Saturday, July 13, 2013

Season of the Witch

Year 5, Day 194 - 7/13/13 - Movie #1,485

BEFORE: Just 4 days until Comic-Con, which is just enough time for a 4-movie Nicolas Cage chain that is also sci-fi/comic related.  See, everything's going to be just fine.  It's kind of weird that Hollywood was so hard up for material a couple years ago that they had to make old Donovan songs into movies, but hey, whatever.  They had to pay the electric bill until the "Avengers" movie came out, I totally understand.  Linking from "Harry Potter and the whatevers Part 2", Helena Bonham Carter was in no less than FOUR films with Christopher Lee (last seen in "The Man With the Golden Gun") - "Dark Shadows", "Corpse Bride", "Alice in Wonderland" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", so let's go that way.

THE PLOT:  14th-century knights transport a suspected witch to a monastery, where monks deduce her powers could be the source of the Black Plague.

AFTER: I liked the premise where this film started off, namely that the Crusades were ultimately a really bad idea, though it's a bit surprising to suggest that any of its participants could have grasped this concept - that following God and following the Church could be two very different things.  That's a very modern idea, to the point where I doubt a film could have gotten away with implying that as recently as a decade ago.

Beyond that, it turns into a pretty obvious quest film, but then there are some nice twists, and I've got no complaints about the effects, which would probably seem more killer if they hadn't followed "Cloverfield" and "Super 8".  I'm trying to judge this one on its own merits, but considering how I tend to watch movies, that ship sailed a long time ago.

I guess I'm left struggling with "Nicolas Cage plays a 14th Century Crusader", and I imagine that a lot of other people got hung up on that as well.  The cinematography is not great, I realize that they didn't have modern lighting back in the 14th century, but does so much of the film need to be so dark?  It's often difficult to tell what's happening because everything is so washed out, or gray on gray.  Ah, Wikipedia says the film had "extensive uncredited reshoots by Brett Ratner" - that explains a lot.

Also starring Ron Perlman (last heard in "Tangled"), Claire Foy, Stephen Campbell Moore (last seen in "Johnny English Reborn"), Stephen Graham (last seen in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"), Ulrich Thomsen (last seen in "The World Is Not Enough"), Robert Sheehan, Brian F. O'Byrne.

RATING: 5 out of 10 dead monks

Friday, July 12, 2013

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

Year 5, Day 193 - 7/12/13 - Movie #1,484

BEFORE:  I get so frustrated when I fall another day behind due to something stupid like not having my Flash Player updated - but then, who's to say that's not part of the process?  What if something like that was fated to happen, and the chain takes that into account?  Like the way all those serial killer films made it possible for me to be watching sci-fi films right before Comic-Con?  Maybe these delays will enable me to tie in with not just "Man of Steel", but also "The Wolverine", opening July 26?  I've got just the spot for it, between the superhero films and another Hugh Jackman film - so why the heck shouldn't I do that?  It's like it was fated to be.

And putting this film next to "Super 8" - due to the presence of smart, precocious child characters, along with big scary beasties (you see the connections, too, right?) also means it's falling on the day of Manhattanhenge.  What's that?  It's one of the two days each year where the setting sun perfectly aligns with the majority of Manhattan's numbered cross-streets, so the sun will sink on the horizon right between the tall buildings.  The difference between this and Stonehenge, of course, is that Stonehenge was specifically built for the purpose of lining up with the sun on the solstice, and Manhattan's buildings were not made for this to happen, instead it just kind of does.  (You gotta figure, the sun's gonna set in that spot at least one day per year...)

Sure enough, my non-planned linking continues - Elle Fanning from "Super 8" was also in a film called "Ginger & Rosa" with Timothy Spall, who has a brief appearance in tonight's film.  I'd hoped for better, but I'll take it.

THE PLOT:  Harry, Ron and Hermione search for Voldemort's remaining Horcruxes in their effort to destroy the Dark Lord.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" (Movie #1,081)

AFTER: Well, I watched Part 1 about 15 months ago, and I'm not sure if that's longer than most movie-goers had to wait between the two movies.  Anyway, I had to review the plot of Part 1 on Wikipedia just to remind myself where the damn thing left off.

