Saturday, September 6, 2014

My Dinner With Andre

Year 6, Day 249 - 9/6/14 - Movie #1,840

BEFORE:  Of course, there is another school-based film that happens to star two actors from "Clueless" - that would be the next logical choice, and I'll get to that one tomorrow.  But since this film has only two actors, the only way to link to it is to place it between two movies that also feature Wallace Shawn.  So that means I have to take a break from high schools and colleges.  Let's call it a dinner break. 

THE PLOT: Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, apparently playing themselves, share their lives over the course of an evening meal at a restaurant.

AFTER: Well, this couldn't be more timely, since it's about two playwrights who meet for dinner, and one wants to ask the other about why he seemingly dropped out of the business several years ago, and what he's been up to.  I've had to deal with one of my employers taking a break from the animation business, which in turn forces me to take a bit of a break, and writing is something I'd like to do more of during that break.  

You probably know Wallace Shawn from his role as Vizzini, the lisping Sicilian, in the fairy-tale comedy "The Princess Bride". Or perhaps you know him from voice work in "Toy Story" and other animated films, or from Woody Allen films like "Radio Days".  Me, I happen to know him as "that guy I see in the post office sometimes if I don't go there too late in the day".  But not many people seem to know him as a writer.  The two actors here are given credit for the screenplay, which suggests that this whole film could have been improvised - it's tough to say how closely the men are sticking to a script, or perhaps a basic outline.  

Oddly, a lot of their conversation is ABOUT improvisation.  Gregory, who's the one who supposedly vanished from the scene a few years previous, talks about traveling around the world, to places like a Polish forest where a group of actors and musicians were brought out to a forest, and not given any specific instructions about what to do, only told to create something through music and dance.  For Gregory, who had gotten disillusioned with the rigidness of playwriting, this was the sort of fresh, active experience he was seeking out.  True improvisation, where people are not playing the roles they think they have to in life - husband, father, wife, son - and not wearing the masks of society, and allowed to just be whatever they want.  (Sounds a bit like a hippie orgy in the forest, if you ask me.) 

Shawn's contribution, for most of the conversation anyway, amounts to saying things like "Oh, really?" and "Then what happened?"  Which are improvisation techniques too, designed to keep the other person's conversation going.  I noticed that the two men rarely disagree with each other, and the first rule of improvisation is to just say "Yes" to whatever the other person suggests, and roll with it.  But when "Wally" finally has a point to make, it's more about the banality of life, having a routine - getting up in the morning and finding the cold cup of coffee from the night before and considering yourself lucky if there's not a dead fly floating in it.  Then going about your day, doing errands, and if you find yourself with spare time in the afternoon, grabbing a book to read to fill up the empty hours.  

What's really taking place here?  Is it just about two men having a conversation?  Can something BE that simple?  Perhaps, or maybe they represent two different schools of thought - the inner self and the outer self.  One is "to be" and the other is "to do".  Maybe I'm grasping at straws here, because I want this to be more than a complicated conversation about the creative process.  Am I supposed to notice that one man talks about traveling to Europe and Tibet, while the other one is happy just being in his apartment in New York?  That one apparently walked away from his marriage for a few years, only to fall back in love with her, while the other one has a live-in girlfriend but wonders if the romance is gone?  That conversationally and intellectually, one seems to be playing chess while the other one is playing checkers, on the same board?

I sort of wish I knew more about the plays that both men have written, and how they differ.  Even though two writers can use the same language, and think in terms of how people react to each other, or how different environments create different realities, they seem to be polar opposites in terms of where they find their inspiration.  One is concerned with the romantic, the ideal, the inner self that can only be seen once society's rules are stripped away, and the other is inspired by the workings and rules of society itself, the daily grind, life's little annoyances.  How do these different approaches influence their work?  Is one better than the other?  Does one's conversation end up influencing the other's approach?

According to the intro that aired on TCM, Roger Ebert called this the best movie of 1981, pointing out that it was completely devoid of clichés.  That may be true, but it also violates my #1 rule of screenwriting, which is "Show, don't tell."  (My #2 rule of screenwriting is "avoid using flashbacks or other non-linear methods" and my #3 rule of screenwriting is "come up with some more rules when you have time")  This is nothing BUT tell.  Other than the dialogue, nothing happens.  OK, two men eat out, so what?  SPOILER ALERT: Andre picks up the check.  

