do is have experiences in various locations, base the trip around the things YOU want to see, and YOU want to eat.

This selfishness can be seen in full force in any airport, which is full of people asking, "Where is MY seat upgrade?" and "When can I get MY bags off the carousel?" and "Where is MY beverage/blanket/headphones/packet of peanuts?"  On the plane, I like to just go to my seat, look out the window, read a magazine and not cause any trouble, but I appear to be in the minority.  On the way back from Florida we were surrounded by a kid behind us who did not realize that kicking the seat could be felt by the people ahead of her, a guy who kept getting up from his seat to either take off or put on an article of clothing from the overhead bin, throwing his bag onto the seat each time with incredible force, and people ahead of us who refused to put their seats in the complete upright position during take-off - don't they know that can cause a fiery death for all of the other passengers?

Perhaps I'm more aware of this since I live in New York, which means co-existing in close quarters with other people.  One man's ceiling is another man's floor - and the smell of decomposition can carry through a vent from one apartment to another.  So what the police might call "improper disposal of a corpse" can also be viewed as being downright considerable toward one's neighbors.

My point is, people are not always aware of the impact that their actions have on others - which brings me to skinheads.  Norton's character in this film cannot see the results of his racist actions, at least not until he gets sent to prison for killing two black men who might have been stealing his car.

This is another film where the scenes are not presented in proper order, instead they're dumped in front of the audience like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and we're forced to assemble it ourselves.  We see Derek Vinyard released from prison, then later we see the actions that sent him there, and even later still we learn who planted the seeds of racism in his mind, and what actions led to another change of attitude.

The present scenes are depicted in color, and the past scenes are in black and white, which is a help, but plenty of problems still result from the randomness of the format.  You know exactly what I'm going to say about this, right?  I strongly believe that if the narrative were presented in linear fashion, it wouldn't be nearly as interesting.  At least, that's what the director believed, or was led to believe.  Defending the scrambling of the timeline as an artistic choice, is a shortcut, a narrative crutch or a cover-up for a weak story.  Why make people sit through a three-year prison sentence, it's not like you can just put writing on the screen that says "Three years later".  Oh, wait, yes, you can.

Once I (finally) got all the pieces of the puzzle, I was left questioning whether Derek's transformation out of the racist lifestyle was sincere or not.  What changed Derek's outlook more - his prison friendship with a black man, or the violent retaliation he received for that at the hands of the white Supremacists?  The desire to not see his younger brother in a violent gang, or the realization that both gangs, black and white, might be gunning for him?  So what appears to be a softening of his racism could be merely self-preservation.

And because of the mixed-up timestream, it's difficult to assign a cause/effect relationship to Vinyard's racism and subsequent transformation, and the events that take place later (or is it before?).
And without that, then any points the film strove to make about racism got pretty muddled as well.

We may take pride in our country's freedom of speech, but then what about hate speech?  People are still free to think whatever they want, which is why it's taken so many decades to deal with racism.  You can enforce a person's actions, but changing minds is much more difficult.  I once caught my grandmother sort of sticking up for Hitler, I think she said he just "took things a bit too far".  (ya think?)  Grams came from a different time, obviously, and left Germany well before Hitler was elected.  Of course I don't share her feelings, but I do think that the real takeaway should be that we should all support struggling artists, because there are probably a few of them that you wouldn't want to resort to entering politics.

Relating back to the events of last week, did we Americans collectively think that we could wage a war for over a decade in 2 foreign countries without any long-term repercussions?  That we could kill, directly or indirectly, large numbers of people of various ethnicities without creating more anti-American sentiment?  Yes, it appears that's exactly what we thought.  Whether that represents an appalling level of jingoism or just a fatal misunderstanding of world affairs, I don't know.  But it's another example of not realizing the impact of certain actions.

Also starring Edward Furlong (last seen in "The Green Hornet"), Beverly D'Angelo (an F.O.B., last seen in "The House Bunny"), Avery Brooks, Jennifer Lien, Ethan Suplee (last seen in "Unstoppable"), Fairuza Balk (last seen in "Return to Oz"), Stacy Keach (last seen in "W."), Elliott Gould (last seen in "Contagion").

