Friday, September 20, 2013

The Ladykillers (2004)

Year 5, Day 263 - 9/20/13 - Movie #1,545

BEFORE: The end of a Tom Hanks triple-play tonight -

THE PLOT: An eccentric Southern professor and his crew pose as a band in order to rob a casino, all under the nose of his unsuspecting landlord: a sharp old woman.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Ladykillers" (1955) (Movie #822)

AFTER: This is another "heist" or "caper" film, a remake of the 1955 film that moves the action to the American South, but keeps many of the original's plot points: a group of thieves masquerading as a musical group, renting a room in an older woman's house in order to gain access to an underground vault.

But, instead of comparing it to the original Alec Guinness film, I found myself comparing it to two other "caper" films - "Raising Arizona" (made by the same filmmakers) and "A Fish Called Wanda" (not made by the same filmmakers, but made by the same director as "The Lavender Hill Mob")  They seem to have many of the same elements - colorful characters, some with weird accents, a large sum of money at stake, and people getting hurt or killed in hilarious ways.  SO, what makes those other films score so high, and this film seem so average?

Part of it is timing, I suppose - I'm not in a particular mood tonight where I would appreciate a black comedy.  But the rest is rather intangible - the same filmmakers put together a madcap film with similar elements as something they succeeded with before, and it falls flat.  Are there subtle differences in the performances of the actors - did Tom Hanks not "sell" his refined Southern gentlemanly accent enough?  Was Nicolas Cage just born to play a dumb, clueless convenient store robber?  Are some plot frameworks just inherently better than others?

I don't have answers here, but I'll keep asking the questions.  In the meantime I find this film "incoherent" - not that I was unable to understand it, but more like it didn't seem to cohere or come together in the best possible way.  That's as descriptive as I'm willing to get.

Also starring J.K. Simmons (last seen in "For Love of the Game"), Marlon Wayans (last heard in "Marmaduke"), Irma P. Hall (last seen in "Collateral"), George Wallace (last seen in "Funny People"), Tzi Ma, Ryan Hurst, Diane Delano, with cameos from Stephen Root (last seen in "Red State"), Greg Grunberg (last seen in "Super 8").

RATING: 5 out of 10 waffles

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Larry Crowne

Year 5, Day 262 - 9/19/13 - Movie #1,544

BEFORE:  Tom Hanks carries over from "The Terminal", and I've re-shuffled my remaining 2013 films yet again, so here's a quick look at the topics I'll be covering before the end of the year: urban crime/black films, the South, which leads neatly into the Civil War, which leads into westerns, a couple of Jack Nicholson films, then it'll be time for Halloween weirdness and horror, which conveniently leads into presidents + politics, then it's mostly war films until I get to Thanksgiving and Christmas.  War and horses, that is.   And since I've got some rather long westerns + war films, I've planned it so that any time I spread a film over two nights, or just plain skip a night, it will only serve to push the horror films closer to Halloween and the war films closer to Veteran's Day.

The other good news is that my watchlist is down to 215 films, which is just barely above where I started the year.  I've still got a shot at getting my total down below that.

THE PLOT: After losing his job, a middle-aged man reinvents himself by going back to college.
AFTER: Time and again, throughout this process I've been astounded by seemingly non-random coincidences between what takes place on-screen and what's happening in the real world, either in the news or in my own life.  In this case, a film about a man losing his job coincides with some co-workers taking a stand for their principles, and being shown the door as a result.  I can't get into the details, but it puts me in a position where I'm simultaneously sorry for their predicament and also slightly envious that they get to (hopefully) start fresh somewhere else.

By contrast, I've been at the same two part-time office jobs for just shy of 20 years - if I were a cop, I'd be a month away from my pension right now and desperate to avoid being shot.  But unlike most people who bounce from job to job making connections, I've chosen to stay in one place (OK, two places) and make friends as they come and go - ideally creating a network of people I can contact in the future if I need a new position.

But anyway, back to tonight's film, which is all about a man reinventing himself after 20 years working for a KMart-type store.  The company "lets him go" because he's ineligible for a management position since he doesn't have a college education.  Seems he went to work right after the military, and never took advantage of the G.I. bill.  He chooses to study economics, but also gets convinced to take a public speaking course, since it "changed the life" of the college dean.  And because public speaking is so important in economics, of course.