I shouldn't be so harsh - something does happen, two people reconnect over dinner.  And in the age of texting, tweeting and facebooking, it's the kind of thing that should be celebrated.  Just not in a movie.  Get out there and invite an old friend to dinner - use LinkedIn to track down your old college roommates that you haven't seen in years.  When your high-school reunion comes up, you should totally go.  Since I'm not on Facebook, I think I missed the 25 year reunion, I never got an invite.  But my 30th is coming up in two years - I'm not THAT hard to find, people, my parents still live in the same town.  Geez, put in a little effort beyond just e-viting your friends list.  

I can't really support the notion that New York City is a giant concentration camp, where the residents are both the Jews and the guards in some schizophrenic fashion.  Is that really what some people think?  That New Yorkers basically bully each other into never leaving?  Show me the concentration camp that has such great restaurants, shows, beautiful buildings, great stores, etc.  Not to mention bars, festivals, food events of every shape and size - maybe so many people live here and so few leave because it's so awesome, did you ever consider that, Mr. Existentialist Playwright?

The one thing we DON'T have in NYC is the restaurant where this was filmed.  Immediately I wanted to know where they shot this - from the menu items my first guess was the Russian Tea Room - but they filmed the interiors at the then-abandoned Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia.  In case anyone comes to Manhattan trying to re-create this meal, it's just not possible.

Also starring Andre Gregory.

RATING: 4 out of 10 espressos

Friday, September 5, 2014


Year 6, Day 248 - 9/5/14 - Movie #1,839

BEFORE: An apt title perhaps, because in a couple weeks I'll be under-employed and I'll have some spare time for the first time in a very LONG time, and I haven't got a clue about how I'm going to fill my days.  Catch up on TV, sure, because I want to finish the summer shows before the new fall season starts.  Catch up on sleep, always a good idea.  And the comic book collection desperate needs to be re-organized.  Then there's the screenplay idea that's been at the back of my brain for so long - I don't know what it will take to make myself work on it every day, but if I can pull it off and write a little bit four days a week, I could have something done in a month or two.  Maybe I can only take it so far before I need to take a refresher screenwriting course or something to get it done the rest of the way - but I'd be showing up for class with a half-done project, and I think that would be better than showing up with nothing more than a rough idea.   This might be my only shot at writing something before I'm forced to job-hunt or start cleaning the house. 

Linking from "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion", Justin Theroux was also in the film "Wanderlust" with Paul Rudd (last seen in "Anchorman 2"). 

THE PLOT:  A rich high school student tries to boost a new pupil's popularity, but reckons without affairs of the heart getting in the way.

AFTER: I've got a similar problem tonight than I had with yesterday's film - the main message of the film seems to be that it's most important for young girls to be attractive, rich and popular, not necessarily in that order.  It's much less important to be smart, hard-working and well-intentioned.  And it's OK to be selfish, vain and superficial as long as you're attractive, rich and popular. 

Yes, it's a comedy.  I GET that.  But in every joke there is an element of truth.  In every satire (and I'm not saying this film is a satire, because I'm not sure it's smart enough to qualify) you have to consider the worst case scenario - what if people don't get the joke, and take the story at face value?  But even suggesting that this film has a second layer of meaning, or poking fun at its characters rather than just portraying them, I think does a disservice by giving the film too much credit. 

This does, however, loosely interpret the events of a Jane Austen novel, "Emma", and I'm forced to admit I'm not familiar with that book at all.  Though I'm planning to watch "Pride and Prejudice" next year, maybe I'll try and work in the film version of "Emma" as well.  So I'm forced to rate "Clueless" on its own merits, and I find it lacking. 

I think what bothers me most about the central character in "Clueless", as well as both Romy and Michele, is the sense of entitlement they represent.  None of these characters feel they need to work hard to get what they want, they can just spend Daddy's money or their boyfriend's riches to make their dreams happen, or buy whatever clothes are in fashion.  I don't get this mindset, I don't live in this world - I never own more than two pairs of pants or one pair of sneakers at a time. 

In addition, Cher from "Clueless" can't even accept the grades on her own report card, so she sets out to "re-negotiate" her grades, using whatever tools she has to charm the individual teachers - again, a very bad message to send out to young girls.  Why can't she just study, or learn how to frame a proper argument in debate class?  And when one teacher won't agree to raise her grade, instead she sets him up with another teacher, which improves his mood and lessens his grading standards.  However well this might work out for the teachers in the long run, this still counts as selfish behavior on Cher's part.  She's doing the right thing, but for the wrong reason. 

