Saturday, March 29, 2014

Blue Jasmine

Year 6, Day 88 - 3/29/14 - Movie #1,685

BEFORE: I've finally reached the end of the Woody Allen chain, 34 films I covered, after removing the ones I'd seen already.  So if I have to pay $5 to watch this On Demand, that's what I'm going to do - hey, that's what I had to do for "Skyfall" at the end of the James Bond chain...

This has been one of my longest chains ever, and now I begin setting up for my next chain, which will be the films of Alfred Hitchcock, in chronological order, and that chain will be even longer.  I've got most of the path there mapped out, but not all - I have determined that the path goes through Goldie Hawn and Mel Gibson.  For now, linking from "To Rome With Love", Alec Baldwin carries over and makes that real simple.

THE PLOT:  A New York socialite, deeply troubled and in denial, arrives in San Francisco to impose upon her sister.

AFTER: I'm so burned out on Woody Allen, I'm glad that I've reached the end of his filmography at last.  If you're a regular reader of my opinion pieces, you've probably guessed what else about this film has annoyed me - namely that the scenes are not in the proper order.  The film follows two timelines, one after Jasmine has arrived in San Francisco, and the other detailing the past, or perhaps it's her memories of the past. 

I think the past scenes were themselves in order, which would mean that the film is essentially toggling between the present and the past, but I think whatever insights are gained by cutting back to the past at certain times are negated by the confusion caused by not following one linear timeline.  It almost seems like the film starts at a very arbitrary point, and then we are shown what comes after, and slowly the mystery of what has come before is revealed.  And I use the term "mystery" loosely, because if you followed a particular financial scandal a few years back, it's basically that.

The film is about the effects of the public scandal on someone's personal life - and how a woman tries to piece together what's left of her life, move to another city and try to start over.  But since she's used to a lavish lifestyle, and has had a nervous breakdown, the road back to success will not be easy.  Though she's determined to not repeat her mistakes, at the same time she's free to make all new ones.

Along the way she tries to get a career going, turns down her sister's boyfriend's friend as a romantic partner, and attempts to learn how to use a computer.  I'm not sure I see the connection between being rich and not knowing how to find something online, unless she had someone on staff who was paid just to check her e-mail and look stuff up.  Most rich people already know how to use computers, no?  Or they have phones that are connected to the web, right?  So I don't know if Woody Allen understands this, does he know how to use the internet?  Maybe it's a generational thing.

And what is it about interior decorators?  This is like the fourth Woody Allen film to feature a woman as a designer/decorator, or a woman who wants to become one.  Can someone tell him that women can be doctors, lawyers, astronauts and race-car drivers now?  Looking back on the last few weeks, the only professional woman I can think of is Helen Hunt playing an efficiency expert in "Curse of the Jade Scorpion", and all of his other female characters are just students and rich housewives, maybe the occasional wanna-be writer.  If anyone's looking for a thesis subject, how about the gender roles in Woody Allen films? 

The trivia section on IMDB is telling me that this film was loosely based on "A Streetcar Named Desire", but I'm not seeing much of a connection.  Perhaps if I review that play's plot I'll gain some insight.  But you know what Tennessee Williams did?  He put the earliest scene first and he put the ending scenes at the end, because that's generally what you should do.

Also starring Cate Blanchett (last seen in "The Shipping News"), Sally Hawkins (last seen in "Cassandra's Dream"), Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Cannavale (last seen in "The Bone Collector"), Max Casella (last heard in "Dinosaur"), Louis C.K., Peter Sarsgaard (last seen in "The Man in the Iron Mask").

RATING: 5 out of 10 bottles of vodka

Friday, March 28, 2014

To Rome With Love

Year 6, Day 87 - 3/28/14 - Movie #1,684

BEFORE:  Now I'm really getting close to the end of the chain - just one Woody Allen film left after this one, which came out in 2012.  I forgot to mention that an actress named Alison Pill was in "Midnight in Paris", playing Zelda Fitzgerald, and she also carries over into this film, making my linking a snap.

THE PLOT:  The lives of some visitors and residents of Rome and the romances, adventures and predicaments they get into.

AFTER: This is another ensemble piece, taking the citizens of a particular place and detailing their romantic mishaps, but it's perhaps the most confounding of Woody Allen's films so far.  There are four distinct storylines, but the characters are distinct within each segment, so it's unlike "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger", where the characters were all related as a family.  Here the four segments do not seem to add up to form a larger story, so it's unclear why these stories were all included, and why other stories might not have been.

