Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

Year 6, Day 74 - 3/15/14 - Movie #1,673

BEFORE: Woody Allen carries over as an actor again, as does David Ogden Stiers.  I'm skipping another few films from the late 1990's that I've seen already: "Deconstructing Harry", "Celebrity", "Sweet and Lowdown" and "Small Time Crooks".  But no more skipping after tonight - it's a straight shot to the end of Allen's filmography, 12 more films.

THE PLOT:  An insurance investigator and an efficency expert who hate each other are both hypnotized by a crooked hypnotist with a jade scorpion into stealing jewels.

AFTER: Tonight it's a return to the 1930's ("Shadows and Fog", "Radio Days") and the use of hypnotism as a story device ("Alice").  I see this as a continuation of the magic herbs in "Alice" and the magic tricks seen in "Shadows and Fog". 

For this to work, you have to be willing to believe that hypnotism can work, that someone can be given a subconscious suggestion to do something that might be against their nature.  Can someone be made to commit a crime, for example, and then be made to forget that they did it, via another hypnotic suggestion? 

I'd like to see someone like the Mythbusters investigate whether hypnotism works - people use it to quit smoking or lose weight, but couldn't that just suggest the power of positive reinforcement?  I mean, if one could use hypnotism to get others to commit crimes, why haven't people done this in the real world?  I suppose some people have been brainwashed into cults, but that's not really the same thing.  Why are hypnotists relegated to working at resorts and cheezy nightclubs?  You'd think they'd be richer if they could make others do their bidding.

Also starring Helen Hunt (last seen in "The Sessions"), Dan Aykroyd (last seen in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry"), Charlize Theron (last seen in "The Legend of Bagger Vance"), Elizabeth Berkley, Wallace Shawn (last seen in "Shadows and Fog"), Peter Gerety, John Schuck.

RATING: 5 out of 10 file cabinets

Friday, March 14, 2014

Everyone Says I Love You

Year 6, Day 73 - 3/14/14 - Movie #1,672

BEFORE:  I get to skip over a few more Woody Allen films, since I had a run in the mid-1990's where I was going to the movies a lot.  I've seen "Manhattan Murder Mystery", "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Mighty Aphrodite", and I'll get to skip over a few more tomorrow.  I wish I had more time to re-watch those films, to put them in the proper context, it's a shame I have this thing called a job that takes up much of my time.

But I liked all three of those films, and I never saw this one - here's a terrible thought, what if I've already seen all of the GOOD Woody Allen films, and I'm left with just the stinkers?  Well, that's what I aim to find out.  Woody carries over as an actor from "Husbands and Wives".

A New York girl sets her father up with a beautiful woman in a shaky marriage while her half sister gets engaged.

AFTER:  Much has probably been already discussed about the use of music in this film - at times it is warranted by the plot (a man serenading his wife while playing piano at a party) and at other times it is not (a song-and-dance number that breaks out in a respected jewelry shop).  The more unlikely the setting, the more the use of music reminds us that we are watching a film, that these are not real people but actors, and unfortunately this can affect the audience's ability to suspend their disbelief.  

At the same time, however, it's a throwback to the movie musicals of the 1930's, when characters would break into song for no reason - and sometimes, even then, that led to some awkward questions - as in "Hey, those characters are standing out on the Oklahoma prairie - where's that orchestra music coming from?"  Other people might watch those films (or this one) and not question the use of song and dance at all - like it's the most natural thing for everyone in a jewelry store or a supermarket or a hospital to know all the same steps in a dance routine.  

I guess it depends on how conditioned you are to watching movie musicals.  You could get used to seeing this (especially if you've seen a flash mob dance) or, like me, you could have seen so many movie musicals that you're above it all.  "Wait a minute, if they all know that dance, that means they rehearsed it, and that means the dance wasn't spontaneous at all!  I've been hoodwinked!"  So, you see, there are ups and downs inherent with reviving this old format.