But "whatever", I guess, is the mantra - success needs to be achieved through whatever underhanded methods are available, not through honest hard work.  Somehow this matchmaking leads Cher to adopt the practice full time - she's got so much free time because she doesn't study, see - and she also helps transform the gawky new girl into a popular student, who nearly eclipses her.  Another terrible message - don't do a favor for someone else, because that will come back and bite you in the ass. 

The one way the character gets any comeuppance is when she can't pass her driver's test.  This is the ONLY time in the film where lack of studying and ability to learn has any negative repercussions at all.  It's too little, too late if you ask me.  Driving is a privilege, not a right.  You can act as entitled as you want, but if you can't pass that road test, you can't get a license.  In which case it's OK to keep driving with a permit and knocking over your neighbors' flower pots and mailboxes, I guess.

Also starring Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, Brittany Murphy (last seen in "8 Mile"), Donald Faison (last seen in "Can't Hardly Wait"), Breckin Meyer (ditto), Jeremy Sisto, Dan Hedaya (last seen in "Pacific Heights"), Wallace Shawn (last seen in "Melinda and Melinda"), Twink Caplan, with cameos from Julie Brown, Amy Heckerling.

RATING: 3 out of 10 Galleria stores

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Romy and Michele's High School Reunion

Year 6, Day 247 - 9/4/14 - Movie #1,838

BEFORE: Well, big changes are afoot.  A couple of weeks ago I nearly quit one of my jobs, but I didn't, and now it looks like the other job might be going away, for completely different reasons.  Hey, it was a part-time gig I picked up 22 years ago to help pay my bills, and it certainly has done that.  I just kept volunteering for more and more projects there, until I eventually became indispensable.  I could just go do that again somewhere else, I suppose.  I think I'll take a couple of months and try to re-adjust to civilian life before I enlist for another tour of duty somewhere.  This could be a chance to finally get some writing done, put my money where my mouth is.  We shall see.  I've still got a few weeks before I'm under-employed.

Linking from "Monsters University", Billy Crystal was also in "Analyze This" with Lisa Kudrow.

THE PLOT: Two women get into a lot of trouble when they go to their high school reunion and lie about their lives after twelfth grade.

AFTER: This film is a great example of why I usually don't take suggestions for the watch list.  I've taken people's advice for films like "Elmer Gantry" and "The Stunt Man", and those worked out OK, but in this case the last time I did school-based films like "Easy A" and "Bad Teacher", various women I work with said I HAD to watch "Romy & Michele", and so I worked it into this year's line-up.  Wow, what a mistake.

It's not that this is a BAD film, I have to score it slightly above "Parental Guidance" because nothing is overly offensive from a story angle, to me it just seems very misguided, like it's focusing its energies in the wrong direction, or perhaps no direction at all.  Still, some people swear by this film, but when you craft a story about two "losers", you'd like to think you'll end up with something quirky like "Napoleon Dynamite", and not something horridly wasteful like "A Night at the Roxbury".  Some people really enjoy "Dumb & Dumber", and those people and I have agreed to disagree.

Attending a high-school reunion is a common enough idea for a movie, and it feels like someone really wanted to expand the story to its ultimate comic potential, to the point where no one in the future would even DARE to make a reunion film (except for the "American Pie" reunion film, I guess) because that would be derivative.  Go big AND go home was the theory here.  So Romy and Michele aren't just losers, they're HUGE losers, and completely clueless.  They don't just tell a small lie about their lives, they tell a HUGE lie.  And the reunion's not just ho-hum like most probably are, it's a HUGE disaster, until it becomes a HUGE success.  Do you feel me?  

"Napoleon Dynamite" is a similarly quirky film that succeeds because it doesn't go huge.  Everything that happens is something that COULD happen, like playing tetherball or having an awkward time at prom.  Napoleon doesn't score the winning touchdown in the state championship, because that's just not who his character is.  He succeeds at tasting milk in the 4-H club, and that seems more reasonable, and quirkier to boot.  

After Romy and Michele finally figure out that they were in the weirdo camp in high-school (through a protracted series of flashbacks, where older actors all play younger versions of their characters), it doesn't motivate them to succeed, just to lose weight before the reunion (what a healthy body-image message to send out to teen girls!).  After that, they continue to fail upwards until they learn to stand up for themselves, and then magically get everything they ever wanted, without even trying.

Another despicable message, their salvation comes from the successful man in their class who's now one of the richest men in the world, and all he ever really wanted was to be with Michele.  So, to sum up, the most important things to be in life are thin and successful, and you shouldn't have to work hard to be successful when you can (presumably) just sleep with a rich man who will set you and your friend up with your own business. 

