Saturday, September 28, 2013

Gone With the Wind

Year 5, Day 270/271 - 9/27 + 9/28/13 - Movie #1,552

BEFORE: Perhaps you could tell this was what I've been building up to this week.  The fact that "C.S.A" name-checked this film was not planned, it's just another bit of coincidence.  With an almost four-hour run time, this is the longest film to win the Best Picture Oscar - so I'm splitting this one over a Friday AND a Saturday.  I've also got some long Westerns coming up, so I'll be doing a bit of this in the days to come. 

Given that this is one of the most popular films of all time, and that it generally appears on most "Best of" lists - how does this happen?  How does a guy get to be 39 (OK, 44) years old, work in the film industry (sort of) and never get around to watching this film?  Hmm, maybe that 4 hour-run time has kept me from tackling it.  Well, that's about to change.

Damn, I don't even know what the title means - all I really know is that, frankly, Rhett Butler doesn't give a damn, and I don't know what he doesn't give a damn about!

THE PLOT: A manipulative Southern belle carries on a turbulent affair with a blockade runner during the American Civil War.

AFTER: Well, whatever else, this film looks gorgeous.  I watched a 70th Anniversary DVD release that I bought a few months ago in a video store (yes, they still exist) on Long Island - a little research tells me that a restored version was made in 2004 from original Technicolor negatives, which were scanned at high-resolution and then color-timed to be identical to a surviving answer print to make a new digital master.  The resulting colors are just phenomenal, so I pity anyone who watched this film prior to this release, because it was probably all washed-out or muddy. 

Oh, right, the plot.  I think the title refers to the Southern way of life prior to the Civil War, a way of life that was "Gone With the Wind" afterwards.  You know, I never really even thought about the title's meaning until today.  The Southern society seems idyllic, what with all the parties and cotillions and balls and such - the film opens on the day of one such event, a barbecue party at a plantation.

This is where we first see Scarlett O'Hara in action - and every man is at her beck and call, and she strings them all along, even though she has feelings just for Ashley Wilkes, and devastated by the news that he's engaged to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton.  (Yep, it's the South, people marry their cousins - deal with it.)   Even though she's genuinely upset, she still finds the time in the middle of the party to lay down for a nap with all the other women - this seems like a rather odd thing to do in the middle of a party, but again, it's the South, it was probably very hot in the middle of the day, and this was their version of a siesta - napping while fanned by black slave children.  Yep.

A stranger in town is at the party, and he overhears Scarlett confess her love to Ashley - Rhett Butler's his name, and he'll be more important later on.  Wouldn't you know, right in the middle of the party the Civil War breaks out, and all the men ride off to enlist in the Confederate Army while their wives and girlfriends are napping, so most of them never got to say goodbye.

The film really seems to be about Scarlett's personal growth (or lack thereof) with the war as a backdrop - she marries one soldier whom she doesn't love (Melanie's younger brother, Charles), because that'll show that darn Ashley, and before you know it, she's a widow.  She moves to Atlanta looks after her frenemy Melanie while Ashley is fighting the war, and Rhett Butler keeps popping back into her life to alternately help and torment her. 

Melanie gives birth - and Scarlett tries in vain to get a doctor to come help, even though the doctor's sort of busy treating thousands of wounded soldiers.  This is where Scarlett continues to seem clueless and selfish, but eventually she grows up (a little) and becomes somewhat self-sufficient.  When Atlanta is under siege, she returns home to the Tara plantation (Rhett drives her most of the way there, what an almost-gentleman) and finds it in ruin.  She digs up a dirty radish from the ground, and is disgusted by it (umm, we usually wash the vegetables first) and vows to "never go hungry again".  End of Disc I.

Act II is basically the story of Southern reconstruction, as symbolized by Scarlett's maturity and eventual economic good fortune.  She did vow (after eating the dirty radish) to do whatever it took to keep her family going - lie, cheat, steal, whatever - so that's exactly what she does.  Killing a thieving Union soldier who breaks into her home yields a few gold coins, and marrying another man she doesn't love provides the rest.  Frank Kennedy, who owns a successful hardware store and lumber business, had wanted to marry Scarlett's younger sister, but she steps in and marries him herself when she realizes that all of Atlanta's going to need to rebuild with his lumber.  She also cries in order to get Ashley involved in the lumber business, so that's really mature...poor guy wants to move to New York and work in a bank, but anything to keep a woman from crying.