This is one of those films that's pretty much critic-proof.  Like someone's NOT going to see the eighth film in a series, after seeing the first 7?  As if...  I probably should watch all 8 films through at some point, but please, not now.  I feel like it's enough of an accomplishment for me to scratch this one off the list.

I will say that the big climactic battle, which seems to take over most of the film, is enormous, and complicated, and enormously complicated - but remarkably well thought-out and choreographed.  You need a scorecard to keep track of all the players, but then I know there are some people much younger than myself that manage to juggle all 1,027 major and minor characters, so I should at least be able to give it a go.

But if you're not a Potter-head, these spells and magic doohickeys can get extremely confusing.  I can't remember all the spells from the previous films and what they do, and after forcing me to learn what a Horcrux is, now I had to learn what exactly a Deathly Hallow is.  Wait, something can be BOTH?  That seems like a bit of a cheat.  Then how can you use one to destroy the other, if they're one and the same?  Actually a lot of these magic things feel like story cheats - somehow they always manage to have JUST the spell they need at a specific moment.  Or, they realize at exactly the right time what a magic object can do, which is all too convenient.

There's still a long list of things I don't understand, like the Dumbledore family tree and how Voldemort came to be who he is - they must have explained this stuff at some point and I just failed to make note of it.  Someday I'll revisit and pay more attention.

Also starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Warwick Davis (all last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1"), Alan Rickman (last heard in "Alice in Wonderland"), Michael Gambon (last seen in "The Book of Eli"), Ralph Fiennes (last seen in "Skyfall"), Robbie Coltrane (last seen in "The World Is Not Enough"), Helena Bonham Carter (last seen in "Les Miserables"), Maggie Smith (last heard in "Gnomeo & Juliet"), John Hurt (last seen in "Melancholia"), Jason Isaacs (last seen in "Friends With Money"), Tom Felton, Ciaran Hinds (last seen in "John Carter"), Matthew Lewis, Evanna Lynch, Bonnie Wright, with cameos from Jim Broadbent (last seen in "Vanity Fair"), Gary Oldman (last seen in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"), David Thewlis (last seen in "Anonymous"), Emma Thompson (last seen in "Men in Black 3"), Julie Walters,

RATING: 7 out of 10 banking goblins

UPDATE: I'm at my office in Manhattan, with my camera, ready to take pictures of the glory that is Manhattanhenge,'s raining.  Lots of clouds, I doubt I'll be able to see much of anything tonight.  This is about the 5th year in a row that I've either learned about the date too late to see it, or been out of town, or it's rained.  And that's twice a year, so I've really missed the last 10 of these things.

Sure, I could come into the city tomorrow, but it will be Saturday and I'm usually not prone to do so.  I'll see how I feel.  

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Super 8

Year 5, Day 192 - 7/11/13 - Movie #1,483

BEFORE: One week until Comic-Con, I got my boxes of DVDs shipped out yesterday via UPS to my hotel, they should arrive one day before I do, and if they're a day late, then they'll still be on time.  Hey, it's not my first rodeo.  Now I've just got to pack my suitcase on Monday with the various office supplies and paperwork I'll need at the booth, and try to knock off a few more sci-fi films before my plane leaves next Wednesday.

I offer a glimpse behind the curtain tonight, at how I select and collect my films for the list.  Quite often one film will suggest another, and since I mostly burn my own DVD's at the 4-hour speed, usually fitting two films on a disc, it's only natural for me to program in pairs.  (Why not?  Hollywood often releases two similar films close together - like two films this year about the White House being attacked...)  So I'd kept an eye out for this 2011 film, to pair on a DVD with "Cloverfield".  The only problem is, it never showed up on the premium cable channels.  Perhaps it was on PPV, but I just sort of assumed it would have aired on HBO or Showtime by now.  So I tried iTunes, but it's only available for purchase there, not rental, and I didn't want to pay $9.99 to see this.