Also starring Mira Sorvino (last seen in "Summer of Sam"), Janeane Garofalo (last seen in "Permanent Midnight"), Alan Cumming (last seen in "Get Carter"), Camryn Manheim, Justin Theroux (last seen in "American Psycho"), Vincent Ventresca, Julia Campbell, Elaine Hendrix with a cameo from Pat Crawford Brown.

RATING: 4 out of 10 fast-burning cigarettes

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Monsters University

Year 6, Day 246 - 9/3/14 - Movie #1,837

BEFORE: Billy Crystal carries over from "Parental Guidance" and kicks off the back-to-school chain.

THE PLOT:  A look at the relationship between Mike and Sulley during their days at Monsters University -- when they weren't necessarily the best of friends.

AFTER: It's a little too easy to just say, "Well, this is ALMOST as good as the original, Monsters Inc."  Even though that may be true, I hate to just give this film a score and leave it at that.  I think the story worked well given the constraints that were imposed on it - namely that it had to begin with Mike and Sully entering college as strangers, and leaving college as best friends.  There were challenges along the way, but at least the story didn't set up a bunch of roadblocks for itself, the way that "Parental Guidance" did. 

This follows the "darkest before the dawn" scenario, with Mike and Sully getting kicked out of the scarer program at Monsters U. fairly early into the picture, and then for different personal reasons, they both need to find a way back.  It's similar to regular human college I suppose - if you don't have the skills for the pre-med program, you can try pre-law or transferring your credits to another major.  Though I'm not quite sure what other career options are available to monsters - the film mentions scream-canister design, but surely there must be others, right? 

The two stars of the film form a sort of "Odd Couple", not just in appearance but also in personalities at the start of the story, with one enterprising and studious and the other lackadaisical and willing to coast on his family's reputation.  Yes, there are legacy students, even at Monsters University.  They're forced to work together to get back into the program, via the university's "Scare Games".

The main problem at this point is that the fraternity vs. fraternity set-up resembles "Revenge of the Nerds" a bit too closely.  Mike and Sully fall in with the "loser" fraternity, Oozma Kappa, which might as well be called Lambda Lambda Lambda to drive the point home.  But this is where the film got kind of good again, because the team of misfits had to find innovative ways to win each challenge in the Scare Games, or at least hope that another team did worse, or got disqualified for some reason.

The message for the kids is not just the traditional "follow your dream" sentimental nonsense - it's at least quantified as "follow your dream, but if it doesn't work out the way you want, you might have to alter your dream a bit and give it another go".   Sure, that's a bit wordy, but so much more realistic.  I was writing just yesterday about how I entered film school with plans to be a director, and I soon learned that I just didn't feel confident enough about my own storytelling to follow through with that.  OK, I changed the dream just a little bit and set out to be a producer.  Life is a constant process of having goals, and then either reaching them and setting new ones, or not reaching them and re-adjusting your plans.

Also starring the voices of John Goodman (last seen in "Sweet Dreams"), Steve Buscemi (last seen in "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone"), Helen Mirren (last seen in "Hitchcock"), Joel Murray, Sean Hayes (last seen in "The Cat and the Hat"), Dave Foley (last seen in "Dick"), Charlie Day (last seen in "Pacific Rim"), Alfred Molina (last heard in "Rango"), Nathan Fillion (last seen in "Super"), Tyler Labine, Aubrey Plaza (last seen in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"), Bobby Moynihan, Bonnie Hunt (last heard in "Cars 2"), with cameos from John Krasinski (last seen in "The Muppets"), Bill Hader (last seen in "Men in Black 3"), John Ratzenberger (last heard in "Brave").

RATING: 7 out of 10 mugs of cocoa

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Parental Guidance

Year 6, Day 245 - 9/2/14 - Movie #1,836

BEFORE: I know it may seem like I've resorted to watching films alphabetically, but that's not the case.  This film provides the "mortar" needed to get me to my next "brick" of films, which is the back to school chain.  Marisa Tomei carries over from "The Paper", and a different link will get me to where I need to be tomorrow.

THE PLOT: Artie and Diane agree to look after their three grandkids when their type-A parents need to leave town for work. Problems arise when the kids' 21st-century behavior collides with Artie and Diane's old-school methods.

AFTER: Well, it only took me 1,836 films over a six-year span to realize my mistake - when I started this project, I pitched myself completely wrong.  I took the tack of saying "I'd like to watch all the movies in my collection I haven't gotten too, plus some of the classics from the past" - which is fine, I suppose, but what I could/should have emphasized is that this is NOT a movie review site, because of who I am and what my experiences are. I remember saying to friends "This is not just about reviewing films," and some people probably still think, "Of course it is.  It's just a site where he reviews films."  (Not my friends, who more often say, "Are you still doing that movie thing?")