RATING: 5 out of 10 tattoos

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Brave One

Year 5, Day 113 - 4/23/13 - Movie #1,404

BEFORE: Ah, it's good to be back in New York City.  The sights, the smells.  Who wanted to stay in the boring old Caribbean anyway?  Am I being sarcastic enough?

Linking from "Red State", John Goodman was also in "The Princess and the Frog" with Terrence Howard.

THE PLOT:  A woman struggles to recover from a brutal attack by setting out on a mission for revenge.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Law Abiding Citizen"  (Movie #973)

AFTER: When I was in college and taking a writing course, my professor made me keep a daily media journal of everything I read and watched (turned out to be good practice...).  But after a week or so he complained to me that I was just writing about my routine - read the Daily News in the morning, watched "Jeopardy!" at 7.  Oh, I hadn't realized he also wanted it to be interesting.  So I changed it up, wrote about the differences between Star Wars and Star Trek, or reactions to particular TV shows.

This film is about a radio journalist who reports on walking around New York City - is that even a thing?  Most people just walk to GET somewhere...  But I suspect her radio shows were starting to suffer from the same problem - most walks around the city probably sound exactly the same.  Umm, she does know we've got video cameras now, right?  Somebody tell her she's working in a dying medium.

She then is the victim of a vicious attack by a street gang, while on a walk with her fiancĂ© and dog.  It's a terrible set of circumstances, I don't mean to downplay the severity - but it has one upside, her radio shows do get more interesting, as now she can talk about the fear lurking around every corner, or the danger in traveling down an unfamiliar, or perhaps all-too-familiar, street.

There's a bit of a disconnect when she calls New York "the safest big city in America".  Umm, then how does she explain the people who attacked her?  Plus, after she buys a gun to defend herself, the fact that there's no shortage of people for her to shoot?  She finds killers, thieves and rapists pretty darn easily, yet still maintains it's a safe place to live.

I think the answer lies in the fact that the crime statistics are skewed.  What's dropped in NYC is the number of REPORTED crimes.  I suspect that nothing's happened to actual crime, except the fact that it's been pushed out of Times Square (not counting rude costumed Muppet characters).  It wouldn't be unusual to hear a city cop say, "Oh, sure, you can report the theft, but that rarely leads to an arrest.  Plus, you had your wallet in your back pocket, so isn't it really YOUR fault?"

Think about it - the same people who are telling us that New York crime is down are the same people who look good when crime is down, from the mayor and police commissioner on down to the beat cop.  There are many ways, however, that the statistics could be influenced without increased police work.  Legalizing abortion, for example, cut down the numbers, and some theories also say then led to some potential criminals in poor neighborhoods never being born.  Sure, tougher gun laws, more security cameras and increased police presence all have had their effects, but at the same time, it was reported in 2010 that police have indeed been fudging the numbers, by re-classifying major crimes as minor offenses.

So, when I see it reported that there were only 414 murders in New York City in 2012, it leads me to wonder how many murders were just written up as "littering with a dead body".  And 960 murders reported in 2001?  Something's not right, because I know for a fact that almost 3,000 people were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11.  Is someone seriously suggesting that those deaths don't count, because of some terrorism exemption?  Look, you can put those numbers in with an asterisk if you like, but for Pete's sake, put 'em in. 

NITPICK POINT: I've never bought a gun, never wanted to buy a gun.  But the main character here goes straight from "I fear the streets" to "I need a gun."  Most likely, people would go through some interim stages such as "I'll just never go outside again."  Plus, immediately after being depicted as overly jumpy and cautious of everyone around her, she follows a guy she just met into a back alley to purchase a weapon?  She sure got over her fear of strangers quickly.

Also starring Jodie Foster (last seen in "Nell"), Naveen Andrews (last seen in "Mighty Joe Young"), Mary Steenburgen (last seen in "Nixon"), Nicky Katt, Zoe Kravitz (last seen in "It's Kind of a Funny Story").

RATING: 5 out of 10 parking garages

Monday, April 22, 2013

Red State

Year 5, Day 112 - 4/22/13 - Movie #1,403

BEFORE: Yeah, I had my next month of films all mapped out, in a chain that separated spouse killers and serial killers from hit-men and spies, but then along came "Kill Bill: Vol. 2", which I didn't realize was about assassins, and had a cameo from Samuel L. Jackson.  That meant the next logical film to watch was "The Long Kiss Goodnight", which features Mr. Jackson, and is about an assassin.  I tried to flip the chain around to make that film next, but it just interrupted the flow, and set off a domino effect of randomness, plus all my killers got mixed up together.  What to do?

