Saturday, November 15, 2014

year 6 wrap-up / year 7 preview

What did I learn from the films I watched in 2014?  A review:

1) This was the year of Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock, and to a lesser extent, Charlie Chaplin.  Most of my process in watching movies has been actor-based and not director-based, but I felt I needed to make an exception for these three very distinct filmmakers.  This meant going back to their earliest works which were not always great - watching silent films these days just seems like such a futile process, but I wanted to see where Hitchcock and Chaplin got their starts, even though Hitch's early work was so damn rough.  Similarly for Woody, that meant enduring awful films like "What's New, Pussycat" and the pointless "What's Up, Tiger Lily?" just to get to the better stuff like "Broadway Danny Rose" and "Match Point". 

I ended up feeling like I'd cracked the code on these three filmmakers - for Hitchcock, so many of his mid-career films involved mistaken identity or someone being accused of a crime, and then going on the run to find the evidence to prove themself innocent, and usually falling in love along the way.  By the time he got to "Psycho" and "The Birds" he was finally able to break out of the pattern, but after that his career was really back to being somewhat erratic. 

2) Writers, artists, actors and musicians had a big year - biopics were hot, like "Pollock", "Coal Miner's Daughter", "Sweet Dreams", "My Week with Marilyn", "The Notorious Bettie Page", TWO films about the stage career of Orson Welles, "Sylvia", "Shadowlands", "Julia", and "Frances".  More fictionally, actors turned up in  "Postcards From the Edge" and "The Hard Way", while writers popped up in "Ruby Sparks", "The Shipping News", and all those Woody Allen films.  Fictional (?) musicians also made their presence felt in films like "Purple Rain", "Quadrophenia", "Velvet Goldmine", "8 Mile" and "Hustle & Flow".  So I've definitely got this topic, about what it means to be a creative type, covered.

3) Superheroes showed up again this year - my highest-rated film of the year was "X-Men: Days of Future Past", which received a "9", surprising no one.  Superheroes, time travel, lots of action, what's not to love, aside from a few Nitpick Points?  But this was also the year of "Thor: The Dark World", "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", "Amazing Spider-Man 2" and "Kick-Ass 2" - winners all, to some degree. 

4) And for other, non-superhero forms of sci-fi, fantasy and horror, always strong topics around these parts, you could say I covered this from A to Z - that's Aliens to Zombies.  For straight-out sci-fi I watched "Oblivion", "Elysium", "Zathura", "Solaris", "Gravity", "Ender's Game", "After Earth", "Lost in Space", "Pacific Rim" and "The Island".  In the realm of fantasy, there were the two "Conan" films, "Jack the Giant-Slayer", "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", and "Oz the Great and Powerful".  And for horror, I nearly finished up Stephen King films with "Hearts in Atlantis", "Cujo" "Cat's Eye", and "Pet Sematary", and then along came the walking undead in films like "R.I.P.D.", "Warm Bodies", "World War Z" and "Cockneys vs. Zombies".  Then I got raptured with "This Is the End".  Oh, and whatever the hell "Cloud Atlas" was, I watched that too.  

5) The February romance chain was a bit underwhelming this year - "The Notebook" and "The Vow" sort of stood out, but the rest was pretty average.  There was a weird upswing in romances involving reporters ("Up Close & Personal", "His Girl Friday", "It Happened One Night"), but the rest sort of felt like the remnants of previous chains on the topic.  There was also a preponderance of films with ampersands ("Celeste & Jesse Forever", "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry", and "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice") - I'm not sure what that means, probably just a coincidence.

6) Thank God the animation category was there to pick up the slack.  In addition to "Cheatin'" (now officially an Oscar-eligible film for 2014!) I got to some recent animated hits like "Rango", "Brave", "Wreck-It Ralph", "Planes", "Monsters University", "Madagascar 3", "Ice Age: Continental Drift", "The Adventures of Tintin", "Epic" and "Frozen".  I came darn close to clearing the category, I think there are just 4 or 5 animated films on the watchlist now.  I also dipped back into past years to finally watch "Mulan", "Dinosaur" and the lost classic "Gay Purree".  

7) Crime films, always another hot topic.  From the classics "The Big Heat", "White Heat", "The Public Enemy" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" to "Payback" and both versions of "Get Carter", right up to more modern comedies like "The Heat" and "Identity Thief", it seems I was a bit scattered on this topic this year.  But, in my defense, it's a wide-ranging topic.  Where do more modern films like "Lawless", "The Newton Boys" and "Gangster Squad fit in if they're made recently but set in the crime-ridden 1920's and 30's?  Who can say?  And how do I compare those to films set in the present, like "Compliance", "The Call" and "Perfect Stranger"?  

If I had to pick an over-arching theme for the year (and really, I don't have to) it would be something about identity.  This manifested itself most blatantly in films where there were switches between identical-looking non-twins, like in "The Prince and the Pauper" and "The Man in the Iron Mask".  Late in the year, this repeated with "The Great Dictator" and "The Dictator".  Who is someone, really, when they look just like someone else?  Then we had films where people were going under false identities, like "We're the Millers", "The Stunt Man", "Apt Pupil" and "Identity Thief" (duh).  Who is someone, really, when they're pretending to be someone else?

You can carry this theme even further, into the typical and not-so-typical "fish out of water" stories, where a character is thrust into another environment and forced to change.  Great examples are "Rango", "Oz the Great and Powerful", and "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey".  Who is someone, really, when they're taken away from home and put somewhere else?  Do they become a new entity, or remain true to their original nature, or perhaps a little bit of both?  Other riffs on this theme: "Madagascar 3", "Hugo", "Wreck-It Ralph", "Anchorman 2", "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel", "Doc Hollywood", "A Good Day to Die Hard", even "Lilies of the Field".  

Now, a shout-out to the actors who showed up a least three times each this year:
Jim Carrey ("Lemony Snicket", "Mr. Popper's Penguins", "Anchorman 2", "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" and "Kick-Ass 2")
Michelle Pfeiffer ("A Midsummer Night's Dream", "The Age of Innocence" and "Up Close & Personal")
Halle Berry ("The Call", "Perfect Stranger", "Cloud Atlas" and "X-Men: Days of Future Past")
Kevin Spacey ("The Big Kahuna", "Swimming with Sharks" and "The Shipping News")
Natalie Portman ("Anywhere But Here", "Where the Heart Is", "No Strings Attached" and "Thor: The Dark World")
Scarlett Johansson ("Match Point", "Scoop", "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", "The Island" and "Hitchcock")
Wallace Shawn ("Clueless", "Admission", and "My Dinner With Andre")
Tom Hanks ("Captain Phillips", "Saving Mr. Banks", "Volunteers" and "Cloud Atlas")
Paul Rudd ("Clueless", "Admission" and "This is 40")
Adam Sandler ("Big Daddy", "Grown-Ups 2", "Mr. Deeds" and "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry")
Mel Gibson ("Bird on a Wire", "The River" and "Payback")
Colin Farrell ("Epic", "Alexander" and "Saving. Mr. Banks")
Ingrid Bergman ("Spellbound", "Notorious", "For Whom the Bell Tolls", "Anastasia" and "Gaslight")
Joan Crawford ("Grand Hotel", "Mildred Pierce" and "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?")
Cary Grant ("His Girl Friday", "Suspicion", "To Catch a Thief", "Notorious" and "North by Northwest")
Jimmy Stewart ("Rope", "Rear Window", "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "Vertigo")
Grace Kelly ("Dial M for Murder", "Rear Window" and "To Catch a Thief")

and joining the "Four-in-a-Row" club:
Bette Davis ("Dark Victory", "Now, Voyager", "The Catered Affair" and "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?")
Jane Fonda ("Coming Home", "The China Syndrome", "Klute" and "California Suite", plus "Julia")
Ewan McGregor ("Velvet Goldmine", "A Life Less Ordinary", "The Impossible" and "The Island")
Bradley Cooper ("The Hangover Part III", "The Words", "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle")
Leonardo DiCaprio ("Shutter Island", "The Beach", "Revolutionary Road", "The Great Gatsby" and "Django Unchained", plus "The Man in the Iron Mask")
Goldie Hawn ("Private Benjamin", "Butterflies Are Free", "The Out-of-Towners", "The Sugarland Express" and "Bird on a Wire")
Anthony Hopkins ("Shadowlands", "Howards End", "The Remains of the Day", "Hearts in Atlantis", and "Hitchcock", plus also "Alexander" and "Thor: The Dark World")
Diane Keaton ("Play It Again, Sam", "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex", "Sleeper" and "Love and Death", plus "Interiors")

But the real champs this year were Mia Farrow, showing up in 8 Woody Allen films, and the Wood-man himself, showing up as an actor an astonishing 21 times (that's what happens when you're the director and you can hire yourself...) with a run of at least nine back-to-back appearances in my rundown.  (Though I guess if I count Alfred Hitchcock's cameos, he might have Woody Allen beat...) Right now, I'm going through the Woody Allen films that I skipped in March and April because I'd seen them before, just because I want to be able to say that I watched EVERY Woody Allen film in this calendar year - plus this sets me up to watch "Hannah and Her Sisters" as a lead-in to Thanksgiving, and several Thanksgiving dinners are seen in that film.