In addition, by this time we all (or maybe it's just me) are conditioned to certain types of Woody Allen's recurring themes - upper-class New Yorkers, couples agonizing over their marriages, Woody dates a younger girl, etc., we don't expect the characters to break into song.  And this film has all those things - a large blended family where Woody plays the ex-husband ("Hannah and Her Sisters"), a convict helps his friends break out of jail ("Take the Money and Run"), someone listens in on therapy sessions ("Another Woman"), a woman wants to do a lot of charity work ("Alice"), and Woody's a neurotic writer with ex-wife issues who seems to only date crazy women  (umm, every one of his films?  That seems to be a constant.)

And to his credit, Woody was trying something new (well, old, but still new) by adding music.  Too bad there were mixed results, because some actors can really sing well (Edward Norton), and others just can't (sorry, Drew Barrymore).  Alan Alda sings about as well as you'd expect, and Julia Roberts slightly better than you might expect.  Other actors weren't asked to sing at all, and I think we can draw our own conclusions about that.  I'm not even sure all of them can act (sorry, Natalie...)

EDIT: I strongly suspected that Ms. Barrymore did not do her own singing, just because her singing voice sounded nothing like her speaking voice.  A glance through the song credits on IMDB seems to support this, which suggests that maybe they recorded her singing and then dubbed in another voice, or perhaps from the start she was lip-synching to a pre-recorded track.  Either way, the result is the same.

But again we've got a narration, which in this case tends to make the film feel more disjointed, not less.  For everything that it explains, it also confuses two more things.  "Did we say that springtime was the best time to be in New York?  We should have said summer was the best time, because everyone who's anyone is gone on vacation.  Umm, except us.  No, I should have said that winter was the best time to be in New York, because that's when we all go to Paris."  Wait, what?  The characters can't even seem to keep their own opinions straight.  Maybe they're just flaky people, but I need a little more than that.

Also starring Julia Roberts (last seen in "Larry Crowne"), Edward Norton (last seen in "Stone"), Drew Barrymore (last seen in "Never Been Kissed"), Alan Alda (last seen in "Tower Heist"), Goldie Hawn (last seen in "Cactus Flower"), Natasha Lyonne, Natalie Portman (last seen in "No Strings Attached"), Lukas Haas (last seen in "Lincoln"), Gaby Hoffman, Tim Roth (last seen in "The Musketeer"), Billy Crudup (last seen in "The Watch"), Edward Hibbert, with cameos from Itzhak Perlman, Tony Sirico, David Ogden Stiers (last seen in "Shadows and Fog").

RATING:  5 out of 10 gondolas

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Husbands and Wives

Year 6, Day 72 - 3/13/14 - Movie #1,671

BEFORE: Woody Allen and Mia Farrow carry over from "Shadows and Fog" for their final collaboration.  Since this film about breakups was edited and released during their actual breakup, I'm assuming that people watched this film very closely for insights into their personal life...

THE PLOT: When their best friends announce that they're separating, a professor and his wife discover the faults in their marriage.

AFTER: Full disclosure, I was once in a situation like this, near the end of my first marriage.  Our closest married friends sat us down and told us they were separating, but they both wanted to stay friends with both of us.  We were sad and confused and sorry for them, but in the end they worked out their issues and stayed together - but they had set in motion a chain of events that may have contributed to our own break-up.  There were other issues, of course - but this situation rang really true for me.

Last year, I watched all of the James Bond films in a row, and it really highlighted the similarities of the films as a collective narrative.  By the end of the chain, I just couldn't watch another madman try to take over the world by launching a satellite.  My BFF Andy pointed out my mistake - you're simply not supposed to watch them all in a row, because that's not how they were made.  With a two or three year gap between the release dates, that's the ideal way to watch them - one every three years. It's become sort of the same with Woody Allen, who has averaged about a film a year since the 1970's.  They're probably best watched with a one-year gap in between, and now I realize my scheduling mistake once again.