This is what, I believe, sets me apart - I've been working in the film industry (in one capacity or another) for 25 years.  Most people who work in film production don't have time to review films, and vice versa - in the same way that a food critic doesn't have time to be a chef, and a chef doesn't have time to review other restaurants.  (This is where "Top Chef" gets it right - they have some judges who are food critics, but Tom Colicchio is a chef, and they also frequently feature judges like Wolfgang Puck and Emeril LaGasse.)

I graduated from NYU's film program, and that meant I needed to satisfy three requirements - credits in screenwriting, production, AND criticism.  (OK, I admit I skated a bit on the production aspect, taking animation classes to satisfy that requirement - plus computer animation, and my grade in that class was a joke, but so was the NYU computer animation program at the time.)  I came into film school thinking I was going to be a director, and when I failed at that I turned immediately to producing - but that's good too, right?  Producers control the money, and then when you get the money, you get the power, Then when you get the power, then you get the women.  (apologies to "Scarface"). 

I know Roger Ebert was a screenwriter before he was a film critic, and I hesitate to compare myself to him because I've never written a good screenplay - but I think that put him in a unique position.  He could see the shortcomings of a script right away, because he knew the mechanics of writing one.  In the same way, I approach films a little differently, and a movie has to work a bit harder to impress me.  To most people, "Gravity" was a film about astronauts that took place in orbit, but to me it was a film shot with actors on a soundstage with CGI that looked like a damaged shuttle.

I would like to write a screenplay, but again, it's a question of time.  In order to have enough time, I'd need to quit one or both jobs, and then my income would take a dive.  Do I have enough of a financial cushion to support me for the 6-8 months I'm assuming it would take?   I also figured that I should watch a lot of films in preparation, to make sure my idea wasn't derivative, but also to get a feel for what works and what doesn't work.  I'm hoping that the process is akin to being a sculptor, you just start with a block of marble and chisel away anything that doesn't look like it's part of your figure.

But I'd like to think that the difference between me and your average film reviewer is like the difference between a meteorologist and a climatologist.  A meteorologist can tell you what the temperature might be tomorrow, but the climatologist can tell you that if we don't stop using fossil fuels, global warming will continue to get worse and we'll go past the tipping point.  A film reviewer can tell you whether a film is worth $11 of your money, but I can tell you that if Hollywood keeps churning out movies like "Parental Guidance", we need to start worrying about how entertained future generations will be.   (The meteorologist's advice is more useful day-to-day, because it tells you whether you should bring an umbrella with you, but you should also listen to the climatologist.)

With all that said, let's talk about "Parental Guidance", a film that wanted very badly to appeal to three generations at once, and that turned out to be an impossible task.  There are jokes about older people not understanding modern technology, as well as things like the X-Games, and there are jokes about today's kids who are overly coddled, not allowed to eat sugar or gluten, or allowed to watch horror movies or even hear curse words.  There are three kids in the film, and they suffer from three distinct "disorders" - one stutters and is shy, another has ADHD and an imaginary friend, and the other has "Hyper-Successful Activity", which I don't think is even a thing.  Seems to me she just wants to succeed, which seems like it should be encouraged rather than turned into a named disorder.

The third generation is today's parents, who are essentially caught in the middle.  They want better lives for their kids than the ones they got from their often-absent, clueless parents, so they've over-compensated and become over-protective, while removing all the stress (and fun, as it turns out) from their kids' routines.  What they've apparently forgotten is that stress builds character, adversity builds character, and nobody's life can be perfect.  The sooner you acknowledge that everyone makes mistakes and nothing's ever going to be perfect, the sooner we can move on and make some personal progress.

Now, any ONE of these generational sources of inspiration could have powered a film - but all three together makes for a muddled mess.  As a screenwriter, you need to pick a horse - focus your attention on one simple idea, and expand out from there.  Your story simply cannot be all things to all people.  "Parental Guidance" doesn't go far enough down any road to really get anywhere.  Every time it gets close to making a point, it sets up a roadblock and then travels in another direction.

For example, Billy Crystal's character is upset when he finds out that his grandson's Little League game has no outs, batters swing until they get a hit, and every game ends in a tie.  Since this makes it a pointless exercise, he's 100% right to protest and question the rules.  But before he can convince anyone of the rightness of his argument, a kid hits him in the nuts with a baseball bat.  It's a resort to slapstick, the cheapest of all comedy.  Sure, nut shots work, but at what cost?  It's still a crutch, or perhaps a distraction so people won't realize the film ALMOST made a point. 