Enter - there it was, available for streaming to Amazon Prime customers, for the low price of zero dollars.  That seemed pretty fair, but in order to view it, I needed to upgrade my Flash player.  In order to upgrade my Flash player, I needed to upgrade my browser - and I'm betting that to upgrade my browser, I'd need to upgrade my whole Mac OS.  See, this is how they get you - and once I start upgrading, then where does it stop?  Then I'll find out a whole bunch of software that I'm used to doesn't work any more under the new OS, and I have to upgrade THOSE too, at extra cost.  Uh-uh, my computer may not be current but it works (mostly), and I want to keep it that way.

So, free streaming via Amazon Prime on my wife's computer, then.  (If this doesn't work, now that I've lost a whole DAY to Flash/browser issues, I'm going to chuck "Super 8" off the list and go see "Pacific Rim" instead.) But this also provides a bit of a thematic link to tomorrow's film - and as my reward, one actor carries over from "Cloverfield", his name is Tim Griffin, and he played "Command Center Officer" in last night's film, and "Commando" in tonight's film.  Hmm, he may be a bit typecast as a military sort - but, hey, just because I didn't notice him in "Cloverfield", it doesn't mean that he didn't do a heck of a job.  The world needs background players, too.

THE PLOT: During the summer of 1979, a group of friends witness a train crash and investigate subsequent unexplained events in their small town.

AFTER: Ah, my instincts were good once again.  This film has a lot in common with "Cloverfield", namely the presence of a mysterious monster, a group of young people in peril (OK, youngish in "Cloverfield") and then we've got all the handheld camcorder footage one night, and the next we've got kids making Super 8 movies - that's quite a coincidence, I'd say.  Both films also follow the track of not letting the audience see the big beastie for the majority of the film - thus saving money on effects shots.  Sorry, I meant to say "thus building up suspense".

This film also demonstrates how hard acting is, especially for kids.  I think it's because they haven't had much life experience, so they don't have as much to draw from - or they don't realize how much work (or maybe how little?) goes into appearing so genuine.  When you ask kids to play another person, but to act natural, there may be a bit of a disconnect there.  The actress who plays the girl gets it mostly right, but I think you can tell she's been in more movies than the others.  The lead boy came off as mostly a blank to me - he's great at staring at something in awe or in shock, but the emotions that should follow just aren't there.  And some of the actors who play his friends are just the opposite, they try too hard and end up overemoting, which is sort of the Disney Channel sitcom approach.  Less is more sometimes, kids.

If you watch the end credits, you'll see a bonus, which is the "actual" (OK, not really, but you know what I mean) Super 8 film that the kid characters were seen making.  It's B.S. of course, because some adult probably spent a lot of time and money making what would LOOK like a film kids would make, with jump cuts and continuity errors and sub-par acting delivery.  I wonder, if you set out to make an intentionally crappy film and then do so, did you succeed in failing?  Because it's easy to make a bad film, but most people do it by failing to succeed instead.

Still, this may remind you of your teen years, or as I call them, "those awkward years between being an awkward child and an awkward adult".  I'm trying to recall what it was like when I was a kid, and though I hadn't specifically determined I was interested in filmmaking, I exhibited a lot of behavior that should have made it obvious I was headed in that direction.  I watched a LOT of TV, and kept track of a lot of music, not just the Top 40 but also a lot of novelty records, many of which appeared in old films.  I got involved with theater groups, which seemed like a good way to interact with girls - though I never got a date out of that, at least I got to dance with them on stage, and got some acting experience at the same time.  And of course I watched "Star Wars" over and over, and sometimes frame-by-frame, and this got me interested in the filmmaking process in a roundabout way.  I even took it upon myself to transcribe the "Star Wars" radio dramas via typewriter, which seems ridiculous now, but I learned about script formatting in the process.

I didn't pick up a 16mm movie camera until college, because I was focused on coursework in high school (plus singing and playing clarinet) - but once I was in film school I became a sort of one-man band, acting, directing and doing in-camera editing, sometimes all at once.  Just like Orson Welles, only without any great story ideas.  Thankfully those films are lost in the mists of time, or maybe they're in my basement, and I chose a career path where I'd work on other people's films for more money and less creative input.