There's more drama as Scarlett gets attacked while driving a buggy herself through a post-war Shantytown, and her husband rounds up a bunch of men to seek revenge - that doesn't end well either.  After the death of husband #2, Rhett Butler steps in as husband #3 - they have a lavish honeymoon in New Orleans, Scarlett gives birth to a daughter, and life seems idyllic again.

Ah ah, not so fast.  Remember, this is the 1800's, and life expectancy wasn't so great back then.  More people start dropping like flies, and I won't give away any more of the plot, but suffice it to say that Scarlett finally figures out that Ashley's NEVER going to love her back, so she should just love the one she's with - only she figures this out too late.  Rhett realizes she's never going to get over Ashley, so he bails - leading to the famous line where he just doesn't give a damn about what happens to Scarlett in the future.  Scarlett vows to someday get him back, because after all, tomorrow is another day.  And...scene.

There, it's accomplished.  But what does it all mean?  It looks fantastic, as I said before, with giant sweeping vistas of Southern plantations, and thousands of wounded soldiers splayed out on the Atlanta streets.  But what's the message - the Civil War sucked?  Got it.  Some spoiled little rich girls had to grow up really fast during the war?  Hmm, getting closer.  Don't spend so much time pining over your lost love that you neglect the one who really loves you back?  I guess that's it...

Starring Vivien Leigh (last seen in "A Streetcar Named Desire"), Clark Gable (last seen in "Mutiny on the Bounty"), Olivia de Havilland (last seen in "Captain Blood"), Leslie Howard, Thomas Mitchell, Ann Rutherford, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Harry Davenport, with cameos from George Reeves, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and a cast of thousands...

RATING: 6 out of 10 "Fiddle-dee-dee"s

Friday, September 27, 2013

C.S.A.:The Confederate States of America

Year 5, Day 269 - 9/26/13 - Movie #1,551

BEFORE:  Continuing with the loose theme of the U.S. South, and race relations therein, I move to tonight's film, which I've tried to watch twice before.  It played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, the last time I was there, and I either couldn't get tickets to it or couldn't work it into my schedule.  Since I missed it there, I tried a couple years later to watch it, but just couldn't get through it.  I'm determined to try again.

THE PLOT:  Through the eyes of a british "documentary", this film takes a satirically humorous, and sometimes frightening, look at the history of an America where the South won the Civil War.

AFTER: Ah, now I remember why I couldn't get through this film before - it's flat-out BORING.  With a capital B.  It SHOULD be an interesting premise - if the South had won the Civil War, what would America (AmeriKKKa?) look like today?  But it's presented in such a flat, droning, info-based style that they didn't really emphasize any exciting aspects of that premise.

To recap: in this alt-timeline, the Confederacy called on England and France's help to win the Civil War, New York City and Boston are burned to the ground instead of Atlanta, and General Grant surrenders to General Lee.  Harriet Tubman tries to help Abe Lincoln escape to Canada, but they are captured. Lincoln is exiled from the U.S. and dies in Canada in 1905.

Thanks to the beneficial (!) economic aspects of slavery, the C.S.A. expands to take over Mexico, the Caribbean and parts of South America, but for some reason Alaska still belongs to Russia. A wall is built on the border with Canada, all non-Christian religions are abolished in the CSA, and Jews are forced to live on reservations.

Time moves on, and the CSA is friendly with Nazi Germany, but remains neutral in the European part of World War II.  War breaks out with Japan, however, but instead of the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor, the CSA bombs Kyoto on Dec. 7, 1941. Some things still remain the same in this timeline - the use of atomic bombs to win the war in Japan, JFK getting assassinated (though I don't see how a Yankee like Kennedy got elected president in this timeline...) and the Vietnam War was still a problem.

The rest of the film is set in the alt-present day, and interviews with a Senator, a conservative Southerner and a black Canadian woman are supposed to highlight how different this society would be from the one that we know.  But again, boring boring boring.  Nothing was done to make these interviews rise above what they are - just talkie talkie talkie.  I kept falling asleep AGAIN, and when that happens, this is my general rule - after rewinding several times to the point I nodded off, I gave up and went to sleep for real.  I would have made one last attempt to finish the film last night, but I was out at a beer dinner so I came home fairly wasted, and I don't think I could have lasted for the final half hour of the film.

But it does raise one interesting question - when is it OK to show white actors in blackface.  Umm, how about NEVER?  Oh, but this is being done to highlight how insensitive society used to be about racial issues....  Nope, still never.  Ah, but this is an alternate timeline, where the racism of the Old South was maintained into the late 20th Century.  Yes, but you made the film in THIS timeline, in THIS century, so I'm sticking with never.