The teacher is jaded in her own way, her sparsely-attended classes are wearing on her, along with her husband's porn addiction and her excessive drinking, which isn't helping.  If only some optimistic older gentleman would take her class and inspire her to make some changes.  Say, you don't suppose... nah, it's just too unlikely.   There's also a loose community of colorful outcasts, all trying to live the American Dream, so that's another carry-over from last night.

Along the way we learn how to save gasoline, not to tuck in a polo shirt, and when it makes sense to default on one's mortgage.  (Hey, isn't that what caused our most recent recession?)  This feels like an attempt to cash in on the zeitgeist of the last couple of years, with people being downsized across the nation and learning how to trim their expenses and simplify their lives.  But I'm not sure all of the messages are clear - how many of those people will have the good fortune to fall in love with their gorgeous college teachers and catch them on the rebound?

NITPICK POINT: If our hero had such great skills as a short-order cook, why didn't he try that as a new career first?  Good diner cooks are always in demand, right?  Plus he could have saved some time.  My dad was trained as a baker and then worked as an army cook, and when he got out of the trucking business after 30+ years he tried to go right back into baking.  Unfortunately he was allergic to the flour used by the Hostess Corp, so that didn't pan out for him.  So it was back to trucking until he got his pension.

When the film was over, "American Splendor" was playing on the cable, and it was near the end so I watched a few sequences.  I forgot what a great and powerful film that is - I can't review it here because I've already seen it, so perhaps it's worth a re-watch if I have some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Harvey Pekar's outlook on life stands in sharp contrast to Larry Crowne's. (yes, I know only one of them was fictional, that's kind of the point)   After learning that his cancer is in remission, Harvey takes the news somewhat in perspective, saying, "If I'm lucky, I'll have a window of good health between now and the end."  I don't know, maybe I'm just getting contemplative in my mid-40's, but perhaps the real truth lies somewhere between "I can go back to school, re-invent myself and romance the teacher" and "I hope I can get well before I die". 

Also starring Julia Roberts (last heard in "The Ant Bully"), Cedric the Entertainer (last seen on Monday at the "Millionaire" auditions), Wilmer Valderrama, Bryan Cranston (last seen in "Rock of Ages"), George Takei (last seen in "The Great Buck Howard"), Pam Grier (last seen in "Escape from L.A."), Grace Gummer, Holmes Osborne, Taraji P. Henson (last seen in "Date Night"), Rita Wilson (last seen in "Mixed Nuts"), Gugu Mbatha-Raw, with a cameo from Rob Riggle (last seen in "21 Jump Street").

RATING:  4 out of 10 yard sales

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Terminal

Year 5, Day 261 - 9/18/13 - Movie #1,543

BEFORE:  Tom Hanks stars in a film about people with deadly illnesses - just kidding!  It's another plane-related story, or more specifically an airport-related story.  It's the last one, I promise.  I think you can probably tell that this film was next to "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" on my watchlist for a very long time, and then those other films got added and separated them.  Linking from "Flightplan", Sean Bean was also in the recent "Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters" with Stanley Tucci (last seen in "Billy Bathgate").

THE PLOT:  An eastern European immigrant finds himself stranded in JFK airport, and must take up temporary residence there.

AFTER:  For extra points, we're also in a confined space again tonight (the airport terminal) and the lead character is grieving after a deceased family member - so this adds to several running themes.  But the whole situation comes about because while he's on the way to New York, there is a revolution in his country, and it essentially ceases to exist.  So there's a loophole (apparently) in the immigration laws where he can't enter the U.S. because he doesn't have a visa, or a passport from a recognized country.  And he (apparently) can't go back to his home country for a similarly arcane reason.

Which leaves the airport - if you believe that the airport is some kind of non-country, even though it's inside the U.S. it's not part of the U.S.  I'm not sure I buy this theory, since it's a place where U.S. citizens work and their salaries are subject to payroll taxes and I'm betting if you killed somebody at the airport, you'd stand trial in that city and not in front of the World Court in the Hague.  For that matter, I never understood how all that malarkey works with "U.S. soil" in our embassies around the world.  Who took the time to dig up the dirt that was there and put down some good old American dirt before building the embassy?  Somehow we've got real estate in all these foreign countries, and the space in those buildings belongs to our country, not theirs, and it all starts to sound like when you'd be fighting with your sister in the back seat of the car and your Mom would draw an invisible line between you that you can't cross, or else Dad will turn the car RIGHT AROUND and head home.