Back to my questions about distribution, now - since I'm in the film biz (tangentially) I deal a little bit with contracts and distribution models and such.  Though my boss has an agent that's supposed to deal with cable channels (mostly by ignoring them, it seems...) I'm still constantly mystified by the process.  I realize we're living under a new paradigm, with the Netflix and the YouTube and people watching movies on their phones (Wait, is that a thing? Why would anyone do that?) but it seems to me that if you've got a product like "Super 8" to market, you'd want the maximum number of eyeballs to be able to access it, and signing an exclusive deal with Amazon streaming would seem to work against that.  Wouldn't it be better to make a film available on DVD, premium cable, Netflix and Amazon, all at the same time?  It would be like having a restaurant AND a food-truck to maximize your sales opportunities.

In the same vein, why make a web-site that requires people to upgrade all their software to view it?  It seems rather exclusionary.  Isn't the point of the web to disseminate information to everyone, in a way that's accessible across the board? 

Anyway, back to "Super 8".  I couldn't help but think that it seemed a bit like "Stand By Me" mixed with "E.T." and "Close Encounters", with some of the creepiness of "Poltergeist" - only to find out after that the whole thing was conceived as a Spielberg tribute, right down to the concept of kids making movies, which is what Stevie did while growing up.  Well, then, in that sense the film succeeded.   Hmm, it turns out that J.J. Abrams, the director of "Super 8" and his friend Matt Reeves, the director of "Cloverfield", were once hired by Spielberg to restore his old Super 8 home movies.  See, it all ties together!

Also starring Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning (last seen in "We Bought a Zoo"), Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, Kyle Chandler (last seen in "Mulholland Falls"), Ron Eldard (last seen in "Scent of a Woman"), Noah Emmerich (last seen in "Windtalkers"), Glynn Turman, with cameos from Dan Castellanata (last heard in "The Cat in the Hat"), Greg Grunberg.

RATING: 6 out of 10 missing microwaves

Tuesday, July 9, 2013


Year 5, Day 190 - 7/9/13 - Movie #1,482

BEFORE:  I was waiting for a long time for this one to pop up on premium cable, and then it just never did.  Once again I point out how that process is a complete mystery to me - I never know when films will air on HBO/Showtime, and then some don't, which means I should have watched them on PPV, but of course by then it's too late. In this case the film aired on the Fox Movie Channel, which used to be commercial-free but no longer is.  I'm bending the rules to allow this in.  I could have waited until October since this counts as a monster movie, but my linking rules put it here.  T.J. Miller carries over from "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World".

THE PLOT:  Revolves around a monster attack in New York as told from the point of view of a small group of people.

AFTER: There's a nice tie-in with last night's film, which is a sort of similar theme - trying to get across a town or state to see a loved one, while destruction is raining down, or imminently so.  So that was a nice justification for watching this film now instead of at Halloween time.

But gad, it's like that "Blair Witch Project" all over again.  That film which featured supposedly "found footage" spawned a whole bunch of imitators, mostly of the paranormal/ghost activity variety, but here's one in the monster-movie genre.

I get it, somebody watches a film like "Godzilla" or "King Kong" and there's a camera everywhere, every shot of the monster is framed perfectly, cut to a close-up, and if you're aware of all that going on, then it could take you out of the moment and remind you that you're watching a film, so nothing is real.

But the alternative to that is to turn someone loose with a hand-held camera and no Steadicam - I call the result "Shakicam", and it usually gives me a headache.  The intended result is to look more "real", more cinema verité, but all I could think was, somebody spent a lot of money to make it look like they didn't spend any money.  It probably took a ton of professionals to make this "amateur" footage.  And thinking that took ME out of the moment.

In addition to all the shaking around and frantic filming while running away, there's an occasional cut to what USED to be on the tape that's being recorded on - this lets us know it's more "real", plus it's quite ironic to see the young lovers during happier times, before they were being chased by monsters or whatever.  Even more obnoxious is the dialogue, which seemed to be mostly people screaming, "Did you SEE that?" and "What is going on?"  Hey, characters, if you don't know, I don't know.