Another example - one kid's having trouble with a bully, and it's the kid who also has trouble with his stutter.  The bad advice from his grandfather, to stand up for himself, leads to a fistfight, which takes place off camera.  It supposedly happened in an unusual way, but the audience doesn't get to see it.  But letting the situation devolve into a punch-out is not only uninspired, it's a lost opportunity for the kid to find his voice AND solve the bullying problem with some clever words at the same time.  Instead the kid has to assert himself on stage late in the film by calling a baseball game in the middle of a music audition, which makes no sense and is disrepectful to the musicians.  The movie spends most of its time telling us that kids need structure and discipline, then lets one of its characters act out in an unstructured, undisciplined way, and this is encouraged?  Mixed messages. 

Another example of missed comedy - the grandparents have to spend five days in a "smart house", one with some kind of A.I. that keeps track of the occupants, their schedules and all of the appliances.  Ah, I see where this is going - old people are frustrated by new technology, so here's the chance for things to go really, really wrong, right?  Nope, not even once - instead of a wrongly-pushed button leading to a laundry room full of foam, or dinner getting cooked in the dishwasher, the only "hilarious" result is that the house calls the grandfather "Fartie" instead of "Artie".  What a waste - but because the kids' father designed the tech, and he's off accepting an award for its success, nothing can really go wrong with it.  This isn't just a comedy roadblock, it's an entire highway shut down.

The kid's mother is written all haphazardly as well - she's supposed to go away with her husband, but she really doesn't, because she needs to be around to see how badly her parents are messing up, and to get a faceful of cake (more slapstick, great...).  She's also given a chance to explain herself to her parents - we might really understand why she's over-protective if she could just say to her father, "You were always at work at the ballpark, and never there for me." But she can't quite do it, so this goes unsaid.  Again, we need to have character acknowledge their problems if they're ever going to get past them.  And as an audience member, I shouldn't have to fill in the unspoken gaps.

Instead the film just sort of shrugs and points out that the last generation didn't really know how to raise kids, and due to over-compensating, the pendulum's swung too far the other way and the current generation doesn't really know either, and isn't that hilarious?  Well, no, in fact it's kind of sad, and sad turns out to be the opposite of funny.  The fact that the grandparents "old school" methods of parenting manage to cure nearly all of the kids' disorders seems to indicate that they're more right about things than the parents are, but how we got there is quite fuzzy, it ends up not being something that can be measured or quantified.  So it's a wash.

OK, so since I don't have kids maybe I'm not part of the target market here, but that shouldn't matter, funny is funny.  I can still appreciate a funny film like "Parenthood", which covered much of this same territory and did it much better.  I used to baby-sit and I tried to be the cool babysitter, but this just led to two kids running wild, and me having to lie to their parents about their behavior if I wanted to get paid.  They really needed discipline and I was unable to provide it - so I've sort of been in this boat without procreating, and I learned that maybe parenting isn't my thing.  I'll stick with being an uncle, because I can probably be the "cool uncle".  A man should know his own limitations.

Also starring Billy Crystal (last seen in "America's Sweethearts"), Bette Midler (last seen in "Scenes From a Mall"), Tom Everett Scott (last heard in "Mars Needs Moms"), Bailee Madison (last seen in "Just Go With It"), Joshua Rush, Kyle Brietkopf, with cameos from Gedde Watanabe (last heard in "Mulan"), Tony Hawk.

RATING: 3 out of 10 gluten-free recipes

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Paper

Year 6, Day 244 - 9/1/14 - Movie #1,835

BEFORE: Michael Keaton carries over from "Pacific Heights" - it's hard to find a good Labor Day film without resorting to "Norma Rae" or "North Country".  Besides, those films aren't even on my list.  But let's try a film about the hard-working (?) staff of a daily newspaper, since that's a job that requires people to work every day, even on holidays.  
THE PLOT:  Henry Hackett is the editor of a New York City tabloid. He is a workaholic who loves his job, but the long hours and low pay are leading to discontent, and a hot story soon confronts Henry with tough decisions.

AFTER: OK, good choice for Labor Day, and not just because the main character's wife is pregnant.  This is really about how people choose to balance work with their personal lives, or in some cases how they fail to do so.  Henry's the metro editor and always pulling late nights and coming home at 4 am, after putting the late edition to bed, plus he has trouble making it to dinners and family functions. His pregnant wife was formerly a reporter herself, so she's feeling left out and wondering if giving birth means the end of her career.  

