Saturday, March 22, 2014

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Year 6, Day 81 - 3/22/14 - Movie #1,680

BEFORE:  Linking back from Ewan McGregor to Scarlett Johansson, back the way I came, via "The Island".

THE PLOT:  Two girlfriends on a summer holiday in Spain become enamored with the same painter, unaware that his ex-wife, with whom he has a tempestuous relationship, is about to re-enter the picture.

AFTER: We've moved on to Spain, but this is the same old Woody Allen - entitled rich people who are always either thinking about having affairs, having affairs, or ruing the fact that they had an affair.  Jesus, isn't anyone anywhere ever happy, or at least satisfied?  People hailed this film when it came out a few years ago, but I can't help but view it as a step backwards in his career, as it hearkens back to films like "September" and "Interiors".

The one thing that stands out, to make this film different and interesting, is that for a while, three of the characters are in a committed relationship together - that's one man and two women, and the women are even sort of into each other for a bit.  Now you've got my attention - that's every man's fantasy, right?  The plot of every late-night film on Cinemax...  But no, the way it comes off here, it doesn't last long, and we don't get to see much of it, so congratulations, Woody, for finding a way to make a three-way boring.

And who the heck was narrating this?  That actor didn't appear in the film at all, so who's telling this story, whose point of view is represented?  It's all so disjointed, and self-contradictory.  This little arrangement represented the perfect relationship - umm, until it didn't.  Why?  What changed?  Somebody felt dissatisfied, but why?  Again, every change just seems to be motivated by a woman acting irrationally, and from a story standpoint, that should not be enough, not every time.

Oh, and everyone who's Spanish, please speak English, for the benefit of the other characters.  I mean, for the American audience.

I think I definitely need a break from all this drama.  So it's a good thing we're headed out on our little three-day vacation tomorrow. 

Also starring Javier Bardem (last seen in "Skyfall"), Penelope Cruz (last seen in "All the Pretty Horses"), Rebecca Hall (last seen in "Iron Man 3"), Chris Messina (last seen in "Celeste & Jesse Forever"), Patricia Clarkson (last seen in "Miracle"), Kevin Dunn, and the voice of Christopher Evan Welch, with a cameo from Zak Orth (last seen in "Melinda and Melinda")

RATING: 4 out of 10 wine tastings 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Cassandra's Dream

Year 6, Day 80 - 3/21/14 - Movie #1,679

BEFORE: Linking from "Scoop", Scarlett Johansson was also in "The Island" (yep, it's on the watchlist) with Ewan McGregor (last seen in "Jack the Giant Slayer").  Alternately, Ian McShane was also in "Jack the Giant Slayer" with Ewan McGregor - and to think I was worried about the linking in these more recent Woody Allen films...

THE PLOT:  The tale of two brothers with serious financial woes. When a third party proposes they turn to crime, things go bad and the two become enemies.

AFTER: This seems to be the conclusion of what I'm sure people must call Woody Allen's "British Crime Trilogy".  If not, then maybe they should.

There's something Shakespearean, even Biblical, about a tale that pits two brothers against each other in the end.  But it's a long, slow descent to the conclusion of this tragedy.  I can't say that this one held my attention as well as "Scoop" did, because it didn't, but it all felt real, or at least possible.

One of the brothers has grand investment plans, but no steady income.  The other one has a steady income as a car mechanic, but also gambles - and he's one of those guys who thinks he can feel when he's got a lucky streak coming, which is the worst kind of gambler to be.  That "system" of feeling lucky only has to pay off once, and then he'll think he can feel it every time, which of course he can't.  So he'll keep borrowing more and more money, just to get himself out of the hole, when he's in fact doing the opposite and digging his hole deeper.

This would come just as I'm getting ready for a three-day trip to Atlantic City - and it functions as a cautionary tale against gambling.  I'm no high-roller, but I do play the slots a little bit, even though my BFF keeps reminding me that "wheel games are for suckers".  I'm just not confident enough to bet on blackjack or play high-stakes poker, so I devised my own system for playing the slot machines: I put $20 in a machine, and any time the total goes above $20, I cash out.  Even if my total hits $20.25, I cash out.  Then I put that ticket in my pocket and start on another machine with a new $20.  I either cash out when the next machine goes over $20, or play it down to zero.