The result is like listening to the aimless conversations of twenty-somethings in a diner or something, when they go around and around and never really say anything substantial.  I know I sometimes have a hard time controlling my "fist of death" when I'm forced to endure this.

Still, I may recommend this to my wife, not because it's a great film, but because she enjoyed that "Blair Witch" deal, and if she watches this, she'll get to see a bunch of hipsters getting crushed.  And on top of that, their big party gets spoiled.  Sorry, trust-fund kids, Daddy's gonna have to find you a new apartment!

Also starring Lizzy Caplan (last seen in "Hot Tub Time Machine"), Michael Stahl-David, Jessica Lucas, Odette Annable, Mike Vogel.

RATING: 4 out of 10 cell phone batteries

Monday, July 8, 2013

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Year 5, Day 189 - 7/8/13 - Movie #1,481

BEFORE: I did an "End of the World" chain before, in 2011, back when we thought the Mayan calendar would run out in 2012 and the solar flares would take us to the Rapture - God, we were such silly people way back then.  The topic was, of course, hot in movies last year and I'm just getting to those now.  Linking from "Melancholia" was tough, but not impossible - Kiefer Sutherland was also in a film called "Truth or Consequences, N.M." with Martin Sheen (last seen in "Catch Me If You Can").

THE PLOT:  As an asteroid nears Earth, a man finds himself alone after his wife leaves in a panic. He decides to take a road trip to reunite with his high school sweetheart, and with him is a neighbor who inadvertently puts a wrench in his plan.

AFTER: Two very different films, "Melancholia" and this one - but on nearly the same topic, which is how people react when the end is near.  Their end, the world's end, it makes little difference - you have to ask yourself what would you do if you knew you only had a little bit of time left.  Would you frantically try to get to the things on your "Bucket List"?  Or just chuck it all and have two weeks of wanton abandon - a bender of alcohol, drugs and shameless sex?  Or would you track down the people who potentially mean the most to you and savor every last moment with them?

There's no one correct answer, it's sort of an open-ended question, but your answer reveals a lot about who you are at the core.  This is the story of a man who decides to track down his lost love, presumably trekking across some distance at a time when air travel is defunct and cell phone service unavailable.  (A little convenient for story purposes, as this sets up the cross-state quest.)

It's somewhat noble to want to "Live life like you're dyin'", but nobody ever thought of the implications of everyone trying to do that all at once.  And to a certain extent we're all fooling ourselves, because not thinking about impending doom or our eventual deaths could be the only thing that keeps us on track, doing a thankless job day after day - or thinking that our lives will someday get better somehow if we just stay the course.  If we each had a countdown clock in our arms like the people in "In Time", think how much we'd get done each day, out of desperation alone.

I grew up during the Cold War, and we learned about Mutual Assured Destruction as kids - and films like "Wargames" and "The Day After" put the notion in our heads that our society could come to an end at any time.   So that's how we lived, with the constant threat of death via ICBM, and I have to wonder if that led to a generation of people who feel entitled in some way, that life owes them some certain measure of success before the clock runs out. 

But the Cold War ended, and except for a few pockets of nuclear mischief, we've replaced the bad guys across the ocean with the bad guys across the gulf of space - be it alien invasion or a rogue asteroid, we still imagine it could all get taken away at any time.  Oh, wait, I forgot greenhouse gases, global warming, plastic filling up the ocean or any of a dozen other environmental threats.  Again, somehow this led to a generation of hipsters who feel entitled and are rushing to get their screenplays written before the end times, while couch-surfing and hacky-sacking across the country.

I think we all agree, though, that the end will come, but probably in the most ironic way possible.  Like we'll finally sign those global peace accords or outlaw cancer or something, and then the next day they'll spot the asteroid on a collision course.  Wouldn't that just be the way?  Or we'll send up the space shuttle to repair the hole in the ozone layer, and it will crash and burn a bigger hole - or it will succeed and it will turn out that plugging the hole will actually suffocate us all.