The publisher of the New York Sun is an older man who put work ahead of family for most of his career, and now he's had four failed marriages and trying to reconnect with his adult daughter.  So you can see where a lifetime of putting work first might lead.  And the managing editor is having an affair with a reporter, while also deciding whether she needs to quit the newspaper to end the affair, or get a raise to pay for all the afternoon hotel bills.  Meanwhile, an investigative reporter who broke the story about a traffic commissioner who disobeys parking signs, feels he's being harassed by city tow-trucks in response.  So, really, nobody's doing a very good job of reconciling their work lives and personal lives.
This may feels like it rings true, but here also leads to too many subplots.

Into the madness of this daily grind drops a story about two white businessmen murdered in Brooklyn, and two black teens arrested, perhaps wrongly, for the crime.  Even though this film is now 20 years old, this topic feels quite timely given recent events - but you know this is a Hollywood film because the teens were arrested by white cops without the use of deadly force or even chokeholds.   Since this film covers just one 24-hour period, much of the drama revolves around whether the paper chooses to go with a "guilty" or "innocent" headline.  Unfortunately, this feels like an over-simplification, because most complicated major news stories probably aren't resolved within a particular timeline, or could possibly be quantified with just one headline or story.

And it's a big cliché to have someone say "Stop the presses!".  A writer can try to hide this by having his characters point out that it's a big cliché when they do it, but this doesn't change the fact that it's still a cliché.  It's been way overdone.  

This film will also make you wonder how people managed to get things done back in the days before everything was digital.  At this time in history, people were still using cameras with film, for example, which meant that they had to rush back to their darkroom and develop film in chemicals before they knew if they got the shot they needed.  

NITPICK POINT: Cell phones are not really seen in this film either, so reporters had to go to a police precinct, write something down on a notepad, then travel back to the paper to tell their editor in person what's on that notepad.  Funny, I thought we at least had payphones in 1994, but I guess I'm wrong about that.  Nope, I guess you had to take the subway all the way back to the newspaper to give someone that valuable information on paper, because I guess there weren't faxes or e-mails either.

A lot's been said over the past few years about the death of print journalism - but newspapers and magazines are still being published every day.  Sure, most news also appears on the web, and most newspapers and magazines put out digital editions as well as tree-based ones, but I don't see the physical objects going away any time soon.  I can still read a paper magazine on the subway or some place where I don't have a wi-fi connection, so there's the convenience factor.  I still buy the Sunday paper because I like doing the crossword on paper, and also circling the shows I want to record in the TV insert.  Call me old-fashioned, but I'm leaving it for the next generation to go all-digital if they want.

They still publish paper comic-books, though I don't know for how much longer.  Somehow collecting digital files doesn't feel the same.  And digital files will never, ever go up in value, so what's the point of collecting them?  Kids today don't understand we had to WALK (or ride a bike) to the comic book store every Wednesday, buy our entertainment in PERSON from an occasionally sketchy employee, then WALK back home, and now we were saddled with more paper that, once enjoyed, now had to be taken care of - bagged, boxed, stored and kept from danger for the rest of our natural lives.  That's an awesome responsibility that I fear future generations will fail to appreciate. 

I don't think "video killed the radio star", because we've still got radio.  Sure, the independent stations have gone under or all been bought up by large media corporations, but people still listen to the radio, right?  And iTunes and Pandora and Spotify didn't kill radio either.  Cable companies broadcast a bunch of music channels too, plus there's satellite radio and still you can turn on your AM/FM and find a good song in the genre you want.  In much the same way, I don't see that the internet has killed good old tabloid journalism - it's still there if you want to get your fingers covered in newsprint. 

Also starring Glenn Close (last seen in "Reversal of Fortune"), Marisa Tomei (last seen in "Happy Accidents"), Robert Duvall (last seen in "Open Range"), Randy Quaid (last seen in "The Missouri Breaks"), Jason Alexander (last seen in "Brighton Beach Memoirs"), Spalding Gray (last seen in "The Killing Fields"), Geoffrey Owens, Lynne Thigpen, Amelia Campbell, Bruce Altman, Jack McGee, Edward Hibbert, Siobhan Fallon, with cameos from Jason Robards (last seen in "Julia"), Catherine O'Hara (last seen in "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events"), Jill Hennessy, Bob Costas, Graydon Carter, Kurt Loder.