After playing 5 $20 bills in 5 different machines, I check my winnings.  Ideally at this point I would have 5 tickets, which together total over my initial $100.  It may not be a huge amount over, but if it's over $100, then I've won - and I usually spend my winnings at the buffet.  If my total is less than $100, then I console myself with a trip to the buffet.  See the difference?  Either way, I'm going to the buffet, which is probably going to be a lot more profitable for me - basically the casino is betting that I can only eat $16.95 worth of food, and in truth I can eat quite a bit more, so in the end, I win.

(I have a more complex strategy for playing the slots, which involves alternating between betting 1 quarter, 3 quarters and the max bet, but I won't get into that here.  Besides I'm not revealing all of my strategies to you, because if everyone did this, eventually it wouldn't work any more, and it just barely works as it is....)

Also starring Colin Farrell (last seen in "The New World"), Tom Wilkinson (last seen in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"), Hayley Atwel (last seen in "Captain America: The First Avenger"), Philip Davis, Sally Hawkins (last seen in "Jane Eyre"), John Benfield, Clare Higgins.

RATING: 5 out of 10 greyhounds

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Year 6, Day 79 - 3/20/14 - Movie #1,678

BEFORE:  I got an e-mail yesterday from my cable provider, explaining that my access to the new channels is free for 3 months, and will automatically expire at the end of that period.  With access to over a dozen films that I've been looking for, I intend to take full advantage - my guess is that the cable company realized that its customers were missing out on some big films from 2012-2013, and were eventually going to seek out those films on NetFlix or Amazon.  This way, everybody wins.

Linking from "Match Point", Scarlett Johansson carries over.

THE PLOT:  An American journalism student in London scoops a big story, and begins an affair with an aristocrat as the incident unfurls.

AFTER:  More hijinx among the British upper class tonight, and Woody appears again in a mentor role to a younger character (as in "Anything Else") and also performs magic tricks (as in "Shadows and Fog").

I'm regarding the magic tricks, and the ability to speak with a dead character as tonight's contrivances, especially since we've seen them before - the person "disappearing" from a box was also seen in Allen's segment of "New York Stories", and in "Alice", the lead character gets to speak to her deceased boyfriend.  But the thing about the contrivances is that they do propel the plot forward, and they were truly necessary here to set everything in motion. 

But if there's even a chance that a person is a serial killer, is the best way to get information about them to start seeing them romantically?  It's not just about being too close to the story, it's that jumping into bed with someone who might kill his lovers is an all-too-obvious way to get on his list.  There simply must have been other avenues to get the required information - they might have taken longer, but they would have been less dangerous.

This is not the first Woody Allen film to deal with murder,  but his filmography overall highlights a disturbing trend - what do "Crimes and Misdemeanors", "Manhattan Murder Mystery", "Broadway Danny Rose", and tonight's film have in common?  They all feature men killing (or trying to kill) ex-girlfriends or ex-wives - but I can only think of one instance in Woody's films of a woman killing a man.  Is this a reflection of reality or some kind of wish-fulfillment?  Either way, I think I've found my thesis topic.  Add on the wife-beating seen in "The Purple Rose of Cairo", and draw your own conclusions.

But on the whole, I found this was well-organized and didn't contradict itself too often, which I can't say about all of Woody Allen's films.

The suspenseful classical music heard throughout is "In the Hall of the Mountain King", from the Peer Gynt Suite by Edvard Grieg.  But I confused the piece with "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", by Paul Dukas, which would have made more narrative sense, considering Woody plays a magician who mentors the lead character.   But since both classical pieces feature repetitive music and both build to rousing crescendos, I'm wondering if Woody or his music supervisor also confused the two pieces. 

(and cameos from TWO Star Wars actors, who played Gen. Veers in "Empire Strikes Back" and Mon Mothma in "Return of the Jedi"!)