In the meantime, it's hard for me to NOT watch a new movie for the next month and a half.  Films like "Interstellar" and "The Theory of Everything" are opening in theaters and they look really appealing and interesting - plus I'm turning down invitations to see films like "The Boxtrolls" that are competing against my boss's film "Cheatin'" for the Animated Feature Oscar nominations, it's very tempting to check out the competition, but I'm holding back.  Same for "The Lego Movie", it's airing this weekend but I'm just going to record it and watch it next year.

But there is a purpose to finishing my year early - I'm re-sorting my entire comic-book collection, which is a labor-intensive job that involves moving some heavy longboxes.  I'm on the letter "H" right now, but I can only move about 10 boxes of comics a day before my shoulder gives out, so that's my free time for the next week.  Then it will be time to put together my annual Christmas mix CD that I mail out with Christmas cards, not to mention addressing all those cards, and getting started on catalog shopping and then the buying of Christmas gifts.

When all that's done, and January will be here before I know it, I've got to start thinking about either seriously buckling down and doing some writing, or alternatively looking for some more employment somehow.  As it is, I'm home four days a week and I'm getting caught up in the drama unfolding in my backyard, with birds, squirrels and stray cats all sharing the same space.  I'm feeding all three right now, because if I fail to put out peanuts for the squirrels, then they eat the bird seed, and the whole process falls apart.

Looking ahead to the films to watch in 2015 - what could possibly still be on the list at this point?  Turns out, 150 films right now, but I expect that number to rise a bit before January 1.  Still, that number represents great progress made in 2014 - there were 205 films on the watchlist at the end of last year, so the list is down by about 25%, and I've got my best chances ever of finishing this project off in 12 months.  150 films to go, plus there are the new releases coming out on cable, plus things I may want to see in the theaters next year, plus TCM's annual Oscar salute in February that always adds things to the list - so yeah, 150 films could easily become 300 to watch next year.

The next best stopping point would be film #2,200 - and I've love greatly for that to be "Star Wars: Episode 7", due out next December.  Film #1 was "Star Wars: The Clone Wars", so that would create some great symmetry, and define the project as sort of what I watched between installments in my favorite franchise.  I think I've devised some ingenious linking for the end of next year that will get me there. 

Thematically, coming up next year will be another look at various crime films in January, then the annual February mostly-romance chain, and then my linking will take me about up to the start of baseball season.  After that there's a big gap in the proceedings which I'm hoping will get filled in somehow, because the next topics are the fall ones like horror films, political films and back-to-school.  You can expect tributes to Laurence Olivier, Mae West, Harrison Ford, Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Sean Connery, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vince Vaughn, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Jeremy Renner, Matt Damon, Matthew McConnaughey, and of course, Robin Williams. 

What am I looking forward to watching in 2015?  "Nebraska", "12 Years a Slave", "Moonrise Kingdom", "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol", "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug", "About Time", and a bunch of others - admittedly, part of the fun is finding the undiscovered gems.

So, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, plus a Merry Christmas or a Happy Hannukkah, and I'll see you back here right after New Year's.

Friday, November 7, 2014

This Is the End

Year 6, Day 310 - 11/6/14 - Movie #1,900

BEFORE: Learning that there were not one but TWO apocalypse-theme films released in 2013, within just days of each other, both starring Craig Robinson - well, that's just like organizational catnip to me.  I couldn't resist putting them next to each other.  And as you might surmise from the title, this was SUPPOSED to be the arbitrary stopping point for this project - at one point I had just enough films on the watchlist to make this be the ever-lovin' end, in form as well as in name.  But time moved forward, more films got added to the list, and mathematically it became impossible to stop here - but it still remained the stopping point for the year, from a thematic point of view.

This was RUMORED to be the final film ever rented from Blockbuster Video, before that company went out of business.  It's a nice story, but it wasn't true.  How would someone even know that, anyway, considering how many stores there were in the chain?  Was there some sort of centralized computer that logs in rentals from hundreds of locations, and who's to say two movies couldn't be rented at the exact same time, in which case which one is really last?  Don't believe the hype...
THE PLOT:  While attending a party at James Franco's house, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel and many other celebrities are faced with the apocalypse.

AFTER: This is the film where Seth Rogen, James Franco and a bunch of other actors play themselves, or rather un-idealized versions of themselves, confronted by the rapture and the apocalypse going on around them.  Makes sense, since if you believe in the Book of Revelation, Hollywood will probably be toast, being the hotbed of liberalism and egotism and self-serving attitudes that it is.  You know those creative types, a bunch of spoiled, rich, self-serving and self-obsessed drug fiends, am I right?

Again, one hopes that these actors are merely poking fun at their own images, or are aware of what the public thinks of them, and took an opportunity to make comedy out of it and laugh at themselves at the same time.  If not, then this is just a chance to put themselves on display in all their own self-obsessed glory, and they've ended up proving their own point.  But let's assume the former for the sake of argument.

There's a party at James Franco's house, and drugs are involved, and wild sex is involved, and then in the middle of everything, the rapture happens.  Big shock, no one at the party is affected, not at first, because they're all heathens.  Like last night's film, this portrays what happens to those left behind in the post-rapture world, who have to deal with the hell that Earth has become.  Fire, demons, demonic possession, looting, cannibalism, and just a general feeling of "Oh, fuck, what do we do now?"

The answer, of course, is panic.  But once the panic subsides and everyone has a better handle on what's going on, perhaps more panic is in order.  But THEN, it turns out that the Rapture might not be the end of it all, and heaven might not be closed for business, it just requires an act of sacrifice to get beamed up there.

This is all supremely silly, right?  I mean, is the world going to end with a bang or a whimper?  Is there going to be the bright light leading to the heavenly choir, or are we just going to all die because of a plague or a virus or a zombie attack?  If the end is nigh, will it bring pain or pleasure or neither?  And can we all get past this silly nature that we'll ascend into heaven?  I mean, "Up" is a relative direction, right?  My "up" isn't the same vector as the "up" for someone in China or Australia, their "up" points in different ways.  So where is heaven, if it exists, since the Earth is surrounded by "up"?

I am liking that the Biblical endtimes are now largely portrayed in the same way that sci-fi monster movies are.  The Book of Revelation was really like the first doomsday science-fiction ever written, or maybe if we count all religion as fantasy, then the Greek or Egyptian mythologies were the first examples of science fiction.  Am I way off base here?  

Of course, since it turns out this wasn't the last film rented from Blockbuster, it wasn't the end of video rentals, and it's not the end of my project either.  I'll take a few weeks off and get some other stuff done, like finally organizing my comic books, and getting ready for the holidays. Wow, I'm kind of wasting a film with a lot of linkage on my last slot of the year - since I'll start in January with a clean slate.  I'll get a 2014 wrap-up written sometime in the next week or so, detailing what I learned this year.

Also starring Seth Rogen (last seen in "50/50"), Jay Baruchel (last seen in "Goon"), James Franco (last seen in "Oz the Great and Powerful"), Jonah Hill (last seen in "Django Unchained"), Danny McBride (last heard in "Kung Fu Panda 2"), Michael Cera (last seen in "Youth in Revolt"), Emma Watson (last seen in "My Week with Marilyn"), with cameos from Mindy Kaling (last seen in "No Strings Attached"), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (last seen in "Kick-Ass 2"), Paul Rudd (last seen in "This Is 40"), Jason Segel (ditto), Martin Starr, Channing Tatum (last seen in "The Vow"), Rihanna, David Krumholtz, Kevin Hart, Aziz Ansari, and the Backstreet Boys.

RATING: 4 out of 10 bottles of water

Thursday, November 6, 2014


Year 6, Day 309 - 11/5/14 - Movie #1,899

BEFORE: Now that I've visited The World's End, let's get back to the, umm, the world's end.  Linking from "The World's End", Martin Freeman was also in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", and the voice of the ship's computer in that film was provided by Thomas Lennon (last seen in "We're the Millers"), who's seen in tonight's film.

THE PLOT:  Two teens battle their way through a religious apocalypse on a mission to defeat the Antichrist.

AFTER: It's a little tough to say if this film is trying to stay faithful to the Book of Revelation, or trying hard to poke fun at it, because it depicts a rapture much like the one that Christians have anticipated by reading between the lines of that Bible book, but it also showcases how logistically unlikely the whole thing is.  People disappearing all at once, leaving behind their clothes and half-eaten meals - what if one of the faithful was driving a truck or flying a plane, what happens then?