So our traveler has the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  You hear that a lot, right?  People saying someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time, like if they got hit with a stray bullet or something.  And people often complain about missing out on things by saying they were in the right place, but the wrong time - ooh, so close, dude!  But you almost never hear about anyone who was in the wrong place at the right time.  I guess you'd have to be a time-traveler who was failing his mission, or maybe you'd have to be lost in some city just when some money was falling out of an armored car or something.  I guess it's pretty rare, though the next time I'm late for work, I'm going to try and say I was just in the wrong place at the right time.

You can also stay in the right place for the wrong amount of time.  Like maybe you've been working at a good job, but you stay so long you're missing out on other opportunities.  You get the idea - maybe they're still paying you so it's hard to leave, because you don't know if that means it's the best place where you're supposed to be, or if you've overstayed your welcome, because you're still doing the same stuff you did years ago.  There are many different forms of prisons, and some of them fool you by looking quite nice and giving you a paycheck.

You might think I'm overstating things, but I don't believe so.  This film shares much of its DNA with a prison film such as "The Shawshank Redemption" - a "fish out of water" is kept in a confined space, and he has to figure out the rules of engagement with the various groups around him in order to survive, until he can find a way out.  The visa officer is like the parole board, and the main immigration supervisor is like the warden.  He even keeps getting rid of the amenities in the terminal to make Viktor's life more miserable - that's when I figured out the prison analogy.

I'd like to think I could survive in a foreign country, even if I didn't know the language.  Provided I had money, of course, and I could point at food.  Heck, I know so many names of foods from around the world, all the rest is just figuring out the numbers.  And despite what what was seen in that other film, you don't even need to have "Yes" and "No" tattooed on your hands because you can just NOD YOUR HEAD.  There, isn't that a lot easier?

The plight of the main character is echoed in the situations of the people around him - the customs official who's been at his job for so long, the janitor who also can't return to his home country, the shop workers who can go home at night, but are fated to return again the next morning.  All of this takes place rather ironically in an airport, which is usually associated with going places, and in point of fact none of the characters are really going anywhere.  Damn, we're back to Sartre and "No Exit", aren't we?

But, there are lots of things that Viktor can do to pass the time while waiting for his homeland to elect a new government - he works his way into the society of the airport terminal, doing odd jobs, returning luggage carts for change (I never figured out why those damn carts are a thing - doesn't everyone's luggage have wheels?) and playing matchmaker for the baggage handlers.  He also manages to get some construction work - you'd think a construction foreman would need to see someone's green card or social security card, but I guess it truly is a lawless between-countries society after all. 

There's a bit here about collecting - and that's an obsession that I understand.  Being a collector of both comic books and Star Wars autographs, I know how terrible it is to have a gap in a collection, and the lengths someone (me) will go to in order to fill it.  If I'm missing one comic in a series, forget about it, I can't sleep until I find it in a store or order it from eBay.  The autographs are a separate obsession, I grew the collection over 10 years of going to San Diego Comic-Con when I noticed the actors kept appearing there.  The first year I got Kenny "R2D2" Baker's autograph, and then the next year I got three - Peter Mayhew, Ray Park, and Jake Lloyd.  And after the year I met Mark Hamill AND Billy Dee Williams, forget it, I was hooked.  Some I've bought online from reputable dealers (with COA's) but the most memorable ones came from meeting the actors in person.  But I digress...

This film is loosely based on a true story - a man named Mehran Karimi Nasseri managed to live in the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris for 17 years, from 1988 to 2006.  He was expelled from Iran, and claimed to have one British parent, so he flew to the U.K. but lost his papers along the way, so the U.K. sent him back to France.  Aha!  So it's not the U.S. immigration laws we have to fix - it's the French courts that determined that he couldn't enter France, but he also couldn't be expelled from the airport.

Also starring Tom Hanks (last seen in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"), Catherine Zeta-Jones (last seen in "Rock of Ages"), Chi McBride (last seen in "Mercury Rising"), Diego Luna (last seen in "Milk"), Zoe Saldana (last seen in "Star Trek Into Darkness"), Barry Shabaka Henley (last seen in "Collateral"), Kumar Pallana, with cameos from Michael Nouri, Scott Adsit, and Dan Finnerty.