As a result of watching them day after day, I keep seeing the same things over and over - upper-class Manhattanites, agonizing over their relationships and having affairs.  Oh, there have been a couple of exceptions - a couple of the films have been set in San Francisco or Eastern Europe, but the general thrust is the same.

However, this film is set in a documentary style, which is something of a return to the format of "Take the Money and Run", only dramatic instead of comedic.  But somehow without narrator, we can more easily accept an omniscient camera, which goes wherever it needs to and records whatever is relevant.  But when we hear that voice - wait, who's narrating?  And who's filming this?  And why don't the people being filmed realize that they're being filmed - did they really not mind being filmed cheating on their spouses?  And how did the film crew get footage of flashback events that happened years ago?  Somehow the documentary format calls the whole process into question.  It's an easy way to frame the narrative - one suspects that anything the director neglected to shoot or that somehow doesn't make sense in the editing room can be saved with a few lines of narration.

But let's get back to the story.  Once again, it's Woody's fascination with the process of how lovers come together, separate, and then either come back together or find new lovers.  Admittedly this is much more fascinating than watching people work, get fired and then find new jobs, but I still have to wonder why he's so obsessed with this process. Maybe because he's been through it so many times?  They do always say, "Write what you know."

Speaking of writing, how many Woody Allen films feature a character who's a writer?  Screenwriter, novel writer, it's all the same.  People with writer's block, people who show their screenplays to each other as a form of intimacy, people who want to become writers - it's a common enough theme, and to his credit, he tends not to show people hammering away at a typewriter, even though he reportedly writes that way himself.  "The Front", "Interiors", "Stardust Memories", "Another Woman", "September", and "Alice" all had characters who were writers, and of course this was central to "Hannah and Her Sisters" as well.  Write what you know, even if that means writing about writing itself...

Also starring Sydney Pollack (last seen in "Changing Lanes"), Judy Davis (last seen in "Alice"), Liam Neeson (last seen in "Anchorman 2"), Juliette Lewis (last seen in "Natural Born Killers"), Ron Rifkin (last seen in "The Sum of All Fears"), Blythe Danner (also last seen in "Alice"), Lysette Anthony, with a cameo from Nora Ephron.

RATING: 5 out of 10 hedgehogs

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Shadows and Fog

Year 6, Day 71 - 3/12/14 - Movie #1,670

BEFORE: Woody carries over again, and I start to wrap up the Mia Farrow films.

THE PLOT:  With a serial strangler on the loose, a bookkeeper wanders around town searching for the vigilante group intent on catching the killer.

AFTER:  In this film, Woody Allen plays a nerdy guy who ends up being accused of a crime, with little evidence and public opinion turns against him.  If only there were a way for me to make a connection to real life situations...

But seriously, this is set in some kind of foggy Eastern European city, where the circus is in town and a killer stalks the streets.  The only thing that connects it to previous Woody Allen films seems to be the deteriorating relationships among the circus folk, and among the bookkeeper and his landlord/girlfriend and also his ex-fiancĂ©e, and the willingness of the main characters to have affairs and then agonize over them.

This is allegedly an homage to Franz Kafka, in the same way that previous Allen films were homages to Bergman or Fellini.  Kafka's traditional depiction of the futility and meaninglessness of life seems like a better fit with his sensibilities, in my opinion.

The ending feels very rushed and sort of tacked-on, and relies on magic (or camera tricks, depending on what you believe).  I think magic here is more of a problem than in "Alice", simply because the rest of the film is so straightforward and non-magical, so to close with this seems like a bit of a cheat, as if someone couldn't think of a proper wrap-up.  This also contradicts any larger point that could have been made about vigilante justice, because that part of the plot was important before, and then got left behind.