It might be interesting to think that "Gone With the Wind" would be titled "A Northern Wind" in this scenario, and a 50's sitcom titled "Leave It to Beulah", featuring a bumbling black maid - OK, I'll let that one slide.  But a "Cops"-type reality show where fugitive slaves are tracked down?  Fake commercials for Coon Chicken Inn, Darkie Toothpaste and Niggerhair cigarettes?  These are just plain indefensible.

But in addition to being boring, the film is also ultimately pointless - even if you assume that America COULD look like this had the Civil War ended differently, what does that even prove?  Not a thing. 

Starring Rupert Pate, Evamarii Johnson, Larry Peterson

RATING: 1 out of 10 abolitionists

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Help

Year 5, Day 268 - 9/25/13 - Movie #1,550

BEFORE: You might have noticed this week's theme by now - around here, it's sort of my own twisted version of Black History week.  I know, I know that's supposed to be in February, but I'm always busy in February showing Valentine's Day films - romance is always such a big category that it bumped my look at race relations all the way to September!  I haven't really programmed films in my chain racially before (Note: This site is HONKY'S Movie Year, after all, so what the heck do I know about the black experience?) so this is perhaps why I've been feeling so disconnected from the subject matter lately. 

I promise you this chain will make much more sense in the next couple of days - this leads up to eliminating possibly THE biggest omission from my list so far.  Linking from "Precious", Sherri Shepherd was also in "Beauty Shop" with Octavia Spencer (last seen in "Never Been Kissed").

THE PLOT:  An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960s decides to write a book detailing the African-American maids' point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through.

AFTER:  Well, I'm flummoxed by this one as well - not just because it's about the plight of African-American housemaids, but this is both a chick flick AND Oscar bait of the highest order.  I'm out on three counts - so it's another mulligan tonight.  Really, I'm just watching this to see what all the fuss was about two years ago, and then I'll never have to watch it again.

Yeah, yeah, white people suck.  I get that.  And white women who are too damn entitled or morally superior to clean their own houses, they suck most of all.  And keeping segregation going, making black people use their own water fountains and bathrooms, and all the antiquated laws about what blacks could and couldn't do in the American South - they all sucked.  Nobody's arguing this point!  Why do these points have to be driven home again and again? 

But here's the thing.  A job is a job - and most jobs suck, or at least have parts of them that suck.  I have to kiss my boss's ass and tell him he's right when he's clearly wrong, and if I disagree with him, I'm out the door.  That got proven last week when my co-workers chose to not work on a film that they didn't agree with, and were shown the door.  So that sucked too.  If your job sucks, you've got two choices - take it or leave it.  No other options.

Well, I guess you can write a book about your experiences, changing all the names, which is a dirty sort of thing to do, but you'll still be within your rights.  God knows I could do that.  But in doing so, you risk your reputation, and burning all your bridges - that just goes with the territory. 

Beyond that, I would imagine that a film about race relations would take pains to make sure that this complicated relationship between families and their servants wouldn't be so black and white, so to speak.  This seemed like an over-simplification, if you ask me - surely there must have been some white people in Jackson, MS who treated their servants fairly?  Perhaps even some cases where the maids were wrong about something and white women right?  No, I suppose not.

Ah, perhaps I'm speaking too soon.  I just read the plot breakdown of this film on Wikipedia, and it cleared up a few things.  (Which leads to the question - why weren't these points clear in the first place?)  The Celia Foote character is a good example of a white woman who treats her black maid with respect, and there is a point in the film where a maid is arrested for trying to pawn one of her employer's rings.  I feel a little better about this now.

However, I've still got a problem with hiring modern actresses to narrate a film in that broken Southern dialect.  Doesn't this come off as slightly racist?  Anyone? 

NITPICK POINT: The whole point of the film is that these African-American women are taken advantage of, made to work for very little money and their accomplishments are not recognized.  So how come the most sympathetic character relies on her former maid to basically write her "homemaker hints" newspaper column for her, and does not offer her any money or recognition for it.  Isn't this just more of the same, compounding the problem?

NITPICK POINT #2: The gag about the pie - isn't this just a spin on the film "The Prince of Tides", where the abused wife feeds her husband dog food, and he unknowingly eats and enjoys it?  I can almost understand that, because meat (and meat-by-products) might possibly taste good - but how can you put THAT in a pie and still make it taste good?  Does not compute.