RATING: 5 out of 10 saltine crackers

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Year 5, Day 260 - 9/17/13 - Movie #1,542

BEFORE:  More adventures in air travel tonight.  Linking from "Red Eye", Brian Cox was also in "Troy" with Sean Bean (last seen in "Goldeneye").  

THE PLOT:  A bereaved woman and her daughter are flying home from Berlin to America. At 30,000 feet the child vanishes and nobody admits she was ever on that plane.

AFTER:  This ties in nicely with the last few films, because it's another one of those "claustrophobic" films set in a confined space (if you can call a jumbo jet a "confined space"...) and also because it's about grief and loss.  The main character is already mourning her recently-dead husband, so that puts her in the same category as the kid from "Extremely Loud" and the character from "Reign Over Me".

When the woman's daughter disappears on the plane, which at first seems impossible or incredibly unlikely, one possibility is that the woman's grief has affected her sanity - either she imagined her daughter coming with her, or perhaps imagined her own daughter's entire existence as some kind of coping mechanism.  (the "Fight Club" theory).

The opposing theory is that something more malicious has happened, someone in a position of power has not only kidnapped the daughter but gone to extreme measures to cover up not only the daughter's location but her existence as well - so essentially there's a choice between two very unlikely scenarios, and in fact the woman's insanity starts to look like the more likely of the two.

No spoilers here, I'm just happy that I was able to record the film and dub it to DVD without looking that closely at it, and maintaining the secrecy.  But if you like twisty thrillers, this is a good one.  Toss in a little post-9/11 paranoia with some Arab passengers on board, and an inside look at the functioning of a jet airliner (I just have no idea how authentic this was - does a jumbo jet really have a supercomputer on board?) and a non-invasive running time, and that mostly adds up to a win, as long as you can overlook the similarities to Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes". 

Nitpick points are plentiful, but nothing I can formulate without spoilers.  But they're out there...

Also starring Jodie Foster (last seen in "The Brave One"), Peter Sarsgaard (last seen in "Green Lantern"), John Benjamin Hickey (last seen in "Pitch Perfect"), Erika Christensen, Greta Scacchi (last seen in "Jefferson in Paris"), Matt Bomer (last seen in "In Time"), Kate Beahan.

RATING: 6 out of 10 beverage carts

Monday, September 16, 2013

Red Eye

Year 5, Day 259 - 9/16/13 - Movie #1,541

BEFORE:  I've got just 60 slots left for movies this year before I take my holiday break, and for the most part, those films are locked in.  I reserve the right to mess around with the ORDER of those 60 films, but you readers don't need to worry about that.  I chose this film because it seemed to follow after the 9/11 topic of danger on a plane - but as I said before, I could have easily transitioned into MidEast war films like "A Mighty Heart" and "Zero Dark Thirty".  But I saw the way to link from "Reign Over Me" - Adam Sandler was also in "The Hot Chick" with Rachel McAdams (last seen in "Mean Girls"). 

THE PLOT: A woman is kidnapped by a stranger on a routine flight. Threatened by the potential murder of her father, she is pulled into a plot to assist her captor in offing a politician.

AFTER:   Another reason for watching this film tonight - it's relatively short, at just 1 hr. 25 min.  I started it just after midnight, and I had to get up early this morning to try out for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire", something I've done three times before, with limited success.  I've always passed the written test, but then the next step is a chat with a contestant coordinator, sort of a "personality test", and it seems I've always failed that part.  But there's new hope, as a new season of the show is taping, with a new host, and new personnel, so I gave up half my workday to take the test.

Oh, the test only takes 10 minutes, but then they don't give you the results until you sit in the audience while they tape three shows.  This is how they get such an enthusiastic crowd - everyone there still thinks they've got a shot at being a contestant themselves, at least until the test results are read.  Finally after getting up at 6 am (OK, 6:30...) showering, picking out a nice shirt, taking the subway in to Manhattan 3 hours earlier than I usually do, heading uptown, signing in, filling out forms, taking the test, and applauding wildly for other contestants for about 2 hours, I found that I was one of 5 people who'd passed the written test.