But this is really a film about those left behind, the people who didn't go to church and went out and had fun instead.  They have to live in a world with post-apocalyptic conditions, like taunting locusts, cursing crows and downpours of blood.  Plus there are flaming meteors falling randomly from the sky.  This is another film very light on the science and logistics, you just sort of have to buy into the rapture and believe that all these things can happen, without people being driven insane.

Most annoying of all would probably be knowing that there definitely IS a heaven, and you're not on the guest list.  But then, what happens to the people left behind when they die?  Do they even die?  If heaven's closed, does that mean the only other option is hell?  Or maybe earth becomes hell, and hell is no longer necessary.

Plus there's the Beast to contend with.  It's a little tough to say if the one portrayed here is meant to be the Beast described in Revelation, or if it's just a guy who saw his chance and stepped up to the plate.  Oh, he's definitely evil, but I'm not sure if he's Biblical evil, or just human evil.  Where do you draw that line, anyway?

It's not until the Beast sets his sights on a woman who he can't have that anyone even thinks of taking him down, which is a little strange.  You'd think people would be lining up to dispatch the Beast if it meant they could get back on God's good side, considering all that's taking place in the world and that heaven is confirmed as real.  Beyond that, there are a lot of ideas here that feel sort of half-formed - when characters admit that they don't really have a plan, it's often a sign that a screenwriter couldn't come up with one.

OK, one film left to watch in 2014, and if you've been playing along at home and gotten a feel for how I think and organize things, it shouldn't be too hard to predict what it will be.

Also starring Anna Kendrick (last seen in "Pitch Perfect"), John Francis Daley (last seen in "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone"), Craig Robinson (last seen in "Hot Tub Time Machine"), Rob Corddry (last seen in "Warm Bodies"), John Michael Higgins (also last seen in "Pitch Perfect"), Ana Gasteyer (last seen in "Dick"), Ken Jeong (last seen in "The Hangover Part III"), Rob Heubel (last seen in "Celeste & Jesse Forever"), Paul Scheer, Tyler Labine.

RATING: 4 out of 10 bowling pins

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The World's End

Year 6, Day 308 - 11/4/14 - Movie #1,898

BEFORE: Perhaps you saw this one coming.  I figured this would work out somehow, with two films set in the U.K. put back to back, and I was right - Georgia King from "Cockneys & Zombies" was also in a film called "Burke & Hare" with Simon Pegg (last heard in "The Adventures of TinTin")

THE PLOT: Five friends who reunite in an attempt to top their epic pub crawl from 20 years earlier unwittingly become humankind's only hope for survival.

AFTER: To be clear, the title of this film refers to the name of a pub.  Though I guess it's a double meaning of sorts, the actual end of the world as well as a catchy name like "The Famous Cock" or "The Two-Headed Dog".  Also to be clear, there are NO zombies in this film, I guess that's because the people behind this film also made "Shaun of the Dead", and they wanted to break fresh ground.  I won't reveal the identity of the actual villains in the film, but they do act sort of zombie-like in a way.  

But this film is much more about battling sci-fi villains, and the best films are usually about more than one thing.  This film is also about re-connecting with old friends, forgiving old grudges (or not, where appropriate), the futility of trying to recapture one's youth, alcoholism, anti-bullying, love, regret, the over-Starbucks-ification of everything these days, the indefatigable nature of the human condition, and yes, trying to save the world in the middle of all that.   

Also, we learn what a "marmalade sandwich" really means, what happens in the disabled stalls in British pubs, some really great ideas for band names that I hope someone steals, and how ill-advised a 12-stop pub crawl really is.  Look, I do a lot of different beer events around NYC, everything from beer dinners to special food + beer pairing events, to special spring and fall tasting events.  At some of them I admit I drink to excess - even if they're giving out 2 oz samples, I find that if I drink enough 2 oz samples, I can get plenty wasted.  

I just plain don't understand pub crawls.  Why visit 8 bars to drink 8 beers, when you can stay in ONE bar and drink 8 beers?  Why the need to leave one bar and go out into the world, dodging traffic (or worse, driving from place to place) when everything I need is already in one bar?  In terms of pints, if I'm eating food I'm probably good for 5 pints, and a well-stocked craft bar probably has more than 5 beers to choose from, even if I'm looking for the ever-elusive perfect combination of food and drink.

And it's not like any bar has a special beer that I can't get at the next place down the road.  Wait, I do now of a couple restaurants in the city that are the only place you can get certain beers - but I can always go to that other place on another night!  Why risk life and limb just to cover a certain number of pubs in one night?  Does the moving from place to place somehow sober up pubcrawlers just enough to be ready for the next beer?  (Hmm, I'll have to investigate that...)  

But I suppose this film (and pub crawling) is about being obsessive, and I can understand that.  Downing a pint in 12 different pubs just to check them off a list, just to prove it can be done.  I've been there - certainly if there are 40 or 50 beers to be sampled at a festival, my mind certainly goes straight to "I wonder if I can sample them all..." and they also provide me with a handy list that I can make checkmarks to.  Well, what am I supposed to do, NOT try them all?  

There's even a high-alcohol Belgian beer made by the Unibroue brewery called "Fin du Monde", which translates as "the end of the world".  Definitely something to consider drinking while watching this film...

Just 2 films left in Movie Year 6, which is a bit like having one more pub to cross off the list before heading home, I suppose...

Also starring Nick Frost (also last heard in "The Adventures of Tintin"), Martin Freeman (last seen in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"), Paddy Considine (last seen in "The Bourne Ultimatum"), Rosamund Pike (last seen in "Wrath of the Titans"), Eddie Marsan (last seen in "Me and Orson Welles"), Pierce Brosnan (last seen in "Die Another Day"), David Bradley, Michael Smiley, and the voice of Bill Nighy (last seen in "Jack the Giant Slayer").

RATING: 7 out of 10 tap handles

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Cockneys vs. Zombies

Year 6, Day 307 - 11/3/14 - Movie #1,897

BEFORE:  Just three films left for me to watch in 2014 after this one, and I'll say that all have to deal with the end of the world in some way.  I was trying to wrap up the project, but with 150 films left on the list, it looks like I'm setting myself up for Year 7.  The watchlist has just never gone down as fast as I'd hoped.  Linking from "World War Z", Brad Pitt was also in "Snatch" with Alan Ford, who appears tonight.  The IMDB informed me that there was one actress who played a soldier in "World War Z" who also played a zombie in tonight's film, but since those were minor roles, that sort of feels like cheating.
THE PLOT: A gang of bank robbers fight their way out of a zombie-infested London.

AFTER:  Well, we had a zombie film that was also a romance, then one that was pure action, and now we've got one that's a semi-comic crime film.  The poster for this film says that it's like "Shaun of the Dead" crossed with "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels".  That's about as spot-on a description as you're going to get, and I'm hard pressed to come up with a better one.  There just aren't any big-name stars in this one, whereas those other two films each had a few.

It occurs to me that if we are indeed inching toward the zombie apocalypse, the current generation of teens and twenty-somethings, raised on first-person shooter video games, will be uniquely qualified to handle the encroaching horde.  Hey, that's just nature taking care of itself - creating a situation, and then the necessary mutation of skills to deal with it.

But we also learn a few things here - like which is faster, lumbering zombies or shuffling senior citizens?  Does a zombie attack really create an ideal time to rob a bank?  What's the British equivalent of an old Indian burial ground?  And what's up with that Cockney rhyming slang, anyway?  Isn't "stairs" so much easier to say than "apples and pears"?  Slang should be fewer syllables than the word it's replacing, right?

Other than that, it's the usual zombie knowledge - you have to kill them with a head shot, don't get bitten or you turn into one of them, get out of town and head for higher ground.  Fortunately by now every character in films has also seen a few zombie films, so there's a lot less of a learning curve.

There is a moment in the film though, where a bunch of zombies wearing the colors of one soccer team encounters another bunch of zombies wearing another team's colors, and the two groups of undead hooligans start to fight.  They've lost all cognitive brain function, yet somehow remember that the other fans are their enemies, and they're supposed to be duking it out with them.  I'm being told that the two groups are fans of West Ham and Millwall, and in the U.K, this joke is probably hilarious.  In the U.S. not so much, unless you can think of them as fans of rival teams like the Yankees and Red Sox or something.

Someone could re-make this film for U.S. audiences, set it in Brooklyn, and call it "Hipsters vs. Zombies".  Nah, that would never work, and even if it did, then I'd be rooting for the zombies.

Also starring Rasmus Hardiker (last seen in "Your Highness"), Harry Treadaway (last seen in "The Lone Ranger"), Michelle Ryan (last seen in "Cashback"), Jack Doolan, Georgia King (last seen in "One Day"), Ashley Thomas, Tony Gardner, Honor Blackman (last seen in "Goldfinger").