As for the stories themselves, they almost feel like poorly-told jokes, or anecdotes that you might hear from someone who's not very good at telling an interesting story.  Let me try and explain - let's say I wanted to tell you a joke about a priest, a minister and a rabbi who walk into a bar.  But instead of getting to the punchline, for some reason I determine that you need to know that the rabbi and the minister are brothers-in-law, and the minister and the priest were college roommates, and they all sit on some kind of interfaith council in their city.  And they were all just at this council meeting together, which is why they're going to the bar at the same time.  And perhaps I get so caught up in explaining the mechanics of this, I never get around to telling you the funny part.

One segment really feels like an unexplainable cartoon from New Yorker magazine - an American woman is engaged to an Italian man.  Their relationship seems fairly normal, (or since neither is agonizing over an affair, let's say it's fairly ABnormal for a Woody Allen film...) and in fact their relationship only seems to exist to get her father, Jerry, to come and visit his future in-laws, where he hears the groom's father, Giancarlo, singing beautiful opera when showering.

This is a fairly normal occurrence, singing in the shower - many people do it, and some people feel they sing better in the shower.  In this case, Jerry decides to mount an opera to showcase Giancarlo's amazing singing, but finds that when in a recording studio or on stage, his talent is gone.  The solution?  They stage an opera where he is on stage, his character is always showering and singing wonderfully.  This is perhaps a great sight gag, but unfortunately a joke has to be rooted in reality, and this one is not.

It's not the water, or the soap, or even the relaxation that a shower supplies that makes someone sound better.  It's the TILE in the bathroom, creating a better acoustic environment.  But, Woody went ahead with the joke anyway and put a showering man on stage, in the middle of an opera, where there is no bathroom tile.  Sorry, but the joke now simply does not work.

It's the same with the other segments, also - in another, a normal man suddenly gets the star treatment from the paparrazzi, and his every move is detailed by camera crews and photographers.  What did he have for breakfast?  Does he wear boxers or briefs?  The reporters all want to know - but why?  What happened to cause this sudden change?  No explanation is given, and without this, whatever point was there to be made about sudden celebrity doesn't really land.

In a third segment, an older architect visits his old neighborhood in Rome, and appears to encounter a young man very similar to himself, or who he was years ago.  They become friends, and the older man advises the younger one on matters of the heart - this man DOES have a typical relationship for a Woody Allen film, meaning that he's married to one woman but is also falling in love with another.

What's confusing is this - the older man seems to be always present, and sometimes the younger man talks to him, but the other characters around him do not (well, sometimes they do and sometimes they don't).  So what's really taking place here?  Is the older man just reminiscing, or did he really encounter a younger man whose situation reminds him of his own past?  Or did he somehow walk into a time-vortex like the one in "Midnight in Paris", and is he interacting with his younger self?

This is confounding simply because the situation is not made entirely clear - as if someone couldn't be bothered to make sure we all understand what's happening.  And if he IS interacting with his younger self, what would be the point of that?  Even if you could talk to your younger self, you can't change what's about to happen to them, you could only give advice, which you know you're not going to take.

Here's what I think happened to Woody Allen - and now that I've seen so many films, I believe I can qualify as an expert.  The guy made some great films - "Annie Hall", "Manhattan", "Hannah and Her Sisters" - nobody debates that.  He has such a track record that he is probably given free rein to make whatever type of film he want - and therefore he is a position where his ideas are, more or less, critic-proof.  Essentially, he's an independent filmmaker (I'm something of an expert on those, too), and has probably surrounded himself with a loyal crew that either can not or will not point out that an idea makes no sense.  Or perhaps anyone who asks questions or says, "I don't understand this" is shown the door.

As a result of this, whatever idea Woody has, good or bad, makes it into the final film.  And there doesn't seem to be any part of the process where ideas are approved or improved, the end result becomes whatever the director wants it to be, even if there is no rhyme or reason to it.

(NOTE: I'm sorry to have revealed so much of this film's plot.  It was necessary to make my points, but I feel that I still left a LOT of story undiscussed.  One whole segment, for example.  Plus, even in the segments I discussed, there were twists and turns that I did not cover - my goal was not to deter anyone from viewing this film, so even if you read my review, please go ahead and enjoy that which I have not spoiled.)

Also starring Roberto Begnini (last seen in "Coffee and Cigarettes"), Alec Baldwin (last seen in "Alice"), Jesse Eisenberg (last seen in "The Social Network"), Ellen Page, Judy Davis (last seen in "Husbands and Wives"), Woody Allen (last seen in "Scoop"), Penelope Cruz (last seen in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), Greta Gerwig (last seen in "No Strings Attached"), Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi, Fabio Armiliato, with cameos from Carol Alt, Ornella Muti.

RATING: 4 out of 10 Roman ruins

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Midnight in Paris

Year 6, Day 86 - 3/27/14 - Movie #1,683

BEFORE: Well, if last night's film was all about pattern recognition, this one seems to be about wish fulfillment.  Linking from "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger", Anthony Hopkins was also in "Thor" with Tom Hiddleston (last seen in "War Horse").