I took a long look at the cast lists for the next few dozen movies, and eventually a clear path emerged.  For my purposes, I'm going to take into consideration that "Kill Bill" is about a GROUP of killers, and so is tonight's film, and so is tomorrow's.  Once gang violence has been covered, I can deal with individuals - and the resulting new chain maximizes actor linking while also parsing out the various types of killers.

Linking from "Kill Bill: Vol. 2", Michael Parks carries over.  Once I realized that connection, this film came right up to the top of the list.  And I found my new credo, conveniently available on a t-shirt, which reads: "I have OCD & ADD.  So everything has to be perfect...but not for very long."

THE PLOT:  A group of teens receives an online invitation for sex, though they soon encounter fundamentalists with a much more sinister agenda.

AFTER:  The other connection to last night's film is that it was directed by Kevin Smith, and just as with Tarantino, I'd like to see all of his films, as he usually doesn't disappoint.  This film got a lot of attention for screening at Sundance, with Smith vowing to sell the rights at the screening - then he reportedly opened his wallet and bought the rights from himself for $20. Wait, you can do that?  That's just a way of saying he wanted to self-distribute, but he kind of tricked distributors into showing up, thinking they had a chance to buy the film on the cheap.

The film features a religious group, not completely a cult, but definitely a group that puts the "mental" into "Fundamentalist".  I'm sure that there are groups out there that preach God's love while hating homosexuals, and yet are unable to see the inherent contradiction in doing that.  For convenience's sake, the group also stockpiles weapons and is waiting for the rapture.  This made the message of the film a little elusive - is it anti-religion?  Pro-gay?  Anti-guvmint?  All of the above?

The story starts out told from the perspective of certain characters, and at some point there's a shift, and the ending is seen from the perspective of different characters.  I won't say why, because that shift is necessitated by the plot, but it does suggest a structural problem, if nothing else.

It's also hard to justify this with the Boston bombings - I admit I was out of the country and I haven't been following the news as much as I could have since I've been back, but we've collectively learned that terrorists are out there, their motives are not always clear, and the F.B.I. does have an interest in taking them into custody alive.  Killing suspects is a last resort, and done only when the public (or the agents themselves) are in danger.

And killing in the name of religion is a highly questionable thing - yet it's gone on for thousands of years, in one form or another.  The problem becomes, if you believe in hell, then why not send sinners there sooner?  If you believe in heaven, why not commit suicide and get there sooner?  Ah, but God thought of that, didn't he?  I can just dispute the logic with "Thou shalt not kill", which has no exemption clauses to it.  And if you want to resolve the contradictions between Exodus and Leviticus, by all means, go ahead.  I'll wait.

Also starring John Goodman (last seen in "The Campaign"), Melissa Leo, Stephen Root (last seen in "J. Edgar"), Kevin Pollak (last seen in "3000 Miles to Graceland"), Ralph Garman, Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun, Kyle Gallner.

RATING: 5 out of 10 bullet-proof vests 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Year 5, Day 111 - 4/21/13 - Movie #1,402

BEFORE: I'm trying to integrate myself back into my old routine, which is difficult after a vacation that was almost two weeks long.  After a week on the cruise ship my body had become accustomed to life at sea, including eating 6 or 7 times a day, waking up at a normal human time, and moving in a way that took the rocking of the ship into account.  After 10 days it seemed like that would be my new life, and then I had to readjust back to reality.  My life right now involves trying to clear both DVRs again, sorting through and posting a lot of vacation photos, and getting ready for work on Monday.  I can still sort of feel the motion of the ship when I'm sitting down, though.

Many actors carry over from "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" so linking is easy.  Where I go next after this film, though, is a little bit up in the air.  More on that later.

THE PLOT: The murderous Bride continues her quest of vengeance against her former boss and lover Bill, the reclusive bouncer Budd, and the treacherous, one-eyed Elle.

AFTER: I think I like this one a little better than "Kill Bill: Vol. 1", partly because there's less of an emphasis on the Japanese stuff.  There's a flashback to the Bride's training, but that resembles the classic Chinese kung fu movies more than, say, manga stuff.  And the flashback means we're still not dealing with a linear storyline - but Vol. 2 is more straightforward in its presentation, at least.