RATING: 4 out of 10 meals on wheels

Monday, November 3, 2014

World War Z

Year 6, Day 306 - 11/2/14 - Movie #1,896

BEFORE: More zombies tonight, the Halloween horror chain is sort of spilling into November, and I'm back on track for sort of an end-of-the-world pandemic thing.  Which is quite timely considering all the ebola news - I swear it's all a coincidence.  I planned months ago to be exactly where I am now in the chain, I'm not tying in with headline news intentionally.

Linking from "Warm Bodies", John Malkovich was also in "Burn After Reading" with Brad Pitt (last seen in "Killing Them Softly").  Simple as that.

THE PLOT:  United Nations employee Gerry Lane traverses the world in a race against time to stop the Zombie pandemic that is toppling armies and governments, and threatening to destroy humanity itself.

AFTER: This film definitely treats Zombie-ism as a disease, like a virus - only instead of producing flu-like symptoms and bleeding out of every orifice, it's a virus that makes people into brain-dead flesh eaters, with an incubation period of about 10-12 seconds.  Usually these days something going "viral" is a good thing, at least where promotion is concerned, but with the taste for human flesh, not so much.  And these aren't your regular, lumbering, stupid zombies - these things move FAST and appear to have sort of a hive mind mentality, which means they can work together to cover more ground and spread the virus more quickly.

I'm sure that there are many people hard at work on ebola treatments and possible anti-virals - top men, so to speak.  But in the movies it takes only ONE man to make a difference, and that man happens to look like Brad Pitt.  And he's not a virologist, or even a doctor, he's....wait, what are his credentials again?  Oh, right, he likes to travel, he's good with a gun OR a hatchet, and he's not afraid to take weird, stupid risks if that's what it takes to come up with an answer to the zombie virus.  (We're assuming that there even IS an answer, which is a big leap in logic, if you ask me.)

He's supposed to be retired and not involved in the world-saving anymore ("I'm not even supposed to BE here today...") BUT, with zombies attacking his wife and daughters, he's willing to jump back into the fray and risk being eaten or zombiefied if it means that his family will be kept safe.  This sort of calls to mind another film, "2012", with main characters jumping from point to point around the globe, looking for a safe haven.  Pitt's character goes from New Jersey to Korea to Jerusalem in his quest for answers, and the zombies are hot on his heels, no matter where he goes.  (Are we sure they're not just tracking him because he looks so tasty?)

Like "Warm Bodies", this film is very short on details about how the whole zombie plague thing started in the first place - but here that's sort of justified, since they're looking for a cure and part of finding that cure is figuring out how and where it began.  There's an opening montage that references everything from global warming to pollution to the collapse of bee colonies so, umm, you do the math.  The answer must be in there somewhere, right?  

There's a HUGE coincidence near the end, I won't spoil it.  Actually, THEM, there are a number of outlandish contrivances near the end, as if someone realized that the movie was running long and we better start summing things up, so look, don't ask how this character ended up exactly where he needed to be, just take it as written, OK?  Then it's a BIG leap in logic to come up with a solution to "How not to get eaten by a zombie", and if you believe the ends justify the means, then the fact that it works is enough to allow it to take place.  Me, I prefer to see how we get from Point A to Point B without guesswork.

Also, call me old-fashioned, but I believe that a movie should have a beginning, a middle and an end.  By glossing over the origin of the zombie plague, and presenting an aftermath that feels more like an afterthought, this film is nearly all middle, from start to finish.  Does that make sense?

EDIT: I just can't let this film's "solution" to the zombie plague go.  Allow me to illustrate my beef with an analogy - this weekend, I changed the batteries in our thermostat when I set the clocks back an hour.  To do this, I needed to lift the device off the wall, and when I did, I noticed 9 small pins on the base that corresponded to holes on the control panel - only one of them was bent and wasn't going where it looked like it was supposed to go, so I bent it back into position.  Somehow this made the whole device stop working, and a day later the house was freezing.  We checked the pilot light, I checked the thermostat programming, even tried to set the temperature to 75 degrees just to kick-start it.  Nothing.

I figured the only thing I'd changed was that bent pin, so today I lifted the control panel off the wall again, bent the straight pin back to the odd angle it was at before, and replaced the device.  Whhooossh!  The furnace kicked in, the heat came on, and I apparently fixed what I'd broken when I tried to "fix" it the day before. This was a silly, stupid, counter-intuitive solution.  It shouldn't have worked, but it did, so I have to just shrug it off, because I'm not a heating technician.  But in this I find a similarity to the zombie "solution" displayed in "World War Z", and since I'm guessing a zombie virus is about 100 times more complicated than my thermostat, it's also about 100 times sillier and stupider as a solution.

Also starring Mireille Enos, Fana Mokoena, Ludi Boeken, Peter Capaldi, David Morse (last seen in "Hearts in Atlantis"), Ruth Negga, Daniella Kertesz, with a cameo from Matthew Fox.

RATING: 5 out of 10 satellite phones

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Warm Bodies

Year 6, Day 305 - 11/1/14 - Movie #1,895

BEFORE:  Well, I said I was going to watch zombie movies, but I never said they were going to be very scary ones.  Linking from "Pet Sematary Two", Edward Furlong was also in "The Green Hornet" with Analeigh Tipton.
THE PLOT:  After a highly unusual zombie saves a still-living girl from an attack, the two form a relationship that sets in motion events that might transform the entire lifeless world.

AFTER: This is a film that doesn't get all hung up on the technical aspects of zombies - where they came from, how they function, how to kill them - which turns out to be both a good and a bad thing for the film.  Bad because it feels all kind of hazy and half-formed, there was some kind of virus or apocalyptic thing, but the zombies don't remember it and the humans don't seem to talk about it.  I guess everyone just takes it as written and is dealing with it in their own way, but it's still very convenient from a screenwriting point of view.

But it's good because the film has other objectives.  Since the story's told mostly from a zombie's point of view, and that character has limited brain function and memory, it makes sense to a certain degree - that character died because of the virus or disaster, so he wouldn't remember it.  The only memories he gets to experience come from eating a human brain, and then he gets flashes of that person's life.  OK, this is a bit of a stretch because people in some cultures eat cow brains and don't get to experience memories of standing around in a pasture eating grass.

But you have to take a leap in logic with zombie movies, I guess - something's keeping these creatures alive without a heartbeat or without flowing blood, so they're walking anomalies (OK, lumbering anomalies).  Still, there are contradictions because the main character talks slowly and seems to process information slowly, but at times his internal voice-over monologue is at normal speed.  ("Why are we walking so slowly?  What did that guy do before he was a zombie?")  Because I guess the movie wouldn't be as interesting if his internal thoughts were just "Uhhhhhnnnnn!  Brrrrrainsssss!"

About halfway through I glommed on to what this was really riffing off of, and it's Shakespearean.  The lead male character is "R" (that's all he can remember of his pre-zombie name) and the lead female is "Julie" - get it?  Like Romeo and Juliet they come from two different worlds, only instead of two Italian families, one comes from the world of the living and the other, not so much.  But it's sort of a reverse Shakespearean tragedy, because instead of an impossible love leading to the death of the two main characters, it's an unlikely love that causes one to start living again.  Take that, Bard of Avon.

There's even a balcony scene that drives the point home, in case you missed it.  Julie's friend is Perry (Paris) and R's friend is M (for Mercutio).  But that's about where the similarities end - another new twist on zombies is having different kinds of zombies, some are more skeletal in nature (the "bonies") and are also more fierce.  But they never say whether these are corpses who have been zombies for longer, or if these are the original zombies that infected the others, or aliens or demons or what.  Again, short on technical stuff in order to focus on other things.

Also starring Nicholas Hoult (last seen in "X-Men: Days of Future Past"), Teresa Palmer, John Malkovich (last seen in "Shadows and Fog"), Rob Corddry (last seen in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry"), Dave Franco (last seen in "Now You See Me").

RATING: 4 out of 10 Polaroids

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Pet Sematary Two

Year 6, Day 304 - 10/31/14 - Movie #1,894

BEFORE: Halloween night, and I raced home from work to man the door with a bowl of bulk candy, to find that I beat the crowd, and after about an hour of trick-or-treating a light rain started, which pretty much ended the festivities.  So, we were left with 2 1/2 bags of candy, and we saved the best stuff for last, so I guess we won Halloween.  Halloween's the first of the big three year-end holidays, but you can't think of them like breakfast, lunch and dinner, because Halloween is all about candy, and that would be like eating dessert first.

Linking from "Pet Sematary", Denise Crosby was also in a film titled "Miracle Mile" with Anthony Edwards.  OK, if the Oracle of Bacon says so...