(ASIDE: Does anyone really get ozone?  I know there's a big hole in the ozone layer, which is bad because it means too many UV rays are hitting Earth.  But whenever I hear about smog and summer temperatures, it sounds like there's too MUCH ozone above our major cities, and that's bad too, because it's a pollutant and a greenhouse gas.  So, which is it?  And can someone invent a doohickey that gathers up the ozone from the cities and brings it to the hole over the icecaps, where it's needed?  No need to thank me, just send me my Nobel Prize when the time comes.)

When the big day comes, I guess I favor a big blowout party over being depressed about the whole thing, but that day's not here yet - so get back to work, everyone!

Also starring Steve Carell (last seen in "Crazy, Stupid, Love."), Keira Knightley (last seen in "A Dangerous Method"), Adam Brody (last seen in "Cop Out"), Connie Britton (last seen in "Friday Night Lights"), Melanie Lynskey, with cameos from Rob Corddry (last seen in "Cedar Rapids"), Patton Oswalt (last seen in "Big Fan"), Amy Schumer, Rob Huebel, TJ Miller (last seen in "Our Idiot Brother"), Gillian Jacobs, William Petersen (last seen in "Mulholland Falls"), Nancy Carell.

RATING: 5 out of 10 Smart cars

Sunday, July 7, 2013


Year 5, Day 188 - 7/7/13 - Movie #1,480

BEFORE: 10 days until Comic-Con - the event is approaching like... Jeez, if only I could think of a metaphor for a giant, looming event that seems to be ominously approaching at a slow but unstoppable pace.  Oh, well, I'm sure something will come to me.  Linking from "In Time", Vincent Kartheiser was in a film called "Luckytown" with Kirsten Dunst (last seen in "All Good Things").

THE PLOT:  Two sisters find their already strained relationship challenged as a mysterious new planet threatens to collide with Earth.

AFTER: Let's talk for a second about entitlement, which is when self-important people have such a high opinion of themselves that they become slightly erratic and delusional.  This manifests itself here, as a woman getting married suddenly feels the pressures of her new role (or perhaps it's her family, family always drives people crazy) and starts to feel depressed.  A more basic reading would suggest that no wedding day or no husband could possibly live up to her impossibly high expectations, so she ruins her own life, simply because she's achieved what she set out to do, and it didn't satisfy her.

But what we're really meant to believe is that she's some kind of psychic, or has advanced knowledge of future events, so the approaching planet and impending doom is what's causing her to be depressed.  What a load of rubbish. 

Entitlement also happens when a director doesn't consult with any science people to find out that a planet can't possibly "hide" behind the sun, can't perform a "fly-by" of Earth, and couldn't possibly get that close to Earth, then move far away again, then slam into it.  Things just don't work that way.  Because at that point the director would be forced to say, "Oh, well, then I'll choose another story to tell", or stay the course and prove his own arrogance.

People like Newton and Kepler long ago figured out how planets move, and then other scientists used tiny variations in gravity (the effect planets have on each other) to figure out where other planets were, before we could even see them.  And I'm supposed to believe a planet could "sneak up" on us?  It's not possible.  The planet Melancholia comes so close to the Earth that it disrupts electricity, and then sucks away some of the atmosphere (along with all of the enjoyment, apparently). 

There's sort of a germ of an idea here, about whether rational or irrational people function better during crisis situations, but it's very underdeveloped, as is the entire film.  No, we shouldn't be losing our heads if we think doom is imminent, but neither should we join hands and sing a song about it.  Did anyone think to maybe look into STOPPING the disaster from happening, or slowing it down?  Those are the people to make your movie about - go watch "Armageddon" and see how the focus is on the people on the front lines, not the navel-gazers in the cheap seats.

So, is the planet a metaphor for depression, or marriage, or what?  When a film aims for "arty", as this one does, it can easily miss the ability to have a coherent point.

Also starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Keifer Sutherland (last seen in "Taking Lives"), Alexander Skarsgard (last seen in "Battleship"), Stellan Skarsgard (last seen in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"), Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt (last seen in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"), Udo Kier (last seen in "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective").

RATING: 2 out of 10 wedding toasts