Also starring Mia Farrow (last seen in "Alice"), John Malkovich (last seen in "The Man in the Iron Mask"), Donald Pleasance (last seen in "You Only Live Twice"), Lily Tomlin (last seen in "The Incredible Shrinking Woman"), John Cusack (last seen in "The Thin Red Line"), Jodie Foster (last seen in "Flightplan"), Kathy Bates (last seen in "Arthur 2: On the Rocks"), Julie Kavner (last seen in "Another Woman"), David Ogden Stiers (ditto), Philip Bosco (ditto), with cameos from Madonna, Wallace Shawn (last heard in "Toy Story 3"), Victor Argo, James Rebhorn (last seen in "Up Close & Personal"), Kate Nelligan (ditto), Daniel von Bargen (last seen in "Six Degrees of Separation"), John C. Reilly (last seen in "Anchorman 2"), Kurtwood Smith, Fred Gwynne (last seen in "Disorganized Crime"), Robert Joy, William H. Macy (last seen in "The Sessions"), Kenneth Mars

RATING: 4 out of 10 fingerprints

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Scenes From a Mall

Year 6, Day 70 - 3/11/14 - Movie #1,669

BEFORE: I'm still reeling from the annual change to DST - Daylight Stupid Time.  I've ranted about it many times before, so I'll spare you the usual complaining.  But, why does this always happen on a weekend?  Why can't we lose an hour from a Monday?  Nobody likes Mondays anyway...

Taking a break from the Mia Farrow chain, this is a solo Woody acting effort - Mia links to Woody through any of their many co-starring roles...

THE PLOT:  On their 16th anniversary, a married couple's trip to a Beverly Hills mall becomes the stage for personal revelations and deceptions.

AFTER:  It seems like a logical conclusion, based on all that has come before, that there are only three parts of a relationship that Woody Allen finds interesting: the initial contact, having an affair, and confessing the affair.  Even though Woody did not write or direct this film, it touches on the last of the three, as a man and wife reveal their affairs to each other while shopping.

At this point, it might be a little difficult to determine where art imitates life, and vice versa.  I'd love to hear the backstory behind making this film, a departure in that it's set far from Woody's usual New York locale, and even though he was still with Mia Farrow when this was shot, one has to wonder about at what point his eyes started to stray.  And yet they still made two more films together.

Like "Alice", this is a film about rich people, professional people, and how unsatisfied they are, and how caught up they are in material objects.  More Bergman references tonight, apparently to a film called "Scenes From a Marriage", which gives me no frame of reference.

The mall, however, is used as a framing device - which manages to be clever where the story isn't.  There are so many different places to put this married couple - various stores, restaurants, escalators, the parking garage - each with its own set of props and challenges.  A cappella groups, breakdancers and an annoying mime (is there any other kind?) complete the background scenes.

It's an Allenesque portrait of the way that two people separate, and perhaps come together again.  Which feels somewhat natural, however in being natural it also doesn't reach for anything extraordinary.

I caught the last half hour of "Hannah and Her Sisters" on cable after this film, and it reminded me why I love that film so much.  It feels like the ultimate expression of all of the Woody Allen tropes - the family of neurotic New Yorkers, the introspection about religion and death, jazz music, writer's block, and people having affairs.  It's like all the other Allen films got distilled down to their essences and concentrated.  It will be hard for any Woody Allen film to top that one, for me.

NITPICK POINT: I realize it's something of a contrivance to keep them at the mall longer, but after getting their car towed, I doubt most people would go back in and shop more.  This felt really out of character - most people would then turn their focus to finding out where their car got towed to, and what they need to do to get it back.

Also starring Bette Midler (last seen in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills"), Bill Irwin, (last seen in "A Midsummer Night's Dream") Paul Mazursky, Marc Shaiman, with cameos from Fabio, Soon-Yi Previn (uh-oh...)