THE PLOT: The ancient Indian cemetery with the power to raise the dead returns and influences the lives of new residents.

AFTER: Set a number of years after the first "Pet Sematary", this sequel (made presumably without Stephen King's involvement) at first seems unnecessary and ill-advised.  But even though the Indian burial ground seems to function in a slightly different way than it did in the first movie, this film displays more coherent internal logic within its own confines.  Does that make sense?

Everyone in town seems to know the rumors about the Creed family, and also what happens when you bury pets in the space beyond - they come back, but they're not the same, infected with some kind of evil spirit or lack of moral boundaries.  So WHY do people keep bringing their pets there?

I guess I understand it, my cat Merlin died in 2011, and then in 2012 our cat Gypsy did too, and if there had been a way to bring them back, like cloning them from a claw or a whisker, I certainly would have considered it.  But that's not the way life is supposed to work, it's better in the long run if I go rescue a new cat and improve his life, and direct my efforts in a more positive direction.  The same goes for any time we lose someone we're close to, it hurts but we have to deal with the situation and carry on.

Not the residents of this small town in Maine, though - if your dog didn't get a fair shake the first time around, give him a second shot, just try to ignore the glowing eyes, constant growl and the insane bloodlust.  He's FINE, so what if his heart's not beating and his blood cells are dead, he's walking around, right?  Got a good, healthy appetite and likes to chase down rabbits?  Here, just give him these eyedrops and make him wear this collar for a few days.  Oh, and try not to let him kill you.  Good luck sleeping!

Once again, it's not a giant leap in logic from pets to people, and the Indian burial ground is just as useful in covering up accidental deaths as it is in bringing back long-lost loved ones.  But you'd think that someone who'd been dead for months would require more time to regenerate a body, right?  Shh, don't try to over-analyze it.  In one extreme case, bringing back someone from the great beyond seems to improve their personality, so let's just leave things be.  Let sleeping dogs lie, so to speak.

And, once again, the character of the housekeeper seems horribly underdeveloped, forming essentially a cast-off side plot.

Also starring Edward Furlong (last seen in "American History X"), Clancy Brown (last seen in "Cowboys & Aliens"), Jason McGuire, Jared Rushton, Darlanne Fluegel, Sarah Trigger, Lisa Waltz.

RATING: 3 out of 10 skinned rabbits

Friday, October 31, 2014

Pet Sematary

Year 6, Day 303 - 10/30/14 - Movie #1,893

BEFORE: Well, I'm still feeling let down by "Cujo" - the dog wasn't possessed by an evil spirit, he wasn't a hellhound, he just had the rabies.  Ho hum.  But now that it's the day before Halloween and pets are going to start rising from their graves, my timing is starting to look impeccable.  And I've got four zombie-related films scheduled to follow this one.

I know I had a linking in mind here - ah yes, Dee Wallace from "Cujo" was also in the film "10" with Denise Crosby.  Go figure that one out.

THE PLOT: Behind a young family's home in Maine is a terrible secret that holds the power of life after death. When tragedy strikes, the threat of that power soon becomes undeniable.

AFTER: Like "Cujo", this one has a very real-world jumping off point - beloved pets being run down by giant tractor trailers.  But if the pets are so beloved, why were they left outside in the first place?  There's just no reason to let any pet, dog or cat, run around free at night.  Cats that live completely indoors live a lot longer, for many reasons beyond traffic accidents. 

Or, if you care about your cat, maybe build a fence between your property and the highway?  Because I guess then we wouldn't have a movie about zombie cats.  You have to have a dead cat before you can have a zombie cat. 

Anyway, this touches on a number of Stephen King tropes, and remember, I'm classified as an expert on his films now - we've got the small Maine town with the dark secret, a kid who has psychic visions or prophetic dreams (as in "The Shining"), and spirits from beyond the grave that possess things (like the car in "Christine", only here it's a cat).  

There's also the classic horror macguffin - the Old Indian Burial Ground.  Bodies go in, and then climb back out, which makes you wonder why there aren't a bunch of 300-year old Native Americans walking around.  Ah, I get it, the body you put in the ground may come back out, but not with the soul it had to begin with.  The ground is "sour" and the soul of a man's heart is stonier, or something.

The problem is, when you go back to the beginning of the film and think about who knew what about the graveyard in the beginning, and what the implications might be of burying something (or someONE) there, this plot makes no sense.  Why would this well-intentioned yokel put forth the notion of resurrecting an animal, if he KNEW that you don't get out of it what you put into it?  He knows what the consequences are, and yet the plan moves ahead anyway.  That's just dumb.  

Furthermore, the plot gets complicated with all this extraneous rubbish - there's the wandering spirit who's trying to put things right, but he's rather ineffectual since he can only be seen by E.R. doctors and, for some reason, car-rental clerks.  Then there's the woman who helps the family with their laundry, and her fate seems unconnected to the rest of the film in any way.  Then we learn a family secret about another character, she's guilty over the way her family treated her dying sister.  Gee, I wonder if that bit of random spoken information will become important later on in the film...

It all builds to an ending that's beyond silly, and for my money a horror film shouldn't have so much silliness in it, unless it's one of those parody films that takes down the whole genre, "Airplane"-style.

Also starring Dale Midkiff, Fred Gwynne, Brad Greenquist, Blaze Berdahl, Miko Hughes, Susan Blommaert, with a cameo from Stephen King himself as a minister.

RATING: 4 out of 10 headstones

Thursday, October 30, 2014


Year 6, Day 302 - 10/29/14 - Movie #1,892

BEFORE: This is how you become an expert on a topic, by putting in the time and doing diligent research - after this chain I can take a step back and draw some conclusions about Stephen King, like the fact that his name is spelled with a "PH", not "Steven" like I wrote yesterday.  Sorry about that.  Linking from "Cat's Eye", Drew Barrymore was also in the very famous "E.T." with Dee Wallace.

THE PLOT: A friendly St. Bernard named "Cujo" contracts rabies and conducts a reign of terror on a small American town.

AFTER: I've got zombies coming up as a topic in a few days, another as yet untouched topic around here, but something tells me that virus-based films would have been a lot scarier, considering all the news about ebola these days.  I watched a press conference the other day where the mayor of NYC and the fire commissioner and some hospital administrators were patting each other on the back for safely transporting ONE ebola patient to a hospital.  First responders are fantastic, this is what they've trained for, no risk to the public, blah blah blah.  When the truth is, they have NO IDEA if there were no mistakes made during this process, and they won't for another three weeks.

Rabies is a virus - and it still kills thousands of people every year, though animal control and vaccinations help keep that in check.  Mostly spread through bites from dogs and bats (the movie gets this right), only a few humans have survived rabies infections - the main character in this film gets bitten at one point, but I'm sure she'll be fine.  In the real world infected people exhibit flu-like symptoms, confusion, agitation, paranoia, partial paralysis, and later intense thirst, difficulty swallowing, and death.  You want to be afraid of bats?  Go ahead, but not because they suck your blood out, be afraid of what they're putting INTO your blood.

Rabid bats are found all over America's lower 48, but the virus can also be found in raccoons, skunks and foxes.  I may live in an urban zone, but I've seen my share of raccoons.  But what else can we learn from this film?  Only have your car repaired at authorized service centers, I suppose, since the infected dog is located out on a farm where some back-alley car repair is performed.

But isn't there a great tradition in those slasher films (which I don't watch) about the killer only targeting teens that have pre-marital sex?  Geez, you might as well put a target on your back if you're humping in a horror film.  The lead character in "Cujo" is a wife who's cheating on her husband, so perhaps it's also a cautionary tale.  Karma's a bitch, or bad things happen to bad people, so if we carry the argument to its logical conclusion, if you cheat on your spouse, you could end up trapped in a car in the middle of nowhere with a giant rabid dog outside.

The car in question is a Ford Pinto - and if you remember the 1980's, this make of car was prone to random explosions if it took a hit on the rear bumper or if you accidentally hit a pothole or something.  Given the danger of driving a Pinto, I'm not sure if she was safer inside the car, or outside with the rabid dog.

Also starring Daniel Hugh Kelly, Danny Pintauro, Christopher Stone, Ed Lauter (last seen in "Family Plot"), Mills Watson, Jerry Hardin (last seen in "Pacific Heights").

RATING: 3 out of 10 cereal commercials

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Cat's Eye

Year 6, Day 301 - 10/28/14 - Movie #1,891

BEFORE: Throughout this process I've managed to stretch myself by watching horror films each October.  Before that, I'd only seen tame stuff like "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" and of course "Ghostbusters".  When I was 14 or 15 I watched "Poltergeist", which was promoted heavily with Steven Spielberg's name, and I went in thinking it was akin to "E.T.", which was a huge mistake.  I slept with the lights on for weeks after that.