Also starring Hugh Jackman (last heard in "Rise of the Guardians"), Ian McShane (last seen in "Jack the Giant-Slayer"), Julian Glover (last seen in "Troy"), Romola Garai, Charles Dance, with cameos from Caroline Blakiston (last seen in "The Fourth Protocol"), Anthony Head.

RATING: 7 out of 10 Stradivarius violins

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Match Point

Year 6, Day 78 - 3/19/14 - Movie #1,677

BEFORE: I was starting to make some headway in reducing the watchlist, I got it down 2 more notches to 198, which is always a sign to me that I'm going to get hit with a flood of new available films.  Sure enough, my cable company just added the ePix channels to the premium line-up, and now I see where some of the biggest releases from the last two years have been hiding.  Simple tip to become relevant in the distribution: just buy up a bunch of something, and keep buying until other companies have to deal with you.  There's that most recent "Mission: Impossible" film, along with that "Hansel & Gretel" movie, that Sacha Baron Cohen "Dictator" film, and "Young Adult", all of which were on my list, and some more to boot.

Linking from "Melinda and Melinda", Will Ferrell was also in "The Campaign" with Brian Cox (last seen in "Troy").  I'm lucky yet again.

THE PLOT:  At a turning point in his life, a former tennis pro falls for a femme-fatale type who happens to be dating his friend and soon-to-be brother-in-law.

AFTER:  I've heard that Woody's career got invigorated once he started making films outside of NYC, and I'm starting to agree with that concept.  It's funny that the main character in "Anything Else" wanted to get out of NYC and start fresh writing in L.A., and I wonder if secretly that's what Woody wanted as well. 

He was still fascinated by the upper class when he made this one - and upper-class Brits are probably very similar to upper-class New Yorkers - they work in finance, they play tennis, they go to shows, they agonize over their marriages and affairs.  But they're just on another level somehow - they're classier.  So at the same time these are familiar characters, but also fresh ones. 

It's the same old dilemma I've seen time and time again in Woody's films - the lead male is married to one woman, but sexually attracted to another.  And of course it doesn't seem like NOT having an affair is a valid option (how boring would that make the movie?).  Chris Wilton, the tennis pro, is attracted to a woman who's about to become his sister-in-law - that hearkens back to "Hannah and Her Sisters", right?  With the same problems - should he end things with his wife, to really devote himself to the new relationship, or end things with the girlfriend and re-connect with his wife?  Or, as a third option, just keep stringing both of them along until a solution presents itself.

Well, that's kind of what happens here, only the solution is quite drastic and shocking, and I've probably said too much already.  (and if I name the other Woody Allen film this is a throwback to, that will say too much as well...)  I feel that the other possible solutions would be simpler, and therefore preferable, but then again, people don't always act rationally when it comes to affairs of the heart.  So after this something happens, the question then becomes - was it a valid solution? 

Although it seems possible, and therefore rings somewhat true, it hinges on luck, which becomes just as much of a contrivance as Allen's previous ones, like magic or hypnosis.  You can't grasp luck, you can't plan for it, you can't account for it - lucky things either happen or they don't.  And when luck strikes, it's almost a magical effect, as well as a convenient plot point. 

Still, I maintain that a little something got lost in the shuffle.  A small thing, but something that would have been, should have been, noticed and accounted for.  I can't specify any further without spoiling the plot - but I want to make note of it here, that I remembered this tiny thing, even if every character in the film that was aware of it seemed to gloss over it.  Unless one particular character was lying about its existence, which is possible - that would explain a lot, but this wasn't clarified either.

If this film represents a turn in Woody Allen's career, then it's one that I approve of.  Even when the film goes off in a strange direction, it's a bold one that ends up mostly making sense.

Also starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers (last seen in "Vanity Fair"), Scarlett Johansson (last seen in "We Bought a Zoo"), Emily Mortimer (last seen in "Hugo"), Matthew Goode, Rupert Penry-Jones (last seen in "Red Tails"), Penelope Wilton (last seen in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"), James Nesbitt, Ewen Bremner.