And though the Bride is still metaphorically crossing people off of her hit list, at least here it didn't show her literally crossing off their names, which, come on, really treated the audience as if they were dumb.  We can understand the concept of a hit list - thanks, Quentin. That structure, in itself, comes across as rather simplistic - Bride checks the next name, Bride tracks down that person, they have a fight, Bride wins, Bride crosses them off.  Listen to They Might Be Giants' track "Particle Man", you get the same idea.

That being said, there were some twists here that shook up the routine a little bit, in Vol. 2 it stopped being that simple.  The biggest surprises came when she finally made it to Bill himself - for a while there it looked like they might work things out, but then the film wouldn't really live up to its title, now, would it?

To use another musical metaphor, the two films together remind me of a double-album of sorts.  Back in the day a rock band might put out a double album (two records with four sides - kids, ask your parents) and some double albums were regarded as masterpieces, but others were seen as overblown and pretentious.  They lead one to speculate whether some tracks could have been eliminated to create a single LP (1 record with two sides) that would be a shorter but more solid work.  The best example of many is the Beatles' 1967 work (commonly referred to as the "White Album") - which can be stripped down based on personal preference to form a killer mix.  Most people would cut the rambling incoherent "Revolution No. 9", and then probably "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" and "Wild Honey Pie".  You'll probably want to keep "Back in the U.S.S.R.", "Blackbird", "Dear Prudence" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", but then it comes down to personal preference, and the debatable qualities of songs like "Sexy Sadie" and "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?"

(see also: George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass", Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and Guns 'N Roses' "Use Your Illusion" I + II)  

Without second guessing Tarantino, this leads me to wonder how much padding there is in "Kill Bill" - before separating the story into two films, how long would it have been as a single film?  And then how much of the story was added after the decision was made to split the story into two parts?  A little research tells me that the whole thing was screened at Cannes before it was bifurcated, and the running time was over four hours.  So, I've got to support the decision, it's just unfortunate that most of the filler ended up in Vol. 1, at least in my opinion.

I can understand wanting to pay homage to the martial arts films of the 1960's and 70's - but did it have to be done with the same schlockiness, the same cheezy effects that were in use at the time?  The two best franchises, "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films, both had their origin in George Lucas' love of old serials from the 1930's, like "Flash Gordon" - but they were made with the modern special effects of their own time. (then "Star Wars" was remade with the effects of the new millennium)  Would they have been as successful if they still had the jump-cuts, lame effects and continuity mistakes of the old serials?

As a comic-book geek, I've got to take issue with Bill's (and, by extension, Tarantino's) take on Superman.  In an extended soliloquy, Bill refers to Superman as unique because he IS the hero, and the hero is him.  Unlike other superheroes who were mere mortals who gained powers and put on a costume, he started with powers, and then chose to walk among mortals in disguise.  So, if anything, Superman is the real identity and Clark Kent is the costume.  I've heard this theory before, but there are at least two problems with it.  First off, he was raised as Clark Kent, not as Superman - so he's really got this dual heritage where he's both Kryptonian AND human.  He's not fully one or the other.  Secondly, this doesn't make him unique - I've heard the same theory about Batman, how Bruce Wayne is really the disquise.  And what about Wonder Woman?  She's really an Amazonian warrior, and Diana Prince is the assumed identity.  And what about Thor, Hercules, and countless others?

Now, as for what I'm going to cross off MY hit-list next, I had a plan set up, but then I realized two things.  First, that this film is about assassins/hit-men, and I've got a whole chain about them ready to go, and the second concerns someone who made a cameo in this film, and I've got a few of his films lined up as well.  Do I stick with my original plan, or shake up the line-up yet again?  I suppose it doesn't really matter, both roads are going to end up in the same place about three weeks from now.  I'm going to reflect on the matter and make a decision later today.

Starring Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah, Michael Madsen, Michael Parks, Chia Hui Liu (all carrying over from "Kill Bill: Vol. 1"), Bo Svenson, Helen Kim, Larry Bishop (son of Joey), and a cameo from Samuel L. Jackson (last seen in "Changing Lanes")

RATING: 6 out of 10 coffin nails