Also starring Emma Stone (last seen in "The Amazing Spider-Man"), Viola Davis (last seen in "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close"), Bryce Dallas Howard (last seen in "50/50"), Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney (last seen in "10 Things I Hate About You"), Anna Camp (last seen in "Pitch Perfect"), Sissy Spacek (last seen in "Missing"), Cicely Tyson (last seen in "The Concorde: Airport '79"), Ahna O'Reilly, Chris Lowell, Mary Steenburgen (last seen in "The Brave One"), with cameos from Leslie Jordan, Dana Ivey (last seen in "The Scarlet Letter"), Brian Kerwin.

RATING: 5 out of 10 royalty checks

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


Year 5, Day 267 - 9/24/13 - Movie #1,549

BEFORE: aka "Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire", which could be the most pretentious movie title ever.  I realize that the filmmakers wanted to separate this work from another film named "Push", but that was not the ideal way to do so.  Linking from "The Pursuit of Happyness", Will Smith was also in "Hitch" with Paula Patton.

THE PLOT:  In New York City's Harlem circa 1987, an overweight, abused, illiterate teen who is pregnant with her second child is invited to enroll in an alternative school in hopes that her life can head in a new direction.

AFTER: Here's where my rating system kind of fails, because I've based everything on how much I enjoy a film, and a film like this isn't meant to be enjoyed, because of the horrific events depicted within.  But I felt disconnected from this one, and I'm not sure if it's because of the subject matter, or the overkill involved, or the fact that I have a cold.  I'm pointing to the overkill first because it's just so MUCH that happens to Precious, the film just heaps more and more misery on the character, almost to the point of ridiculousness.

Precious is grossly overweight, a teen mom pregnant for the second time, the victim of physical and mental abuse, and illiterate.  And that's just for starters - there's more, and the character is seen to retreat into fantasy to deal with her situation.  As opposed to, say, cracking a book or using birth control.  Hey, gotta start somewhere.  The misery compounded until I started to question if anyone in the civilized world could be this far from OK - I don't mean to belittle the plight of inner-city youths, maybe I'm fooling myself to think of this as over-exaggeration, but that's the feeling I get.

Suffering is sort of a short-cut to cinematic attention, so I'm left wondering if this was made as Oscar bait of the highest order.  "Shine", "My Left Foot", "Rain Man", "A Beautiful Mind", various films about the Holocaust - can the makers of all of these films sincerely tell me they were geniuinely moved by the subject matter, or were taking a quick road to a nomination? 

Also starring Gabourey Sidibe (last seen in "Tower Heist"), Mo'Nique, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz (last seen in "Zoolander").

RATING: 3 out of 10 welfare checks

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Pursuit of Happyness

Year 5, Day 266 - 9/23/13 - Movie #1,548

BEFORE: Will Smith carries over from "Six Degrees of Separation".  Like "The Terminal" and "Six Degrees", this is also based on a true story. 

THE PLOT:  A struggling salesman takes custody of his son as he's poised to begin a life-changing professional endeavor.

AFTER: This one spoke to me a little more than "Six Degrees of Separation" did, because I think I understand some of the points it was trying to make about how hard it is to get ahead.  If you're stuck in a job that seems to be going nowhere, how do you get out of it?  You can't just quit, because then you won't be making any money.  But since you have a job, you don't have time to look for a better job - unless you slack off from your job to do so.  And forget going back to school for the same reason - how can you afford the tuition if you quit your job to free up the time to take classes?

This is sort of why I've been stuck in the same place for so long.  The process of filmmaking got all high-tech and digital, so if I really wanted to get back into production, I'd probably have to go back to class.  But where would I find the time?  I've got something of a cushion, but I might go through it pretty quick if I had no income.  Meanwhile, there's always more administrative work to do at both companies, so I never get the break I need to think about what other things I might like to be doing.

This is why I've pinned my hopes on a game show, because it could put me really ahead of the game, and I could take 6 months off, clear my brain and not have to look for work right away.  The American dream, right?  It seems somewhat more rational than the longshots taken by the main character in this film - he's counting on being the ONE intern at a financial firm chosen for permanent employment, and this means he's got to support his son for 6 months of training with no salary.  This means living in temporary housing like motels and shelters, and some other more questionable choices. 

This seems somewhat irresponsible, since the guy is putting his son at risk so that he can pursue his own personal dream.  I think the majority of parents would probably sacrifice their dreams and stay in the dead-end job as long as that helped support their kids - however in some cases this obviously leads to resentment.  So there you go - not everyone would make these choices, but it's based on the story of a man who did.  But even if it paid off for him, how many people have a similar story of chasing their dream that didn't pay off?