THE PLOT:  While on a trip to Paris with his fiancĂ©e's family, a nostalgic screenwriter finds himself mysteriously going back to the 1920s every day at midnight.

AFTER: This was another tricky one for me, because it had some of the same Woody Allen elements I've seen many times - namely, a writer struggling with a novel, and surprise, he's also having relationship troubles and torn between two women, trying to decide if he should have an affair.

What sets this film apart is that one of the women lived in the 1920's, so he can only interact with her when he somehow travels back in time each night - and it's never quite explained how he manages to do this.  There's no time machine involved, and it's never stated whether he's actually traveling back or hallucinating, or imagining his trips.  While this isn't an inherent deal-breaker - "Somewhere in Time" and "Kate & Leopold" didn't explain the time travel either - it does lead one to wonder what might really be taking place here.

In a manner to "The Purple Rose of Cairo", something impossible is depicted, and then the audience has to decide how to handle it.  But to what end does this all take place?  Our writer gets to interact with some very notable writers, from Hemingway to Gertrude Stein to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and artists like Salvador Dali and Toulouse-Lautrec, very few of them get the chance to do anything other than introduce themselves.  Why introduce Salvador Dali into the story just to give him the chance to say "Hi, I'm Salvador Dali!" ??

So, to me this is something of a wash - other than get his book reviewed by Gertrude Stein, I can't see the benefit of visiting 1920's Paris and hobnobbing with famous people.  How does meeting all these notables give him badly-needed insight?  I'm not sure I follow the logic.  The one point that got made was the fact that people in every era tend to over-romanticize the past, but I'm not sure that's enough to hang a movie plot on.

Also starring Owen Wilson (last heard in "Cars 2"), Rachel McAdams (last seen in "The Notebook"), Marion Cotillard (last seen in "Anchorman 2"), Kathy Bates (last seen in "Shadows and Fog"), Michael Sheen (last seen in "Laws of Attraction"), Carla Bruni, Adrien Brody (last seen in "The Thin Red Line"), Corey Stoll (last seen in "Salt"), Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy.

RATING:  5 out of 10 Cole Porter records

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Year 6, Day 85 - 3/26/14 - Movie #1,682

BEFORE: Got back from Atlantic City yesterday afternoon.  It was cold out on the Boardwalk, and there wasn't much to do outside of play the slot machines and eat at the buffets.  Fortunately, that's why we went there.  I had plenty of luck the first day, but all of it was bad luck.  I was probably $160 in the hole, but what was I supposed to do, stop playing?  I only stop playing when I'm ahead - that's the saying, right?  "Quit while you're ahead"?  Trouble is, then you have to get ahead so you can quit.

Seriously, though, I do cash out from a slot machine whenever I'm up over the $20 I put into it.  Doesn't matter if I'm only ahead a dollar, as soon as I'm up, I need to cash out.  Because I think the mistake most people make is getting a small win, feeling good, feeling lucky, and then feeling as if they will win more if they continue.  However, I feel the reverse is true - as soon as I get a small win, I think I need to cash out because that's the best I'll get from that machine, and if I keep playing, I'm going to end up losing it all. But I can slide over to the next machine and start with a new $20 bill.

My betting system is a little more complex, it's a pattern that tells me when to bet 1 coin, when to bet 3 and when to bet 5 - but clearly it's not foolproof.  After a couple hours on the slots I usually have enough small wins to add up to a nice profit.  Not this time, though - but the system started to work at the end of Day 2.  I hit for 6 times in a row on the <> slots - just spin, win, cash out, slide over to the next machine and repeat.  SIX times in a row, and I won back about half of what I'd lost on Day 1.  I didn't want to push my luck any more than that.  

Linking from "Whatever Works", Ed Begley Jr. also provided a voice for Bill Plympton's animated film "Hair High", and so did Zak Orth (last seen in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona") - and I should know, because I was a producer on that film.

THE PLOT:  Sally's parents' marriage breaks up when her father undergoes a mid-life crisis and impulsively weds a prostitute as Sally's own marriage also begins to disintegrate.

AFTER: The title of this film is something that you might expect a fortune-teller to say, and that's key.  One of the characters takes advice from a medium, and it guides her actions, or at least makes her more comfortable with the bad things that have happened to her, since it gives her the belief that things will get better.  

Woody's poked fun at mediums and fortune-tellers before, of course, most notably in "New York Stories" and "Broadway Danny Rose".  I don't think he gives them any more credence than he gives to religious institutions, which is to say, none - but it's a chance to similarly depict people who have faith in something, even if that faith is misplaced and they are essentially delusional.