RATING: 3 out of 10 frozen yogurts

Monday, March 10, 2014


Year 6, Day 69 - 3/10/14 - Movie #1,668

BEFORE:  I'm skipping over "New York Stories" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors", because I've seen both of those.  This one feels vaguely familiar, but then again, I'm not sure.  And when I'm not sure, I have to watch it to be sure.  As a result, both Mia Farrow AND Blythe Danner carry over from "Another Woman".

NOW I am halfway through the Woody Allen chain.  17 films down and 17 to go.

THE PLOT:  A spoiled Manhattan housewife re-evaluates her life after visiting a Chinatown healer.

AFTER: Woody's out to confound me once again, in a method similar to "The Purple Rose of Cairo".  In that film, the impossible was seen to happen as a character walked out of a movie screen - tonight the impossible happens again, as a woman turns invisible, and speaks to the ghost of her ex-boyfriend.  While it is possible that she is imagining these things taking place, at some point other characters react to her invisibility, so we are forced to regard this as a real event.  (as real as anything else in the film, that is...)

The catalyst for the impossible occurences this time are herbal potions given to our housewife heroine by a Chinese doctor.  The potions change over the course of her treatment, presumably as she gets more in touch with her feelings and what she wants out of life, the doctor changes his herbal prescriptions.  

The doctor tells her that her pain is not in her back, it's in her head and in her heart.  Having recently had feelings for a single father/saxophone player she met while picking her daughter up at school, she's created an internal conflict between her newfound attraction and her 16-year marriage.  She clearly wants to have an affair, but doesn't consider herself the type of person who would do such a thing.  This really leaves her only two choices: call off the new relationship, or become the type of person who would have an affair.

Some of this reminds me of what Kurt Vonnegut used to say in his books, about how we're all just walking skin-bags full of chemicals.  If this is the case, than anything we eat or drink or smoke introduces new chemicals into the mix, so we are what we eat, but we're also what we breathe.  If you change your diet, you're not just changing your fuel supply, you're becoming a different person.  So this film works in that regard - thanks to some herbal potions (and one late-night session of smoking pot - or is it opium? - in the doctor's office), Alice is able to change her chemical composition, and eventually her lifestyle.

The Chinese doctor here wouldn't credit the herbs for her change, of course - he'd merely say that they're helping her get more information, and get in touch with her own feelings so that she can make the right decision for her.  Same difference, I say.  

What I have issue with, though, is the portrayal of a certain type of Manhattan housewife - the kind that lives on the Upper East Side, stays home to raise her kids but wishes she were working, has a full social calendar but still feels bored with her own life, who seems to be on top of things, but relies on help from a nanny and/or cook.  So essentially, what does she really do all day, besides shop, throw parties and spend a couple hours with her kids?  

My issue is not whether such women exist - I'm sure they do - but rather it's about whether one of them would say things like "I'm bored with getting pedicures and going to parties."  And whether one of them would secretly yearn to throw her lifestyle away and go work with Mother Teresa, ministering to the poor people of Calcutta.  This film would have you believe that the opposite lifestyle to living in an uptown paradise would be to live downtown, do all the housework yourself (shudder) and volunteer at a soup kitchen.  That's it, those are the two extremes, and there's no in-between.  Which seems a little ridiculous, or overly simplistic.

Also starring William Hurt (last seen in "Kiss of the Spider Woman"), Joe Mantegna (last seen in "Up Close & Personal"), Keye Luke, Alec Baldwin (last heard in "Rise of the Guardians"), Judy Davis (last seen in "Naked Lunch"), with cameos from Cybill Shepherd (last seen in "The Muse"), Bob Balaban (last seen in "Recount"), Bernadette Peters (last seen in "Pennies For Heaven"), June Squibb, Gwen Verdon, James Toback, Holland Taylor (last seen in "Happy Accidents"), Julie Kavner (last heard in "The Simpsons Movie"), Elle Macpherson.