Now, the harder challenge for me - the interview.  I'm not one to act silly in front of strangers usually (I save that for my friends...) but one must do what one must to play the game - so even though I was bored and tired, I tried my best to smile and have some energy while they asked me questions about what I do for a living, and what I'd do with the money if I won.  I think I did better than I have in the past, because they sent me to see a SECOND contestant coordinator, and she videotaped me acting excited and jumping around like I'd just won a lot of cash, then answering a few trivia questions.  I guess they want to see if you just blurt out the answer, or if you can reason it out verbally so the people at home can hear your thought process.  This is the part of the test that I never know how well I did, until I get a postcard in the mail with a big "YES" or "NO" on it.

Hmm, can I relate this experience to the film "Red Eye"?  Probably not, but that won't stop me from trying.  The main character her is put in a difficult situation, and the way she reacts to this situation will have a large impact on the outcome.  (There, close enough...)  This is a spin on those sort of "locked room" stories I was talking about last week - I was referring to the movie "Tape", which takes place in a hotel room, but an airplane cabin works just as well.  While the plane is in the air, nobody can leave, nobody can enter, so the only contact with the outside world is through those credit-card phones.

But that's exactly what the villain needs her to do - make one phone call to a specific person, arrange one thing, and then someone important will be at risk.  But if she doesn't do this, then her own father will be threatened.  It's a terrible choice, and she appears to be at the mercy of this ruthless kidnapper and part-time assassin.  She can't alert the stewardesses, she can't call for help, she can't even write someone a message.  How to get out of this situation?

At least it's an original idea.  Eventually the plane lands and the rules of the game are changed, which is good because there was no apparent way to end the stand-off without changing it up.  And to make up for the limited action in the confined space of the plane, the last half hour is action-packed.

It seems the kidnapper didn't really realize the sort of person he was dealing with - much like the TV producers today who didn't realize that a trivia champ was sitting in the audience.  So I guess the joke was on them.  Oh, and one of my questions directly related to one of those high-school films I watched two weeks ago - so if my score was on the bubble, then that justifies this whole crazy process, now, doesn't it?

Also starring Cillian Murphy (last seen in "The Dark Knight Rises"), Brian Cox (last seen in "The Boxer"), Jack Scalia, Jayma Mays (last seen in "The Smurfs"), Angela Paton, and Colby "Top Shot" Donaldson.

RATING: 5 out of 10 carry-on bags

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Reign Over Me

Year 5, Day 258 - 9/15/13 - Movie #1,540

BEFORE:  OK, last film connected to 9/11, I swear.  Which is fine by me, I'm starting to have flashback dreams.  OK, I had a dream about having a flashback dream, but that's kind of the same thing.  Linking from "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close", Sandra Bullock was also in "Crash" with Don Cheadle (last seen in "Iron Man 3")

THE PLOT:  A man who lost his family in the September 11 attack on New York City runs into his old college roommate. Rekindling the friendship is the one thing that appears able to help the man recover from his grief.

AFTER:  I wonder if this is how Hollywood people view New Yorkers, that we're all still haunted by losing friends and loved one in terrorist attacks, to the point that we're all neurotic and shut down and unable to move forward.  I know, two films doesn't make a pattern, but it's odd to see two films in a row where the main character is so stuck, so unable to move forward or even grieve, escaping into music to remain calm.

I'm not a therapist so I can't comment on the process, whether someone would shut down to this extent to deal with tragedy, but I suppose it is possible.  It's good that the character got the help he needed, but I'm left wondering if the movie tied up too many loose ends too quickly, which somehow also made the ending feel that not much got resolved.

I liked the scenes of NYC while the character rode around on his scooter, though - I recognized a few places from the Greenwich Village/NYU area, like Washington Square Park and that pizza place on 2nd Ave. and St. Mark's where I used to eat after trivia matches.  Seeing Adam Sandler with long hair, acting moody, wearing a big overcoat and playing guitar made me think that he really needs to star in the definitive Bob Dylan biopic one of these days.

Also starring Adam Sandler (last heard in "Zookeeper"), Jada Pinkett Smith (last seen in "Collateral"), Saffron Burrows, Liv Tyler (last seen in "U Turn"), Donald Sutherland (last seen in "Outbreak"), Robert Klein (last seen in "Mixed Nuts"), Mike Binder (last seen in "The Contender"), Jonathan Banks, B.J. Novak (last heard in "The Smurfs"), with a cameo from John De Lancie.

RATING:  5 out of 10 Mel Brooks films