RATING: 6 out of 10 opera tickets

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Melinda and Melinda

Year 6, Day 77 - 3/18/14 - Movie #1,676

BEFORE: Linking from "Anything Else", Woody Allen was also in "Shadows and Fog" with Wallace Shawn.

THE PLOT:  Two alternating stories about Melinda's (Mitchell) attempts to straighten out her life.

AFTER:  There's a germ of a good idea here, but there are internal problems as well.  There's a framing device of people telling stories in a restaurant, as in "Broadway Danny Rose", but the first problem is that the stories here are told as fictional, unlike the story in the other film, which the comics were relating to each other as stories about their real friend.

So, when presented with two stories about Melinda (and without hearing the original anecdote that the stories are based on, which seems like an odd choice), the audience's first question might be, "Well, which is real?" and it's quite obvious that neither is real.  Of course, nearly all stories in movies are fictional, but they claim to be real, which makes them temporarily real for the audience, and without that, it's difficult to see the point in this exercise.

The hook is that one story is intended as a tragedy and the other as a comedy, but even given that, what's the point?  Neither genre can possibly be determined to be "better" than the other, so what's the use in comparing them?  Furthermore, there is only one character common to both stories, so if nearly every element of the story is different, what can we learn by comparing them?  Perhaps if all of the characters were the same, we could have learned more about what makes a story a tragedy and what makes one a comedy. 

I feel somehow if there were more similarities in the two stories, we could have been more able to distinguish what, exactly, each storyteller brought to the table.  But without that, I'm left to wonder.

Also starring Radha Mitchell (last seen in "Pitch Black"), Will Ferrell (last seen in "Bewitched"), Chloe Sevigny (last seen in "American Psycho"), Jonny Lee Miller (last seen in "Dark Shadows"), Amanda Peet (last seen in "The X-Files: I Want to Believe"), Brooke Smith, Chiwetel Ejiofor (last seen in "Love Actually"), Josh Brolin (last seen in "Men in Black 3"), Larry Pine, Zak Orth, Daniel Sunjata (last seen in "The Dark Knight Rises"), with cameos from Steve Carell (also last seen in "Bewitched"), Matt Servitto.

RATING:  3 out of 10 Coquilles St. Jacques

Monday, March 17, 2014

Anything Else

Year 6, Day 76 - 3/17/14 - Movie #1,675

BEFORE: Woody Allen carries over again as an actor, but I think my linking luck runs out tonight.  This was his last regular appearance, I think he had a couple more acting roles after this, but starting tomorrow I've got to get more creative in finding links.

I'm taking a spring break next Sunday, we're going to Atlantic City for a couple of days, so I'll have to put the chain on hold.  I think once I get back I can still finish the Woody Allen chain before the end of the month.

THE PLOT:  A romantic comedy about the relationship between an older guy and his younger protege. The older guy guides the younger through a messy and hilarious love story.

AFTER:  At some point, Woody Allen wisely stepped aside from playing the leads in his own films - in this one he plays more of a mentor to the lead, who clearly represents himself, since he's a divorced Jewish/atheist comedy writer who's struggling to write a novel and dating a series of crazy women.

By "crazy", I don't mean clinically insane, it's more like the lead female here acts extremely illogically - like getting depressed, binge eating, and then complaining that she's overweight.  When you step away from a situation like that, it's somewhat easy to suggest a solution, but someone who is stuck in a cycle like that may not even realize it.

Concerning relationships, she also acts in ways that don't make much sense - like sleeping with another man to see if she can still get excited sexually, but not considering that to be "cheating".  Which it clearly is, so we're left to wonder if she's just a compulsive liar, or doesn't really understand what constitutes infidelity.  So, is she duplicitous or just dumb?  It's hard to say which is worse.

Woody, just because you've had a couple relationships with crazy women does not mean that all women act illogically all of the time.  I've known a couple women who might tend to act strangely from time to time, but not 24/7.  Maybe instead of blaming every woman you've dated for being crazy, it might be time to look at your own behavior to see if there's something you might have done that causes them to act a certain way - because the common link in all of those relationships might be you. 