After all, our country's citizens are entitled to the PURSUIT of happiness.  Everyone's free to pursue it, but that's no guarantee that everyone, or anyone can achieve it.  Damn loopholes!

Also starring Jaden Smith (last seen in "The Day the Earth Stood Still"), Thandie Newton (last seen in "The Chronicles of Riddick"), Brian Howe (last seen in "Game Change"), Dan Castellaneta (last seen in "Super 8"), Kurt Fuller.

RATING:  6 out of 10 parking tickets

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Six Degrees of Separation

Year 5, Day 265 - 9/22/13 - Movie #1,547

BEFORE: Well, nobody knows more about the six degrees than I do.  That's all I do is look for the connections between people.  Though I once heard it was really two degrees, that you could pick any two people and Person A would know somebody who would know somebody who would know Person B.  Six probably seems more likely, though.  Linking from "Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood", Vivica A. Fox was also in "Independence Day" with Will Smith (last seen in "The Legend of Bagger Vance")

THE PLOT:  An affluent New York couple find their lives touched, intruded upon, and compelled by a mysterious young black man who is never quite who he says he is.

AFTER: Meh, I'm ambivalent on this one.  It's interesting to see someone hustle the upper crust of New York society, but I'm having trouble seeing the point.  What's the message here?  The hustler who lies to them and pretends to be the son of a very famous actor gains access to their apartments and works his way into their lives, but he doesn't steal anything.  So why did he do it?  I don't feel like I was given much insight into his personality or his motivations.

Likewise, I see the point in linking actors - and don't believe what you read about the origins of the "Kevin Bacon" game, I played a version of it in film school long before its "inventors" took credit for it, only it was called "The Coppola Connection" at the time.  But I don't see the point in picking two random people on the globe and connecting them - why would anyone even want to do this?  It's just an exercise in probability, people.  And even though this "fact" is brought up during this film, it doesn't even have any direct bearing on the plot.

Sure, there are some coincidences - but those must happen all the time, and we're just not aware of them.  We the audience are in a position to see them, like when the other couple comes out of the roller rink, but again, so what?  Am I missing some profound point here?

Will Smith's character FORCED the connection - he learned details of rich people's lives, and then exploited them.  So, where does the mathematical principle fit in, then? 

Also starring Donald Sutherland (last seen in "Reign Over Me"), Stockard Channing (last seen in "Life or Something Like It"), Ian McKellen (last seen in "The Wolverine"), Bruce Davison (last seen in "The Crucible"), Mary Beth Hurt (last seen in "Autumn in New York"), Richard Masur (last seen in "Under Fire"), Anthony Michael Hall (last seen in "The Breakfast Club"), Heather Graham (last seen in "Anger Management"), Daniel von Bargen (last seen in "Crimson Tide").

RATING: 5 out of 10 Kandinskys

Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood

Year 5, Day 264 - 9/21/13 - Movie #1,546

BEFORE:  Marlon Wayans carries over from "The Ladykillers" for this spoof of urban crime films.

THE PLOT:  We follow Ashtray as he returns to the place he grew up and meet his father and his basket-case friends.

AFTER: I should really call a mulligan on this one, because I haven't seen any of the films that it's riffing on, like "Menace II Society" and "Boyz in the Hood" - they're not really my scene, and I'm not in their target audience anyway.

I tried to take the film at face value anyway, but without any cultural reference points, none of the jokes really landed.  It would be like trying to watch "Airplane" if you'd never seen the "Airport" films or "Blazing Saddles" if you'd never seen a Western before.

Even with that, I'm not sure the culture of the 'hood, with drive-by shootings and gangs and drugs, is an appropriate place to find humor.  This has been a topic of debate for me recently - whether humor can be mined out of tragedy.  Certainly Mel Brooks did it in "The Producers" and "To Be or Not to Be", but not only was he not making direct fun of Hitler, only through an actor playing Hitler on stage, but he sort of had a right to poke fun at the Holocaust merely by being Jewish.  In the same way, African-American actors can send up black culture in a way that white people can't.  In any instance, it takes a pretty deft hand to do so.

Well, it's off my list, I watched it even though I didn't really enjoy it.  Moving on...

Also starring Shawn Wayans, Tracey Cherelle Jones, Chris Spencer, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Kim Wayans, Vivica A. Fox (last seen in "Kill Bill: Vol. 2"), with cameos from Omar Epps (last seen in "The Mod Squad"), Bernie Mac (last seen in "Head of State"), Faizon Love (last heard in "Zookeeper"), Antonio Fargas.

RATING: 2 out of 10 bottles of malt liquor