RATING:  5 out of 10 cups of eggnog

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Another Woman

Year 6, Day 68 - 3/9/14 - Movie #1,667

BEFORE: I'm hitting a milestone tonight, after this film gets crossed off the list there will be just 200 films left on it.  Loving round numbers, I'm comfortable with this as the new stasis point - I usually add one new film for each one that I watch, and if that's the case, I'm OK with holding here for a while.  The number held at 202 for all of February, and before that it spent some time at 204, and most of last year hovering around 230.  But occasionally I don't find a film to add, and that's how some semblance of progress takes place.  Considering that I started with 435 films, getting the list down to 200 is a big deal, but it took much longer than I first expected.

Mia Farrow carries over yet again, and I'm almost halfway through the Woody Allen chain.  But these are the tougher ones to slog through...

THE PLOT:  Facing a mid-life crisis, a woman rents an apartment next to a psychiatrist's office to write a new book, only to become drawn to the plight of a pregnant woman seeking that doctor's help.

AFTER: More writer's block tonight - at least this time it's a woman with the condition, for a bit of a change of pace.  (Could she be the stand-in for Woody, who does not play a character in this film, either?)

But other than that, it's more of the same.  People having affairs, or mid-life crises, or both.  I've been really tough on Woody for continuing to mine the same territory, but truth be told, I'm quite jealous.  If I ever get around to writing my screenplay, it would also be about a group of NYC friends who are writers and filmmakers, and the affairs and attractions that take place within that group.  However, I'd focus on younger people, and I would try my darnedest to not make it as boring as "September" or tonight's film. 

Once again, there is a main storyline, but parts of the backstory are revealed via dreams and flashbacks - eating away at any chance of putting together a totally linear timeline.  And again the day is saved by narration - a voice-over explaining the connections between the scenes suggests to me that scenes were perhaps written and filmed before a logical way to connect them all had been established - because this violates the "show, don't tell" rule.

I had an odd idea about 2/3 of the way through - what if the central character was having a nervous breakdown, and the patient she was overhearing was not only imaginary, but represented herself as a young woman?  Or, better yet, what if she was somehow able to bend the laws of time and actually overhear herself, as a younger woman visiting her analyst?  She could then take herself out to lunch, and perhaps convince her younger self to take a different path, follow through with her pregnancy rather than terminate it, and (hopefully) change her life for the better?

If this had been a film directed by David Fincher or M. Night Shyamalan, then maybe that would have worked, but alas, it was not to be.  But I think I'm sort of on to something, because both characters had backgrounds in painting, so their similarities were sort of highlighted, so I think in some way the younger woman does represent an aspect of the older woman, just not in the way I had envisioned.

The IMDB suggests that Mia Farrow could be playing the same character she played in "September", who talked about moving to New York at the end of that film.  This is another interesting idea, and it leads me to wonder why the Allenverse doesn't work like the Kevin Smith universe, with characters from older films popping up again in new ones.  However, the characters have different names - but I suppose it's possible that Laine from "September" could have changed her name upon moving to the city, if she was really looking for a fresh start, or hiding from the baby's father.

This is the first appearance in the project of Martha Plimpton - someone I happen to have met in the real world.  Her "cousin" is my employer, and we both served as producers on an animated feature titled "Hair High".  It's not like we had much contact, I worked on the day-to-day production and she worked on casting other actors to provide voices - obviously she had many more acting connections than me.  But we spoke at the cast party - I had no idea she had been in a Woody Allen film.  Weird that it took so long for her to pop up in this project.

Also starring Gena Rowlands (last seen in "The Notebook"), Ian Holm (last seen in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"), Blythe Danner (last seen in "The X-Files"), Martha Plimpton, Gene Hackman (last seen in "Welcome to Mooseport"), Betty Buckley (last seen in "Wyatt Earp"), John Houseman, Sandy Dennis (last seen in "The Four Seasons"), David Ogden Stiers (last heard in "Pocahontas"), Philip Bosco, Harris Yulin, Frances Conroy, with a cameo from Dana Ivey.

RATING: 3 out of 10 anniversary gifts