Anyway, even though I've made great strides in this category, I'll wager that there's still a majority of horror films that I've intentionally ignored. I have covered everything from "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Omen" films to the work of M. Night Shyamalan, tales from Edgar Allen Poe, a vampire chain, a werewolf chain, and stinkers like "The Witches of Eastwick" and the "Underworld" films.  By 2012 I'd pretty much tackled all of the horror films on my list, but I came back to the category in 2013 with "Shaun of the Dead", "Frankenweenie", "Fright Night" and "Dark Shadows".

But still, what's left untackled is quite astonishing - not that I have any intention of watching these, because I do enjoy getting a good night's sleep: the "Saw" films, the "Friday the 13th" films, the "Halloween" series, anything with the words "Texas" and "Chainsaw" in it, "Evil Dead", "Dawn of the Dead", "Night of the Living Dead", the "Nightmare on Elm St." series, the "Paranormal Activity" films, the "Scream" series, the "Hellraiser" series, "Hostel", "Re-Animator", "Human Centipede", "The Ring", "The Grudge", "The Purge", and so on.  I just have no interest in slasher films or torture porn, or anything that I've deemed too disturbing or disgusting.  I'm sure there are a lot more I failed to mention here.

Linking from "R.I.P.D.", Jeff Bridges was also in a film titled "See You in the Morning" with Drew Barrymore (last seen in "Everyone Says I Love You").

THE PLOT: A stray cat is the linking element of three tales of suspense and horror.

AFTER: While I'm listing things, I started taking on films based on Stephen King stories back in 2010. I started with "The Shining", then followed up with "Silver Bullet", "Firestarter", "The Dead Zone", "Thinner", "Christine", "Maximum Overdrive", "Misery", "It", "The Dark Half", and "Secret Window".  In October 2011 I continued with "Needful Things", and earlier this year I watched "Hearts in Atlantis" and also "Apt Pupil" (which both sort of fell outside the horror category), and that brings us up to date.  I'll take on 3 more King stories this week, but since I only have so many slots left, the late arrival "Dreamcatcher" had to be pushed on to next year's chain. I'll make that work out somehow.

Anyway, "Cat's Eye" is a 3-story anthology film.  We used to have all kinds of these things, like "Tales from the Darkside" and "Twilight Zone: the Movie".  Some people probably think this is the best way to adapt Stephen King, stick a bunch of short stories together and make a feature film - this way if people don't like one story, they're bound to like one of the others, right?  After watching this, however, I'm not so sure that's a great plan.

First problem, other than the cat, the stories have absolutely nothing in common - and the cat ends up sort of shoehorned into the first two stories, and only plays a major role in the third.  From what I've read online, there was supposed to be more bridging material to explain the cat's purpose, but it didn't make it into the film.  As a result, there is an opening sequence starring the cat where it gets chased by a Cujo-like dog, and also passes a car meant to look like Christine - but then the cat looks into a store window, and sees a ghostly apparition of Drew Barrymore superimposed over one of the mannequins, telling the cat to "Go and find it!".  Umm, find what?  A home?  A mouse?  A can of tuna?  A sense of purpose?  This is never explained, so why the hell was it left in the film?

Worse yet, we see another character played by Drew Barrymore in the bridging sequence between stories #1 and 2, where she seems to be an actress in a cat food commercial, feeding a cat that looks a bit like our feline hero.  Put this together with the fact that Barrymore plays a normal, non-dead, non-actress little girl in the third story, and everything is now super confusing.  What exactly is this cat's backstory, is the actress from the cat food commercial now a ghost, what is the cat supposed to be finding, and why does the audience have to do all the heavy lifting figuring all this out?

Let's get to the main stories, the meat of the sandwich and perhaps treat the bridging sequences as an odd-tasting condiment or something.  The first story is about a man who wants to quit smoking, and he signs up for an experimental program that appears to be run by the mob, who has found that their unique skill set can come in handy when people need to be cured of their addiction.  They monitor all of the man's activities, and the first time he smokes a cigarette, they torture his wife.  Second time, they move on to his daughter, and beyond that things start to get quite nasty.  Hey, whatever works for the guy, but most people just get the nicotine patch or something.

The second story takes place in Atlantic City (umm, the cat takes the Staten Island ferry to get there, which isn't possible, but whatever...) where a gambler gets revenge on the tennis pro who's sleeping with his wife by making a very dangerous bet with him.  If he can walk around the casino tower on a high ledge, he gets the girl and the chance to leave town in one piece.  Yeah, if you've got acrophobia this one can get you where it hurts.

The final story is the weirdest one, when the cat makes it to North Carolina by train he finds a little girl who looks a lot like the mannequin ghost and the cat-food commercial actress (sorry, I just can't let this go, it's really a mess...) and her parents won't let her take in the stray cat because of that old myth about cats stealing the breath from babies.  But then she's attacked by a little troll creature who does the EXACT same thing (what are the odds?) and the cat comes to her defense.

To me the big problem about assembling a film out of short stories, jigsaw puzzle style, is starting with pieces of different shapes that were never meant to be together, and forcing them to fit.  When you do that, and step back and look at the big picture, it just doesn't really form a coherent image.

Also starring James Woods (last seen in "The Hard Way"), Alan King, Robert Hays (last seen in "Superhero Movie"), James Naughton (last seen in "The Birds II: Land's End"), Candy Clark (last seen in "Zodiac"), Kenneth McMillan, Mike Starr (last seen in "Snake Eyes"), with cameos from James Rebhorn (last seen in "Shadows and Fog"), Patricia Kalember, Charles S. Dutton.

RATING: 3 out of 10 electric shocks

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Year 6, Day 300 - 10/27/14 - Movie #1,890

BEFORE: Well, I've seen men dress up in costume like dictators, and ordinary people dress in costume like superheroes, so that must mean that Halloween is right around the corner.  I finally tracked down some bulk candy, because I want to be neighborly without breaking the bank - remember when every supermarket and drug-store sold big bags of candy for the budget-conscious?  I had to go to THREE places before I found a "seasonal" aisle, and I live in a major metropolis!  Anyway, I hope kids still like Tootsie Rolls and Dum-Dum Pops.

Linking from "Kick-Ass 2", Chloe Grace-Moretz was also in the 2005 remake of "The Amityville Horror" with Ryan Reynolds.  I haven't seen that film, or the original - I'll be discussing the horror films I still haven't seen tomorrow.

THE PLOT: A recently slain cop joins a team of undead police officers working for the Rest in Peace Department and tries to find the man who murdered him.

AFTER: I wonder if the Rhode Island Police Department wondered why someone was releasing a movie about them...

This must be one of those things that seemed like a great idea at the time - let's take the main plotline from "Ghost" (dead man tries to contact wife and solve his own murder) and set it against the backdrop of "Ghostbusters" (dead spirits rise up, try to take over the world) and throw in a fair amount of "Men in Black" (hot-headed rookie teams up with grizzled veteran to work for a cosmic agency and blast weird-looking creatures).  Piece it all together, and you've got - a big pile of warmed-over junk.  It just goes to show, you can't make films by committee, (or by rolling a set of dice with plot elements on them) and things need to be more than their taglines suggest.

But let's be fair - from the credits I surmise this is based on a comic-book, like "Kick-Ass", and I hear that sort of thing is all the rage these days.  After "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles", "300", "The Walking Dead" and "Men in Black" all hit big, I'm guessing nearly every comic-book, small or large, got optioned for movie rights at some point, and we're still seeing the effects of that play out at the box office.

When I lived in Brooklyn, my upstairs neighbor was a screenwriter, he co-wrote "Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight" and later "Kung Fu Panda", I think - but he also wrote a show on Fox called "Brimstone" - great show, with the same concept.  The hero had to track down dead souls that had escaped from hell and blast them back there, the number he had to recapture being roughly equal to the number of episodes needed for syndication.  The only difference in "R.I.P.D." is that the hero's working for God and not the Devil.

I think my problems start when a filmmaker starts telling me how the universe works - it's run like a corporation, or it's set up like a police station.  Is this really a better concept than the old model, with the clouds and haloes, and everyone plays the harp?  I mean, no one really knows how the system works, or for that matter whether there's a system at all.  So if you start telling me how the afterlife works, like that horrible film "What Dreams May Come", to me you're just as bad as any of our made-up organized religions, you're just doing it for entertainment's sake in addition to profit.

I forgot last night to talk about weird accents - Jim Carrey did one in "Kick-Ass 2" that may have been connected to him changing the shape of his face to look all bulked-up, or related to the strange fake teeth he was sporting.  Jeff Bridges made a strange decision here, to talk like Wilford Brimley with his mouth full, to play someone who lived in the 1800's - was this because they had bad dentistry back then?  This film is set in Boston - which is great, but then how did the Old West lawman end up there?