Life's just a big crapshoot anyway, right?  (See what I did there, tied it back into the gambling...)  You have to pay to play, and you have to be in it to win it, or so I hear.  Some of our ventures are going to pay off and some are not, some of our relationships are going to last and some are not, and some of the risks we take will reveal us for the frauds that we really are.  

In this case, most everyone in the film (those not guided by psychics, anyway) tend to make universally bad decisions - like a man dumping his wife and falling for a call girl, or a woman leaving a secure job working for an art dealer to open a new art gallery, or a woman falling in love with her married boss.  These all seem to be decisions made in the moment, based on the characters' immediate experiences, without taking into account future ramifications or regrets.  

I can't really say, "Oh, people don't live like this," because quite clearly some people do.  People make risky business moves or end relationships all the time, and then they have to live with the consquences.  Not taking any risk is in itself a potential risk, because you could get to an old age and regret the fact that you never took that big step, you never finished that novel, you stayed with one partner too long.  I guess every person has to decide for themselves how much risk they want to have in their lives, and that can become a constant cycle of self-doubt.  

But then my question becomes, how enjoyable is it to watch a film with everyone not only agonizing over their affairs, which is quite typical material for Woody Allen, but also with everyone believing in a mentality where the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence?  Isn't anyone, anywhere, satisfied with their life?

Also starring Naomi Watts (last seen in "J. Edgar"), Josh Brolin (last seen in "Melinda and Melinda"), Anthony Hopkins (last seen in "The Bounty"), Gemma Jones (last seen in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2"), Antonio Banderas (last heard in "Shrek Forever After"), Freida Pinto (last seen in "Immortals"), Lucy Punch (last seen in "Bad Teacher"), Ewen Bremner (last seen in "Match Point"), Pauline Collins, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Anna Friel (last seen in "A Midsummer Night's Dream")

RATING: 4 out of 10 exercise machines

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Whatever Works

Year 6, Day 82 - 3/23/14 - Movie #1,681

BEFORE:  OK, technically I'm on vacation now, but I can squeeze one more film in before I pack.  This way, when I get back I'll have just four films left in the chain, and I can definitely finish it before the end of the month.  Linking from "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", Patricia Clarkson carries over.

THE PLOT:  A middle-aged, misanthropic divorce surprisingly enters into a fulfilling Pygmalion type relationship with a much younger, unsophisticated Southern girl.

AFTER: Well, Woody had to come back to New York sooner or later.  And I bet like the main character, as a true New Yorker, he had never visited the Statue of Liberty or Grant's Tomb before.

The contrivance is one Woody's used before, similar to the "stranger knocking on the door" seen in "Melinda and Melinda".  But here it's used to explain how an older man ended up in a relationship with a younger woman, and I can't imagine why he feels the need to explain that.  I mean, such things happen all the time, right?  Because older men are so easygoing and non-irritable and don't have any annoying quirks or health problems that would make them unattractive in any way.

What I'm saying is, it's clear the lead male is a stand-in for Woody, and it's a long way for the director to go to justify his own lifestyle.  You want to date younger women?  Fine, then OWN it, and stop apologizing for it.  I work for a man who's in his late 60's, and he's married to a woman in her 30's, and he had his first child at age 66.  I've never heard him feel the need to apologize for this, not once.  Why should he?  You can do the math and try to figure out if he'll ever see his kid grow up, but then you're the one being a buzzkill.  

I've got more of a problem, with people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson.  That's right, beloved science figure and host of TV's "Cosmos" remake, but the guy just rubs me the wrong way.  Like many intellectuals (including the one depicted in tonight's film) he comes off as way too smart for his own good.  But that's not my problem with the guy.  (And no, it's not that either, why would you even think that about me?)  It's more of a vibe I get - like he's too smart for the room, too full of himself.  The first episode of "Cosmos" devoted a fair amount of time to depicting how small and insignificant we are - we're just specks riding around on a rotating speck, in one corner of a galaxy, which is just one of billions of galaxies, etc. etc.  And if the life of the universe was expressed in terms of a cosmic year, we humans didn't show up until the last second of Dec. 31.

I get it, we're relatively insignificant - so what gives you the right to take some time on the show to tell your story of how you once met Carl Sagan, and he autographed your book?  Do you know how many books he probably autographed in his career?  Oh, so he gave you a ride in his car and let you use his phone?  Congratulations, but cosmically, in the grand scheme of things, this still means next to nothing.  The show's supposed to be about the universe, not you. 

I'd write more about people who piss me off, but I'm going to go and try to have some fun now.

Also starring Larry David, Evan Rachel Wood (last seen in "The Ides of March"), Henry Cavill (lat seen in "Immortals"), Ed Begley Jr. (last seen in "Recount"), Michael McKean, Christopher Evan Welch (also carrying over from "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), Jessica Hecht, with a cameo from Samantha Bee.

RATING:  5 out of 10 inchworms