RATING: 5 out of 10 soda breaks

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pacific Heights

Year 6, Day 243 - 8/31/14 - Movie #1,834

BEFORE: A three-day weekend where the weather isn't so great?  I'm down with this, because "everyone" is out of town, which means it's a great time to stay home and take care of some things, besides catching up on sleep.  I can get some comic books bagged up and placed in longboxes, since I'm about a year behind on organizing the collection. (The next step would be to move four or five boxes of comics to my storage unit, but one thing at a time.)  I can work on clearing both DVRs, not just one or the other.  I can re-alphabetize the DVDs while I pick out the September selections.  And we can go to whatever restaurants we want, even the ones that are usually too crowded, provided that still leaves me time to do those other things.  

This film was meant to follow "Six Days, Seven Nights", because of the rhyming thing, but since I moved the other Harrison Ford films, that ship has sailed.  Instead I'm using it to set up tomorrow's Labor Day film, which in turn sets up the back-to-school chain.  Linking from "Force 10 From Navarone", of course Harrison Ford was also in "Working Girl" with Melanie Griffith (last seen in "Mulholland Falls")
THE PLOT:  A couple works hard to renovate their dream house and become landlords to pay for it. Unfortunately one of their tenants has plans of his own. 

AFTER: Well, if you liked "The Money Pit", but wished it could be a lot more like "Cape Fear", then this is the film for you.  All the fun and excitement of renovating a house, combined with the fear and excitement of dealing with a psychotic stalker.  The thrill comes from the not knowing how far or fast the relationship between the landlords and tenant is going to go as it spins out of control.  

I've never been a landlord, but I did serve on a condo board for 11 years, and I know there are some fine legal distinctions that get made.  For example, no one in the building could sublet without permission, but they were allowed to have roommates.  So you couldn't rent out a room, but you could share your space - I guess you'd have to be sleeping in the same room or the same bed for that to be 100% legal.  But you can't invade someone's personal space by checking out their sleeping arrangements, so at the end of the day you can't really enforce the rules as they're written.  

For a psychotic person, the villain here sure knows a lot about the distinctions in the laws about renters and delinquent tenants.  Perhaps you wouldn't expect someone who's unhinged to have such a fine grasp of the law, but that's where we find ourselves.  Ultimately, though, the film can't decide whether he's a mentally evil stalker, or a cold, calculated identity thief, or just someone who likes destroying rental apartments.  So he ends up being all of the above - I think a screenwriter should be forced to pick just one track sometimes.  

The concept of "squatter's rights" is over-empasized here - sure, a tenant has rights, but if he hasn't paid his rent or security deposit, well then he's not officially a tenant, now is he?  The screenplay is forced to rely on a judge who either can't be bothered with details or refuses to listen to reason, and therefore rules in favor of the non-paying tenant, which seems like lunacy, but keeps the plot going.  

From a business standpoint, what can we learn from this film?  If someone offers you a medium amount of cash now as part of a business deal, or a larger amount of money if you'll take a wire transfer, TAKE THE CASH.  This isn't "Let's Make a Deal", there isn't a vacation hiding behind some curtain somewhere.  Take what the guy is offering in cash he has on hand, and let him wire you the balance.  Or, they have these new-fangled things called "checks" that you might want to look into.  

NITPICK POINT: I didn't realize that there was such an ancillary market for sconces and appliances.  I would think you'd have to know someone in the contracting business in order for stripping an apartment to be profitable, mostly because tearing the fixtures out without damaging them would be nearly impossible. 

I've made exactly two real estate transactions in my life, one was buying a condo in Brooklyn in 1991, and the other involved selling it in 2004 and buying a house in Queens.  In between I paid my ex-wife for her investment in the condo (as part of the divorce terms) and it turned out to be the smartest money I ever spent.  I don't like to brag about it, but after 13 years the condo was worth about four times its initial 1991 price, and selling it just made sense.  Even though I'd only managed to pay off about 1/5 of the mortgage on the condo, after selling it I was able to pay cash for 2/3 of a house, plus have some money for moving expenses and new furniture.  I know that my great fortune came from the increase in the value of the condo, but it was hard to feel like I hadn't bought a house with someone else's money.  

Also starring Matthew Modine (last seen in "The Dark Knight Rises"), Michael Keaton (last seen in "Speechless"), Laurie Metcalf (last seen in "U Turn"), Mako (last seen in "Conan the Destroyer"), Dorian Harewood, Beverly D'Angelo (last seen in "Coal Miner's Daughter"), with cameos from Tippi Hedren (last seen in "Marnie"), Dan Hedaya (last seen in "A Life Less Ordinary"), Jerry Hardin, Tracey Walter.

RATING: 5 out of 10 background checks