Also starring Jeff Bridges (last seen in "Heaven's Gate"), Kevin Bacon (last seen in "The River Wild"), Mary-Louise Parker (last seen in "RED"), Stephanie Szostak (last seen in "Iron Man 3"), James Hong, Marisa Miller, Mike O'Malley, with a cameo from Larry Joe Campbell.

RATING: 3 out of 10 Fenway franks

Monday, October 27, 2014

Kick-Ass 2

Year 6, Day 299 - 10/26/14 - Movie #1,889

BEFORE: The goal was to tie this in with New York Comic-Con, and I missed it by about two weeks.  The linking just wasn't there - but October here in NYC is just one big long costume party when you add the NYCC in with Halloween, so there you go.  Linking from "The Dictator", Sasha Baron Cohen made a prominent cameo in "Anchorman 2", and so did Jim Carrey (last seen in "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone"). 

THE PLOT:  The costumed high-school hero Kick-Ass joins with a group of normal citizens who have been inspired to fight crime in costume. Meanwhile, the Red Mist plots an act of revenge that will affect everyone Kick-Ass knows.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Kick-Ass" (Movie #1,488)

AFTER: The set-up with the "Kick-Ass" films is unique - it's a way to tie in with the superhero genre without the characters having weird powers like the X-Men, or godlike strength or super-soldier serums like the Avengers.  We're supposed to believe in a world, much like ours, where superheroes are a form of entertainment, and only a select few people are willing to fight crime, due to the very real danger involved.  

This means that "real" injuries are possible, with no Wolverine-like healing, and it means that characters die and they DON'T come back (like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and most likely Wolverine in about 6 months).  These are regular people, and unless they're expert fighters or are incredible lucky, they get hurt.  

The story picks up months after Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl have left the superhero scene, although Hit Girl can't resist skipping school to take on drug-dealers all day long - it's the way her father trained her.  Kick-Ass finds his life without crimefighting to be incredibly boring, so he longs to get back on the scene.  But after he gets Hit Girl to train him, she's caught by her guardian and forced to attend school like a regular girl.  (It doesn't go so well...)

This is where the film sort of goes off track - Hit Girl KNEW who she was in the first film, forcing her to become someone else just to figure out that she knew herself very well in the first place feels like a misstep, plus we lose her for the fighting scenes for the majority of the picture.  One of the BEST things about the original "Kick-Ass" was watching a little girl swear like a trucker while severing the limbs of criminals.  Well, I think it was one of the best things, it was certainly one of the most original, surprising and also disturbing things.  It's kind of sad to see that replaced with a bunch of dick jokes and vomit-based humor.

Without her, Kick-Ass finds a new group of costumed people whom he also might have inspired, and joins their club.  I admit I've never read the "Kick-Ass" comic, so I don't know how closely this film sticks to the comic plot, and maybe that's a good thing.  Given the names of the new superheroes - Battle Guy, Dr. Gravity, Insect Man - I can't tell if these are supposed to be parodies of the genre, or if all of the good names were already taken by DC and Marvel heroes.  There's even a married couple who use the code names "Tommy's Mum" and "Tommy's Dad" - the reason for using these names is a justified tear-jerker, but honestly as superhero names, they really kind of suck.  

The villain, Red Mist, is back from the first film, with a new name that's not fit for print - I wonder how the film reviewers handled that when this was released last year.  Did they just say "The M.F."?  But this is another case of diminishing returns - his character got quite emasculated here, both figuratively and literally.  I'm sure they can bring him back again if there's a "Kick-Ass 3", but what would be the point?  As an ongoing series, these films really need to start deciding if they're going to function as a parody of superhero films, or the ultimate extension of them, and I don't think they can be both.

Also starring Aaron-Taylor Johnson (last seen making a cameo in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"), Chloe Grace Moretz (last seen in "Hugo"), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (last seen in "Fright Night"), John Leguizamo (last heard in "Ice Age: Continental Drift"), Clark Duke (last seen in "Identity Thief"), Morris Chestnut (ditto), Donald Faison (last seen in "Clueless"), Claudia Lee, Garrett M. Brown, Lindy Booth, Robert Emms, Andy Nyman, Olga Kurkolina, with a cameo from Chuck Liddell.

RATING: 6 out of 10 pull-ups

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Dictator

Year 6, Day 298 - 10/25/14 - Movie #1,888

BEFORE: I pegged this film as my planned outro to the Chaplin chain months ago, just because of the title and (assumed) similar subject matter.  I'm not intending to make a comparison between Charlie Chaplin and Sacha Baron Cohen (last seen in "Anchorman 2"), or saying that Cohen's the modern-day Chaplin, or anything like that.  But sometimes when I check my OCD and suspend the linking, I gain some extra insights.
THE PLOT:  The heroic story of a dictator who risks his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed.

AFTER: I'm glad I stuck with this plan, because now I get to draw some great comparisons with Chaplin's "The Great Dictator".  It doesn't even matter that Cohen's drawing his comedy from a more modern Qaddafi-like character instead of a classic Hitler-type.  Comedy is always a reflection of the era it gets created in.  And both films do their own riff on the "Prince and the Pauper" switcheroo by having their main actor pull double-duty as the dictator and a look-alike commoner.

In "The Dictator", Gen. Aladeen is at first in on the plan, because he needs to have look-alikes to deal with assassination attempts.  But on a trip to address the United Nations, his own uncle has him kidnapped and replaced with an idiot double, in order to bring democracy to the country of Wadiya.  He then gets mixed up with the crowd protesting his own trip, and has to survive on the hipster-infested streets of Brooklyn until he can find a way to prove his identity and get back into power.  When the switch is made earlier in the film, it (theoretically, at least) allows more time for the effects.

Like Chaplin's film, this culminates in a speech that's meant to prove a political point - and like Chaplin's anti-socialist speech, this is likely to fall on deaf ears, for this is the chance you take when you mix politics into a comedy.  Turns out they're not like chocolate and peanut butter - audiences go out to see a comedy in order to FORGET about politics.  People in the 1930's felt that Chaplin injected too much of his own political views into his Hynkel-doppelganger speech, envisioning a world where men would rise above their hate, greed and brutality.  Yeah, how did that plan work out?

As Aladeen, Cohen came closer in his speech to making some valid political points - sarcastically poking fun at the U.S. political system by claiming that in dictatorships there are rigged elections, governments can spy on their own citizens, lie about the reasons for going to war and ignore the health care needs of the poor, allow 1% of the people to have 99% of the wealth, torture prisoners, and use the media to scare people into supporting particular policies.  Since these are all things that the U.S. government has been accused of, it's a backhand swipe at our own system.  But, did audiences want to hear this in a comedy?

This speech is the only reason I'm not giving this film a "1" - because apart from the speech, it's the same "stranger in a strange land" comedy that we've seen the same actor do in "Borat" and "Bruno", and it's a case of diminishing returns.  There's an attempt to make the character more sympathetic by adding the wrinkle about him never actually executing anyone (his executioner apparently let everyone who was sentenced to die escape to New York) but then you have to ask yourself what this reduces the character to, and what's gained by making the North African dictator a sympathetic (or just plain pathetic) idiot?

Also starring Anna Faris (last seen in "Brokeback Mountain"), Ben Kingsley (last seen in "Ender's Game"), Jason Mantzoukas, Chris Parnell (also last seen in "Anchorman 2"), Jessica St. Clair, with cameos from John C. Reilly (last seen in "Shadows and Fog"), Kevin Corrigan, Megan Fox, Fred Armisen (last heard in "The Smurfs"), Bobby Lee, Chris Elliott, Aasif Mandvi, Horatio Sanz (last heard in "Wreck-It Ralph"), Joey Slotnick, J.B. Smoove (last seen in "Mr. Deeds"), Nasim Pedrad, Garry Shandling (last seen in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier").

RATING: 3 out of 10 torture devices

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Great Dictator

Year 6, Day 297 - 10/24/14 - Movie #1,887

BEFORE: Chaplin carries over for the final time, and Paulette Goddard does too - makes sense, since she was his third wife and all that.  This film is from 1940, a time when it was much in vogue to make fun of Hitler, in much the same way that modern comedians have made fun of Saddam, Bin Laden and Kim Jong Il.

THE PLOT: Dictator Adenoid Hynkel tries to expand his empire while a poor Jewish barber tries to avoid persecution from Hynkel's regime.

AFTER: Chaplin plays two roles here, and any time that happens, you expect to see a switcheroo, a riff on "The Prince and the Pauper".  But that doesn't happen here until the very end, which is a little suspect.  Why don't more people notice the resemblance between the humble barber and the leader of Tomania?  The barber himself is still shell-shocked from World War I, so that's his excuse, but what about the regular people?  Especially since they both have such a tiny mustache, and no one else has that.  (I wonder if Chaplin was mad at Hitler for stealing his look - we still call it a "Hitler mustache", not a "Chaplin")

There's not much sublety here - Chaplin worked in full sound and used the opportunity to have his Hynkel/Hitler character make prolonged speeches with (presumably) German-sounding nonsense.  His Tramp/barber character also talks, but sparingly, still preferring pantomime over pontification, at least until the end where he makes a speech to try and save the world.  A little Wiki research tells me that this ending was unpopular at the time, since this was taken as Chaplin expressing his own political beliefs, and some people didn't like this interjection of politics into their comedy.