I'm getting the feeling that Woody considers men and women to be like oil and vinegar - they can be brought together, and the combination can be quite zesty and enjoyable, but given enough time, due to the differences in their chemistry, they are destined to separate again.

This film is really about knowing when to make changes in one's life - when should you end a relationship, when should you move out to L.A., when is it time to scrap what you've built and start over?  There's no easy answer to these questions - people might think I'm nuts for staying in New York when most film + TV work is done in L.A.  For jobs and relationships, all that someone can do is to make the best of what they have, and pull up stakes and start over when necessary.  It's not easy, but sometimes it has to be done.

The ending of the film is a bit out of left field - it stems from Woody playing a right-wing survivalist, gun nut, which admittedly is a change from his typical leftist Democrat.  But we're left wondering if what his character says is true, or just an excuse to not make that big change.  For that matter, what if his character isn't real at all, but an extension of the lead character's imagination?  Or himself from the future, who came back in time to give himself advice?  An interesting proposition, but no, it doesn't seem to ring true.

Also starring Jason Biggs, Christina Ricci (last heard in "Alpha & Omega"), Danny DeVito (last seen in "The Big Kahuna"), Stockard Channing (last seen in "Where the Heart Is"), Jimmy Fallon (last seen in "Fever Pitch"), William Hill, with cameos from Diana Krall, Fisher Stevens (last seen in "Reversal of Fortune"), Adrian Grenier.

RATING: 4 out of 10 slices of cheesecake

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Hollywood Ending

Year 6, Day 75 - 3/16/14 - Movie #1,674

BEFORE: Welcome back to the "Mensch Madness" tournament.  I forgot to mention that I watched yesterday's film while putting in yet another Saturday at the office.  I also got a lot of TV shows watched while I was working, a couple hours of "The Voice", plus a couple episodes of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.", "Restaurant: Impossible" and "Hoarding: Buried Alive".  But after that, I re-watched "Radio Days" because it was on the same DVD as "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion".  I still think that's one of my favorites, but I've got a slightly different take on it after putting it in context of Woody's filmography now.

THE PLOT:  A director is forced to work with his ex-wife, who left him for the boss of the studio bankrolling his new film. But the night before the first day of shooting, he develops a case of psychosomatic blindness.

AFTER: I think I take my vision, as bad as it is, for granted.  I think a lot of people do.  If I lost my sight, I'd have to find a new line of work, or perhaps stop working altogether.  And filmmakers work in a medium that not only requires vision, but also an audience with vision.  It's easy to poke fun at blind people, because most of them are never going to see the film, or be annoyed by the sight gags at their expense.  By extension, stand-up comics are free to make jokes about deaf people. 

But when it comes to filmmaking, no director works in a vacuum.  Ideally he would be surrounded by people who are working for him, running things by him for his approval, and also checking his work and making sure that everything is done correctly and according to a certain set of standards.  So this film has to go through a lot of contortions to allow a film to be directed by a (temporarily) blind person.

Someone has to act as the director's eyes, the director's ex-wife has to pretend to be back together with him, to justify how closely they need to work together, the director has to break up with his girlfriend, the director has to be "difficult" and refuse to show the dailies to the production company.  It's a lot to ask, and it gets harder and harder to believe. 

But the blindness is really another contrivance, like hypnotism or a magic trick.  It's one we don't see very often, so it does seem a bit original, but in the end it gives some insight to the wish fulfillment that it provides.  An analytical person might derive that this film represents a desire to reconcile with one's ex-wife and son.

A noble goal, but there are no magic shortcuts in that regard.  Instead of hoping for a mystery malady to make everything better, maybe it's more constructive to look at what caused the rifts in the first place.

Also starring Tea Leoni (last seen in "Wyatt Earp"), Treat Williams (last seen in "Mulholland Falls"), Debra Messing, George Hamilton, Tiffani Thiessen, with cameos from Isaac Mizrahi and Allen mainstays Peter Gerety and Fred Melamed.

RATING: 4 out of 10 comment cards