This was tricky, tricky comedy ground - to make a film in 1940 that showed the persecution of Jews and mentioned concentration camps while still mining that subject matter for slapstick and mistaken identity bits.  To have a sequence where Hynkel/Hitler dances with a large balloon shaped like the Earth - showing his thirst for power and territory while still keeping it light.  The only other film I can think of from that time that managed such a difficult balance was the original 1942 "To Be or Not To Be".

Making names like Goebbels and Goering sound like "Garbage" and "Herring" isn't exactly subtle either.  But I suppose somebody had to do it. And Benito Mussolini becomes "Benzino Napaloni", but I don't see how Italy got named "Bacteria" here.  Like the Hynkel speeches, most of the gags involving Napaloni just go on way too long, like when his train pulls too far into the station, then too far back, and so on.  Or the negotiation/food fight between Hynkel and Napaloni - just goes around and around, and lands exactly nowhere.

In the end, it's a form of fantasy fulfillment - that Hynkel/Hitler could reverse his Anti-Semitic policies on a whim, or through a set of comic mishaps, seems like a sort of wishful thinking for people who were on the brink of going to war.  If only life had imitated art.

Also starring Jack Oakie, Billy Gilbert (last seen in "Love on the Run"), Henry Daniell, Maurice Moskovitch

RATING: 4 out of 10 puddings

Friday, October 24, 2014

Modern Times

Year 6, Day 296 - 10/23/14 - Movie #1,886

BEFORE: Well, I've made great progress in the last two days, but I've also screwed up my sleeping schedule something fierce.  My body now wants to be awake when I should be sleeping, and vice versa.  Plus I seem to have lost the ability to fall asleep in a bed, I now have to start a film, watch it for 30-45 minutes, fall asleep in the recliner for 2 hours, wake up and finish the film - after all that, it's about 5 am and I can't get back to sleep.  When I was working 5 days a week, making it through a whole movie didn't seem to be much of a problem, but sleeping late on Tuesdays and Thursdays could also be affecting things.  Nah, let's blame Chaplin.

THE PLOT:  The Tramp struggles to live in modern industrial society with the help of a young homeless woman.

AFTER:  It's sort of ironic to watch a film titled "Modern Times" when it was made almost 80 years ago.  How modern could it possibly still be?  Turns out, quite a bit in the portrayal of the factory, which has a boss that can view all of his workers on a giant screen, and order them back to work the same way, even when they're smoking in the bathroom.  (Chaplin depicted the first hidden toilet-cam, I guess...)

Chaplin's not a Tramp here at first, he's a factory worker whose fortune rises and falls with the American steel industry.  But the rapidness of the assembly line gets to him, physically and mentally, so he's forced off the line.  As a commentary on the greed of industry leaders, he's even seen being fed by an experimental "feeding machine" which is intended to reduce worker's lunch hours to just a few minutes.  Of course, the machine ends up beating him silly with a corn cob, and force-feeding him metal nuts instead of pieces of food.  

After he suffers a mental breakdown, he's mistaken for a Communist instigator and thrown in jail, where he comically mixes up cocaine (sorry, "nose powder") and salt, leading to an interesting lunch that Al Pacino's Scarface would have enjoyed.  High as a kite, he stumbles out of jail, then stumbles back and prevents a jailbreak.  Normally this would get a man shanked in the shower, but here it leads to his parole.  

For once, a Chaplin film sets him up romantically with a counterpart at his level - not some beautiful, seemingly unattainable gorgeous dancing girl, but a similarly homeless girl, also wanted by the police for vagrancy.  Ever the gentleman, he steps in to get arrested in her place whenever she steals, and even covers for her when she escapes from the paddy wagon.  (It's like a 1930's comic version of "Les Miserables", am I right?)

After a failed stint as a night watchman for a department store, and yet another prison term, the two set up house, in a shack that makes the cabin from "The Gold Rush" look like a luxury hotel.  But when the newspapers announce the factory's re-opening, it's back to work - just in time to go on strike.  Wah, wah.  He finally finds some measure of success as a singing waiter, though the song that he sings is mostly made of nonsense words that sound vaguely French or Italian, along with pantomimed movements.

That's right, Chaplin sings, so it's not really a silent film - sort of a "half-silent".  Why did Chaplin persist in making silent-style films after sound films had come into vogue?  I can only assume that after such a long career in silents, this is just the method he was accustomed to.  The notes on IMDB state that Chaplin was convinced that "talkies" were just a passing fad, and since he was the writer, director, and chief financier of his films, he was able to keep making films the way he wanted, even though the industry was changing all around him.  He was also concerned about the way that his films would play in foreign countries, and felt that adding too much English dialogue would affect their international box office.  Hmm, where I have I heard that before?

Also starring Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Al Ernest Garcia

RATING: 6 out of 10 giant gears

City Lights

Year 6, Day 296 - 10/23/14 - Movie #1,885

BEFORE: Chaplin film #3 - once my Chaplin chain is over, I will have seen 91 out of the AFI's Top 100 American films, and 361 of the "1,001 Movies To See Before You Die" (with plans to watch at least another 12).
THE PLOT: The Tramp struggles to help a blind flower girl he has fallen in love with.

AFTER: Well, I didn't know Chaplin did so many "ass" jokes - the whole first comic sequence is about the Tramp being found sleeping on a statue as it's unveiled, and in trying to climb down from the statue, his butt ends up in one marble statue's face, and then in the hand of another.  He also gets his clothes caught on a sharp marble sword, but from the back, so it's awfully close to showing him being impaled on the sword, in a very personal way.  Later in the film, he works as a street-sweeper, and there's some poop humor - he refuses to go down a street where a number of horses have been, and then for the payoff, he walks by a random elephant.

But this is really about mistaken identity - the lovely blind woman has an interaction with the Tramp, and we can assume that he sounds pretty cultured (just look at how he dresses!) so when she hears a nearby car door slam, she assumes that he's driven off in his car.  Later in the film she visits him at his friend's mansion, so naturally she assumes he owns the place.

The Tramp's "friend" is a man he saved from drowning - and by "saved" I mean he did a bit where he talks him out of suicide, then falls into the river with him in comic fashion, only to climb out and stumble back in, again and again.  He's a millionaire prone to drinking, and when he's drunk he treats the Tramp well, but each time he sobers up, he can't remember who he is and has him tossed out of the mansion, DJ Jazzy Jeff style.

He also gives the Tramp his car, and later a sum of money, but can't remember doing this either once he's sober.  Most people who drink to excess aren't this bi-polar, and most eventually remember what they did while drunk, so this is another case of a filmmaker tailoring the way the world works for comic effect.  Similarly, when the Tramp reads about a doctor in Europe who can cure "blindness", that's probably a gross simplification, because no doubt there are different kinds of blindness, and I'm supposing that whatever cure that doctor has would only work on certain kinds.

But let's put all that aside, and admire how elegantly all of the pieces fit together on this one.  Every gag is neatly set up, right down to the newsboys who torment the Tramp at the start of the film, which doesn't pay off until the very end - but if they hadn't been there at the beginning, then the end sequence wouldn't have made any sense.  The burglars in the millionaire's home seem to come a bit out of the blue, but even they serve a purpose in setting up the payoff to the "I don't know this man" bit.

The best sequence is probably the boxing match - the Tramp enters into a match prepared to take a dive for some easy money, only to have his opponent rush out of town.  His new opponent doesn't honor the same agreement, so our hero is forced to fight for real.  He uses his slapstick moves to try and win the fight by unconventional means, which leads to comic situations like confusion with the referee getting mixed up in the fight, and then getting the rope to the bell tied around his neck, so that the bell rings to stop the fight whenever he gets knocked down, and then rings again to start the fight every time he walks away.

I was starting to wonder why, if the main character is a Tramp (aka hobo, aka homeless guy) he dresses so nicely.  But I think I've cracked the Chaplin code here - the character needs to travel in both worlds, that of the rich and the poor.  He needs to look elegant enough to get a job, or to not look out of place when circumstances take him to a fancy party or restaurant, but then once bad fortune comes his way again, and it inevitably does, he needs to be able to grab his hat and cane and waddle off to the next adventure.  He's the conduit between the millionaires and the flower girls of the world, between the rich prospectors and the dancing girls.

Also starring Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers, Florence Lee.

RATING: 6 out of 10 eviction notices